December 10th, 2017


Personal Freedom – The Foundational Strength of Islam

M.Bakri Musa

(Based on a talk given at the South Valley Islamic Community, Morgan Hill, California, on the occasion of Mawlid Nabi, December 2, 2017)

(Second of Two Parts)

In his book Muhammad:  Man and Prophet, Saudi writer M. A. Salahi recalled his father’s advice. That is, love for Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., could only be demonstrated by following his teachings, not by singing his praises. Today Mawlid is observed in many places with endless singing of his praises, and only that. As for hadith and sunnah, they are far from being sources of enlightenment but instead become contentious among the faithful. They divide not only Muslims but also between Muslims and non-Muslims.

In this Mawlid I will depart from tradition and will refrain from singing his praises or reciting his hadith. Instead I will highlight Muhammad’s achievements. Those are beyond dispute and should inspire us. I will relate only four, three before he received his prophethood, and one before.

First, he transformed the ancient Bedouins whose identity and loyalty were tied to family, clan, and tribe to one that transcended all those and be based only on the belief in the oneness and supremacy of Allah. Later, others joined in. Today Muslims are the most ethnically and culturally diverse group. Islam can rightly claim to be the first and continues to be the most powerful and successful globalizing force.

Second, he led the Arabs’ through a seismic change in their attitude towards women. Where once women were part of the inheritance, only slightly above the camels and date trees in status, through Islam women were entitled to a share of the inheritance. Not an equal one to be sure, but still a radical change from the status quo and a universe ahead of what was then prevailing elsewhere. With that cultural sea change, the associated dehumanizing of women and such gruesome practices as female infanticide vanished.

Third, he altered the Arabs’ vengeful “an eye for an eye” sense of justice to one that emphasized mercy, forgiveness, and restitution. He steered them away from revenge, and with it the endless cycle of generational clan disputes and tribal warfare. While he eschewed an eye for an eye, Mohammad, s.a.w, (and Islam) was not for turning the other cheek. Instead he and Islam opted for “soft vengeance.” That is, showing a better and more just way than endless destructive revenge.

Those were monumental achievements and the ensuing changes transformational. They all occurred within the memories of his companions.

There were those who viewed Mohammad, s.a.w., as but a mere Messenger, a human fax machine as it were, through whom God sent down His revelations. With that, miracles happened and Islam became a major force. As such we could dispense with hadith and sunnah. Even a cursory reading of history would disabuse one of that romantic and simplistic notion.

Those early Bedouins were tough customers. If Muslims today argue over hadith and sunnah, those early Arabs questioned the very Koran and Mohammad’s prophethood. This culture of questioning, learning, and the associated critical thinking that it nurtured, endured long after Mohammad, s.a.w. Today we look longingly to that long-ago “Golden Age of Islam,” forgetting what it was that made our faith and community flourish. We have replaced the cherished, productive, and pristine values of tajdid (constant renewal and vigorous learning) with taqlid (unquestioning acceptance and blind obedience). We also limited those who could partake in religious discourses. We opted for exclusivity over inclusivity, which in turn breeds intolerance and closed mindedness. Both inhibit learning and progress.

Koranic commands notwithstanding, emulating Muhammad, s.a.w., or achieving even a tiny sliver of his success would be a daunting task.

That brings me to his fourth achievement, although by chronology his first. Before Allah chose him to be His Last Rasul, Mohammad was a trader working on a caravan owned by someone else. If he didn’t deliver, he would earn nothing. He was such a diligent and productive worker that his employer Khatijah found him to be indispensable. That resulted in her proposing marriage to him. To use the language of modern business, she made him an equity partner!

Marrying your boss, (or the son or daughter thereof) is a tried and true path to advancement. Such opportunities are necessarily limited. What is not is to emulate Muhammad’s work ethics, that is, be productive and make yourselves indispensable, or as close to that as possible, to your employer. That is within everyone’s capacity.

I advised my children when they had their first job to remember one thing. If they were being paid one dollar, then they should give at least three dollars’ worth of service in return. The first to cover the pay, the second for overhead–with such soft costs as social security and unemployment insurance as well as hard ones as with providing an office. The third is the employer’s profit. A worker who gives less has not earned his pay. That deficit is haram.

Few of us would be privileged, talented, or courageous enough to venture out to be entrepreneurs like Khadijah and Mohammad. An honest, trustworthy businessman (or woman) will be in the company of prophets, the truthful, and martyrs, goes a familiar hadith. In Islam, the paycheck giver is held in much higher esteem than the paycheck receiver. The biblical wisdom (it is better to give than to receive) is never more apt in Islam than with respect to paychecks. Such an ethos makes sense; it benefits the economy and society–no entrepreneur, no paychecks; no business, no workers. That is the foundational wisdom of that hadith.

Islam’s high regard for entrepreneurs and business owners is not misplaced for another reason. When you have an enterprise to run, you view the world and others differently. They are no longer whites or blacks, natives or pendatangs (foreigners), Muslims or non-Muslims rather your potential clients, customers, and partners. Such a mindset leads to greater harmony. To an ice cream peddler it does not matter whether his dollar comes from a thirsty congressman or an illegal immigrant.

Remaining faithful to the sunnah and seerah is a challenge. Many are thus satisfied with simplistic aping rather than emulating, as with having long beards and acquiring multiple wives.

What is within the capacity of all of us is to emulate Muhammad the trader before he was chosen prophet. That is, be honest, productive, and dependable so as to bring added value to your employer. In Islam, they and other paycheck givers are the blessed ones; they are truly following in the path and are thus worthy emulators of our holy prophet.

More important than for us as individuals to emulate the prophet is for us collectively as a community to aspire for the achievements of those early Muslims. If they could transcend their clan and tribal identities, we too should our race, color, national origin, gender identity, sexual preferences, and other labels we paste onto ourselves and others. We should give full meaning to our core belief that we are all children of Adam.

If those ancient Muslims succeeded in elevating women from being part of the inheritance to acquiring a share of it, we too should aspire to a similar scale of achievement. We should strive to make women have full parity not only in inheritance but also all other spheres. The prophet’s achievements should be our inspiration, not define the limits. How can a father look at his daughter and say that she is worth only half that of her brothers? My sons would never let their sister be thus treated.

We should go beyond and support the emancipation of not only women but also others now oppressed.

Islamic thinking distinguishes between the obligations of the individual (Fardu Ayn) and that of the community (Fardu Kifayyah). That is false dichotomy. If we as individuals are dependable, productive, and treat others with respect, then our community would follow suit. If our society already has excellent social services and efficient garbage collection for example, that does not free us from our obligation to take care of those less fortunate and to clean the environment when we see it being despoiled.

I am proud of our South Valley Islamic Community in this regard. Women are very much full participants in our organization. They are well represented on our governing board, and we have had three women Presidents in our short history. I am also heartened that our Friday prayers are well attended by women.

Our organization through the dynamic leadership of Imam Ilyas is an active participant in the Interfaith Council, as well as working with other faith groups as with St. Joseph’s Lord’s Table in feeding the poor and homeless, and with Cecelia’s Closet in providing warm clothing for the homeless during these cold months. We have a children’s toy drive for the holiday season. Thank you to those who have generously donated.

Those achievements of the early Muslims should inspire us as individuals as well as a community. While it would be presumptuous to think that we as individuals could emulate Allah’s Chosen One, it is within all of us to model ourselves after Mohammad the trader before he was chosen as prophet. That is, by being dependable, trustworthy, and productive; striving to be paycheck givers instead of receivers. If we are the latter, we should work hard to give our employers extra in our work. It is also within our community’s capability to emulate those exemplary early Muslim communities.

That is what Mawlid Nabi means to me as an individual and as a member of the community.

December 3rd, 2017

Beyond Emulating The Prophet, s.a.w.

M. Bakri Musa

(Based on a talk given at the South Valley Islamic Community, Morgan Hill, California, on the occasion of Mawlid Nabi, December 2, 2017)

First of Two Parts:

The Koran commands Muslims to emulate Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w. In Surah Al Ahzab (33:21), approximately translated, “You have in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful example for those who hope for God and the Last Day.”

There is no shortage of resources to draw upon to learn about Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., from encyclopedic collections of his hadith and voluminous accounts of his sunnah (his habits, practices, and daily life) to the countless biographies (seerah) and historical accounts.

This treasure trove should be a blessing, a guide for us on how to become better Muslims, and in turn better human beings. It is disappointing to note that the reality is far different. Those sunnah and seerah have become instruments for endless schisms and strives. We argue over their authenticity, interpretations, and yes, even relevance. Far from being sources of enlightenment, sunnah and seerah divide us. Thousands have been killed and maimed over those differences. The Sunnis and Shiites are still killing each other in the Middle East today. Having noted that, it would be trivial for me to draw your attention to the fact that companions of the prophet who are revered in one book of hadith are reviled in another.

Even the observance of Mawlid divides us. Some consider it bida’a (an adulteration of the faith), as with aping the Christians with their Christmas. Yes, in many countries Mawlid is celebrated with the exuberance far exceeding Christmas, with parades and prizes. Disagreements over Mawlid have raged for so long, divided so many, consumed oceans of ink, and caused millions of sore throats.

This controversy, like so many others related to our faith, stems from our inability or refusal to acknowledge a more fundamental issue. That is, we are trapped by words and language, unable or unwilling to appreciate their limitations and constraints especially when translated across eras and cultures.

We translate bida’a as “innovation,” forgetting that today innovation means change for the better, an improvement. We encourage innovation. The word now means the very opposite of what it was during the Christian reformation when it meant challenging the prevailing orthodoxy, as Martin Luther did. You could be excommunicated, or worse, for indulging in innovation.

This failure to be vigilant of the constantly changing meanings of words traps many. Consider hadith and sunnah. To be precise, they are not what the prophet said or did, rather what the historical narrators recalled or remembered about what the prophet said and did. There is a world of difference between the two. Imam Bukharis’ collection of hadith is considered the most sahih; yet he was not even born until over 180 years after the prophet’s death. Ibn Ishaq’s seerah, one of the earliest, was written over a hundred years after the prophet’s death.

Consider the hadith familiar to many, that our faith would be divided into 73 sects, and all but one destined for Hellfire. That means any one sect has only a slightly better than one percent chance (1/73) of being correct. If you were being told that you have that probability of surviving surgery, you would take your chance with a bomoh.

Yet every Muslim believes that his or her sect is the one and only true path to salvation, all others misguided, misled, and hell-bound. Such a mindset leads to a messianic zeal to correct the others “misguided” even to the point of death and destruction in the mistaken belief that it would for their own good! Better to suffer the punishment here on earth than in the Hereafter, these zealots reassured themselves with the smugness and arrogance. For others, that mindset breeds intolerance, exclusiveness, and destructiveness.

If you appreciate statistics and probabilities, you realize that the chance of your sect being misled is 72 out of 73, over 98.6 percent! In life, that’s a practical certainty! Realizing that humbles you, prompting you to learn from others. That nurtures an open mindset that would lead to greater tolerance and generosity towards others different from you. It encourages you to be inclusive lest you would exclude that one righteous group.

We are blessed to live in America where personal freedom is cherished. As such we are free to explore the vast, rich and varied traditions of our faith. Consider that in Malaysia, at its International Islamic University’s library, Shiite kitabs are kept under lock and key. You have to register with the authorities to borrow or browse any! If you preach Shiiism, you would be punished just as severely as if you were advocating communism! And Malaysia is widely acknowledged as a “moderate” Islamic country. Imagine the intolerance elsewhere.

We should use the freedom we have in the West to explore not only the other proverbial 72 sects but also other faiths. Have the humility to acknowledge the high probability that our sect might be among the erroneous 72!

I have learned much from the other traditions; from the Wahhabis, the anchoring stability of rituals and traditions; the Ismailis, the importance of stable leadership and social cohesion; and the Ahmaddiyas, the vital role of education and necessity for accommodation. The Sufis and Salafis have taught me to simplify my life, a necessity in this increasingly complex and bewildering world.

Imam Feisal Rauf is right when he stated in his book, What’s Right With Islam: A New Vision For Muslims and The West, that America is the most Sharia-compliant nation. Many Muslims, obsessed with labels rather than content, miss this point.

On this Mawlid Nabi we gather to honor this Last Rasul of Allah. I prefer that word over celebrate. With the latter, the children would expect gifts! Tonight, only cakes and desserts. I will depart from tradition and not lead a chorus of praises for our prophet, s.a.w. I will spare you my half-baked Arabic quoting hadith and my far-from-acceptable tajweed reciting the Koran that would grate on your ears. Instead I will focus on the achievements of Allah’s Last Prophet. No one, not Sunni or Shiite, Muslim or non-Muslim, and historians or lay people would dispute those achievements.

I will highlight four; three after he received his prophethood, and one, before. First, he ushered the Arabs out of their clannishness and tribalism to a society that transcended those and be based only on the belief in Allah. Second, he initiated a cultural sea-change in the Arabs’ attitude towards women. Third, he altered the Arabs’ vengeful “an eye for an eye” sense of justice to one that emphasized mercy, forgiveness, and restitution.

Last, though by chronology his first, Mohammad, s.a.w., was such a diligent, dependable and trustworthy worker such that his employer Khatijah married him. To use the language of modern business, she made him an equity partner!

In the second part I will elaborate on those achievements and the lessons they hold for us today.

Next:  Second of Two Parts:     Personal Freedom – The Foundation of Islam

The Trap Of Monolingualism

November 26th, 2017

The Trap of Monolingualism

M. Bakri Musa

Language is not only a means of communication but also an instrument through which we look at the world. Fluency in a foreign language gives us another instrument to view reality, the equivalent of shining the light from a different angle and giving us a fresh perspective. While we have come a long way from the earlier brash assertion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language controls our thoughts, nonetheless the way we look at reality is conditioned by the habits and attributes of our mother tongue.

When hunting with an Australian aborigine, telling him that there is a kangaroo on the left would not be terribly helpful as he would first have to figure out whether you are referring to his or your left, a critical differentiation. It would be more meaningful and less chance of your being struck by a stray bullet if you were to say that the critter is to the west or east. Those Australian natives are more adept with cardinal signs. Out in the arid barren plains of the continent’s interior, there are few terrestrial landmarks to make meaningful references to left or right.

In their book In Other Words: The Science and Psychology of Second-Language Acquisition, Ellen Bialystok and Kenji Hakuta suggest that the benefits of being bilingual go beyond knowing two languages. As the structures and ideas of languages are different, a child has to think in more complex ways than if he were to know only one language. That increases “meta-linguistic awareness,” a greater sensitivity to language in general and awareness of its meaning and structure.

This heightened sensitivity transfers to other areas, as with the ability to extract core ideas from extraneous information, or to use the language of engineers, enhancing the signal-to-noise ratio. This is a useful and critical analytical skill. When you are bilingual you grasp concepts or core facts quickly; you are not easily distracted by the language or presentation.

Studies with f MRI show that the bilingual brain is also more efficient, at least with respect to translations. Those bilingual from an early age do not go through the mental process of translating, rather they grasp the concept right away and then express it in the other language, skipping the translating step.

Consider those familiar with only the imperial system. When told that it is 20 degrees Centigrade outside, they first have to convert that into Fahrenheit (68F) and only then could surmise that it is pleasant. If they were facile with both systems, they would know right away that 20 degrees Centigrade is quite pleasant, while 35, uncomfortably hot.

It does not matter what the second language is, the key point is to have another instrument to look at reality, another perspective. Malaysia’s plural population affords splendid opportunities to learn another language. Homogenous societies like Japan are handicapped in this respect. English is taught in Japanese schools right from kindergarten, yet the average Japanese student has difficulty communicating in English.

Perversely, Malay language nationalists use Japan as an example for resisting the teaching of English. Japan is an economic and technological powerhouse despite its students not being fluent in English, those language nationalists argue. That is a gross misreading of the Japanese situation. Japanese leaders are very much aware how much of a handicap their students face and are aggressively remedying the situation by recruiting thousands of native English-speaking teachers from abroad, as is China today.

English fluency in itself is no magic bullet. India and the Philippines would shatter that illusion. Not knowing English however, is a major handicap.

The most advantaged in this globalized world are those who are bilingual, with one of the languages being English. American students are now required to learn a second language, in recognition of this reality. Second to that would be those who speak only one language, but that language is English. The least advantaged, or most handicapped, are those who speak only one language, and that language is other than English. That unfortunately is the fate of most Malays. Little wonder that we do not do well in commerce, education, and other endeavors.

In Malaysia, most non-Malays are already bilingual, their native tongue and Malay; many are also trilingual, with English. That gives them significant advantages in the marketplace and elsewhere. With their multiple-language skills they are able to view reality from many perspectives, giving them significant cognitive advantages. I attribute their success to this fact, not to any intrinsic superiority of their race or culture. You are not likely to succeed in Malaysia or anywhere else if all you know is Hokkien or Malayalam.

Malays have the capacity to be fluently bilingual (English and Malay), or even trilingual, with Arabic. Those who are unilingual are handicapping themselves and trapping their minds.

English fluency confers many significant advantages as it is the language of commerce and science. In science with only Malay you would never go beyond the elementary stuff. Then there is the Internet, which is predominantly English. To take full advantage of this digital universe you have to be fluent in English.

As to why English and not say, Chinese, has achieved this status, only Allah knows, as we Muslims would put it. After all, more people speak Mandarin. There are more people learning English in China than in the United Kingdom.

For Malays, there is an extra and important psychological benefit for knowing English. It has long been acknowledged as the language of the elite, the legacy of colonization. Being English-illiterate thus carried a certain stigma, implying that your world does not extend beyond the kampung. When Malays in Malaysia engage in conversations with each other, they do so in English. That sentiment of enhanced social status associated with English fluency is still entrenched today if not even stronger no matter how hard Malay nationalists try to portray it as otherwise. The fact remains; if you are illiterate in English you would be treated as being from the underclass, from the village. If people treat you like that, pretty soon you behave that way. That is the major psychological handicap facing Malays who are English-illiterate.

An oft-cited explanation for Malay backwardness is our lack of self-confidence. Our lack of English fluency contributes to this. Engaging our people in motivational speeches and rah rah rallies, or endlessly proclaiming the superiority of our language and culture would never boost the core confidence of our people. On the other hand, teach them English and make them comfortable and fluent in that language, then watch their confidence grow. This is especially true of the young.

Those who lack self-confidence react in one of two ways. One, they become brashly overconfident to the point of being obnoxious. They know it all. Do not bother them with facts or new insights; their minds are already made up and nothing could shake their confidence. Woe betides anyone unfortunate enough to work with, or especially, under them. Psychologists refer to this non-productive pattern of behavior as reaction formation.

The second way those who lack confidence react is by retreating to their comfort zone underneath the old familiar coconut shell. Regression, in the language of psychologists. They have no interest in anything beyond as they do not understand it and more significantly, they refuse to try. Their oft-cited excuse for retreating would be that that they are busy enough in their own immediate world, there is little need to venture beyond.

I noticed this with young doctors who were graduates of Indonesian universities when I worked in Malaysia in the 1970s. They may be keen on surgery initially but when they found the workload rough because of their limited English proficiency (my seminars and reading lists were in English), they would ask to be released because they were all of a sudden “no longer interested in surgery.” When I tried to arrange special English classes, they felt offended. They saw that as an insult, not assistance. What the Stanford psychologist Claude Steel referred to as self-affirmation threat.

Abroad, when Malays meet a fellow Malay, we converse in Malay. Part of the reason is of course that we long to hear our native tongue spoken. The other is that if you are in America you are obviously fluent in English, so that is no longer a useful differentiating social indicator.

Malay is the national language of Malaysia; all Malaysians must be fluent in it. You cannot consider yourself a true Malaysian otherwise. However, whether non- Malays are fluent in Malay is not my concern; nor is that pertinent to my discussion. My concern is with advancing Malays through liberating their minds. Knowing a second or even a third language is the quickest path towards that end.

Next:  Opening Minds Through Trade and Commerce

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Liberation Through Science

November 19th, 2017

Liberation Through Science

M.Bakri Musa


The low level of science literacy among Malaysian students, most acute among Malays, is well documented. Science is important for two reasons. The first is obvious; nearly all the advances responsible for our material comfort, improvements in health and life, as well as our comprehension of our physical and social world are due to science. It behooves us to make our future citizens science literate. Before pursuing that, I will dispose of the second reason.

This second reason is less obvious but more compelling. Science presents a unique way of looking at the world and an approach towards problem solving. Hamka once said that Allah gave us two Korans; one He revealed to Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., the other, this wonderful universe. We have a responsibility to study both Korans. With the first, He gave us an exceptional teacher in the person of Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w; with the second, He has equipped us with akal, intellect, an attribute unique only unto humans.

Hamka’s two Korans metaphor is the best reconciliation of faith and reason, of revelation and experimentation.

Using akal or rational thinking is what science is all about. It is based on empirical evidence, not speculation or philosophizing. You observe the world around you, make a tentative hypothesis to explain what you have observed, and then test it through experimentation or its predictive accuracy. In many respects, the scientific mind is like that of a child; always curious and always learning, as well as constantly formulating, testing, and re-formulating its hypothesis of reality.

That at least is the ideal of science. In the real world however, things are not necessarily so neat or elegant. Scientists too are subject to the usual human foibles and narrow-mindedness. In collecting data, scientists are like everyone else, subject to “confirmation bias.” When the data do not support the theory, the usual reaction is to blame the experiment and or experiemnter, especially when he is not from the establishment and the prevailing theory has been postulated by someone eminent and in authority.

In his book The Mismeasure of Man, the late Stephen Jay Gould debunked the 18th Century “science” of craniometry, where by measuring the size and conformation of human skulls one could classify the various races and purportedly make inferences on their intellectual capacity. Gould made the singular point that to embark on such an enquiry one must have a priori belief in the different intellectual capabilities of the various races, and that those differences in turn are related to skull size and conformation; hence the measurements.

Subsequent empirical studies debunked that thesis. That is the beauty of science; the certitudes of today could be the butt of tomorrow’s jokes. As for skull conformations, consider the flat back of the heads of Malays for example. That has more to do with cultural child-rearing practices. We put our babies to sleep on their backs; Europeans on their tummies, with the face turned sideways to avoid being smothered. Incidentally, today’s pediatricians advise mothers to avoid that practice as it is associated with a high incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Score one for traditional Malay culture!

Returning to the first rationale, making citizens science literate and mathematically competent is a practical necessity in today’s world, unless you wish your society to remain backward. The OECD’s Program for International Students Assessment (PISA) shows that a nation’s economic development is correlated with, and in fact due in large part to the scientific and mathematical skills as well as the language and critical thinking ability of its workers. All other criteria, such as the amount of money expended on education, class size, or years in the classroom are irrelevant. By these other criteria Egypt is on par with South Korea, but the economies and social development of the two countries could not be more different. The Koreans have much superior science and mathematical skills. That in turn translates into their superior economic and social developments.

The deficiency with science teaching in Malaysia lies with both approach and content. The subject content is totally unrelated to the pupils’ environment, making it difficult to capture their interest. The loaded national syllabus prevents the teacher from exploring the children’s natural world. A school may be on the beach but the pupils learn nothing about the tides and inter-tidal marine environment throughout their school years; likewise, students living near rivers or deltas would be totally ignorant of their riparian ecology.

For many reasons, primarily financial, experiments–the essence of science–are now mostly demonstrated to but rarely repeated by students. Now in a misuse of computers, those experiments are simulated digitally, teaching students that real life is as predictable as the simplistic software engineers’ algorithm would have it.

Very few schools have programs related to their immediate environment. My old school in Kuala Pilah way back in the 1950s had a weather station that collected data on rainfall, wind, and daily temperatures. Our job was to present the data in a variety of formats, typically graphs and tables. We were able to compare our data with what was written in the textbooks. Likewise, during my primary school I remember doing experiments on seed germination using corn and green peas, being ready examples of mono and di-cotyledons, as well as observing the metamorphosis of banana leaf moths, an ubiquitous insect.

In California, my son’s elementary school science project had the pupils examine owl pellets and from there deduce the birds’ diet. In my grandson’s Grade One class, the children did experiments with oil, water and cork to demonstrate the concept of density and buoyancy. There are literally thousands of such tangible, easily performed experiments to stimulate the students’ interest in science. Those exercises may not be in the syllabus or be tested in the final examinations, but they will sustain the students’ interest, and more importantly, help them absorb the essence of the scientific method.

Next:  The Trap of Mono Lingualism

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016

Malaysians And Their National Language

November 19th, 2017


Malaysians and Their National Languag

M. Bakri Musa

I was lost in the vicinity of the Malaysian Indian Congress-sponsored college (TAFE) in Seremban not too long ago and asked a student for directions.

“I am sorry I don’t speak Malay!” he responded, an air of pride betraying his feigned apology. Thinking he might be a foreigner, I asked where he was from–Sentul!

That reflected another glaring deficiency of Malaysian education. Imagine, a college student, a Malaysian in Malaysia, locally-born and bred yet not being able to speak the national language! Before you unleash your outrage on that poor soul, consider that we have Members of Parliament who cannot speak Malay. It seems absurd that their parties would even dare put them up as candidates in the first place. Worse, why did we vote them in? It would take a great effort on the part of Malaysians not to learn the national language–the language of the street and of the majority in the country and region.

That is a sore point with Malays. We have Malaysians who profess to love their country and endlessly proclaim their pride to be its citizens yet make no effort to learn its national language. That is unacceptable and mocks their patriotic declarations.

This unwillingness of some to speak Malay is a none-too-subtle expression of contempt for the language as well as for Malay culture and ethos. It is this sentiment that poisons race relations. As this is such a highly volatile emotional issue, Malays are understandably less likely to respond rationally in return. Malays are not alone in responding thus. In Germany, there is open and official displeasure for immigrants who do not fully assimilate into the German culture, meaning specifically to be fluent in German. In America, there is increasing resentment of those who do not speak English, and America does not even have an official language! In America only public schools that use English as the medium of instruction could get state funding. You can have Chinese or Spanish schools; just do not expect any state support!

Malay irrationality on this issue of national language comes in many guises. One is the call, heard with increasing boldness and shrillness, to abolish vernacular schools. This comes not only from extremists but also moderates and well-meaning Malaysians concerned with the increasing segregation and polarization of the young. By forcing our children to attend only our national schools, so the rationale goes, we help integrate future citizens. At the very least they will learn our national language. If that were the only issue, there is much merit to that assertion.

Malays should view this issue with an open mind. Our collective pride may be bruised when non-Malays belittle our language or deem it unworthy of their intellectual effort, but so what? Even if all non-Malays were to be fluent in Malay, adopt Malay names and culture, it still would not help Malays. In fact, I argue that would make us look even worse. Consider if non-Malays became so adept at our national language that the best novels in Malay were written by them? That would really show us up! Forcing non-Malays to attend national schools and be fluent in our language will not in any way improve the status of the Malay community. While it would certainly make them better Malaysians, in that they would know the national and fellow Malaysians better, that would not in any way contribute to the betterment of Malays. My focus, as it should be for Malay leaders, is how to better the Malay community. Once we Malays contribute our share to the economic, social, and intellectual development of Malaysia, our influence in would increase in tandem, and with that our language. All other matters such as whether non-Malays be fluent in Malay are irrelevant and distracting.

Let’s put the national language issue in perspective. Most Malaysians can speak Malay. Unless you are exceptionally talented or entrepreneurial, you are not likely to succeed in Malaysia unless you can speak Malay. The language that counts is the language of your customers; in Malaysia 65 percent of your customers are Malays or Malay-speaking. If you include Indonesia, you have a potential market of a quarter billion Malay-speaking customers. You would be plain stupid to ignore that.

There is something odd, and it sticks out like an ugly wart on an otherwise unblemished face, about these Malay language nationalists. The more strident they are, the more likely they are to be English-educated. The shrillest of all, its grand old lady, is the linguist Nik Safiah Karim. She is of my generation, and like me, had an all-English education. She once asserted that no more than five percent of Malays need to know English; the rest could do with knowing only Malay. Left unsaid is that her children and grandchildren should be in that super select group. Such hypocrisy!

Malays should differentiate between two crucial issues. One is the development of Malay language, the other, the betterment of Malays. The two are distinct and separate issues; strategies to help one may not be useful and in fact may hinder the second. I am more concerned with the latter. Once Malays are developed, our language too would in tandem. If our community is bankrupt socially, economically, and intellectually, rest assured our language would go down the drain together with the status of our community. Our language would then be of interest only to anthropologists. Mandarin now commands the world’s attention because of China’s increasing economic might.

Developing the Malay language is less of a challenge. Contrary to the frequent hysterical assertions of the language nationalists, a language spoken by nearly a quarter of a billion people is unlikely to disappear; it simply cannot be ignored. Nor is it likely to be eradicated even if there were to be an official policy suppressing it.

Their loud shrill protests aside, these language nationalists could be mollified with ease. One would be to make proficiency in Malay a requirement before you could get your professional or trade license. Before you are able to practice as a lawyer, doctor, or any profession, you must demonstrate competency in the national language. This makes sense as many of the regulations are written in Malay and substantial portions of your clients speak the language. In America, despite its lack of an official language, you cannot get your license as a professional or tradesman unless you can demonstrate your competency in English. All the qualifying tests are in English.

Another would be to require voters to demonstrate their proficiency in our language. How can you be an informed voter if you cannot understand Malay as the government’s businesses and the political discourses are in that language? As with any law, it should not be made retroactive; meaning, it should apply only to those currently not registered as voters. Existing registered voters would be unaffected.

Malay language nationalists and champions of Memartabatkan Bahasa (Dignify/respect our language) should advocate this instead of rescinding the teaching of science and mathematics in English. The first initiative would make voters more informed about national affairs; the second would only disadvantage our young. Should PERKASA were to advocate the first, it would find many ready supporters.

Recently, the head of the Malaysian Chinese Association and a former cabinet minister expressed his disgust at what he considered to be “an uncivilized” aspect of Islamic culture when a female candidate from the opposition Islamic Party declined to partake in the usual hand-shaking greetings. It is astounding to think that this former minister who was also a physician could be so utterly ignorant of Islamic cultural sensitivities. How did he deal with his Muslim patients?

In California, if physicians were to display such gross ignorance of the cultural sensitivities of their patients, and then be stupid or arrogant enough to display that ignorance, they would risk being disciplined by the Medical Board. At the very least you would be exposing yourself to medical and other liabilities.

At least that TAFE student was smart enough to feign embarrassment; the minister however displayed no hint of contrition even after he ignited a storm of controversy with fellow party leaders of his coalition, specifically UMNO.

Those ugly exceptions aside, Malaysians generally are a tolerant lot. This is the consequence of our multiculturalism. It also grants us significant advantages when we venture abroad. In the West, I can with ease distinguish Malaysian Chinese from their counterparts from Taiwan, Singapore, or Hong Kong. Decades ago Vancouver, Canada, saw an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong just before the handing over of that colony back to China. Today we have Mainland Chinese coming in. It did not take them long to run afoul with the city’s zoning laws when they built their massive homes on tiny city lots, and with their awful gaudy color schemes. What would have been acceptable in Beijing or Hong Kong triggered the wrath of their new Canadian neighbors.

If you have a small mind, you believe the rest of the world likes what you like. Step into any shopping mall in Malaysia and you will be immediately assaulted with the sound of some Taiwanese pop princess intent on bursting your eardrums. Those merchants think everyone else likes what they like. Presumably those are the same idiots who complained aloud about the call of the Azzan!

Next:  Liberation Through Science

Malaysian Education: Deficiency Of Content

October 29th, 2017


Malaysian Education:  Deficiency of Content

M. Bakri Musa

The glaring deficiencies of the Malaysian curriculum and system are its rigidity and narrow focus. That is true at every level. Pupils are assigned to the science, arts or vocational stream in Year Ten, based solely on their national test scores, with zero input from teachers, parents, or students.

For Malay students, the streaming begins much earlier, at the end of Year Six. The brighter ones, again judged by a standardized national test, are selected to attend academically-oriented residential schools. Again, there is zero input from the teachers or consideration of external factors. The son of a professor attending a well-regarded primary school near campus who scored at the 98th percentile would be selected ahead of the son of a poor farmer attending an ill-equipped kampong school who scored “only” at the 95th percentile. A misguided and narrow understanding of meritocracy.

This division is rigid and like the earlier streaming, based solely on test results. There is no crossover permitted later regardless of circumstance.

This early streaming means that an Arts undergraduate would have science literacy the equivalent of an American Grade 11 at best; similarly, a science student with respect to literature or history.

This myopic thinking has to be rectified. A good start would be to make science, mathematics, and English (as well as Malay of course) mandatory at all school years regardless of whether you are in the arts, science, or vocational stream. The level and intensity would have to be adjusted. Mathematics for the vocational steam could be “consumer math,” for the arts students, algebra, while for those in science, calculus. Similar adjustments would have to be made for English and literature.

Universities should adopt the American broad-based liberal education with its focus on critical thinking. Despite that, as Allan Bloom concluded in his dense but best- selling book, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, today’s version with its de- emphasis on “The Great Books” succeeded only in the closing of American minds. Bloom lamented the moving away from the “Great Books” tradition and the ensuing cultural and moral relativism.

American universities may have abandoned what cynics refer to as the works of long-dead white men, but those institutions have enhanced their core curriculum by adding foreign language as well as science and mathematics. It makes for a truly liberal and broad-based education, well suited for the modern era.

Today’s liberal education, in particular the learning of a foreign language and time spent studying abroad, is much superior to the earlier one with its almost exclusive emphasis on the classics. Learning another language and experiencing a different culture are among the most effective ways of opening up minds.

I appreciate classic books but today you cannot consider yourself properly educated and able to comprehend the world around you if you do not understand the difference between an atom and a molecule, or gene from chromosome. Likewise, your thinking and analysis cannot be rigorous unless you can appreciate the difference between simple gains versus geometric or exponential ones.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa surveyed 2,300 undergraduates from 24 American institutions for their book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2010). Despite America’s commitment to liberal education, the survey substantiated and amplified Bloom’s earlier bleak assessment. A huge 45 percent of these students did not demonstrate significant improvement in learning at the end of two years (with 36 percent at the end of four) in such areas as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills. Imagine what the results would be for Malaysian undergraduates!

Malaysians privileged to have been educated abroad, specifically in America, have the best advantage. They benefit from the great tradition of modern liberal education, learning a foreign language (English), and living in a different culture. Those are significant advantages over their compatriots educated at home. Perhaps that explains why Malaysian students in America have the initiative, and courage I might add, to organize seminars like the Stanford Malaysia Forum, Northeast Malaysia Forum, and the Alif Ba Ta conference.

Those remaining in Malaysia should also consider themselves lucky, but on another front. With the major traditions of Asia represented in the country, they do not have to leave to experience other cultures. Few however, appreciate much less take advantage of this unique opportunity. For many, our diversity is a liability, the cause of never-ending conflict. It would take a major shift in mindset to consider this diversity an asset.

In Kuala Lumpur at Kampong Baru, we have the essence of traditional Malay culture, albeit intruded by pseudo-modernity and blighted urbanity. A few blocks away, Petaling Street is the heart of Chinatown. Venture further and we are at Sentul, literally Little India. Far from taking advantage of these splendid opportunities, we erect unnecessary barriers.

Next:  Criticisms of American Liberal Education

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016

Malaysian Education: Deficiency of Ambience

October 22nd, 2017

Malaysian Education:  Deficiency of Ambience

M. Bakri Musa


One crippling deficiency of Malaysian educational institutions is its ambience, or to be specific, enrollment.

Step into any Malaysian classroom and one is struck by something odd. While Malaysia is a plural society, its classrooms are segregated along race. Worse, this is voluntary. National schools are fast becoming exclusively Malay, non-Malay enrollment rapidly declining. Vernacular schools are almost exclusively non-Malays, though there is recent rapid increase in Malay enrollment at Chinese schools.

The growth is with international schools, in particular English-medium ones, with the demand far outstripping the supply despite the much higher costs. If not for that and rigid quotas, those schools would be inundated with Malaysians. Because of the high costs, enrollment in these schools is skewed along race and socioeconomic lines. Those foreign children at these schools (and their parents) thus have a distorted view of local society.

The growth in international schools reflects citizens’ low confidence in the local system.

What discourages non-Malays to enroll in national schools is the increasing “Islamization” of the curriculum and environment. Islam is taught not as an academic subject but as theology, with heavy emphasis on rituals and catechisms. Even if non- Muslims wanted to learn Islam as a legitimate intellectual pursuit, they would be put off. Granted, many Christian schools in the West too have heavy religious components, as with attending mass, nonetheless their curriculum is much broader and of higher quality. Consequently, many non-Christian parents have no qualms enrolling their children.

If the “Islamization” of national schools does not deter non-Malays, then the quality would, from the teaching and curriculum to the general level of discipline. Bullying, gang activities, and drug abuse are the norms. The physical facilities are shoddy, posing hazards to the students, as with halls and laboratories collapsing soon after being completed. Food poisoning is a regular affliction, reflecting the atrocious standard of hygiene in school canteens. National schools do not inspire confidence.

Concerns about “Islamization” and the deteriorating quality may be the initial reasons for non-Malays to shun national schools, but this being Malaysia, the ugly racial element is not far behind. Today, Malay-medium and Malay control are equated with mediocrity, incompetence, and corruption in schools and universities as well as other institutions. That poisons race relations.

Malaysia is not leveraging her cultural diversity and ethnic plurality to enhance the learning experiences of her students. Myopic Malaysian leaders consider diversity a liability, not an asset. Malaysian schools and universities reinforce the insularity of their students; these institutions, especially religious, entrap not liberate young minds.

            Segregation can be solved in two ways–mandatory and voluntary. The former is cheap and can be effective, but whether sustainable is an open question. What happens when the compulsive element is removed, as ultimately it would have to be? The old segregated pattern would then return, and with a vengeance.

That approach however, has merits. The American military is the most integrated of their institutions, more so than universities or the sports and entertainment industry. The military approaches the problem frontally and coercively. The Joint Chief issued a command that all units be integrated. That was it; everyone had to obey. A southern white boy would just have to adjust to the fact that he had to stop and salute to a Black officer and address him as “Sir!” Disobey, and he would be court-martialed. Simple and effective!

Yugoslavia’s Tito did it that way. There was no ethnic cleansing during his time. There was stability and peace that survived his death, albeit briefly. Sarajevo even hosted the glittering winter Olympics of 1984.

We may flinch at Tito’s authoritarian ways, but there was no questioning their effectiveness. The problem was just that; when he was gone, old prejudices and hatreds returned with a vengeance.

What would have happened had the lid been kept on even tighter? Yugoslavia’s disintegration would have been delayed, and if delayed long enough people might get used to each other. They would have acquired the peace habits and forget their destructive ancient ethnic hatreds.

Lester Pearson, Nobel Peace Laureate and former Canadian Prime Minister, once said that if he could keep Canadians out of war for just one generation, that would immunize them against war. There is great wisdom to that. The contrary observation is even truer; once a nation initiates war, it reduces the threshold for the next one. That is where America is today.

I am no fan of coercive methods to achieve social goals no matter how noble and worthy. However, if they prove successful, I would not condemn them either.

American public schools were once shining examples of social integration, acculturating millions of children of immigrants to the American way. That is less so today.

More relevant to contemporary Malaysia would be the old colonial English schools, credited with producing many enlightened Malaysian leaders. Those schools attracted Malaysians of all races, though for a variety of reasons, fewer Malays.

Some advocate the return of those schools. I agree, up to a point. If we were to resurrect those institutions in their original form without any modification, then we would be no further ahead. We would be trading one set of problems for another.

The biggest deficiency with the old English schools was their inability to attract Malays. Unless that is rectified, these schools would aggravate interracial inequities. One strategy to make these schools attractive to Malays would be to have them in the kampongs and small towns. The need to improve English fluency is also the most acute there.

The other major deficiency was that those old English schools paid little sensitivity to local culture and environment. While I learned much about daffodils in spring in Wordsworth’s Lake District, I was taught nothing about our striking flame-of-the-forest trees or the rich biodiversity of our mangrove swamps.

As for respecting our national language, Malay was not introduced as a subject until I was midway through my secondary school, and that was only because the country had by then gained independence. As for deference to Islam, I was deep in my science labs on Fridays during congregational prayer time.

Malay parents adapted to those deficiencies. Bless them!

Those deficiencies can be corrected; they should not be the excuse for not bringing back English schools. We could make Malay and Islam compulsory subjects, or better yet, teach Islam in English and as an academic subject. These enhancements would not discourage non-Malays from enrolling, thus fulfilling the integrative role of national schools.

Another would be to make integration an explicit objective, and reward those schools that achieve the goal, as with increased funding. The fact that they attract a cross section of Malaysians suggests that they are doing something right. Rewarding them would encourage others to follow suit. Conceivably we could have state-supported Swahili schools if they were to attract a broad spectrum of Malaysians.

At the same time schools with segregated enrollment would lose state support, whether that segregation is based on race, religion, or language. That applies to Tamil as well as Tahfiz schools. That does not mean they cannot exist, only that they would not get taxpayers’ money. The state should not condone much less encourage or support segregation under any guise.


Next:  Deficiency of Content

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Malaysian Education: Simple Solutions Skipped In Favor Of Expensive Ones

October 17th, 2017
Malaysian Education: Simple Solutions Skipped In Favor of Expensive Ones
M. Bakri Musa
Many Malaysians of my generation still remember the old hydraulic tin mines where by just directing a water hose you could bring down a hillside to recover the trapped ore. Many millionaires were created through those simple hoses.
            Dispensing with imagery and metaphor for now, when I entered Primary I at Tuanku Muhammad School (TMS), Kuala Pilah (KP), in 1950, I was only one of two Malays in the two classes of about 70. When I reached Form V in 1960, my Malay classmates formed the majority in our science class of nearly 40.
            How did that happen?
            Metaphorically speaking, the colonials had many water hoses directed at the mountain blocking Malays of my generation from getting a superior education. Today, when faced with an obstacle, our leaders’ reaction would be to hire expensive consultants, fund pricey feasibility studies, and then burden our grandchildren with massive foreign debts to finance the projects. After all that, the problems still remain, and have only gotten worse.
            Consider the East Coast Railroad Project. The estimated cost per mile exceeds that of that across the Swiss Alps! Compared to the Alps, our Main Range is but a molehill. For that much you could give every citizen of Kelantan and Trengganu a car and a truck, with plenty left over to fund their university education!
            Back to my science class, because of the shortage of Form VI slots, only four of us could get in, two being Malays, and we both became doctors. Of my other Malay classmates, six eventually managed to get their degrees through the circuitous routes of teachers’, technical, and agricultural colleges. One received a PhD from Australia; another, an Ivy League graduate degree.
            Meaning, had there been adequate Form VI slots then, we could have potentially eight instead just two Malay science undergraduates, a quadruple increase! Further, no fewer than an additional eight of my Malay classmates could better my fellow Canadian undergraduates. Meaning, had we then been given the same opportunities as those Canadians, the potential number of Malay science undergraduates from TMS would have zoomed from 2 to 16, an eight-field increase! Multiply the number of TMSs in Malaysia, and we had the potential of hundreds if not thousands of Malay science undergraduates.
            Form VI was the bottleneck, or to swap metaphor, the mountain blocking Malay achievement in science. The solution should have been obvious; have more Form VI slots. Instead, TMS did not have its science Form VI until 1974!
            Meanwhile Malaysia had built four new public universities in addition to the University of Malaya during this time. Each cost many million times more than a Form VI science class. For all the money spent, the results were underwhelming. UKM’s inaugural graduates of 1973 had fewer Malays in science than in my old Form V!
            Most of my school years were during British rule, and except during Form V, all my headmasters were colonials while most of my teachers, non-Malays; many, non-citizens. Yet they increased the number of Malays from two in Primary I to over 27 in my Form V Science.
            In his memoir Out East In The Malay Peninsula, G E D Lewis, one of my earlier headmasters at TMS, related how he applied his novel non-language-dependent Intelligence Test that he had developed for his doctoral dissertation to school kids in the villages around KP. He then invited the top scorers to enroll at TMS.
            Any time a child draws the special attention of anyone, more so an authority figure like a Mat Salleh headmaster, both parents and child would be ecstatic. Lewis had no difficulty convincing the parents or their children.
            Enrolling is one thing; practical realities, another. Even when your village was only a few miles from town, but without a bus service or a bridge across the river, KP might as well be on a different planet.
            Lewis built a hostel for those students, as well as the wardens’ quarters next door. Lewis did not build a surau to entice the students. Instead he built a modern science block, a weather monitoring station, and a botanical garden.
            It helped in no small measure that TMS was not named Holy Trinity School. That would have posed a formidable and unnecessary barrier. Nonetheless one Malay parent did send their two daughters to the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus. Those girls later became the wives of two successive prime ministers. It is the supreme irony that their children, now the nation’s leaders, would have the very opposite mindset of their parents and grandparents with respect to education and religion.
            Lewis and the other colonial headmasters did not just enroll those village kids and then let them sink or swim. They nurtured them in a special class and taught them English exclusively from day one. Modern pedagogy calls that total language immersion, now the rage. Back then it was simply “Special Malay Class.”
            After two years those pupils merged with us at secondary level. By then you could not tell them apart from those of us who had entered at Primary I with respect to their English fluency. Yes, their knuckles were rapped when they were caught speaking Malay in class or hostel, but there was no question their efficacy in learning English.
            Today we still lament the low level of English among Malay students. That is all we do–lament and complain, that is, when we don’t blame the students. Malay leaders and educators in particular exhibit a stunning inability to learn from the successes of the past.
            My colonial headmasters pushed to have Form VI. I would have been in its inaugural class. Alas, the last colonial headmaster was summarily fired because he raised the old Union Jack (together with the national flag) during a school function. That raised the ire of local nationalists. When his local successor took over, advocacy for our Form VI fizzled.
            While national schools have not achieved even its own very modest 60:40 STEM to non-STEM ratio, Penang’s Chung Ling has exceeded that for decades. You would think that there would be a queue to visit that school to see what it is the teachers there were doing right.
            Our leaders did learn something from the British, but not in full, by building residential schools. Those were much more expensive than Special Malay Classes. Unlike Lewis who restricted his hostel only to those kids from remote villages, our residential schools are full of children of Malay professionals and ministers, including prime ministers! Worse, they are proud that their children are being made wards of the state and makan tangung(their meals taken care of) by the government.
            When I entered Malay College in 1961 for my Form VI, it was a quantum leap both in my standard of living as well as learning opportunities. That would not be so for my children and grandchildren today. For them, there would be a significant diminution of both.
            Imagine the enhanced multiplier effect had those residential schools, like the Special Malay Classes of yore, been restricted to poor children or those who would be the first in their family to go to college! Learn from Lewis and his fellow colonials.
            This penchant for expensive and expansive solutions when cheaper and simpler ones would suffice if not more effective extends beyond education. Consider the lack of Malays in commerce. Instead of encouraging and supporting those thousands of enterprising Malay hawkers who are engaged in the most elemental form of capitalism, the government goes all out to harass them and destroy their stalls. Why not provide them with proper facilities, with power, sanitation, piped water, and protection from the elements? You don’t have to go far to learn how that could be done. Cross the causeway.
            Charge a nominal fee or not at all. Today’s hawkers (or their children) could be the creators of the next Genting or Public Bank.
            When Prophet Mohamad set up the first Muslim community in Medinah, the first thing he did was to build marketplaces, not masjids. He did not charge those traders so as to encourage trade and thus social interactions among the residents, between Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Trade is the best social enhancer as well as a wealth creator.
            Pasar Gombak in the few Malay enclaves in Kuala Lumpur took decades just in the planning! Kampung Baru’s Pasar Malam has not improved over a century. Those Malay hawkers set up their stalls where they know the customers would come. The government’s job is to enhance, not destroy those marketing and entrepreneurial instincts. Supporting them would cost minimal but the rewards would be immense. If nothing else it would teach Malays the rudiments of business.
            Instead, the government’s preferred solution is to pour mega billions into a myriad of GLCs despite the spectacular failures like Perwaja and Bank Bumiputra. All we succeed from the billions poured and squandered are pseudo entrepreneurs and ersatz capitalists that have the staying power of fireflies. As demonstrated by the latest fiasco, 1MDB, those GLCs are but thinly disguised conduits for egregious corruption.
            Learn from my colonial headmasters; use many cheap water hoses, not expensive bulldozers to bring down a mountain.
Next:   Malaysian Education:  Deficiency of Ambience
Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Liberation Through Education

October 9th, 2017

Liberation Through Education

M. bakri Musa

Sajak Palsu (Fake Poem)

            Selamat pagi Pak, selamat pagi Bu,

            Ucap anak sekolah dengan sapa’an palsu.

            Lalu merekapun belajar Sejarah palsu dari buku-buku palsu!   (1-3)

Argus R. Sarjono, 1998

My translation:

Fake Poem

Good morning, Sir! Good morning, Ma’am!

Greeted the schoolchildren with fake enthusiasm

Then they pretended to study/Their fantasies as history/And other made-up stories!

The crucial role of education in liberating citizens is encapsulated in the wisdom of the Greek philosopher Epictetus (Discourses):  “Only the educated are free!” Having been born a slave, he knew a thing or two about freedom.

Teachers are liberators! No surprise that I have a high regard for them, quite apart from the fact that both my parents were teachers. Consider that as a physician, the best that I could do is to return my patients to their pre-illness state. With a good teacher, there would be no limit to the achievements of her students.

Munshi Abdullah wrote, “Antara mereka yang berguru dan mereka yang meniru, jauh beza-nya!” (Between those who are taught and those who parrot, is a vast difference!) Those who parrot could only repeat after you; those who are taught, and taught well, pave their own path. Others can then follow in their path.

In his Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) Pramoedya wrote, “Seorang terpelajar harus sudah berbuat adil sejak dalam fikiran apalagi dalam perbuatan.” (An educated person must be just, first in his thoughts and then in his deeds.)

That should be the objective of education, to produce adil (just) citizens and thus leaders. Islamic education strives for an additional goal, to produce citizens who are soleh, roughly translated as being “good” or useful to society.

Not everyone accepts the value of education, or that all systems of education confer the same benefits. In Brunei, they do not believe in educating their people. That would only make them uppity, dissatisfied, and arrogant. They would then rebel, as Azahari did in 1962.

If you have enough petrodollars you can bribe or lull your people into submission, but do not expect greatness from them. Think of what would happen when those petrodollars dry up, as inevitably they would. Sometimes you do not have to wait that long; look at Tunisia today.

There was a time when Malay parents too did not believe in education especially for girls. Educate them and they would leave and then marry someone outside the village. Who would take care of you in your old age? Today, we worry about the lack of male Malay undergraduates. Who says we cannot change culture?

Those benefits of education cited earlier are true with one major caveat. Where indoctrination masquerades as education, then the less formal education you have the better. That is the case in Malaysia, and with Malays to be specific. Malaysian teachers treat their students as dustbins to be filled with dogmas, rather than as knives to be sharpened, borrowing Munshi Abdullah’s metaphor. This is especially true with religious education.

With a bin, all you could possibly get out is what you put in, nothing beyond. With a sharp knife, the possibilities are limitless. To a butcher, a sharp knife brings meat to the table; to the sculptor, an exquisite work of art; and to a surgeon, a tool to cure cancer. To a thug however, it is but a lethal weapon; hence the need to focus on the “just” (adil) as well as “good” (soleh) in matters educational.

Malaysian education suffers from three crippling deficiencies:  environment, content, and philosophy.

Malaysian schools and universities are increasingly segregated along race. That is not a healthy learning or social environment. It is also not good for the future of the nation as that breeds intolerance among the young that would only become worse when they become adults.

Content-wise, Malaysian schools and universities do not equip the young with the necessary tools to enable them to compete and be productive citizens.

Philosophically, we treat young minds as dustbins to be filled with dogmas. That is not the path towards excellence and greatness, for them or Malaysia. The system indoctrinates rather than educate; entraps rather than liberate young minds, producing citizens who are neither adil nor soleh.

In addressing these bewildering problems, Malaysian educators and leaders ignore the simple inexpensive yet effective models of the British colonials preferring instead the showy, expensive, but ineffective solutions.

Next:  Simple Solutions Skipped In Favor of Expensive Ones


Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Emigration As Liberation

September 24th, 2017


Emigration as Liberation

M. Bakri Musa

Many attribute America’s dynamism and openness to its tradition of accepting new immigrants, current Trump-stirred anti-immigrant hysteria notwithstanding. The hitch in that presumption is whether the very process of emigrating–the uprooting of oneself from one’s familiar surroundings to seek an uncertain future elsewhere–contributes to the opening up of one’s mind or whether it is the reverse? That is, only those who are already open-minded would consider immigration. In short, what is cause and what is effect?

This issue is complicated by the dynamics of immigration today being so much different from what they were a century ago. Ease of travel and communication has much to do with the change. Today someone from China immigrating to America does not face the same emotionally-wrenching decision as those “shanghaied” to work on American railroads of a century ago. Today’s immigrants could Skype or Facetime their relatives back in the village upon landing at San Francisco airport. They could also return for visits during the New Year and other holidays. Even those who had been forced to leave their native country, as with the Vietnamese refugees, are now able to return freely to their land of birth.

This age of globalization is also referred to as the Age of Migration because of the unprecedented number of people moving across borders either individually or in groups as refugees.

There is angst in Malaysia today (and elsewhere in the developing world) over the “brain drain,” the emigration of its talented citizens. The mainstream media and blogosphere are filled with stories of individuals having to make supposedly heart-wrenching decisions to leave the country of their birth. Those personal dramas and emotions are contrived, and a bit of a stretch.

The experiences of today’s immigrants are in no way comparable to what their earlier counterparts had to endure. Unlike them, present-day immigrants are able to make many trips home or have face-to-face chats via Web camera, not to mention frequent phone calls. Many still hold on to their old passports and retain their properties in the old country. In short, the emotional trauma of immigration, if there is any, is nowhere on the same scale as what those who came before them had to endure. The experiences of the Vietnamese and Somalians should give comfort to current refugees from places like Syria and Afghanistan.

This is especially true of immigrants under the “brain drain” category. Their relocation is akin to an extended sojourn abroad and an opportunity to earn a better income, as well as to widen their experiences and perspectives. Because today’s émigrés return home many times, those visits home become occasions for them to relate their new experiences. That in turn helps those at home to have similar “foreign” experiences, albeit vicariously. That too can be mind-liberating on both parties.

Again, modern technology comes to the rescue; it softens if not eliminates the trauma of migration.

The virtual reality that digital technology delivers may lack the sensory and physical components but it still delivers the essence. The images of the carnage perpetrated by a suicide bomber in London carried on your cellphone in the comfort and safety of your palm may not have the smell of burnt flesh, nonetheless the sight of blood, maimed bodies, and screaming victims captures the brute reality close enough.

Digital technology is the transforming invention of our times. As such, access to it should be a basic public service, made free or affordable. It should be considered a public good in the same manner as highways, healthcare, and utilities.

Take for instance highways; it would be hard to consider a country developed without cars and roads. At the same time, both are major killers and destroyers of human life, as well as deleterious to the environment, but those are not reasons not to have cars and roads. Likewise, the digital highway; there are recognized dangers, the obvious being fraud, gambling, and pornography. Again, those are not reasons to ban or limit the Internet. Instead the focus should be on educating citizens on the dangers, just as we do with cars and highway users.

I venture that the broad-mindedness and increasing assertiveness of Malaysians in recent years, especially among the young, is attributable to the fact that Malaysia is an open society and its cyber world remains uncensored. That is one of the few enduring legacies of Mahathir despite his second thoughts lately on Internet freedom. Now that we have tasted freedom albeit only in the cyber world, there is no turning back.

Next:  Liberation Through Education


Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.