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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.

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Future of Malaysian Education 2026-2036

 Future of Malaysian Education 2026-2036

M. Bakri Musa


It is commendable that the Ministry of Education (MOE) is seeking public input to its planned review of the nation’s education policy, specifically the school system. Higher Education is under a separate portfolio.


            The exercise, dubbed “Future of Malaysian Education 2026-2036,” is to replace the current Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025. The Ministry issued a public statement on June 24, 2024 to this effect and has devoted a specific website for this purpose (https://www.moe.gov.my/pelanpendidikan2026/public).


            I am pleased that MOE is taking a decade-long time span and not be forced into the usual Five Year Malaysia Plan’s constricted time frame. The effects of an educational policy take some time to be effective, with the impact felt even longer afterwards. Malaysia is still reeling from the negative consequences of its much earlier rash decision to deemphasize English and Sixth Form.


            In line with MOE’s “whole society approach” as well as its “comprehensive and holistic” intent, I suggest three immediate improvements to MOE seeking wider public input. First, upgrade the current website; second, seek the views of interested and impacted organizations; and third, issue a preliminary report after all the submissions and then have public hearings specifically inviting those who had contributed significant ideas. Only then issue and adopt a final policy. Then as an ongoing undertaking, have a special body to monitor the implementation as well as effectiveness.


            The easiest part is improving the website. The current one is too limited, designed not to get substantive input, rather tips and brief suggestions. As such it needs to be expanded, with the submission window upgraded to handle at least 2,000 characters (about 250 words) together with a link to upload longer submissions, taking the necessary precautions to prevent maliciously corrupted files being uploaded. The current submission site is simply a blank space. I suggest dividing the submissions into headings as with general, curriculum, improving language, STEM, and of course “others.”


            It would be prudent to have a separate dedicated website unrelated to MOE to limit damages in case of a digital virus attack. Post all submissions; invite public comments and post them too on the website.


            Apart from Parents Teachers Groups, consult the National Professors Council, employer organizations, as well as university chancellors of both private and public institutions. They are most impacted by the products of the school system. As such they should have many useful observations and suggestions. In seeking public input, I would have those submissions be in either Malay or English, with a summary of under 250 words in both Malay and English.


            Designate MOE personnel to “google” articles and commentaries on Malaysian education, both in scholarly journals as well as general publications. Again, post the most relevant ones (subject to copyright rules) or better yet summarize them. Invite their authors to expand on their ideas. I have already read many commentaries in the brief period since MOE’s press release.


            MOE should analyze the current as well as past performances at the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) as well as the terminal school certificate (SPM, its Malay initials) examinations. Tease those figures with respect to geography (states, rural versus urban), types (national versus national-types and religious), and yes, even race. Decades ago when PISA scores of American students plummeted, there was a national outcry triggering professors and think tanks to analyze areas of weaknesses as well as strengths.


            The bane of Malaysia is lack of effective implementation and stringent monitoring, and not just in education. Even the best laid plans would come to nothing if not competently implemented and monitored.


            Following my own suggestion, I submitted in Malay (with the English version below) to the MOE website:


            “1.  Terminate SPM as well as Assasi and Matrikulasi. Extend the school year to Form VI, truncating it to one year. Stream the last two years into academic, general, and vocational a la Germany. Form VI is cheaper and would elevate the academic standards of a school. Cancelling matrikulasi would end the current recurring divisive debates over admissions. Further, much time is wasted after SPM examination, with much attrition of knowledge and study habits during the hiatus. The rich of course enroll in private classes. Lastly, quit sending students abroad after SPM. It is only middle school caliber.


            2.  Reserve residential schools to mostly students from B40 families. The rest would pay full costs based on a sliding scale according to the family’s income. Establish comparable less expensive “magnet day schools” in urban areas, also for B40 students.


            3.  Have all-English immersion classes for the first three years in selected schools where there is low level of English in the community. Alberta, Canada, does this to encourage bilingualism (French and English) among its Anglophone residents.


            4.  Set up an all-English medium Teachers College to train teachers of English.


            5.  Special allowances for teachers of English and STEM, as well as those serving in rural areas. Thus a teacher of English in Kenawit could effectively double her salary. 


            Further details are in my books An Education System Worthy of Malaysia (2003) and The Rot in Malaysian Education (2023) available for free as pdf file from me at bakrimusa@gmail.com.”


            There you have it, my submission, way under 250 words and 2000 characters, including spaces!


Thursday, June 27, 2024

Terjemahan Al-Quran Yang Indah Serta Menangkap Maknan

 Terjemahan Al-Quran Yang Indah Serta Menangkap Maknanya

M. Bakri Musa

27 Jun 2024


Ulasan buku: “The Qu’ran: A Verse Translation” (Al Qur’an:  Terjemahan Berpuisi), MA Rafey Habib dan Bruce B Lawrence. Translation Edition Liveright (Bahagian WW Norton), New York. 700 ms, Februari 2024. Kulit keras US$32.80. 

ISBN 978-8-87148-499-Z


Terjemahan Al_Quran dalam Bahasa Inggeris sekarang melebihi 140, dan terus berkembang dengan pesat. Kebanyakannya muncul hanya dalam beberapa dekad yang lalu. Di kulit buku ini tertulis, "Kitab asas Islam diterjemahkan buat pertama kali dalam cara puisi Bahara Inggeris." Memang betul!


            Rafey Habib ialah seorang Muslim, penyair, serta Profesor Bahasa Inggeris di Rutgers University, Amerika Syarikat, sementara Bruce Lawrence seorang mukmin tetapi bukan Islam, dan Profesor Pengajian Agama di Duke University. Kedua-duanya mempunyai hubungan istimewa dengan Malaysia. Berdua adalah bekas Fulbright Scholar, Habib di Universiti Islam Antarabangsa pada tahun 2005 dan Lawrence di Universiti Malaya pada 1995.


            Catitan e-mel Habib yang ditulisnya semasa dia berada di Malaysia menghiburkan serta mendedahkan cara hidup sehari, seperti bagaimana hendak berbicara dengan pembantu rumahnya yang tidak tahu Bahasa Inggeris. Beliau juga melemparkan beberapa pemerhatian yang tajam terhadap suasana akademik di Malaysia. 


            Habib membawa “… landasan luasnya dalam kesusasteraan Barat, estetika, teori kesusasteraan, dan falsafah, bersama dengan pengalamannya sendiri sebagai seorang penyair” manakala Lawrence pula dengan “…pengetahuannya mendalam dan intim tentang teks al-Quran, serta sejarah terjemahannya dalam konteks sejarah Islam yang kaya.” Dan dengan penerbitan yang terkemuka, sudah tentulah jilid ini teristimewa. Oleh sebab Habib seorang penyair, saya tidak akan mengutip rujukan al-Quran yang kurang memuji atas kaum penyair dan puisi amnya.


            Pada pembaca, perhatian yang pertama dengan buku ini ialah reka bentuk muka halamannya yang ringan dimata. Biasanya Al-Qur'an padat dengan tulisan, tidak mengendahkan perenggan atau Surah yang baru. Jika satu ayat berakhir dekat dihujung kertas, ayat seterusnya akan bermula di situ. Tiada jarak langsung atau sebarang pengaturan yang mudah di pandang. Sebaliknya, keindahan susunan muka halaman dalam jilid ini menjemput kita membaca! Kesetiaan ke atas harga kertas hanya dengan mengadakan teks dua lajur. Walaupun demikian, jilid ini menghampiri 700 halaman, termasuk lebih daripada 70 muka surat pengenalan, nota awal, glosari, dan 99 nama Allah, semuanya penuh dengan maklumat.


            Dari segi gaya bahasa, jilid ini tidak seperti terjemahan Yusuf Ali yang penuh dengan Bahasa Inggeris kuno seperti kata “Ya” dan “Thou,” kononnya berlagak cara dan meniru Shakespeare.


            Jelas sekali “Al-Qur’an bukan sahaja bersifat estetik dan muzikal, tetapi maknanya tidak dapat dipisahkan daripada bunyinya…. Walaupun Al-Quran bukan puisi, ia jelas lebih daripada puisi,” tegas penulis. Malah yang pekak nada pun akan dapat menghargai keindahan pendengaran dalaman dan irama intrinsiknya. Jika mengaji dengan suara yang endah, ia akan membawa air mata ke pendengar.


            Pengarang menggunakan istilah "Tuhan" menggantikan "Allah," satu amalan yang juga dipakai oleh ramai penterjemah terdahulu. Tetapi apabila Coleman Barks melakukan sedemikian dalam terjemahan puisi Rumi, ramai yang menuduh dan mengutuk Barks atas alasan dengan sengaja dan secara halus merendahkan "keIslaman" puisi Rumi. Seperti yang ditulis oleh Rozina Ali dalam majalah The New Yorker, memetik rakan sekerja Rafey Habib dan ulama Sufi di Rutgers, Jawid Mojaddedi, "Rumi yang digemari orang sangat cantik dalam Bahasa Inggeris, tetapi balasannya ialah mengikis unsur budaya dan agama."


            Tidak, itu bukan satu harga yang perlu dibayar, sebaliknya faedah yang melimpah ruah. Rumi hari ini ialah penyair yang paling popular serta di sanjung tinggi di Barat. Saya tekankan pandangan ini kerana Malaysia kini heboh dengan kontroversi penggunaan istilah "Tuhan" dan "Allah."


            Inti Al-Quran ialah al-amru bi-l-maʿrūfi wa-n-nahyu ʿani-l-munkar (Surah Ali Imran 3:104 dan beberapa lagi). Pentafsiran Habib dan Lawrence: "menyuruh kepada yang makruf, dan melarang yang mungkar." Begitu juga Yusuf Ali, manakala Abdel Haleem, "mengesa apa yang betul, melarang apa yang salah." Terjemahan saya mempunyai aliterasi yang menarik, “Biasakan yang biak, jauhi yang jahat!”


            Surah Al Fatihah 1:5 diterjemahkan begini: “Hanya Engkau kami sembah; dan hanya kepada Engkaulah kami memohon pertolongan.” Saya merasa kurang senang dengan istilah “hanya” yang kedua itu. Al-Quran menggesa kita untuk membantu dan menolong sesama. Meminta pertolongan hanya dari Nya sahaja akan bercanggah dengan itu. Apabila anda sakit, anda meminta pertolongan doktor, kemudian berdoa agar dia merawat cara betul. Semasa saya kecil dan kemudiannya sebagai pakar bedah di Malaysia, saya dapati beberapa orang kampung yang maut akibat meminta pertolongan hanya daripada Tuhan. Saya lebih selesa dengan terjemahan Yusuf Ali yang tanpa eksklusif dan hanya, yakni ". . . Bantuan Anda kami cari!”


            Bagi Ayat 1:6 pula, “Tunjukanlah kami ke jalan yang lurus.” Kata “ke” itu juga tidak selesa untuk saya sebab itu bermakna kita sekarang tidak berada di jalan yang lurus. Fitrah kita, mengikut Al-Quran ialah ke arah kebaikan. Saya lebih berminat ke arah istilah "Kekalkan kami ke jalan . . . ." Itu membayangkan kita sudah berada di jalan yang lurus sekarang, dan teruskan sahaja!


            Bagi "arahan yang paling melenting kepada kaum wanita," yakni Al Nisa 4:34, Habib dan Lawrence menterjemahkannya seperti berikut: ". . . Tetapi, jika kamu mengesyaki kemungkaran daripada mereka [bermaksud isteri], nasihatilah mereka dahulu, kemudian berundur dari katil mereka, kemudian gunakan paksaan [yang tidak berbahaya].” Tidak berbahaya seperti menyebat dengan mi rebus? Terjemahan Hossein Nasr pula lebih kejam, “. . . pukullah mereka;” Abdel Haleem, “. . . kejam mereka;” Yusuf Ali, "bantai mereka."


            Mendiang jurutera Syria Muhammad Shahrour memberikan tafsiran yang agak berbeza serta menyegarkan. Kepada beliau, ayat itu tidak ada kena mengena dengan perhubungan antara suami isteri, sebaliknya pemimpin dan pengikut mereka. Kata ganti nama khusus jantina adalah perkembangan kemudian dalam linguistik bahasa Arab, katanya. Justeru ayat tersebut lebih merujuk kepada pengikut yang menderhaka kepada pemimpin mereka. Semasa perang, itu boleh mengakibatkan hukuman mati; begitu juga dengan masyarakat Mafia.


            Semasa beliau berada di Stanford University, Ebrahim Moosa yang sekarang Professor di University of Notre Dame, pernah menasihatkan jemaah kami di Morgan Hill, California, seperti berikut. Jika anda merasakan bahawa anda sudah menguasai dan memahami dengan penuh Al-Quran, itulah masanya anda mati. Selepas membaca “Al-Quran: Terjemahan Berpuisi,” saya rasa banyak lagi yang perlu saya pelajari. Saya berdoa kepada Allah, dan hanya kepada-Nya, semoga Dia memberi saya umur yang panjang serta sihat untuk meneruskannya. Amin!

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Exquisite Translation Capturing Qur'an's Intrinsic Beauty And Message

 Exquisite Translation Capturing Qur’an’s Intrinsic Beauty And Message

M. Bakri Musa


June 23, 2024


Book review:  The Qu’ran:  A Verse Translation, MA Rafey Habib and Bruce B Lawrence. Liveright Translation Edition (A Division of W W Norton), New York. 672 pp, February 2024. Hardcover US$32.80. ISBN 978-8-87148-499-Z


There are no fewer than 140 (and fast growing) English translations of the Qur’an. Most had appeared only in the last few decades. This book cover promo reads: “Islam’s founding text, rendered for the first time in flowing English verse.” Indeed it does!


            Rafey Habib is a Muslim, poet, and Professor of English at Rutgers. Bruce Lawrence, a mukmin(believer) but not a Muslim, is longtime Professor of Religion at Duke. Both had special connections with Malaysia, having been Fulbright Scholars there. Habib was at the International Islamic University in 2005. The emails he wrote then were both revealing and entertaining, highlighting colorful facets of Malaysiana, such as communicating with his maid who could not speak a word of English. He also had some sharp observations on Malaysian academia. Lawrence was at the University of Malaya.


            Habib brings “… his broad grounding in Western literature, aesthetics, literary theory, and philosophy, together with his own experience as a poet” while Lawrence his “… deep and intimate knowledge of the Qur’anic text, as well as the history of its translation in the context of the rich history of Islam.” And with a reputable publishing house, this volume is in a class of its own. As for Habib being a poet, I will dispense with the less-than-laudatory Qur’anic references to poets and poetry.


            The first thing a reader notices with this volume is the pleasing page design. Traditional Qur’an is packed, dispensing with paragraphs or new lines. If one verse were to end near the edge of the line, the next verse would continue right from there. No concept of spacing or any eye-easing arrangements. By contrast, the pages in this volume invite us to read. Its homage to paper economy is its two-column text. Despite that, this volume packs nearly 700 pages, including over 70 pages of introduction, preliminary notes, glossary, and the 99 names of Allah, all very informative.


            In style, unlike pseudo Shakespearean Yusuf Ali’s, this one is in plain modern American English sansthe “Ye” and “Thou.”


            Clearly “not only is the Qur’an aesthetic and musical in nature, but its meaning is inseparable from its sound…. Although the Qur’an is not poetry, it is clearly more than poetry,” the authors assert. Even the tone-deaf could appreciate its inner aural beauty and intrinsic rhythm. Recited competently, it brings tears to listeners.


            The authors used the word “God” instead of “Allah,” a practice also adopted by many previous translators. When Coleman Barks did that in translating Rumi, many accused Barks of subtly deemphasizing the poems’ “Islamicness.” As Rozina Ali put it in the The New Yorker, quoting Rafey Habib’s colleague and Sufi scholar at Rutgers, Jawid Mojaddedi, “The Rumi that people love is very beautiful in English, and the price you pay is to cut the culture and religion.”


            No, it is not a price to pay, rather a bountiful reward. Rumi is today the most popular poet in the West. Worth emphasizing, for in Malaysia there is now raging controversy over the use of the words “God” and “Allah.”


            The Qur’an’s central message is al-amru bi-l-maʿrūfi wa-n-nahyu ʿani-l-munkar (Surah Al Imran 3:104 and elsewhere). Habib and Lawrence’s rendition:  “enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong.” Likewise, Yusuf Ali. Abdel Haleem, “urges what is right, forbids what is wrong.” My own Malay translation has an arresting alliteration, “Biasakan yang biak, jauhi yang jahat!”


            My test verse, Surah Al Fatihah’s 1:5, is rendered thus:  “You alone we worship; and You alone we implore for help.” I find this second “alone” problematic. The Qur’an urges us to help others. To seek His help alone would contradict that. When you are sick you seek the help of physicians, then pray that he would make the right decisions. During my youth and later as a surgeon in Malaysia, I saw many preventable deaths among villagers as they sought help from God alone. I prefer Yusuf Ali’s non-exclusive “. . . Your aid we seek!”


            As for Ayat 1:6, “Guide us to the straight path,” the “to” also rests uneasily on me. It implies that we are not now on the straight path. The Qur’an states that our fitrah (natural tendency) is towards good. As such I prefer “along,” implying that we are already on the straight path, now just keep on it!


            As for “the most controversial directive about women,” Al Nisa 4:34, Habib and Lawrence render it thus:  “. . . But, if you suspect misconduct from them [meaning the wives], first counsel them, then withdraw from their beds, then resort to [harmless] force.” Harmless as whipping with a wet noodle? Hossein Nasr’s translation was more brutal, “. . . strike them;” Abdel Haleem’s, “. . . hit them;” Yusuf Ali’s, “beat them.”


            The late Syrian engineer Muhammad Shahrour gave a refreshingly enlightened interpretation. To him that verse has nothing to do with husbands and wives rather leaders and followers. Gender-specific pronouns were a later development in Arabic linguistics, he argued. Thus the verse refers more to followers disobeying their leaders. During war, that could result in execution; likewise with the Mafia.


            When he was at Stanford, Notre Dame University’s Ebrahim Moosa once told our congregation here in Morgan Hill, California, that the day you feel that you have mastered the Qur’an is the day you die. Reading The Qur’an: A Verse Translation makes me feel that I have a lot more to learn. I pray to Allah, and only to Him, that He would grant me a long healthy life to pursue that. Ameen!

Monday, June 17, 2024

Assessing Maqasid Syariah Operationally

 Assessing Maqasid Syariah Operationally

M. Bakri Musa


There was an on-line presentation recently at the International Islamic University Malaysia on reforming Maqasid Syariah. The speaker droned on and on but in the end said nothing on how to make it more responsive to the needs of contemporary ummah. He was more into displaying his eloquence in Arabic and memorization of those ancient moldy texts. That is par for the course for most Islamic discourses these days.


            Maqasid Syariah means doing good for oneself, family, and community. Syariah is derived from the Qur’an, with its central imperative of enjoining good and forbidding evil. Ancient scholars had done an excellent job translating those divine dictates into practical guides. With that they ushered in Islam’s Golden Age. Alas today the ummah is but a faint shadow of its former glory, pathetically behind many societies.


            Muslims today look longingly to the past for inspiration to guide us forward. Prodigious intellectual efforts are expended on deciphering those ancient edicts. The results? We are still behind and getting worse, content reveling in those long-gone glories.


            We should be learning from and emulating successful contemporary societies. The ancients did just that with classical Greece, and then went on to make their own seminal contributions. That is the Islamic past we should follow.


            Our present-day Greece equivalent would be the West and also now fast-rising China. Not too long ago Mao’s China was but Hell on earth. That should inspire today’s Muslims. Study, emulate, and later exceed the old as well as the not-so-old masters. Only then could we become credible critics of the West, as China is now. Success is the best credibility marker.


            Maqasid should be evaluated operationally, that is, on its success (or lack of) in preserving and enhancing life, faith, wealth, health, and progeny.


            Consider killing. It is bad; hence the Qur’an forbidding it. However, could killing Hitler and Pol Pot be a meritorious deed? That is far from ethical relativism, for had both been killed early, millions would have been saved, thus fulfilling the first objective of Maqasid.


            Maqasid acknowledges differences in circumstances, as with an emergency, time of need, or during abundance. Malaysia today is not desperate or at war, and our basic needs have been met, though not quite at the abundance level. As such our Maqasid Syariah should be different from the ancients or today’s Yemenis.


            Despite the frenzy of reforming Maqasid as well as the equally futile Islamization-of-economics fad, there are minimal studies comparing the equity and efficacy of taxes based on income, the capitalist option, versus assets, the basis of zakat (Muslim tithe).


            Likewise with borrowing. During the Prophet’s era that was between individuals; today, between corporations, or individuals and corporations. If you fail to repay your loan during the Prophet’s time, that was a sure path towards enslavement not only for yourself but also your family and possibly generations to come. Today if the bank were to repossess your home for non-repayment of your mortgage, and if it were to sell the property at a price over what you owed, the bank would have to refund the excess to you. Nor would you be responsible if there were to be a deficit. Mortgages are non-recourse loans. Further, borrowers of ‘non-halal’ loans are protected by bankruptcy laws and from aggressive debt collectors. With ‘halal’ Islamic mortgages, you would still owe the balance and you would not be protected by consumer borrowing laws.


            Mortgages enable millions to own homes. That is good, for families as well as communities; and as such, Syariah-compliant.


            When you borrow money and repay the same amount later, you have not fully repaid it. A dollar today is not of the same value as that of a year hence or before. Consider the ringgit during the Asian economic contagion. More dramatic, the banana currency at the end of the Japanese Occupation. In between, the sure subtle erosion of inflation. 


            Then there is the lender’s lost opportunity cost. He could have used that money to invest in the stock market or enjoy a vacation in Bali. The Qur’an does not compel anyone to lend, nor is lending considered a meritorious deed. The lender is doing it out of trust and the goodness of his heart, as well as to earn a profit on his capital. In the old village when you return a pot of rice that you had earlier borrowed, you would add something extra like a pineapple as a show of gratitude. Interest is but goodwill monetized. 


            Interest is the cost of renting capital, no different as with renting a car. Comparable concept. Mortgages enable millions to own homes; loans, to attend colleges.


            A man once complained to the Prophet, s.a.w., that a neighbor from whom the man had earlier borrowed dates had demanded more in repayment, being that the borrowed dates were from an earlier harvest, thus scarce and of prime quality. The repaid fruits were later in the season, thus plentiful and cheaper. The Prophet, s.a.w, decreed that the excess demanded by the lender was not ribaa (interest) rather compensation for the earlier dates’ scarcity and better quality. The Prophet, s.a.w, intuitively appreciated the difference between nominal versus real value.


            Likewise, insurance is considered haram by Maqasid Syariah; the uncertainties equated with gambling. Nothing in this world is certain except death. The uncertainty there is with the timing; hence the need to protect your loved ones. Insurance is but a mutual-help arrangement where you get to define what and how much protection you need by paying accordingly and prospectively. During the Prophet’s time they had a comparable concept of mutual help, as when one of their caravans was robbed. Even banks have depositors’ insurance to bolster public confidence and prevent bank runs.


            Show me a backward country and I will show you one without efficient financial intermediaries. The velocity of money (how fast it exchanges hands) is a measure of an economy’s vigor. As for zakat, you first must have the wealth; thus its pursuits fulfil Maqasid.


            Reformers of Maqasid should focus on improving the present system, be it Western capitalism or its current equally successful Chinese or Swedish variants. Aping the ancients and reciting what they wrote would not do it. Qur’an is Allah’s words, immutable; Syariah, the work of man, thus modifiable. Maqasid should be judged not on its fidelity to ancient proscriptions but on whether it delivers. That should be the only criterion.

Sunday, June 09, 2024

The Malaysian Malaise: On The Title

 The Malaysian Malaise:  Corrupt Leadership; Failing Institutions; And Intolerant Islamism

M. Bakri Musa

Last of Six Excerpts:  On The Title


The phrase “Malaysian Malaise” first appeared as the title of an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times September 20, 1999 by its conservative commentator William Safire. He was castigating then-Prime Minister Mahathir (as well as other Asian autocrats) for their intolerance and super sensitivity to criticisms. This was soon after Mahathir had jailed his erstwhile deputy Anwar Ibrahim and later, the conviction in Malaysia of long time Asia correspondent Murray Hiebert of the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review. That was the malaise Safire meant, not only Malaysians’ tolerance of these Asian autocrats but also the acquiescence of their Western enablers in London and Washington. The same title (and theme) was repeated in a subsequent commentary by his colleague Philip Bowring on April 12, 2006.


            The shift in content but with that same title was later used in Elizabeth Segran’s “Letter from Asia” that appeared in Foreign Affairs, October 2013. She was referring to the general malaise of the political mood following the 13thGeneral Elections of May of that year. The Najib-led coalition then won the majority of Parliamentary seats, but the opposition Pakatan secured the majority of the popular votes. The malaise there was the huge letdown with the unfairness of the electoral process.


            In April 22, 2015 Global Gaming Business Magazine used the same title for their editorial on Malaysia’s affirmative action programs favoring Malays. A few more subsequent commentaries amplified on that same theme though with slightly altered titles, such as E H Imrantski’s “The Malaise of Malaysian Malays” (March 8, 2018) and Chandra Nair’s March 4, 2020 in The Diplomat (“Malaysia’s ‘Malay First’ Malaise”).


            Imrantski’s “The Malaise of Malaysian Malays” would be closer to this volume in content considering that most of my commentaries deal with Malay leadership and Islam, the Malay version. With the demographic and thus political dominance of Malays, the malaise of Malays is thus also the malaise of Malaysia, hence my choice of title.


            My reason for putting these commentaries in a book or printed form remains the same as with my earlier six collections. For the most part my essays have been published only in cyberspace as in my blog, social media like Facebook, and on-line publications.


            For this collection I have added two new features. One, a brief introductory background material (in parenthesis) to put each essay in perspective with respect to time and content. Two, I have also included a sampling of readers’ comments, as I did with my first collection in Seeing Malaysia My Way (2003). Three, I gave each essay readers’ ratings based on their responses on my Facebook and elsewhere. I assign one point for “Like,” two for each comment, three for sharing my article, four if the essay were to be picked up by other outlets (print or virtual), and five if I were to receive direct personal comments from readers. The five-star articles would have over 500 points; one-star, under 100. Unlike in my freshman class scoring, there is no Bell curve distribution to the ratings. The highest ranking articles were those on corruption among Malay leaders; the lowest, religion.


            Within each section I have arranged the essays in a sequence that would make the most sense. Thus on the section commenting on the 15th General Elections, I have placed them chronologically. Also in this volume I have also included the transcriptions of the four video conferences I had participated in, rendering my oral presentations as essays. One was in Malay (Isu dan Cabaran ke Arah Kesetaraan Dalam Pendidikan). I have added the English translation (“Issues and Challenges Towards A More Equitable Education”) in the main body while the original (in Malay) appears in the Appendix.


            I thank my California friend Amir Razelan for introducing me to Dr. Rozhan Othman of LeadUS Malaysia for the invitation to be on a panel with Professor Tajuddin Rasdi on the webinar “Does The Malay Mind Need To Be Liberated?” An American-trained architect and thus the beneficiary of Western liberal education, Tajuddin is not afraid to swim against the current socio-political trends. He has given his erudite and contrarian views on fields far outside his profession, in the best tradition of a public intellectual. I am also indebted to another public intellectual, the academic cardiac surgeon Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa of the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), for inviting me to the other three virtual seminars. I treasure the exchanges with my fellow panelists Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia; Dato Dr. Madeline Berma, Fellow Akademi Sains Malaysia; and Prof. Zaharom Naim of University of Nottingham Malaysia, together with moderators “Uncle” Shamshir Alam and Nageeb Gounjaria, IRF’s Senior Research Fellow.


            Again, a big thank you to husband-and-wife team Jason and Su Pittam for the wonderful cover design. They have designed the covers of almost all my books. To my wife Karen, my first and critical reader, I am eternally grateful to Allah for blessing me with her.


December 2023

Morgan Hill, California

Sunday, June 02, 2024

The Malaysian Malaise: Earlier Commentaries On Education


The Malaysian Malaise

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #5:  Earlier Commentaries On Education


During my first summer break as an undergraduate in Canada in the early 1960s, I wrote an article and mailed it to one Dr. Mahathir, then a backbencher Member of Parliament from Kubang Pasu, Kedah, in his capacity as Chairman of the Higher Education Commission. I urged the government to set up a university at cool Cameron Highlands, and to introduce American-style liberal education so young Malaysians could benefit from and experience what I had in Canada, the prairie blizzards excepted.


            Bless the man, he did reply. However, he did not comment on the merits of my idea. Instead, perhaps concerned about my future, he suggested that I focus on my studies first so I could then return as a physician and be of greater use to the country. He must have seen too many Malay students sent abroad getting distracted and flunking out.


            The second summer I worked in a dairy farm operated by a co-operative. Through that I came in close contact with Alberta wheat farmers. That prompted me to write the Chairman of MARA (the Malay acronym for the agency tasked with developing rural Malays) with copies to some big wigs in UMNO, the party purportedly championing Malay causes, describing the cooperative movement (of which Canada was a leader) as well as the Alberta Wheat Pool and similar government-sponsored entities to help rural farmers. Unlike Mahathir earlier, that head of MARA and those other characters did not even bother to reply.


            My writing took a hiatus for the next two decades, the first consumed with medical school and preparing to be a surgeon, the second on establishing my professional career.


            In the 1980s, prompted by the thousands of government-sponsored Malay students here in America attending third-rate universities and at horrendous costs, I wrote an extended commentary on advising and preparing our students for top-quality institutions. I sent that to both the Chairman of MARA and the Public Services Commission (JPA, its Malay acronym), the two agencies that sponsored those students. After waiting for a suitable time for a response (none came of course), I submitted it to the New Straits Times. My gratitude to its then Editor-in-Chief Kadir Jassin for publishing that series and also some of my subsequent essays. He was also kind enough to have had a full-page review of my first book, The Malay Dilemma Revisited:  Race Dynamics In Modern Malaysia (1999), a critique of Mahathir’s controversial The Malay Dilemma. Later, the newer The Sun Daily also carried many of my commentaries.


            The late 1990s saw the emergence of the Internet, and with that, on-line media outlets. Stephen Gans of Malaysiakini.com was generous to give me a column, “Seeing It My Way.” I also had my own blog (bakrimusa.blogspot.com) to serve both as an outlet as well as a repository for my writings. I am also indebted to Raja Petra Kamarudin and his wildly popular and controversial Malaysia Today website (mt.m2day.org), and The Honorable Member of Parliament Lim Kit Siang for carrying my essays on his blog. Raja Petra’s portal had gone through many name changes to keep ahead of Malaysian censors. I am also thankful to the publishers of “The Malaysian Insight” and “Free Malaysia Today” for publishing some of my writings.


            Later in 2013 through the efforts of Umar Zain and his colleagues at Suaris website (now defunct) I started writing in Malay. Writing and thinking out the whole exercise in Malay produces a far different result both in tone as well as meaning than merely translating into Malay my existing essays. However, as the Internet penetration among Malays was not high, I did not receive much feedback from readers to make the effort worthwhile. Besides, no Malay publication would accept my submissions.


            Back to my original 1960s proposal of a university in Cameron Highlands, when Mahathir became Prime Minister in the early 1980s, this self-styled champion of Islam and Malay causes, instead approved the building of a casino there, the largest in the region. I presume that gambling, like intellectual pursuits, is also most conducive in a cool environment!


            Apart from Covid-19, my commentaries here focus on the triple whammy burdening Malaysia today:  corrupt ineffective leadership; unbridled, oppressive Islamism; and fast deteriorating ineffective institutions, in particular the education system. Most of my essays however are subsumed under the first two headings. I have only two essays covering education as I have published two earlier books exclusively on that topic:  An Education System Worthy of Malaysia(2003) and The Rot In Malaysian Education (2020).