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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.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

The Irrelevance of Contemporary Malay Ulama Leadership

 Irrelevance of Contemporary Malay Ulama Leadership

M. Bakri Musa


The irrelevance of the leadership of contemporary Malay ulama was never more starkly demonstrated than at my recent experience of Hari Raya ‘Idilfitri prayer at Masjid Negara on April 10, 2024. The Imam had not yet finished uttering the customary “Assalamuallaikum” to signal the end of the first part of his service when many of the congregants began leaving. This also happened there at previous Hari Raya prayers.


            Muslim congregational prayers (as on Friday noon and Hari Raya) are truncated from the usual four raka’ats (units) to two, with the accompanying sermon considered an integral part and in lieu of the two skipped raka’ats. So imagine my horror at the exodus during the middle of the service.


            Those who left must have felt or had concluded through experience that those sermons were irrelevant or meaningless. Thus not worth listening to or even putting on any pretense of doing so even for the sake of civility and politeness. That distraction notwithstanding, I managed to stay for the whole khutba.


            Despite my best effort however, I could not make sense of the sermon. The acoustics were horrible, with the Imam oblivious of that. Whether his message was received, much less understood, apparently was not his concern for he blazed on, with the echoes reverberating. The ritual is the thing.


            It did not occur to him or his staff to have the sound system checked beforehand. Nor did they consider having monitor screens strategically placed for simultaneous language interpretation for the large number of Bangladeshis present, or for that matter a sign language translator for the hearing impaired.


            Masjid Negara is a national monument. I had intimations earlier that it had little relevance to the surrounding citizenry. On the contrary it impacts them in the most obtrusive and disruptive ways.


            I took the RapidKL transit to Central Market, the nearest stop to the mosque. While I could see it from the station, there were no directional signs. So I headed in the general direction, meandering among the many intervening structures, following the crowd whom I assumed knew their way.


            Alas, after many a detour and straddling barriers, we finally arrived at an empty multi-story city-owned parking lot to emerge on the other side onto a wide street in front of the mosque. Except that the street had now been turned into a massive parking lot. I shudder to think if any emergency vehicle had to pass through.


            Forewarned, I had worn cheap footwear so no one would steal it. I was also careful where I put it lest somebody would trip on it. I saw many trampling over scattered footwears at the entrance even though there were shoe racks. Accidents waiting to happen.


            When I arrived, the main hall was already full except for the bare, hard shiny linoleum floor of the surrounding annex. That too was fast filling up. There was not even the cheap Made-in-China rolled-up prayer mats. They could afford full air-conditioning but not those mats. I pity those with unforgiving knees.


            You expect the Imam of Masjid Negara to have some leadership skills. He should have noticed the dangerous traffic disruptions around the mosque. Common sense would have him make the necessary arrangements for free parking at the adjacent empty parking structure as well as assign someone to direct traffic. Likewise, the horrible acoustics. Summon the architect responsible for the renovation to inspect and remedy the horrible end result. Study the great cathedrals and learn how they do it.


            That those necessary elementary things were not done reflect how far detached our religious leaders are from the immediate problems facing their flock. By contrast, my Imam here in Silicon Valley once interrupted his sermon when he saw through the window a late comer who had parked his car blocking the driveway. He asked that gentleman to move his car right away. Our Imam knew his priorities. The temporal often must necessarily override the spiritual.


            Issues like atrocious acoustics, bad sound system, no prayer mats, and haphazard parking are not micromanagement. Instead they deal directly with concerns (or lack thereof) of your constituents. No point promising them Heaven in the Hereafter if you cannot at least help them remedy their current hellish experience.


            Services at Masjid Negara are usually attended by top dignitaries including the Agung and Prime Minister. As such those are opportunities for the Imam to apprise those leaders of citizens’ concerns. I once heard over Radio Indonesia Hamka in his Hari Raya sermon excoriating his nation’s leaders for failing their citizens. That is responsive and responsible leadership!


            Alas, that Masjid Negara Imam represents many contemporary Malay leaders, be they in government, politics, or academia, in being far detached from the problems of their constituents. That is the tragedy of today’s Malay leaders.


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