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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, May 30, 2021

Race religion, and the Politics of Education in Malaysia (Part 3 of 10)

 Race, Religion, and the Politics of Education in Malaysia

What Price Affirmative Action?

M. Bakri Musa


[Presented at the Asia Pacific Research Center (APARC), Stanford University, Palo Alto, Ca, April 28, 2003, chaired by Prof. Don Emmerson. Conditions have only worsened since.]


Third of Ten Parts:  Education in the Immediate Post-British Period (1957-70)


The immediate post-British period was one of expanded opportunities in education at the primary and secondary levels. The first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, declared that his immediate priority was building classrooms, not barracks, and training teachers, not soldiers. Spared an expansive military budget thanks to a defense treaty with Britain, he was able to build schools and train teachers on a scale unimaginable.


His Minister of Education Tun Razak began by undertaking a massive registration of preschool children, an exercise appropriately termed Operation Torch as it would bring light to that generation.


I was twelve then and remember following the village headman going from one kampung hut to the next tagging preschool kids with indelible ink on their forehead so they would not be counted twice. He could have taken the easy route by checking the birth registry but he was too smart a man to trust the official statistics.


That was just the beginning. Then came a building spree, with new schools mushrooming all over the country especially in rural areas. In the seven-mile bus ride from my kampung to school there were no fewer than five new schools being built, including a secondary school. Amazing! Obviously there was a huge hitherto unmet need that was previously ignored by the colonial office. Even more impressive, the constructions were all internally financed. There was no foreign aid or borrowing. The government of the day was fiscally conservative. This early commitment to basic education contributed to Malaysia’s subsequent spectacular economic performance. Tun Razak also produced his Razak Report, aimed at creating a common Malaysian identity through a common curriculum and syllabus while mandating Malay as a compulsory subject in all streams.


Unfortunately there was no comparable expansion at the tertiary level. The reasons for this were many but lack of funding was not one of them. Rather it had everything to do with the elitist mindset in the academy at the time that equated expansion with dilution. Malaysian intellectuals then were obsessed that their sole university must be a jungle version of Oxford and Cambridge. The idea of democratization of higher education for the masses was not quite yet acceptable. Everyone was obsessed with maintaining “quality” which in their little minds was equated with scarcity.


The political leadership could do nothing as the university enjoyed considerable autonomy. The result was a bottle neck at that level. The rich could send their children abroad and be spared the stress. The rest however had to fight for the scarce slots. Naturally that favored the status quo, meaning, students from established schools in the major towns. In 1967 for example, over 80 percent of the freshmen came from only eight schools, the established urban ones. This was at a time when there were already nearly 50 high schools nationwide.


Few paid attention to these glaring inequities and inequalities, least of all the academics. This educational divide between urban and rural, old versus new schools was nothing more than a surrogate indicator of a much larger and more dangerous racial divide.


Another glaring statistics illustrates this point. In 1967 Malays made up less than 15 percent of the undergraduates while constituting over 55 percent of the population. The local science, engineering, and medical faculties were the exclusive preserve of non-Malays in students and faculty. The few Malays were made to feel as if they did not belong there.


The greatest anxiety among my fellow Malay high school classmates in the 1950s and 60s, especially the aspiring doctors, scientists, and engineers, was that we would end up at the local university. We were terrified of that prospect. Stories abounded of those who flunked the local university only to excel when they went abroad. Dr. Ismail, a senior minister at the time, failed his first year locally only to graduate later from the University of Melbourne. Two of my Malay classmates who failed even to get admitted locally eventually managed through the circuitous route of technical and agricultural colleges to get their PhDs in science abroad.


Lest we think that this was a particular Malaysian aberration, remember this was the 1950s and 60s where Blacks in America, and not just in the Deep South, were denied basic education.


When leaders ignore such glaring problems, then others less responsible would gladly take the opportunity to champion the issue. Thus entered the ultranationalists, chauvinists, and outright racists. They were aided by opportunistic and ambitious politicians who may not have been racist at heart, at least initially, but nonetheless found that riding the charged issue was politically rewarding and career enhancing.


The result was an increasingly divisive, shrill and coarse public discourse that culminated in the race riot of 1969. That shocked the young nation and nearly tore it apart.


The immediate post-colonial period continued the British pattern of minimal or no preferential treatment. The rapid expansion of the system meant that there was the inevitable decline in quality. This was expected as now education was no longer for the select few. The new system was definitely more equitable at the school level but remained unacceptable at the tertiary level. The integrative role of education in creating a common identity was now a deliberate policy instead of merely an unintended byproduct, as during the earlier British period.


Next:  Fourth of Ten Parts:  The New Economic Policy (NEP) Phase – 1971-81.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Race, Religion, And The Politics of Education (Part ii of x)

 Race, Religion, and the Politics of Education in Malaysia

What Price Affirmative Action?

M. Bakri Musa


[Presented at the Asia Pacific Research Center (APARC), Stanford University, Palo Alto, Ca, April 28, 2003, chaired by Prof. Don Emmerson. Conditions have only worsened since.]


Second of Ten Parts:  Inequities In Education


When my children were in high school in California during the first Gulf War, the state was facing a severe budget crunch. As such, the local school board was contemplating scrapping Advanced Placement (AP) classes to save money. At a public hearing I defended the program, arguing that our children should get the same opportunities as those in the better districts. I suggested rather foolishly to cut back on the football program. You can imagine the ensuing uproar. One lady who disagreed with me said we should instead scrap the expensive AP program. Then eyeing me coldly, added that they were filled with only white and Asian kids!


As I listened to the heated debate fast degenerating, I could not help thinking that I have heard all those arguments before, albeit with different actors and scenes. When I started my specialty training at McGill in 1970, the strident and impassioned demonstrations then (and yes, even race riots) were protesting the paucity of French-Canadians on campus. Further away in time and place, while I was growing up in Malaysia in the 1950s, the consuming debates were on the lack of Malays in higher education, specifically the sciences. There were fewer than a handful of Malay science graduates out of a population of three million. The debates too were like those in Quebec and California, with high passions and fiery rhetoric.


Inequities in education, specifically differences in achievements, generate strong emotions because we recognize that they reflect a much greater socio-economic cleavage. The dynamics in Malaysia is more like Quebec than America, with the dominant Quebecois lagging the minority Anglophones. In America, minorities lag the White majority.


Discussions on preferential policies in education revolve around issues of quality versus equity, the implication being that you have to sacrifice one to achieve the other. In Malaysia there is an added element. Education is an explicit instrument in molding a common national identity.


During colonial rule, Malaysian education was but a tropical version of the British. We used the same textbooks and sat for the same examinations, with Malaysians eagerly learning about the Lake District and memorizing Wordsworth’s beautiful poetry, but we learned little of our own backyard or literature. The outstanding feature of the system was its unquestioned quality. If you did well you knew you had bested those kids back in old England. Then consider that my headmaster was a London University PhD while my English teacher was an Oxonian!


The major criticism was equity and accessibility. First, there were too few of those schools, just enough to satisfy the colonial conscience and to produce the necessary functionaries to run the country for the colonial office. Second, those schools like Penang Free were not free despite the name. In addition to tuition fees there were miscellaneous ones for sports, libraries, and others that quickly added up. Third, these schools were in major towns. For rural students there were the added substantial costs for transportation. Town students were spared that. As such, those schools were out of reach for the overwhelming number of Malays. We can imagine the racial implications of such inequities.


Many of these schools were church-sponsored with such names as the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus. Students were made to sing hymns and memorize catechism. Despite those cultural barriers many Malay parents still willingly sent their children to those schools, as exemplified by the parents of the wives of the second and third Prime Ministers.


There was another reason for the schools’ superb quality. As they were few in numbers, they attracted only the most motivated. Besides, underperformers had already been culled in the lower grades. The system gave no second chances. The final products thus had been ultra-filtered.


These schools had a significant and lasting impact on the future of Malaysia, and that was not by design. As they were full integrated, the students bonded with each other. They were spontaneously creating their own nascent Malaysian identity. Later as leaders of their respective communities they were able to suppress their own parochialism and work together for a common cause:  the country’s independence. Even though their followers distrusted each other but because these leaders shared a genuine friendship and affection, they were able to bring along their followers.


There were also vernacular and Islamic schools at the time but they played marginal roles.


Judging on quality, equity, and identity, English schools were unquestionably tops on the first, extremely poor on the second, and surprisingly successful on molding the third.



Next:  Third of Ten Parts:  Education in the Immediate Post-British Period (1957-70)

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Race, Religion, and the Politics of Education. What Price Affirmative Action?

 Race, Religion, and the Politics of Education in Malaysia

What Price Affirmative Action?

M. Bakri Musa


[Presented at the Asia Pacific Research Center (APARC), Stanford University, Palo Alto, Ca, April 28, 2003, chaired by Prof. Don Emmerson. Conditions have only worsened since.]


First of Ten Parts


The Malaysian dilemma of socioeconomic cleavages paralleling ethnic lines is not unique. This too is an American one, as well as that of many nations. With the artificial drawings of political boundaries and the massive migrations of people in the last century, few countries have ethnically and culturally homogenous populations. Thus the Malaysian experience has global relevance.


The best correlate of socioeconomic development is level of education. This is true within and between nations. In Malaysia, educational achievements is racially skewed across its three main racial groups, with the Malay (or Bumiputra) majority lagging behind the Chinese and Indian minorities. Malaysia’s major instrument in remedying these inequities is its preferential policies.


As in America, affirmative action still incites passion despite having been part of the political and social landscape for decades. While in America the debates are open, in Malaysia the authorities have declared that the issue is either settled or “racially sensitive,” and thus beyond the realm of public discussions.


Let me highlight the points I wish to make.


First, Malaysia has an aggressive affirmative action in the form of rigid quotas and special set-aside programs not only in education but also in the rest of the public sector. The private sector is free from such encumbrances.


Second, the robust private sector in education together with the rapid growth of public universities vastly expanded opportunities. That softened if not mitigated to a large extent the discriminatory impact of affirmative action.


Third, there is general acknowledgment that the public education system today has deteriorated to a critical level that it impairs the nation’s competitiveness. This decline has little to do with affirmative action rather with the basic flaws in policies, in particular the neglect of English and STEM with the accompanying emphasis on religion.


Fourth, affirmative action was highly successful in its first decade in reducing the perception as well as the reality of inequities. Today the program is fast degenerating into another massive entitlement program.


Fifth, the various programs under affirmative action are expensive, consuming more than their fair share of resources to the detriment of the rest of the system.


Sixth, affirmative action contributes to the creation of a parallel and mutually exclusive educational system that further divides the nation. This dualism is more significant than the decline in quality. In a plural society the fostering of a common identity must be a crucial function of the school system.


Last, any major social initiative requires periodic evaluations. For if it is successful, then the underlying premises and assumptions would no longer exist or be valid, and the program should therefore be terminated or at least modified to meet the new reality. Alternatively if the programs have failed, then all the more they should be reexamined. A generation or two ago the giving of a scholarship to any Malay meant almost certainly that the recipient would be someone poor and the first to go to college. Today that probability has dropped significantly.


            It is this failure to recognize the new reality that dooms the program. Far from solving a critical problem, it breeds new ones, as with creating on its recipients a complacent dependency syndrome that cannot possibly be satisfied. For non-Malays, an equally dangerous  sense of resentment for the futility despite the massive expenditures funded in large part by their tax contributions.


In short, current special privileges program satisfies no one. It is far better to have none than to have a bad one.


Next:  Second of Ten Parts:  Inequities In Education



Sunday, May 09, 2021

An Eid ul Fitra To Remeber

                                                  An Eid ul Fitri To Remember!

M. Bakri Musa



This Thursday, May 13, 2021, Insha’ Allah (God willing!), our small Muslim community at the southern tip of Silicon Valley, California, will celebrate our Eid ul Fitri.  It will be extra special!


            This year we will once again be able to celebrate as a congregation, a precious joy denied us last year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Now thanks to the enlightened leadership of Governor Newsome, together with the collective prudence of our greater community to follow sensible public health guidelines, plus the brilliance of our scientists and their vaccines, we have “flattened the curve.”


With the predictable warm California spring sunshine, we will pray on the lawn of our beautiful community center.  We will of course maintain social distancing and don our face masks. That will complement our festive attire.


            Unlike many Muslim communities elsewhere today and in the past, we announced our Eid day based on calculations, dispensing with the traditional proviso, “conditioned on sighting the new moon.”  Besides, by May 13 we would have fasted for 30 days.  By our lunar calendar, no month exceeds 30 days.


We opted for the scientific route less on reviewing the treatises of yore, more for practicality.  In the beginning we too had, as per tradition elsewhere, to rent a facility for two consecutive days, just in case the new moon would not be sighted.  We decided early that the extra rental costs could be better spent on the needy.  Allah would not look kindly upon us wasting precious funds on empty halls.


Hari Raya, as we Malays call Eid ul Fitra, brings forth many memories.  Most are warm and pleasant, a joy to recall and share. Few less so, and would bring tears and regrets.


Growing up in a kampung in Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan, I remember well my parents and grandparents recalling their past Hari Raya “celebrations” during the desperate era of the Great Depression and the horrific years of the Japanese Occupation.  In their retelling there was never a hint of anger or regret, only gratitude to have been able to celebrate however modest with friends, family, and community despite the austere times and trying circumstances.


Now it is my turn to tell my children and grandchildren of my past Hari Rayas.  Three come to mind. First was last year when, unprecedented, we had to dispense with our traditional communal gathering.  Our Imam Ilyas could hardly hold back his tears when he delivered his Eid ‘sermon’ virtually.  Bless him, he paid tributes to the engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs who made possible the Zooms and Facebooks so we could remain connected during the pandemic.


I saw similar touching scenes in our Intensive Care Units where nurses would hold their cellphones to desperately ill Covid-19 patients so they could in their final moments ‘see’ and bid their loved ones goodbyes.  Those wonderful media platforms also let me have my own Raya “gathering” with my extended family.


Second was Hari Raya of 1997 when I visited Malaysia. Like Muslims, the Chinese (and also Jews) too follow the lunar movements for their calendar.  That year Hari Raya and Chinese New Year overlapped.  The government seized on that fortuitous moment to remind citizens of the virtues of embracing tolerance and cultivating harmony.  Businesses too joined in with their uplifting commercials celebrating the two joyous occasions.  Petronas in particular carried memorable catchy jingles and endearing images in their advertising.


Those wholesome messages notwithstanding, there was nothing warm or uplifting in the Hari Raya sermon I heard that morning at the International Islamic University Mosque in Petaling Jaya.  The Imam venomously lashed out at those who dared elevate non-Islamic festivities to the exalted status of Hari Raya, a direct assault on the government’s noble intentions.


I have low tolerance for long soporific sermons but the ferocity of the Imam’s fulminations kept me awake.  “During our raya we go to mosques,” he bellowed, “they go to casinos!”  Words like heathens and blasphemy spouted forth freely from his frothing mouth like an angry rabid dog, irreverently incongruous in a place of worship and during a traditionally forgiving season.


Later that afternoon at my brother-in-law Ariffin’s “Open House” before we enjoyed the cornucopia of delicious offerings, his young imam gave an invocation, first in Arabic and then English.  Afterwards a non-Muslim guest whispered to me how touched he was with the du’a.  That was a much needed antidote for me, what with the earlier outpouring of poison I had to endure at the mosque.


My third Raya, and I remember it for all the wrong reasons, was in 1976. I had just started my job in Kuala Lumpur (KL).  After being away for almost a decade and a half I was anticipating very much the Hari Raya that year.  My father had reminded me that all my siblings and their spouses as well as children would be present.  There may not be another opportunity, my mother chimed in.


After arranging for appropriate coverage, I left for my parents’ house in Seremban.  The next day after Raya prayers I received a desperate long-distance call.  My medical officer could not get hold of my covering consultant and one of my patients had gone sour.


“You can’t leave,” my mother pleaded, “your brothers and sisters are not here yet!”


I had to.  Thanks to the deserted highway I made it in time.  Later that day and the next, what with my having to stay near the hospital, and with every Malay “balik kampung,” I managed a leisurely delightful tour of the city.


My mother was right.  There would never be another Hari Raya when we all could be together again.  My precious lesson?  Enjoy the moment!


On this extra special Hari Raya, I send the traditional Malay greetings, “Ma’af, Zahir, dan Batin!”  (I seek forgiveness and express my gratitude in all sincerity.)

Sunday, May 02, 2021

The Special Blessings Of Lailatul Qadar

 The Special Blessings of Lailatul Qadar

M. Bakri Musa


On Sunday evening May 2nd 2021, Muslims entered our last ten days of fasting for the month of Ramadan. It is said that the first ten are for seeking Allah’s Mercy; the second, His Forgiveness; and the third, refuge from His Hellfire.


            Muslims also believe that one of those odd nights of the last ten days to be especially blessed. Dubbed lailatul qadar (the Night of Power), one’s worship on that blessed night would be amplified by an All-Generous Allah as if we had been performing it “for a thousand months!” Hence the frenzied spiritual activities during those last ten days.


            Legend has it that a particular clan was successful because its patriarch once saw a patch of ice upon returning from his taraweeh (special Ramadan prayer) at the mosque. That ice patch symbolized Allah’s borkat(bounty) as well as miracles. Imagine ice in the desert, or tropical Malaysia!


It was during one of those nights over 14 centuries ago that Prophet Muhammad (May Peace Be Upon Him!) received his divine revelation high in the cave of Mount Hira. From that came the Qur’an, a “guide for all mankind at all times and till the end of time.”


In his sermon last Friday, April 30, 2021, our Imam Ilyas asked us to reflect on the state of the Bedouins at the time of the prophet. Blighted by a multitude of ills, the list was long, from gruesome female infanticide to rampant vicious tribalism, and from indentured servitude to outright slavery. The obscene inequities between the poor and the privileged would offend anyone, except that they did not. The Prophet’s solitude in that cave was to seek answers for this social aberration – his people’s unconcerned acceptance if not willing embrace of this jahiliyyah (ignorance).


The Qur’an transformed the Arabs. Today it guides a quarter of the global population.


Prophet Muhammad was Allah’s Last Messenger, the last mortal God talked to. In our post-prophetic era we can no longer climb mountains or go into prolonged seclusions to seek guidance from God. We seek it in the Qur’an, using the unique faculty Allah has endowed upon each of us – our akal (intellect).


Ancient Muslims used their akal to unravel many of nature’s mysteries, from the movements of celestial bodies to the inner workings of ours. They were pious ulama as well as observant scientists. They did not have the arrogance to classify knowledge into secular versus religious, or Islamic versus non-Islamic. That particular bida’ah (adulteration of our faith) came later. Those ulama of yore accepted that all knowledge is from God, to be shared with and to benefit humanity.


Contrary to the fulminations of many, I see no contradiction between faith and reason. Each complements the other. An unexamined belief in not worth having, and blind faith is no faith. When scientists explore the world within and beyond, it is their belief that there is something worthy to be discovered, whether that search is for life in outer space or the inner secrets of Covid-19 virus.


Malaysia today differs only in degree from the Prophet’s Age of Jahiliyyah, with corruption endemic, its loots viewed as rezki (blessings), and the corrupt honored. Gross inequities are deemed to be the natural order. Meanwhile Covid-19 ravages on.


During this lailatul qadar I implore Malay leaders to reflect on the sorry state of the nation and be inspired by our Holy Prophet to do the right thing. Go beyond the rituals of Ramadan. That would indeed be a blessing for all Malaysians.


Some view Allah’s special bounty during lailatul qadar as the supremacy of predestination over freewill. Indeed qadar means just that – fate. As with akal (reason) and iman (faith), fate and freewill complement, not contradict each other. We live in a world of probabilities. Even electrons circling the nucleus of our atoms are expressed in probabilities.


One’s freewill or conscious decision not to text or drink while driving would ensure a high probability of a safe journey. If a drunk driver were to come into one’s lane or a boulder crashed down the hillslope, that’s fate!


Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer best reconciles fate and freewill. “God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”


During this lailatul qadar let us reflect, as our Prophet did on the state of his community nearly 1500 years ago, on the challenges facing ours. If that is too daunting, then limit it to the social unit we lead, as with our family. If that is still overwhelming, then focus on our individual challenges so we could become a better person. Make “The Night of Power” be the stimulus for serious introspection, one worthy of the effort of “a thousand months.”


Early in my career I was called to the Emergency Room (ER) deep in the night during one Ramadan. Having your sleep interrupted, especially after a day of fasting, has a way of putting you in a foul mood, more so if you expect the case to be what we politely refer to as “uncompensated care.”


I must have made quite a ruckus in preparing to leave for the hospital, enough to wake up my wife. Upon finding out the cause of my frustration, she got up to hug me.


“Bakri, this is Ramadan!” she soothed me. “A blessed month,” she continued, “a time to be generous, of ourselves and of our time as well as talent.”


Those words calmed me. I learned to take my ER calls in stride, treating them as my commitment and contribution to my community that had been so generous to me and my family. Yes, I missed more than a few significant events in my family’s life, as with being late or absent at my children’s birthdays and school plays.


Nonetheless that revelation from my dear wife many Ramadans ago helped me achieve my personal ikigai, the Japanese philosophy on the meaning of life. I love what I do and I am competent at it, while society needs my service and I am well compensated for doing it. Alham dulillah! (Praise be to Allah!)