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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, July 31, 2022

Malaysia Needs Less, Not More Religion To Combat Corruption


Malaysia Needs Less, Not More Religion To Combat Corruption

M. Bakri Musa


Book Review:  M. Kamal Hassan’s  Corruption and Hypocrisy In Malay Muslim Politics. The Urgency of Moral Ethical Transformation. EMIR Research, Kuala Lumpur, January 2021.   

Paperback, 277 pp; RM69.90


[Excerpts from my memoir Cast From The Herd will resume next week]


The book’s title, and with that the content, is spot on and timely. The author’s central point is that Malaysia’s current problem is one of Malay Muslim politics and leadership, not of Malaysians generally. His second, the disunity and polarization of Malays. He has much less to say on this, or whether it is related to the first or a separate issue.


Kamal Hassan is no ordinary Malay. A scholar with an Ivy League doctorate (Columbia), he was the first Holder of the Malaysian Chair for Islam in Southeast Asia at Georgetown University. At home he had a long sterling academic career at the International Islamic University, ending as its third Rector in 2017. He had been honored with a Tan Sri and Datukship, as well as the national title of Professor Ulong (Distinguished Professor) and Tokoh Anugerah Akademik Malaysia (National Academic Figure).


On Kamal’s first point, I remind Malaysians that the state of non-Malay politics or the standing of non-Malay politicians is also far from being pristine. Recall the 1985 criminal conviction in Singapore of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) leader, one Tan Koon Swan. That took down the hitherto massive MCA’s Deposit Taking Cooperatives. Not to be left out, the Malaysian Indian Congress had its own unsavory and equally expensive MAIKA Holdings mess. 


All that is little consolation for Malays. While Malaysian Chinese could look to exemplary leadership of their kin south of the causeway and on Mainland China, Malays are bereft of such inspiring examples. As for Malaysian Indians, the current mess in India and Sri Lanka would make Malaysia shine by comparison. Nonetheless both Malaysian Chinese and Indians could look with pride and satisfaction on their achievements in education, commerce, and other endeavors. There is no comparable compensatory glory for Malays.


Malays used to bask (unjustifiably in my view) on the successes of such government-linked companies (GLCs) like Petronas, but Bank Bumiputra and now 1MDB squashed that. Besides, GLCs are public, not Malay enterprises.


            Kamal Hassan is compelled to write because he is “disillusioned, dismayed, and ashamed” of the deteriorating state of Malay leadership, made worse since the General Elections of 2018. “To make matters worse,” he continues, “the involvement of the factor of political narcissism appearing to the public as a well-meaning ‘savior’ [Kamal’s quote] in spite of advanced age, turned the political turmoil of the last few years into a complex phenomenon of political maneuverings, machinations and hypocrisy which are unprecedented.”   


            No marks for guessing who that political narcissist of advanced age might be! Nonetheless Kamal should be more explicit as future readers could have difficulty identifying this geriatric culprit. For another, the man might just heed Kamal’s counsel and reconsider not contesting the next election, as he (the culprit) now threatens to do. Of greater significance, Malays may remember Kamal’s wise words come the next election. 


The ageing political narcissist Kamal referred to, and the man responsible for Malaysia’s current curse of corruption, is of course Mahathir. It began with his “direct negotiations” of public contracts, massive expansion of GLCs, and the infamous money-printing “Approved Permits” back in the 1980s when he was Prime Minister. 


While the costs of those shenanigans as well as the latest 1MDB debacle were humongous, they were at least quantifiable. Not so the damages Mahathir inflicted upon Malaysia and Malays by entrenching the current culture of corruption and his endowing first, the inept Abdullah Badawi, then the egregiously corrupt Najib, followed by the scheming incompetent Muhydddin, and now the unbelievably clueless Ismail Sabri as leaders. These duds were all mentored by Mahathir. To be fair, how such untalented characters could rise so high reflects as much on our culture.  


Kamal Hassan’s remedy? A “Theocentric Leadership Paradigm.” In short more religion, Islam to be specific. 


However, all these Malay leaders have undertaken multiple Hajjs and Umrahs. Many have private suraus at their palatial residences and host regular zikir (remembrance of Allah) sessions during Ramadan. No, more Islam would not help. Jailing these corrupt leaders would. China, a communist and atheistic country, goes further. There they shoot them in public. 


Islam in Malaysia today is less a guide to the “straight path,” more a set of mindless rituals. It is this perversion of the faith that makes Malays view the loot of corruption as borkat and rezki, Allah’s bounty. As for “theocratic leadership,” Malaysia already suffers from what Georgetown University legal scholar and Malaysian-born Yvonne Tew refers to as “stealth theocracy,” where ambitious politicians and others eager to ride the Islamic tiger have corrupted the courts and other institutions. These penunggang agama (religious opportunists) pose the greatest threat to Malays and Malaysia, not the pendatang (immigrants). More pertinent, I cannot find any Muslim country, with or without theocratic leadership, that ranks high on the clean governance index. 


Look at Iran. Imam Khomeini drove more Muslims out of the faith than Stalin could ever hope to achieve. Kelantan, the poorest state in Malaysia and with the highest rate of domestic abuse, child marriages, and yes, Internet pornography viewership, has long been ruled by an avowedly Islamic party.


A more practical, effective, and readily achievable solution to Malaysia’s entrenched corruption is to fire the current Attorney-General, Chief of Police, and Head of the Anti-Corruption Agency. Then conduct a global search, seeking help from the FBI, Scotland Yard, and others. While there is no shortage of honest, competent Malays, but because of the community’s current polarization (Kamal’s second observation), finding one viewed as non-partisan would be tough. As for local non-Malay candidates, those too are plentiful. The challenge there is to find one not politically tone deaf, as with not being able to speak the national language and then be proud of that fact. Malaysians tolerate that in a foreigner but not one locally born and bred.


Now to mundane matters. Books are expensive in Malaysia. Local writers and publishers must do their part to reduce that. A paperback as this one is a solution. Another would be reducing the number of pages. Adopting standard publishing format would achieve this by dispensing with the unnecessarily wide side margins and the line spacing between paragraphs, references, glossary as well as with the index. Copyright infringements aside, there is little need for extensive quotes. Putting them in smaller fonts would also help with page economizing. Chapter II of this book is but a reprint of the Sultan of Perak’s long speech and extensive quotes from others. Likewise with hadith and Qur’anic verses, their page-consuming Arabic scripts are unnecessary; brief approximate translations should suffice. Adopting accepted referencing practices, as with 2:126 for Surah Al Baqarah, Ayat 126, would also save ink and paper.


This book is the lament of a respected scholar. It deserves wide readership for the observations and more importantly, robust discussions of the offered solutions. The publisher is confident of the first; it put “First Edition” to the copy I have! There is a Malay version, “Korupsi Dan Kemunafikan Dalam Politik Melayu:  Perlunya Disegerakan Transformasi Moral-Etika,” at RM49.90 compared to the English at RM69.90. Whether that reflects lower cost of production or assessment of market value, Allah hu alam (Only Allah knows).


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