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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 27, 2022

Ukraine Is Much Closer To Malaysia Than We Think

 Ukraine Is Much Closer to Malaysia Than We Think

M. Bakri Musa


Regardless of the outcome of the current lethal conflict in Ukraine, this much is indisputable. Ukrainians, nationalists, pro-Russians, as well as the vast majority who just want to pursue a peaceful life, are already paying a severe and unrecoverable price. They will continue doing so for a considerable time beyond even if a peace treaty were to be signed today. As for the soldiers killed or maimed on both sides, well, not to be callous, theirs is an occupational hazard.


            The consequent global gyrations as with Wall Street jitters and increases in gas and food prices on Main Street are trivial. Even to mention them seems insensitive if not obscene.


            Ukraine may be thousands of miles away from Malaysia, but to Malaysians she is much closer emotionally. A routine Malaysian Airline Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down there on July 17, 2017, killing all 298 on board. That scar is still raw.


            Beyond raw emotion, Ukraine holds many eerie similarities with Malaysia. Malaysians ignore those at their peril. The world may refer to Ukrainians by that term but to them, the old, ugly and perennial ancient tribal dynamics of “them” versus “us” are very much operative; the “us” being ethnic Ukrainians; “them,” those of Russian ancestry and speaking that language.


            Malaysians may have difficulty differentiating those Eastern European sub-varieties of orang puteh(white man) and view both the Russian Cyrillic and its subvariant Ukrainian script as chicken scratch. Those differences are surface ripples, but they hide dangerous treacherous reefs just underneath.


            What the world labels as Ukrainians apply to seventy percent of the population. They are proud of their culture, heritage, and language. They also have their own heroes. A substantial minority however are Russians; they too are proud of their ethnicity, culture, and language as well as having their own separate heroes. Worse, their heroes are but villains to the majority of their countrymen.


            Yet another disconcerting demographic reality that Malaysians should take note. Ethnic Russians are concentrated in the eastern part of the country, bordering Russia. In Malaysia, while Malays are the majority in the West or Peninsular, the picture in East Malaysia is far different. The mother tongue of the majority there is not Malay, the national language, but their own, be it Iban or Hokkien. Yet another volatile element, while Ukrainians and Russians share the same Orthodox Christianity, Malaysians do not share the same faith. Even Muslim Malays are divided in our interpretations of Islam.


            As for Malaysian “Russians,” the Chinese, the paranoia of Ketuanan Melayu notwithstanding, they have seen the fate of their kin in Hong Kong and share the anxieties their brethren in Taiwan have for their “motherland.”


Demographic demon aside, there are two other eerie similarities between Ukraine and Malaysia. One is geographic destiny. Former Foreign Minister Anifah Aman asserted that Malaysia has the same potential dynamics vis a vis China with respect to the brewing South China Sea conflict, as Ukraine to Russia today.


A simplistic assessment. First, land borders are intrinsically more problematic than maritime ones. Besides, South China Sea is a wide stretch of water even without factoring in the unpredictable Monsoon. Second, Malaysia is not the only party to that dispute. There are other and far greater powers with direct interests. Japan for one; likewise Europe and America. Over thirty percent of global maritime trade flows through that stretch of water.


Anifah’s observation applies more to Laos and Myanmar. Vietnam also shares a long land border with China and is also a party to the South China Sea dispute. Vietnam had bloodied Chinese nose more than once. If a crisis were to erupt in the South China Sea today, Malaysia would be but a minor player in all respects. We would of course be forced to take sides, but that would be a separate issue.


Malaysia’s relationship with Indonesia, a country with a long land border with Malaysia, a la Ukraine to Russia, is more relevant. Recall konfrontasi of the early 1960s. That crisis was more the consequence of the conflicting personalities of Tunku Abdul Rahman and Sukarno. Notice how quickly that conflict was resolved once both protagonists were pushed aside. Likewise with Putin and Zelinsky; even if they were not national leaders, it would not be difficult to visualize the two being drawn into a bar brawl with minimal provocation.


The last eerie commonality between the Zelinsky Administration and the one in Putrajaya is that both are corrupt and incompetent, a lethal combination. Ukraine was an economic basket case before the crisis; it will be worse afterwards. As for endemic corruption among Malay leaders, just follow the current trial related to the 1MDB now being played out in a New York courtroom. As for incompetence, well, ask the man in the street.


Far more consequential but less commented aspect to the current leadership in both countries is this. Kiev has its share albeit small but still influential enough cadre of ultra-rightwing, nationalist, white supremacists, enough for Putin to exploit it. The pro-Russian secessionist movement in East Ukraine did not develop de novo. Those “white supremacists” in Kiev have their local variant in Putrajaya, the Ketuanan Melayu types. Only their sheer incompetence made them less destructive than they already are.


Unlike the earlier demographic demon and geographic destiny, this third blight is man-made and thus at least theoretically much more remediable. Perversely, the reality is far different.


I am struck by this observation of one Kiev resident. On Tuesday evening he was having a nice leisurely dinner with friends in a restaurant. On Wednesday evening they were scrambling for their lives, hiding in an underground subway station.


That is the central lesson for Malaysians and citizens everywhere. If we do not pay attention to our leaders’ greed, incompetence, and shenanigans, that is what we can expect. This was true in Kiev on Wednesday, February 23, 2022 as in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021.


As for being Russia’s neighbor, I am certain that the restaurants in Sweden (like Ukraine, a non-NATO member) are full this evening with patrons enjoying themselves. That is my way of saying to Malaysians to worry less on what is going on in Beijing or Washington, DC, and focus on the monkeys now at Putrajaya. It is one thing for them to plunder the nation for their greed, it is another for them to put Malaysians at loggerheads with one another.


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