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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 24, 2024

Focus on Malay Leaders, Not Their Followers

 Focus On Malay Followers, Not Their Leaders

M. Bakri Musa


There is an endless chorus of criticisms of Malay leaders for failing our community. Their antics and vulgarities too assault our sensitivities, bringing shame to us. As for solving our myriad problems, consider the latest Simposium Kongress Ekonomi Bumiputra of February 29, 2024. Like earlier ones, this too was long on lamentations and short on prescriptions.


            We do not need reminders of the shameful reality of our community. The current obsession over socks with “Allah” knitted on them epitomizes Malay leaders’ obsession with trivia. Stroll the streets of Kuala Lumpur and the glaring absence of Malay enterprises would be embarrassingly obvious. Visit the leading campuses abroad and find how many of the Malaysians there are Malays. The problem is with finding the solutions. Throwing money–the usual remedy–does not equal a solution. What is needed is not financial but intellectual capital, and we are not developing that.


            The Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal observed that you cannot be a leader without followers. Obvious enough except we do not ponder on that. Meaning, we should focus on them. When meter readers become ministers, the problem is less with them, more with those who chose or elected them. Hadi Awang would have a tough time getting elected as dog catcher in America, or Johore for that matter. As for that folksy Arabic-illiterate comedian-cum-ulama mesmerizing his followers, that can happen only in Terengganu and Pattani. In Johor or Kuala Lumpur he could not fill a living room. Likewise the mufti who peppers his speech with long incomprehensible Arabic. No one dares accuse Dr. MAZA (he is known only by his acronym, aping our great Zaaba) of not mentarbatkan (respecting) our national language.


            Years ago I was in charge of finding a khatib to lead our small congregational Friday prayers here in Morgan Hill, California. Once in desperation I found a fire-and-brimstone preacher at the last minute. True to form, he railed against the evil infidels.


            At the end of the prayer service, there was surprisingly none of the customary shaking of his hands by the congregants. If I had any doubt of the khatib’s reception, a regular attendee came up to me afterwards. “Bakri, I sure like to see how you would render that sermon in our newsletter!” In case I missed the general sentiment, another congregant pointedly told me not to ever invite that preacher again.


            We get the leaders we deserve. We can tell much about a crowd by its leaders, and a society by whom it honors. Peruse America’s Presidential Medal of Honor. Among the recent honorees were Denzel Washington and Steve Jobs (posthumous). No need to list their accomplishments. By contrast, Tun Daim is now charged with corruption. He is not the first, and there are many such “tainted Tuns.” There was one character, later a Chief Justice, who concealed his second wedding in Southern Thailand. Why he felt the need to do so when our faith allows multiple marriages escapes me.


            This is a rather long preamble to my central point. That is, our hitherto focus on Malay leaders is misguided; instead we should study their followers. In the past, mass Malay gatherings were at political events; today, mosques and religious occasions. Through such kafir-inventions like social media and affordable electronics, these ulama can now reach a wide audience, though not as yet to the level of American televangelists.


            Quoting de Waal again, “The enemy of science is not religion . . . . The true enemy is the substitution of thought, reflection, and curiosity with dogma,” That also describes the current true enemy of our ummah. Focusing on pendatang (immigrants) and depictions of deities on socks is but a major distraction, and a dangerous one at that.


            What led the ummah to their Golden Age over a millennium ago was that right from the very beginning of Islam they were critical and unafraid to question. They did so not out of disbelief or disrespect rather to understand the faith better so they could pursue the straight path. One early and very fundamental controversy was whether the Qur’an was created or eternal. That nearly tore apart the faith but it survived, and thrived. As for vigorous questioning, read Al Ghazzali’s searing criticisms of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rashid to the point of labelling them as unbelievers. Yet today we hold all those ulama in high esteem. Nor did those early Muslims shy away from learning from others, including those who did not believe in God, as with the ancient  Greeks. Knowledge is knowledge, and all originate from Him.


            As the Indonesian product of a pesantren and later University of Chicago PhD Mu’nim Sirry noted, this fierce questioning of the faith, as well as the ulama of each other, was the trademark of our ancient scholars, a defining contrast to the rigid and arrogant certitude of their present-day counterparts. It is this precious earlier tradition that we must now revive, not the blind obedience to a powerful monolithic ‘official’ version of the truth.


            A few years back there was a panel discussion involving Dr. MAZA and Mu’nim Sirry where the former rudely walked out instead of challenging Sirry’s viewpoints. I am not bothered with MAZA’s walking out–that revealed more of the man–but I applaud the Islamic Renaissance Front for sponsoring that and other similar events. Malays need those diverse and challenging viewpoints, more so now. We have to be exposed to diverse and yes, even provocative views so we too could “substitute dogmas with thought, reflection, and curiosity.” Only thus could we truly enjoy and benefit from this great faith. Only then would we find our rightful place among the developed and enlightened.


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