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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, 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


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