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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.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Reflections on Ramadan: Children And Thei Marchmallows

 Reflections on Ramadan:  Beyond The Fast

M. Bakri Musa


Second of Three Parts:  Children And Their Marshmallows


[In Part One I likened Ramadan to a forced “time out,” akin to winter with plants and animals, or the quiet room in a lumber mill where the cut pieces are left alone in a controlled environment to recover from the stresses that they had been through.]


My second thought comes from the 1972 Stanford marshmallow study on delayed gratification with preschool children. The kids were each given a marshmallow, with instructions that should they refrain from eating it for 15 minutes, they would be rewarded with an extra one. As expected, some devoured theirs right away, others took longer. Nonetheless there were those who successfully restrained themselves and were thus duly rewarded. The study reveals that marked individual differences towards instant gratification could be discerned at a very early age.


            If that was the only conclusion, the study would not have been later regarded as “one of the most successful behavioral experiments.” Years later when those kids were of college age, the lead experimenter, prompted by anecdotal accounts, did a follow-up study. It turned out those “impulse controlled” children (those who successfully deferred devouring their marshmallows) did better academically as well as disciplinary-wise in school. The ability to delay eating your marshmallows was a better predictor of scholastic achievement than IQ tests or parents' educational level!


            This insight is leveraged by enlightened educators. The largest operator of charter schools in America, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), emphasized character building as well as a rigorous curriculum. Part of that character building is teaching children the equivalent of not eating their marshmallows right away. The school has been remarkably successful despite its students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.


            This marshmallow study has much wider implications. If a culture is predisposed to immediate gratification, its members would be less likely to save. The consequent low capital formation leads to economic stagnation. The marshmallow study also helps explain why those who acquire wealth through inheritance, lottery, or preferential treatment rarely keep it, while those who acquire it through hard work do. They have persistence and self-discipline, key to their success and more importantly, in maintaining that success. Something for champions of Malay rights (Ketuanan Melayu) to ponder!


            If the ability to delay devouring marshmallows for fifteen minutes among preschoolers is associated with later academic and other successes, imagine the good if we could delay our eating for the entire daylight hours! That is the supreme value and significance of Ramadan, instilling self-discipline and acquiring the habit of delayed gratification. Those are useful traits for success in this world. As for in the Hereafter, Allah hu alam (only God knows).


            That this trait (tolerance for delayed gratification) could be detected early suggests that it is more “nature” than “nurture.” This is reinforced by an earlier study (substituting candies for marshmallows) comparing Black and Indian children in Jamaica. As a group, Black children had difficulty delaying eating their candies. 


            Subsequent studies suggest yet another important variable:  the absence of a father, as in a divorced family. This is relevant to Malays as similar dynamics occur when the father has multiple wives, or children of “temporary marriages” (kahwin muta’ah). With the former, the children of other than the favored wife grow up fatherless.


            There are many recent twists to this classic experiment. One involves “priming” the children to be either in the “reliable” or “unreliable” group. For the “reliable,” the experimenter would, as promised, reward the children. For the “unreliable” group however, he would return but apologize profusely for not being able to bring the promised reward. The experiment was then repeated. Nine of the 14 children in the “reliable” group successfully delayed eating their marshmallows as compared to only one in the “unreliable” group. The explanation there is that the trust factor is absent or not developed with the “unreliable” group.


            This suggests that we can train our young to delay their gratification, favoring “nurture” over “nature,” contrary to the earlier Jamaican study. For this to be effective, we have to first establish trust. The children must have faith with the adults in their lives. Children with absent father figures (as with Malay children of kahwin mutaah and fathers with multiple wives) are deprived of this critical influence.


            Another insight to the marshmallow study comes not from the data but direct observations. The “impulse controlled” kids were busy actively distracting themselves as with singing, sitting on their hands (lest they be tempted to grab the marshmallow), closing their eyes, or kneading their skirts, analogous to the sailors in the Greek mythology stuffing their ears and Ulysses tying himself to the mast, to restrain themselves from the call of the Siren song.


            The relevance of this to Ramadan is that it is easier to fast if we are working or otherwise occupied in maintaining our regular routine. Indeed, the Qur’an and hadith exhort us not to sleep or idle ourselves when fasting. Yet the perversity in Malaysia is to do the very opposite, with businesses and offices curtailing their hours. That essentially makes your day much longer and fasting thus more of a challenge. To me, my noon break during Ramadan is my most productive time writing-wise as I am not distracted, what with everyone else out for lunch.


Next:  Last of Three Parts:   Fasting in a Muslim Versus Secular Society

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Caste From the Herd Excerpt # 71: Babut Darjat-Bound

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 71:  Babut Darjat-Bound

I was down in the dumps that early December of 1960. My school farewell party was a painful reminder that I had very few friends outside of my class or school; in fact none. My village friends of yore had by now gone their separate ways. While in past holidays I would spend the time studying for the next term or year, or be in the school library, now I could no longer do that. There was little to interest me. I spent the time brooding, waking up late, and sleeping in the afternoon. I did not realize how low I was in the dump until I overheard my parents’ hushed conversation about hiring a village dukun to break my spell. That shook me up.

            I was rescued later in the week I received an official letter in a nondescript small envelope with the return address, “Headmaster, The Malay College, Kuala Kangsar.” The British had set up that boarding school in 1905 for the purpose of educating children of Malay royalty and nobility in order to prepare them for junior positions in the colonial administrative service. Despite that modest aspiration, to Malays the college was Babut Darjat (“Heaven-bound”), in reference to the subsequent exalted positions held by those who passed through its portal. Only later was the admissions liberalized to include those of “lesser births” as the school could not fill its slots with only blue blood.

            The letter stated that I would be joining the college’s Lower Six Science class in January, and that the school uniform was a white shirt and long pants. The letter, signed “N. J. Ryan, Headmaster,” was short; it did not even fill the half-scape paper. There was no mention of fees or other expenses. Up till that time I had assumed that I would be going to the King George V (KGV) School in Seremban. I showed my parents the letter. My mother was jubilant but my father cautioned me. “You mean you have been invited to apply to Malay College.”

            I told him otherwise, and re-read the letter. It was in English, so my father had to depend on my translation. He was still not persuaded. You have to first apply, be interviewed many times, undergo a medical examination, and then be measured for your uniforms, my father reminded me. “Don’t get your hopes high,” as he recalled my cousin Azizzah’s earlier fate with her application to nursing-aid school.

            My father had another good reason for his caution, although he did not allude to it then. Years earlier my older brother Sharif was also nominated to apply for Malay College. The one item on the application form that stumped my father was:  “Name a member of the nobility or royal family you are related to.” He panicked over that one, like a mule that had strayed into a stable of prized stallions and did not quite know how to extricate itself. 

            Of course we had none. In desperation he remembered that one of my granduncles had the exalted title of Datuk Laksamana (Rear Admiral) though he was no more than a palace busybody. We did not know whether that title was real or a nickname given to him by his fellow villagers. He had the regalia alright, but the only watercraft he had been on was a leaky rakit (bamboo raft). That did not stop my father from using him as a reference. 

            My brother did get the interview, and my parents’ hope soared. In the end he lost out to a member of the royalty. We were crestfallen. To cover his severe disappointment, my father reverted to a typical villager’s pat solace. “It’s God’s will.” He said that over and over to sooth his and our crushed hopes. 

            “Who are we simple villagers,” he comforted my mother, “to aspire so high for our children?” It was his uncharacteristic resigned posture and unexpected fatalistic tone that bothered me most.

            So I was well advised not to put my hopes up high. This was only a first step, as my father reminded me. However after I had put all my efforts to get into Sixth Form, I was not sure that I had anything left in me to face this new unexpected challenge. Even if I could convince myself that I had the inner strength, the question remained whether I was willing to commit to it. I rationalized that even if I could not get into Malay College, I would be going to KGV where I could come home every weekend. I was unsure whether it would be worth the effort to secure a slot at Malay College. It is amazing how protective one’s mind can be in preparing for possible great disappointments. 

            That afternoon my classmate Ramli surprised me with a visit, excited, as he too had received a similar letter. I cautioned him about what my father had related earlier. Ramli had an uncanny ability to communicate well with simple villagers, but my father was still not persuaded by Ramli’s same interpretation of that letter. “Cikgu,” Ramli finally assured my father, using the honorific title of a teacher, “I hear those spoiled rich Malay kids didn’t do so well this year in their Sixth Form Entrance Examination. The college needs us to fill its science class. Otherwise it would have to close it.” 

            Ramli’s reference to ‘spoiled rich Malay kids’ fitted my father’s stereotype of them. Now with Ramli telling it, my father was convinced that we were Malay College-bound. My mother who hitherto was engaged in the entire conversation somehow later managed to serve us tea and fried bananas. Soon the conversation drifted to our classmate Nafsiah. Her older sister Maria and my mother taught at the same school, hence the connection. Maria used to relate to my mother, and she in turn repeated that to me, how hard working was Nafsiah. That reference was an unwelcome reminder of my earlier sly scheme on how to beat her as she was academically far ahead of me. I did not want to even think about that, or the misery she and her family were experiencing. 

            Ramli again rescued me. “Don’t worry about her,” he soothed my mother. “Her folks are rich. They’ll send her to Australia or England. With us, if we don’t get into Sixth Form, we are finished.” 

            My mother was mollified, and that helped soothe my guilt. Ramli then added, “Malay College needs us. People like Bakri will raise its scores.” Then as an afterthought he asked my mother, “Did he tell you that he was first in the state?” 

            That was the first time my parents knew how well I did. They in turn asked Ramli how well he did, thinking that he would be first in the country. Ramli was perennially at the top of the class ever since he joined us in Form One, after his two years of Special Malay Class. He smiled and replied that I was far ahead of him. My parents were surprised, but they were even more pleased with Ramli’s tone of unrestrained pride instead of smothering jealousy. A true friend!

            Ramli was prescient about Nafsiah. She did end up at an Australian University on her father’s scholarship, and later, Cornell for graduate studies, the only member of my class either in Kuala Pilah or Kuala Kangsar to have landed at an Ivy League. She later distinguished herself as a Federal Minister in the Mahathir Administration.

Next:  Excerpt # 72:  Separation Anxiety

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #70: Tears And Farewells

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #70:  Tears And Farewells

For the overwhelming majority of my classmates, Fifth Form (eleventh year of schooling) was their terminal school year. That is still true today for far too many young Malaysians. 

            The last few weeks of my final year at Tuanku Muhammad School, Kuala Pilah, was consumed with planning for the farewell party, quite apart from preparing for that all-important, fate-determining terminal national examination. I was not caught up in the party mood. As I was continuing on to Sixth Form, I felt I was only transferring to another school. Besides, I had never attended any after-school social events being that I lived far away. 

            So when my classmate Ramli asked whether I would be attending the farewell party to be held that last Saturday, I was taken aback. Of course I would not; I could not as there was no bus service at night. I was surprised that he even asked as he was very much aware of that. So when I replied no, his response was a dismissive “Too bad!” Then as an afterthought, “If you change your mind, there’s an empty bed in my dorm.” 

            Intrigued, I inquired further. There were indeed many empty beds as those students in the hostel from the lower grades would have gone home. Many of my out-of-town classmates would be taking advantage of that to attend the party. So without waiting for Ramli to ask me again, I changed my mind. 

            That afternoon of the party was the very first time in all those years that I stayed behind after class, those Saturdays at the library excepted. How different the atmosphere was as compared to regular school hours! I was an alien in that environment. The playground was full of students from the different classes playing together. It dawned on me that I knew very few students outside my class, in fact none. I had missed a significant part of the school experience by my living far away. I had been exposed only to my books and classmates but nothing and nobody beyond. I felt deprived. How I envied those who lived close by or had stayed at the hostel! 

            The girls had done an excellent job decorating the hall. The event was well chaperoned by the teachers and there were no parents or guests. The girls were all dressed up; they never looked more beautiful. It was the first time that I viewed them as other than classmates; they looked so mature, womanly, and yes, beautiful. Either that or during the year I had a boost in my testosterone production. We were hugging each other, exchanging addresses, autographing each other’s yearbook, and promising to remain in touch. 

            Soon it was time to say goodbye. Everyone was crestfallen, weeping, and red faced. We all wondered when or if we would ever meet again. Somehow I felt detached from it all. Come January I would be continuing my classes, albeit at another school, and with that a new set of friends. What was the big deal? 

            Then it struck me. My classmates’ emotions were what my older brother and sister experienced only a few years earlier when they found out that their school days were over. Had I not passed that earlier Sixth Form Entrance Examination, I too would be commiserating with them.

            The scene broke down with the singing of Auld Lang Syne. I too cried; I would not be seeing them again. More than a few would be returning to their villages, and be stuck there, the fate I feared had I not been able to continue my studies. The party struggled to end with everyone not in the least eager to leave. We lingered on, stretching our goodbyes. However, even the longest evening must end, and it did, with the last few leaving sobbing and red-eyed. 

            Later at the dorm, I was tossing around unable to sleep on a strange bed in an equally strange room. I remembered that not too far away was a mass grave, uncovered during the building of the new school block. The school had been an interrogation center for the Japanese Kempetei (secret police) during the war. I confessed my fears to Ramli. He assured me that the religious people had given special prayers when the bodies were uncovered. Their souls were now mollified. With that he rolled over and was soon asleep. I however, took longer. 

            The next morning Ramli and I took a long last walk around our campus. It was quiet and deserted. I had never seen it like this before as every time I was there it was full of students and activities. As I walked towards the school gate to leave for the last time, a sudden emotion surged in me. I longed for that place! I diverted my path and walked around again, smelling every flower, dipping my feet into the pond of our botanical garden, rubbing my hands against the wall of every classroom I had been in. I could not get enough of my old school. Ramli had to drag me away and I had difficulty concealing my tears. In the end I exited the gate, with great reluctance. I was no longer welcomed, a young male lion pushed out of its pride. It was time to leave. 

Next:  Excerpt # 71:  Bound For Babut Darjat

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Cast From The Herd Exceprt # 69: the Fruits of Merdeka

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #69  The Fruits of Merdeka

Earlier Tun Razak, the first Minister of Education, undertook a massive exercise, Gerakan Lampu Suloh (Operation Torchlight), to register all preschool children. He did not trust the official statistics. The canvassers went out in pairs, a man and a woman. They visited every home, and when they encountered an empty hut, they would inquire from the neighbors who the occupants were and whether they had children. Every dwelling was tagged with a small card indicating the number of pre-school children. Every village, every family, and every hut was visited. Apart from valuable data collection, that exercise was the most effective “showing of the flag” by the new administration. To those villagers, the government they had just elected was truly interested in their welfare. 

            Razak was right; all those new schools were needed. Gerakan Lampu Suloh did its job. By this time my younger sisters Mariah and Jaharah, together with my younger brother Adzman, were ready for school. They no longer had to take the long bus ride to Kuala Pilah like my older brother Sharif and I, as well as with my sisters Hamidah and Zahariah did as there was now a new English primary school nearby at Sri Menanti. No, unlike earlier with me, my parents did not have to “contribute” any building fund to secure my siblings’ admissions. Those schools (old and new) also remained open after regular hours with adult literacy classes, and teachers enjoyed a boost in income teaching those extra classes. 

            One day my grandfather’s youngest sister Saodah visited us. She asked my mother to pass her the Malay daily, Utusan Melayu (lit. Malay Courier). She was illiterate but liked to see the pictures and cartoons. Like many of her generation, she had not gone to school. 

            Imagine our surprise when she beamed and exclaimed, “I can now read!” 

            I was impressed when Razak built all those new schools, but I was even more so with my grandaunt’s achievement. Her beaming smile said it all. That was what merdeka meant to her. Operation Torchlight brought light to those villagers, young and old like my grandaunt, hitherto condemned to perpetual darkness of the mind. 

            That was not all. One afternoon I saw a huge crowd at the local village coffee shop. The election was long over and there were no longer important visitors to the village. Out of curiosity I edged myself into the crowd and there in the middle holding court was our old neighbor, Mustapha. I had not seen him for years; he had left to participate in Razak’s other landmark program, the Federal Land Development Scheme (FELDA), where vast tracts of virgin jungle were cleared up for cultivation, a program comparable to America’s land-grant schemes to open up the Wild West. 

            Now he had come home to tell his former fellow villagers of the wonders of his new life. When he left our village, he reminded his listeners, he was landless; now he had 14 productive acres of rubber trees and a house. That was substantial, considering that the typical village holding was an acre or two at most of inherited land. Mustapha too had his merdeka

            I took those developments in stride. After all that is what governments should do. Only later when I saw so many newly-independent nations degenerating into anarchy and poverty did I realize how blessed Malaysia was to have such competent and honest leaders as Tengku and Razak. 

            It would be inadequate if not erroneous to attribute Malaysia’s blessings in having such farsighted leaders as Tengku and Razak only to luck, fate, or the benevolence of Allah. The British made an early deliberate effort to cultivate rational and enlightened local leaders like Tengku and Razak, while suppressing if not harassing radical leftist ones. Without doubt Tengku’s Cambridge pedigree was a plus; the colonials could not dismiss him as a “stupid native.” It also helped that he was an unabashed Anglophile and his politics more to their liking. 

            As for Razak, even though he was an overt Japanese supporter during the war, the British was magnanimous enough to overlook that or dismiss it as youthful infatuation if not indiscretion. Recognizing his brilliance and that human nature can be changed for the better given the right circumstances and nurturing, Razak was given a scholarship by the colonial government to pursue law in London. 

            To radical leaders like the leftist Ibrahim Yaakob who was violently anti-colonial, the British were less kind though not ruthless. Like the earlier sultans, leaders of Ibrahim’s persuasion were let off easy as long they left the country. Ibrahim banished himself to Indonesia. 

            It was this overt British strategy that gave the nation leaders like Tengku and Razak while sparing Malaysia the likes of Sukarno and Ho Chi Minh. Sidestepping their earlier skepticism, my parents were now ardent fans of Tengku and Razak. To my parents, these two personified the ideal Muslim leader; they heeded the central teaching of our Qur’an:  Command good and forbid evil. The greatest good a leader, Muslim or otherwise, can do is relieve the oppression of their followers, and the greatest oppressors are ignorance and poverty. Operation Torch lifted the oppression of ignorance from my grandaunt Saodah; FELDA, the oppression of poverty on my neighbor Mustapha. 

            That was what freedom–merdeka–meant, or should mean. The beauty of democracy is just that; it allows citizens to choose such leaders. That process, and democracy itself, would be meaningless if the process were to be corrupted with citizens continuing to elect corrupt, incompetent, and tyrannical leaders. 

Next:  Excerpt #70:  Tears And Farewells

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

anwar's Confident First Hundred Days Part II

 Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Confident First Hundred Days

M. Bakri Musa


Second of Two Parts:  Malaysia Finally Facing The Right Direction 


Anwar’s cabinet selection is an achievement, made more so when compared to the bloated outgoing one. His ministers are in a class of their own, except for a noticeable few. Pop psychology would have me highlight those positive appointments in the hope of encouraging more similar ones. However, I take the opposite tack seeing that the two I am singling out are in charge of critical related ministries.


            One is Minister of Higher Education Khaled Nordin. He has not learned anything despite his previous decade-long tenure in that position under three different Prime Ministers. In a recent televised interview, he tried to be hip by labelling his second reincarnation as ‘Versi 2,’ to contrast with his earlier ‘Versi 1.’ He did not tell us (and the interviewer too dumb to ask) what limitations were with his earlier version, or what enhancements he had brought with his second. I appreciate Anwar’s constraints, but surely there must be someone else in UMNO more capable than this old worn-out retread.


            Equally underwhelming is Minister of Education Fadhlina Sidek. Her inept responses to the ugly race segregation episode at a Johor school and the headmaster losing cash during his lunch break, were but two embarrassing examples. Instead of demanding explanations from them and their immediate superiors, she rationalized their unacceptable behaviors. Her educational background is parochial. It did not prepare her to deal with the complexity of Malaysian education. Her appointment was probably more an expression of that old terhutang budi (repaying a debt of gratitude) sentiment. Her late father Sidek Fadzil was a longtime Anwar confidant and an early forceful defender of Anwar when that was not a career-enhancing posture.


            Terhutang budi is venerated in Malay culture. Less appreciated is the potential damage not only to the direct parties but also much more significant, the collateral ones. Mahathir’s terhutang budi to the late Tun Razak, who rehabilitated Mahathir back in the 1970s when he was in the political wilderness after being expelled from UMNO, is one such hideous example. When Mahathir greased Najib’s upward trajectory in a similar repayment of gratitude gesture, Malaysia suffered the huge collateral damage. With Anwar and Sidek Fadzil, it would be the nation’s young.


            I am even less enamored with Zahid Hamidi. However in realpolitik as in life, you play the cards you are dealt. Zahid led UMNO to support Pakatan Harapan, sparing Malaysia Muhyiddin’s or Ismail Sabri’s corrupt incompetent leadership. The opposition’s recently-released shadow cabinet was a harsh and much-needed reminder of the horror that could have been for Malaysia.


            The fulminations over Anwar appointing his daughter Nurul Izzah as an unpaid advisor (since retracted) are farcical, more so when levelled by the likes of Muhyiddin. Nurul is that rare young lady (more so for a Malay) who had opted for engineering instead of the usual mushy staple of Hang Tuah or prophetic traditions. She then went on to an elite university, an enviable achievement. Anwar appointing her was more filial imposition. He would be failing as a leader in not nurturing this rare gem. Paid or unpaid, special or not special adviser, Anwar would be missing a great opportunity if not being downright silly if he were not to bounce his ideas off Nurul.


            Anwar’s first few foreign visits were to neighboring capitals instead of faraway London or Washington, D.C., as was Mahathir’s penchant. Nor did Anwar avail himself to celebrity interviewers or addressing august foreign forums, again another Mahathir favorite. That reflects Anwar’s confidence as well as priorities. He also has little need to impress the world.


            If Anwar could cripple corruption, that would be a national contribution on par with Tengku Abdul Rahman securing the nation’s independence. Anwar too would have liberated Malaysia, this time from the clutches of corruption instead of colonization. For Malays, Anwar’s success would be worth much more than the mega billions spent on Special Privileges. The corrosive impact of corruption falls disproportionately on Malays. Among others, corruption inhibits the creation of genuine Malay entrepreneurs. Instead it breeds the current glut of ephemeral, destructive rent seekers and ersatz capitalists.


            What an achievement and sense of pride for Malays to succeed sans such special privileges crutches!


            As Anwar has repeatedly emphasized, Malays are threatened not by pendatangs (immigrants) but by our own greedy, corrupt leaders. This core message needs to be hammered to those champions of Ketuanan Melayu. Crush corruption, and Anwar would be doing the purest and most productive form of ibadat (worship), quite apart from helping Malaysians, Malays in particular.


            Malays cannot be competitive and contribute our share towards the betterment of Malaysia if we continue to have corrupt inept leaders who force feed us khayalan (fantasies) of yore, or endlessly delude us of a future in heaven (or on earth) without making the necessary efforts. The recent rally of PAS supporters in their make-believe attire of the Prophet’s warriors was instructive as well as illustrative. Who do they think that they are taking on? A single AK 47 could wipe them all out in seconds. They are no threat to Malaysia, only to themselves. Islam does not need defending, least of all by these delusional characters! They would do more good for Islam, community, and their self-worth if they were to pick up the garbage they leave behind, or help with their children’s homework.


            Malaysia now has a competent skipper in Anwar Ibrahim, and is facing the right direction. The seas ahead may not be so forgiving and the winds less favorable, but she must stay the course and be ready to trim her sails and batten down the hatches. While Allah is the ultimate Determiner, as Anwar acknowledged in quoting Surah Hud (11:88) during his budget speech, he (Anwar) also needs not only our prayers and best wishes but most of all our support. As for his reciting Surah Yusof (12:55) in that same speech, “Put me in charge of the nation’s storehouses; I’ll manage them prudently and carefully,” (Abdul Haleem’s translation) Ameen to that!

Sunday, March 05, 2023

Prime Minister Anwar's Confident First Hundred Days - First of two Parts

 Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Confident First Hundred Days

M. Bakri Musa


First of Two Parts:  The Right Focus


Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s confident first hundred days have shifted the political chatter. Now it is no longer on when his unity government would collapse rather in a perverse twist that none had predicted, speculations are on the opposition parties. The Anti-Corruption Agency (MACC) had frozen Bersatu’s accounts and interrogated its top leaders. As for Anwar, by the time Parliament met for the second time on February 13, 2023, his two-third majority was unchallenged.


            With MACC emboldened, Malaysia may well see two of her last three Prime Ministers joining Najib in jail for corruption, one spared only because of his age or perhaps divine intervention. Leaders of PAS are also on MACC’s radar screen as its leader Hadi Awang has difficulty distinguishing bribery from sedekah(donations). To him the loot of corruption is but borkat (bounty from Allah).


            In a display of political courage and strategic astuteness, Anwar had called for an early vote of confidence in Parliament. The opposition, caught flat footed, cowered down. It is telling that neither the head of PAS nor Bersatu wanted to be Leader of the Opposition, punting that onto a nondescript third-rate politician with a prurient past, Hamzah Zainuddin.


            When Hamzah dragged up in Parliament some old allegations on Anwar posted in an obscure Italian online portal, Anwar curtly dismissed Hamzah’s long droning oration by quoting Macbeth, “ . . . [A] tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”


            The image captured by Parliament’s camera on Hamzah’s face at that moment was priceless – his deer-caught-in-a-headlight befuddlement, a pathetic idiot’s look.


            Malaysia’s pressing problems are entrenched corruption, intolerant Islamism, and failing institutions, each aggravating the other two. The continued deterioration of our national schools and public universities is an embarrassing and constant reminder of the third challenge. Anwar’s laser-like focus on the first – corruption – is spot on. The strengthening ringgit reflects this.


            A strain of corruption, unacknowledged and impacting only Malays, is the degradation of our great faith. To many Malays, Islam is but the endless collecting of religious brownie points through performing mindless rituals instead of doing good for the community. The late Algerian philosopher Malek Bennabi had a penetrating observation on this. “The gravest paralysis is the moral one. Its origin is known:  Islam is a perfect religion. No one challenges this truth, [and] it follows ...  another proposition:  ‘We are Muslims, therefore we are perfect’ ... which neutralizes the quest for perfection.”


            “The Islamic ideal,” Bennabi went on, “... has succumbed to vanity and self-sufficiency … with believers [believing] themselves to have achieved perfection by praying five times a day without seeking to better [themselves] .... [Worse,] they become the society’s elites.”


            As for our Prophet, s.a.w., we are content with endless singing of his praises and having massive rallies on his birthday, but fail to emulate or internalize his many sterling qualities.


            Anwar’s Islam is a refreshing and much needed contrast – a humane, inclusive, and tolerant one, focused on the Qur’anic imperative al-amr bi-l-ma’ruf, wa-n-nahy ‘ani-l-munkar (Command good, forbid evil). His aggressive campaign against corruption, Malaysia’s greatest blight, reflects this.


            Prime Minister Anwar should also continue his aggressive libel suits against those pseudo ulama with their slanderous charges against him. The recent public humiliation of Perak PAS Chief Razman Zakaria with his court-ordered public apology to Anwar is case in point. A few more such suits would defang these bigots. Anwar should take it as a compliment, and others a warning, when he was labelled “father of lawsuits” in parliament recently.


            Symbolic as well as substantive, Anwar has turned Seri Perdana, hitherto the Prime Minister’s official residence, into a center for intellectual discourses. Expand the topics beyond Islamic and Malay Studies. Emulate the ancient Bayt al Hikmah (House of Wisdom) of the Abbasid era by inviting for example, a virologist or epidemiologist to talk on Covid-19.


            What a worthy legacy if Anwar were to turn Seri Perdana into Wisma Pencerahan, Citadel of Enlightenment, eternally shining its bright light throughout the nation, inviting all to be guided by it!


Next:  Second of Two Parts:  Malaysia Finally Facing In The Right Direction