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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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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 12, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpt # 66 Pilihan Raya-Celebrating Choices

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #66:  Pilihan Raya – Celebrating Choices

Malaysia had its first national election in July 1955. I was then in my last year of primary school (Year Six). Up till that time there had been only municipal elections in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. By this time I had taken to reading The Straits Times especially its Op-Ed Page and thus was very much aware of political developments. My favorite columnist was Vernon Bartlett. Here was a colonialist who was unafraid to criticize his own government. In my culture, then and now, that would be treasonous and dealt with accordingly. The nationalistic Utusan Melayu often translated Bartlett’s essays, which was how my father came to know of Bartlett and with that, the refined values of the British establishment.

With the campaigning, the roads and buildings were festooned with banners and posters extolling the various parties and their candidates. My village, hitherto ignored by officialdom, was inundated with visiting national figures. 

     Electing leaders was a novel phenomenon for us, as was the bewildering campaigning. Ours was a feudal society with our leaders anointed. God had chosen them to lead us. They did not need to appeal to us or get our approval; instead we had to submit to them. Now there was this strange concept of democracy imported from the colonial West where we would get to choose our leaders and they had to appeal to us. Our world had been turned upside down. The surprise was how fast we adapted to and thrived in this new political system. Malays took to electoral politics like dandelions to watered lawns. 

     The leader of the Islamic Party, Dr. Burhanuddin Al Helmy, put it best. Just as we celebrate the end of Ramadan with Hari Raya (lit. Day of Celebration) by decorating our homes and ourselves, so too we celebrate this freedom to choose our leaders by decorating our streets and buildings. Those “decorations” being the colorful campaign banners and posters. 

     The Malay word for election is pilihan rayaPilihan means choice, and raya, celebration; thus election means celebrating choice. It is indeed worthy of great celebration when we get to choose our leaders. 

Burhanuddin was a cerebral politician. The “Al Helmy” to his name was just decorative, a fashion statement aping the Arabs. By our own tradition his name would simply be Burhanuddin Bin (son of) Muhammad Nur. However, an Arab-like name befitted the leader of an Islamic party. He was after all a politician. Helmy means mild mannered in Arabic; that also described the man well. Though soft spoken, his speeches were substantive. He pointed out that Malaysia was the leading producer of tin and rubber, but all the end products were manufactured abroad. He argued that we should do our own manufacturing, and if we do not have the technical skills then we should invite foreign companies and experts in to do it. That way we would create jobs locally and add value to our exports. 

     Sophisticated ideas! He did not treat the villagers as simpletons; he engaged them. They in turn understood his arguments. Being not well funded, his party’s logo of a white moon against a green (color of Islam) background was not very visible. 

     The other major parties were Party Negara (National Party), the Socialist Front, and the Alliance, a coalition of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), and Malayan Indian Congress (MIC). My parents supported Party Negara, in particular its leader Datuk Onn. He was revered because he galvanized Malays into forming UMNO in 1946 and then through it, defeated the Malayan Union Treaty that would have turned Malaysia into a permanent British Dominion. Onn’s feat was even more remarkable considering that the treaty had already been ratified by the sultans. That he could also organize Malays, hitherto considered apathetic with respect to the affairs of state, only brightened his halo. He left UMNO in 1951 over major policy differences to start his new Party Negara. 

     In my earlier book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I recounted the episode where Datuk Onn organized a massive public rally at the palace in Kota Baru to “show loyalty” to their sultans who had gathered there to ratify and attend the installation of the first Governor-General of the new Dominion of Malaya. That mass gathering effectively barricaded the sultans, preventing them from attending the event. That was trumpeted by Onn as a show of loyalty to our sultans. In reality it was forced royal boycott or “confined to quarters!” The British got the subtle but strong message and rescinded the treaty. That act of defiance against the sultans but camouflaged as a public show of loyalty remains the single greatest patriotic action by any Malaysian. That rally remains the most effective and sophisticated display of peaceful mass resistance, on par with Gandhi’s. It was also a display of Malay subtlety at its best; a rebellion against the sultans’ collective decision to ratify the Malayan Union Treaty camouflaged as a public outpouring of loyalty! 

     The irony was that despite his earlier vigorous and effective opposition to the Malayan Union, Onn and his Party Negara were against independence. My parents too shared that sentiment. The sorry state of neighboring Indonesia and far away India convinced them that we would be better off remaining under British rule. Freedom is overrated if it means anarchy and starvation. 

     Onn was an aristocrat, and had the bearing of one. He never looked directly at his audience but above them. He appeared as if he was wasting his time explaining complicated matters of statecraft to kampung simpletons. They should just trust him to do the right thing, as he did in opposing the Malayan Union. Malay villagers were a tolerant and polite lot; they duly applauded him. Excited they were not. 

Onn never referred to UMNO or its leaders. His disdain if not contempt for them was plain. After all he created the party; he expected it to crumble without him. Instead, UMNO became stronger in tandem with his contempt for it. 

     While Onn fancied himself a nationalist hero, he remained obsessed with his British title: Sir Onn! His party’s logo was the plebian symbolic sheath of rice, his only and pathetic populist gesture. The man probably never stepped foot in a rice field. More than a few UMNO leaders later would also have Onn’s smug arrogance in believing that their leaving the party would cause it to collapse.

Next:  Excerpt 67:  Tengku At The Helm


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