Excerpt #3: Intra Racial (Specifically Intra-Malay) Conflict The Greater Threat
In an inaugural Millennium Essay for The New Straits Times (November 1999) I wrote, “The greatest threat to Malaysia’s social stability is not inter-racial confrontation rather intra-communal, specifically among Malays.” There are three potential fault lines along which Malays could fracture: religious, cultural, and socioeconomic. Conflict on any one is unlikely to trigger a severe crisis but a confluence of any two or all three could be cataclysmic.
Interracial conflict is bad, and Malaysians already had a taste of it many times. The May 13, 1969 incident was only the most bitter. Bad as it was, the intra-ethnic or intra-racial variety would be far worse. More Arabs had been killed by their fellow Arab brethrens than by the Israelis. The carnage of the 1956 Arab-Israeli War pales in comparison to the current intra-Arab strife in Syria.
Divisions between Malays and non-Malays are over tangible issues, as with scholarship quotas, employment preferences, and economic set-aside programs. Those are what Hirschmann referred to as “divisible conflicts,” potentially solvable through negotiations.
Differences within Malays on the other hand are over cultural values, theological beliefs, and way of life. These are more difficult if not impossible to resolve. If a pious kampong Malay feels that a proper Muslim woman must don her hijab while her urbane secular-minded sister disagrees, you cannot readily resolve that difference. A compromise as with donning half a hijab would not resolve it.
The first half of this wasted decade was helmed by Abdullah Badawi; he has now exited the stage before he could inflict even more damage. Today Malaysia is burdened with his successor, Najib Razak, who is equally intent in destroying the nation through his ineptness and willful neglect.
In my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited (1999) I wrote this of Abdullah. “He would be Malaysia’s Jimmy Carter, an honorable enough man but a totally ineffectual leader.” I was half right, in his being ineffectual. As for Najib, “[It] is difficult to evaluate as he carries the burden of his famous father . . . . [O]bjectively, it is hard to find Najib’s mark.”
Mahathir was still sharp and in power when I made those observations but he was too close to Abdullah and Najib to read them the way I did.
When Mahathir named Abdullah the country’s eighth Deputy Prime Minister in 1998, the reaction was a yawn or two at most. Mahathir had had three previous deputies, and expectations were that his fourth would end up like the rest, being replaced and denied the top slot.
However, when Mahathir announced his sudden resignation, the realization set in that Abdullah Badawi would succeed him. Like sheep, Malaysians accepted that and shifted allegiance to their new shepherd-to-be, and the accolades began pouring in. The man’s apparent lack of gross flaws normally associated with politicians only increased his halo, and quickly blotted out the more pertinent point that he lacked executive or leadership talent. The time too was opportune for Abdullah for by this time the nation had grown weary of Mahathir. They wanted change and overlooked Abdullah’s shortcomings. He also benefited from this cultural trait of Malaysians; they are over generous with a new leader and wanted him to succeed.
Despite the glowing praises, Abdullah Badawi was as hollow as a beetle-infested palm trunk. Many mistook him for a samping sutra (golden cummerbund) when he was but a common cotton sarong pelekat. Abdullah’s leadership was detached, incompetent, and irrelevant. He was unfit to lead the country.
Najib’s early pronouncements upon assuming office in October 2009 made me question my initial skepticism of him. Alas, it did not take long for him to live up (or down) to my low expectations of him. Top-heavy Najib is busy spinning himself just to remain standing, and he confuses that fast circular motion as rapid advancement.
The commentaries in this book, written from January 2008 to December 2013 during the tenure of these two leaders, are grouped in four themes, each dealing with Abdullah, Najib, UMNO (the dominant partner in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition), and the Labu and Labi (the comedic team in P. Ramlees’ movies) dysfunctional duo of Najib and Muhyiddin.
I conclude on a cautionary note. My worse fear is that Malaysia would end up as a Pakistan and Nigeria combined, wrecked with religious intolerance and extremism while its economy and social structure crumbled under the weight of corruption. Like its flagship Malaysia Airlines, formerly Malaysia Airline System or MAS (Malay word for gold), the country too has lost its lustre. Like the company’s shares, formerly blue chip Malaysia is today a penny stock.
Reflecting the evolution of my thoughts, within each section I have arranged the essays chronologically.
I derive no pleasure in penning these critical commentaries. I would prefer writing complimentary columns extolling the virtues and accomplishments of Malaysian leaders. At least then Malaysians could benefit and I could glow in the reflected glory.
My earlier essays had been compiled in two previous books, Seeing Malaysia My Way (2004) and Moving Malaysia Forward (2008). I thank readers for their comments. Space does not permit me to include some of the more perceptive responses and robust rebuttals as I did in Seeing Malaysia My Way.
M. Bakri Musa
Morgan Hill, CA
Next Week: Excerpt #4: From Blue Chip To Penny Stock