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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Believing The Donkey Over The Mullah

 Does The Malay Mind Need To Be Liberated?


Panel Discussion Via Zoom organized by LeadUS Malaysia, January 10, 2021, with co-panelist Professor Mohammad Tajuddin Rasdi. Moderated by Dr. Rozhan Othman.


Panel Discussion Via Zoom organized by LeadUS Malaysia, January 10, 2021, with co-panelist Professor Rushdi Tajuddin Rasdi. Moderated by Dr. Rozhan Othman.


Last of Four Parts


Dr. Rozhan Othman:  In your book Liberating the Malay Mind you quoted from Nahjul Balaghah an incident involving a mullah, his donkey, and his neighbor. For the benefit of the audience, can you describe the incident and explain the point you are trying to make. Does this incident illustrate the harm of dogmas in people’s mindset? Specifically, how do you relate that to the quest to liberate the Malay mind?


Bakri Musa:  That mullah was fed up with his neighbor forever borrowing things from him and not returning them. One day this neighbor came to borrow the mullah’s donkey. Anticipating the request, he had earlier stowed the animal away in the barn and out of sight. When the neighbor appeared with his expected request, the mullah was ready.


“I am sorry my brother has borrowed the donkey earlier.”


As the neighbor prepared to leave, disappointed, the donkey brayed in the barn.


“I thought you said your brother had borrowed your donkey?”


To which the mullah replied, “Do you believe the braying of a donkey over the words of a mullah?


If you have a critical mind you believe the truth even if it were to be revealed by a donkey over the falsehood of a mullah.


If you do not have a critical mind you could fall for the lies perpetrated by those in power. Soon you would believe the “big lie.” That is what is happening in America this week with Trump supporters storming Capitol Hill. America is lucky in that she has strong institutions and enough people who can think critically. Not so in Germany of the 1930s. Or Malaysia today; hence the 1MDB and other expensive and destructive debacles.


I have a more relevant and contemporary example for Malays taken from my same book on the need for critical thinking. Consider this scene. The Agung stepped out of his grandiose palace sporting his latest model Giorgio Armani sunglasses.


“It looks dark today!” he titah, as he looked up to the sky.


His ADC immediately instructed his aides. “Our Agung is smart! He can forecast the weather. Go grab some umbrellas.”


Not to be outdone, his second underling added, “Oh, our Agung is thinking of his subjects in Pahang, what with the recent devastating floods. We must warn the rakyat!”


At least that aide was thinking of the citizens.


Then the third added, “It’s actually very nice, your Majesty. Take off your sunglasses!”


Among the three aides, who was thinking critically? If you are a leader, who would you choose to work with?


You can tell much about leaders by those they keep around them. That is why I am impressed with Anwar Ibrahim; he attracts many bright young talents into his party.


In my Liberating The Malay Mind I addressed the challenge of critical thinking at the societal level, as with modernizing the school system away from rote memorization and mindless regurgitations at test times. My forthcoming book addresses how we could improve our critical thinking skills. Don’t count on our schools and universities to teach that!


Tentatively titled, Thinking Critically The Qur’an, Hadith, And Hikayat, I use examples familiar with and relevant to Malays. Once we can think critically, then we can decide whether to believe the mullah or the braying donkey.


The best antidote to the current corrupt Malay leadership is for Malays to exercise critical thinking. The American writer Suzy Kaseem put it best. “Nothing threatens a corrupt system more than a free mind.”


Our own Usman Awang was even sharper. Jika hidup berjiwa hamba, pasti tetap terjajah abadi. (A slave mentality ensures a life of servitude). A critical mind is the best defense against berjiwa hamba.


One example for critical thinking I use from the Qur’an is Ayat 7 of Al Fatihah, (approximately translated), “Guide us along the path of those you have blessed, not those who have incurred your wrath.” I challenge readers to cite contemporary individuals whom they consider to have earned Allah’s blessings and why.


Another is the familiar ahadith, first tie your camel securely, only then pray it does not escape. I use that to counter the current preoccupation of Muslims to just pray so their camels would not escape.


Another example I use is the stunning difference in responses of American versus Malaysian students to the folktale “Batu Belah Batu Melangkup.” To Malay children that story is a lesson on obedience to mothers as encapsulated in another ahadith, “The door to heaven lies at a mother’s feet.” To American children however, the mother’s behavior was the height of maternal irresponsibility. Same facts, radically different interpretations!


Those are some of the exercises I use in my forthcoming back Thinking Critically The Qur’an, Hadith, and Hikayats.


Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Malay Mind And WWII

 Does The Malay Mind Need To Be Liberated?


Panel Discussion Via Zoom organized by LeadUS Malaysia, January 10, 2021, with co-panelist Professor Mohammad Tajuddin Rasdi. Moderated by Dr. Rozhan Othman.


Third of Four Parts


Dr. Rozhan:  World War II was a tipping point in Western colonial history. The defeat of Western colonial powers by Japan, an Asian country, shattered the perception of their invincibility and superiority. That catalyzed the independence movement in many countries. One development not often mentioned is that the Japanese Occupation exposed the impotence of the traditional feudal elite. In Burma, India, and Indonesia, that contributed to the dismantling of their traditional feudal power structures. In Malaya, the traditional feudal elite quickly toed the British line after the war. The sultans supported the British-sponsored Malayan Union Treaty that would have made the country a permanent British Dominion. Despite that and unlike in other countries, the Malay feudal elite was maintained after Merdeka. What does this say about the Malay mindset then and how does this shape the current Malay outlook?



Bakri Musa:  WWII was the tipping point of not just for colonialism but also Malay culture. There were three other tipping points in our culture – the coming of Islam, intrusion of Western imperialism, and the path we chose towards independence. Each affected the collective Malay mindset.


The true measure of a culture is how well it prepares its adherents to major events, especially when unexpected and catastrophic. Compare the Asian tsunami of 2004 to the Katrina hurricane a year later.


            To the simple, science-illiterate Indonesians the tsunami was not the result of tectonic plate shifts deep beneath the Indian Ocean, rather Allah sending them a message. With that, the century-long Aceh rebellion ended in short order.


            Americans are educated, sophisticated, and have vastly more resources. Yet a decade after Katrina the deep social and racial divide exposed by that tragedy only worsened. Instead of effective rehabilitation, America was mired in endless lawsuits. Meanwhile the thousands of mobile homes built for such an emergency were left to deteriorate in warehouses, undistributed.


Culture explains the difference between the two reactions.


I would gave an A+ grade for Malay culture for the path we chose towards independence. We did everything right. We chose the right leaders and they in turn picked the right strategy and perfect timing. As for the sultans, they were against independence initially. As it was not worth fighting them and dividing our society, our leaders essentially bribed them with exalted titles, generous civil allowances, and other expensive privileges.


Had the sultans balked and our independence delayed, Malaysia would have been forced by the British to receive the millions fleeing Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1950s that had landed on the then-British colony of Hong Kong. The impact of that would have made the Vietnamese refugees a few decades later seem like a mere trickle.


As for the Japanese Occupation, well, we are still here and intact. That says something about our culture. An interesting aspect to the Occupation was first, there were no lazy Malays then. Second, how easy the Japanese disposed of the Malay sultans. They were simply ignored, and Malays did not miss their sultans.


Today when I see Malay sultans acting up, I wish someone would show them pictures of them genuflecting to those Japanese soldiers back during WWII. To put Malay sultans on par to kings and emperors would involve considerable “concept stretching,” to quote Clifford Geertz. Malay sultans have more in common with Papua New Guinea tribal chiefs than the British monarch.


I remember my mother telling me stories of fishing in Sri Menanti River with the future Queen of Malaysia during the war. There was nothing regal about her in her tattered sarong. A few years later there she was being sembah on the throne. We the rakyat put her up there.


Third, the Japanese recognized talent amongst us. P. Ramlee was discovered by the Japanese. So was Ungku Aziz, and Tun Razak. Today our culture and our sultans honor plunderers and thieves.


As for the coming of Islam, I would give a B grade for our response. We accepted the faith willingly but only the theology. We learned nothing about trading from the Arabs. We translated only the religious texts and hikayats, none on the sciences. Nonetheless the greatest benefit to our society was that those early Muslims introduced the written word into our culture. Anytime that happens it gives that culture a quantum leap in advancement. If only our forefathers had learned something from those brilliant science and mathematical geniuses of the ancient Arab world!


By contrast, I would give only a passable grade to our response to colonialism. We failed to differentiate between the hideousness of the Portuguese and Dutch versus the less malevolent British variety. There was a thing or two we could have learned from the culture that brought in the Scientific Revolution and ushered in the Industrial Age. As our Munshi Abdullah noted, we were not even curious to learn from a society that could make steel float, referring to the warship Setoris that the British had anchored off Singapore harbor.


The consequential difference between the Dutch and British as colonizers is this:  today Malay elites still look fondly to the Brits. Having a condo in London is still the supreme bragging rights among Malays. The Indonesians however have nothing but contempt for the Dutch. Today’s Indonesians are learning English, not Dutch.


Had we accepted what little the British had afforded us, as with sending our children to the few English schools, imagine how far ahead we would be today. Think of the few Malays who bravely broke the trend – Ismail Ali, the brilliant (and honest) first Governor of Bank Negara, Tun Suffian, first Chief Justice and one still held in high regards, and Majid Ismail, orthopedic surgeon, all Queen scholars. Think also of Za’aba. He attended St. Paul Institution in Seremban, a Catholic school, despite his father forbidding and subsequently disowning him because of that.


The cultural hypocrisy of our sultans and leaders was that they were (still are) Anglophiles, sending their children to English schools, or today, International Schools, while they exhort the masses to do otherwise. This glaring duplicity is missed by many.


An unexplored enquiry remains. Why did our culture readily embrace the then new and alien one brought in by the Muslim traders, and then once we became Muslims, we remained closed or even hostile to later foreign cultures? Was the West a crude and thus ineffective colonizer or were the early Arab traders subtle and sophisticated? It seems that way today what with Malays unabashedly embracing Arabism.


Despite independence and we being in charge, Malays are fast being left behind. This time we cannot blame the colonials. We must change our mindset. Begin by holding our leaders accountable. If we cannot do that or fearful of doing so, then ignore them.


My parents did that with respect to my education. They noted that while the Minister of Education when I was young, Tun Razak, was exhorting Malays to send their children to Malay schools, he was surreptitiously sending his – all five of them – to English schools, and in England to boot! My late father decided that until Malay leaders heed their own advice, he would ignore them. He was right then and even more so today.


We see this hypocrisy even with religious leaders. They pray, fast, undertake Hajj umpteen times, and adorn themselves with overflowing robes. Then when given illicit funds aka bribes, they consider that borkat – gift from Allah!


The most effective way to liberate the Malay mind is to ignore current Malay leaders of all varieties. Think for ourselves.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Deoes The Mind Need To Be Liberated? (Second of Four Parts)

 Does The Malay Mind Need To Be Liberated?


Panel Discussion Via Zoom organized by LeadUS Malaysia, January 10, 2021, with co-panelist Professor Mohammad Tajuddin Rasdi. Moderated by Dr. Rozhan Othman.


Second of Four Parts


Dr. Rozhan:      Mindset change is a prerequisite to social transformation. In Japan, modernization became a focus of the Meiji Restoration. It dismantled the shogunate, transformed the feudal agriculture system, and embraced industrialization. This transformation included changing values and mindset. Work in an industrial setting requires precise scheduling and punctuality, something that was not required in an agricultural setting. The Meiji Restoration instilled punctuality by introducing watches and organizing annual watch synchronizing events to ensure uniformity of time across the country as well as emphasizing punctuality.


South Korea’s President Park Chung-Hee initiated the Saemaul Undong movement to bring modernization to rural areas. It also sought to dismantle the beliefs in superstition and shamans of rural dwellers. We see a similar change in China under Deng Xiaoping. He embraced capitalism and changed the Maoist attitude towards wealth and profit making. In all of these changes, there was a strong visionary leader driving the transformation. Do Malays need such a strong and visionary leader to liberate their mind or is a change led by strong leaders potentially problematic? Hitler was after all a strong leader who changed the German mindset.



Bakri Musa:  In all those instances you mentioned, there was a trigger mechanism, usually external, that toppled the comfortable coconut shell of that culture. How that society responded to that trigger would be the determining factor. With Japan it was the blatant intrusion, unmolested, of Admiral Perry into Edo Harbor in 1853. With that the Japanese realized how impotent and far behind the West they were. That prompted them to learn from the West. The Japanese did not delude themselves into thinking that they were superior, or the best.


            That is the first lesson. Recognize your deficiencies; this applies to society as well as individuals. 


            The Japanese sent thousands of their teachers, professors, and administrators to the West, not for weeks or months of culup (quickie) courses as Malaysia does, but for years. When they returned, they were guaranteed their old positions. They were to stay abroad until they felt that they had learned everything they needed to in their field. When they returned, they put in action what they had learned.


Among the five Charter Oaths they adopted, one was to seek knowledge from around the world; another, participation of all classes in the administration of the state; and a third, public discussions of all major decisions. No more top-down command or titah from the Emperor. The most consequential Charter Oath was that evil customs of the past be discontinued to be replaced by new ones based on just laws of nature.


            Implied in that was their collective acknowledgment that some of their old customs were evil. 


Granted, a few of those sent abroad learned only the superficial trappings of the West, as with their formal attires. One senior official took to dispensing with his erstwhile concubines and stuck with only one wife, trying to be “Western.” Well at least that was positive gesture.


Malaysia too sent thousands of her young abroad. Only a few absorbed the ethos of what made the West advanced and brought those home. Others were satisfied only with acquiring the colorful plumage of the Cockney crowd. Those sent to America gravitated towards the Creekside State Universities. No wonder on their return home they had a warped view of America. One former Chief Secretary went to Oklahoma State. Any surprise that he could not stand up to little Najib?


By contrast, look at the previous Trump Administration. How many cabinet secretaries and other top officials resigned in protest long before his debacle of January 6, 2021. They did not just resign, they criticized him publicly.


In contrast, how many Malaysian top officials have resigned over Najib’s 1MDB mess, much less criticized him?


            With China, it was Deng who recognized the destructive madness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In late 1970s when he came to power, the first thing Deng did was to ask President Carter to accept a few hundred Chinese students to top American universities. Today, Chinese students and scholars are a major presence at those places such that they are now viewed as a national security threat! American-trained Chinese scientists sequenced the Covid-19 genome within weeks. Fantastic!


A generation ago Mao would have sent those scientists to the ulus for their “re-education.”


            Deng was a diminutive figure and far from being charismatic, yet he transformed China. Those American-trained Chinese scientists he sent abroad rebuilt the country’s universities and academies that had been wrecked by Mao. When I first visited Beijing in the 1990s, most of the passengers in the plane were teachers, lecturers, and professors. Today the greatest number of students sitting for American tests like SAT and GMAT are from China. A generation ago, none!


Mandarin is far more advanced than Malay yet Chinese parents rush to enroll their kids in English schools. Their leaders do not accuse them of not mertabatkan (respecting) their own language.


            We do not need strong leaders for we could end up with a Hitler or Trump. What we need instead is an environment where our bright young people could get or be enticed into positions of responsibilities in government. Strengthen our institutions by having these smart courageous people helming them. This is one reason I am cheering for Anwar’s PKR. He attracted many smart young people like Rafizi Ramli, Nik Nazmi, and Sim Tze Tzin into his party. Rafizi excepted, they were all successful in the last election. The government had to arrest Rafizi so he could not contest in that election.


            Today he is out of politics. I do not blame him but what a loss for Malays, Malaysians, and Malaysia. Contrast the youthful vigor of PKR versus the sclerotic senescent UMNO.


Years ago I met a group of JPA scholars here in America. Unlike the masses sent abroad, they were among the rare species to be attending elite universities. They were discussing how to “bomb” their JPA interviews back in Malaysia so they would be denied a job. Thus freed of their scholarship bonds they could return to America! Those are the very people Malaysia should attract and retain, not those from the likes of Oklahoma State universities. Why did Malaysia not emulate Japan of the Meiji Restoration? Malaysia should have encouraged those bright students to stay back in America to gain experience.


On the flip side, I once met the Chairman of JPA while he was on an official tour of America. He complained to me how unimpressed he was with Malaysians who graduated from American universities. That chairman could not even differentiate between Stamford College versus Stanford University.


Where do you start to change things when you have those types in positions of authority?


Next:  Third of Four Parts:  Tipping Point in Malay History


Sunday, February 07, 2021

Does The Malay Mind Need To Be Liberated?

 Does The Malay Mind Need To Be Liberated?



Panel Discussion Via Zoom organized by LeadUS Malaysia, January 10, 2021, with co-panelist Professor Rushdi Tajuddin Rasdi. Moderated by Dr. Rozhan Othman.


Part One of Three


Dr. Rozhan Othman:          A mindset is more than just an opinion. It is a world view that develops through experience, conditioning, and socialization. In some situations social and political institutions are created to reinforce the mindset. The Malay mindset in Malaysia is distinctly different from that of the Malays in Indonesia, South Africa, and Sri Lanka. The mindset forms the weltanschauung or tasawwur. When this is not questioned or subjected to periodical scrutiny, it becomes a dogma. What would you consider to be the key drivers that shape the Malaysian Malay mindset, and what aspects of the Malay mindset has become dogma? How does this shape how Malays behave?



Bakri Musa:  You could cite three more groups of Malays who are nearby and more relevant examples – Malays in Singapore, Brunei, and Southern Thailand. Did you know that the first Malay with a PhD from Harvard was from Pattani (Southern Thailand)? At one time there were more Malays at UC Berkeley from Singapore than from Malaysia.


            As for Brunei, I met her Minister of Education back in 1970. I suggested that Brunei use its vast oil resources to build a center of excellence for education in the Malay world (Nusantara). He stunned me with his answer. No point spending money on educating Malays, he assured me, for then they would become independent-minded and you would have a revolt. Remember the Azhari Rebellion of 1962, he reminded me.


            Coming back to Malaysia, the drivers for the Malay mindset today are first, religion; second our medieval feudal culture, and third, the behaviors of others. Within Malaysia the others would be the non-Malays; abroad it would be the West. I would put the relative weightage as religion to be 75 percent, culture 20, and the third, 5.


            The behaviors of others account for only 5 percent, but that obsesses Malays to no end. I could not care less whether Malaysian Chinese can speak Malay. Indeed if they were to excel and the best Malay novels were to be written by them, what a slap in the face that would be for Malays. As for the West, look how obsessed was Mahathir with George Soros.


This Malay obsession with the “others” within Malaysia is reflected on the negative, divisive, and destructive efforts at closing vernacular schools. Professor Tajudddin is a fine product of the Chinese school system, and you want to close it?


            I worry less about the Malay feudal culture. It will collapse on its own weight. The continuing egregious behaviors of Malay sultans would only grease the slide. How long would Malays tolerate their sultans cavorting with foreign prostitutes and then be stuck with humongous alimonies to be paid ultimately by taxpayers?


Religion is what I worry about most. Caution here before all hell breaks loose. I am not referring to Islam, rather the variety propagated in Malaysia which some critics have labelled as the “religion of the ancient Bedouins.”


Malaysian Islam now has state imprimatur. Islam today is less a religion, more a massive bureaucracy. It has the biggest budget, personnel, and thus influence. It is the biggest driver of the Malay mindset and dogma. This is recent phenomenon. A generation or two ago Malay leaders had no qualms in sending their children to St. Johns Institution and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus.


In its first few centuries, Islam was a beacon for the world. Then a long decline. Only now are we seeing tantalizing rays of light emerging amidst the darkness. In part this is the normal trajectory with all civilizations. Ibn Khaldun wrote something about that.


We see this thin ray of enlightenment in the tiny Gulf States. Consider that 3 of the top 25 airlines are from this region – Emirates, Qatar, and Etihad. Those small Gulf States also have the highest number of branches of American universities.


The other source of enlightenment is the West. English is now the second most important language of Islam, next to Arabic. There are more English translations of the Qur’an in the last fifty years than in all the previous 1400 years. The West is also the beneficiary of those enlightened Islamic scholars who had been driven out of their native land. More new mosques are being built in America than any other houses of worship. All are self-funded, with no state help.


An ahadith asserts that nur would emerge from the west. If you interpret nur to be light or enlightenment and not literally as the sun, there is wisdom in that. The finest Departments of Islamic Studies are at universities in the West. The Islam in most Muslim countries, Malaysia included, is the sclerotic variety.


If we aspire to have nur emerging in our midst, then we must emulate the West, just as those early Muslims the Greeks. If that is too much, and we prefer the Arabs, then emulate the Gulf States, not Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Yet those are where we sent most of our students.


One way to change the Malay mindset is to bring in Western-type liberal education, free from the suffocating control of the Islamists. Malaysian public universities, where the faculty and students are overwhelmingly Malays, are the cause of the Malay mind being entrapped. Those pseudo-scholars are intent on indoctrinating their students.


I hate making that statement as it would offend those who are genuine and toil hard every day, unappreciated, and underpaid to change the situation. I know many of them and I salute them for their dedication despite the obstacles thrown in their way. Unfortunately they are not the ones elevated to the National Professors Council.


Therein lies the problem!