Archive for September, 2005

Exchanges with Din Merican

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

Dear Din:

Thank you for sending me the laudatory piece on Badawi that appeared in Singapore’s Straits Times. I do not share the writer’s enthusiasm for Pak Lah. He is like a golfer who has good swings, but there is no follow through.

That writer commented favorably on Pak Lah’s utterancesses (swings) but said nothing of his achievements (follow through) because there were none. Pak Lah’s fight against corruption is such that Isa Samad (found guilty of money politics by his own party) is still in the Cabinet, Osu Sukum (with multimillion dollar gambling debts) is still in UMNO’s Supreme Council, and the latest flap, expensive retirement parties for civil servants, is a bust. The Police Commission Report is just that – a report, and a very expensive one.

I dearly wish for him to succeed, but he is detracted by two major events: One, his wife’s serious if not fatal illness, and two, basically he has not done any reading since his graduation. In short, his intellectual horizon is limited and he is satisfied with blurting out headlines given to him by his son-in-law.

I am noticing something strange. Almost the only positive comments on Badawi come from the Singapore media. It too, like that in Malaysia, is government controlled. My gut feeling is that those Singapore folks have figured out that Badawi is your typical Malay, susceptible to flattery. Praise a Malay effusively, and he will give away his inheritance. The British did that very effectively with our Sultans and now the Singapore Chinese are eagerly learning the lessons of the Brits.

Appreciate your comments!


Dear Bakri:

Pak Lah has been in government and politics for a long time. He has enough experience. He has not been a clerk all these times and he must have learned something. His boys cannot continue to spin on his behalf. That has to end fast.

Investors, local and foreign, have no confidence in him. He just does not have the intellectual and physical energy to lead our country. We face challenging times ahead that demand firm and decisive action.

I do not expect much from the 2006 Budget because our civil servants and policy professionals have run out of ideas. He is certainly not providing the leadership.

We need growth; people must have jobs. Cutting the budget deficit is simplistic; it stifles growth. Yes, we need to manage public spending better and allocate resources more rationally. Right now much of the public spending is wasteful, and the politicians, corrupt. As the public leadership is essentially in Malay hands, this gives our race a dirty reputation.

Badawi has been away, again, for the past few weeks. Fancy that! As Minister of Finance, he is not involved in budget preparations and strategies. He is reduced to simply reading a speech in Parliament! When journalists asked him detailed questions, dia gagap saja (he stuttered!). Investors lose confidence when the leader does not know what he is talking about or just fumbles. His Trade and Industry Minister is a prime example of ministerial irresponsibility. As Badawi is a weak leader, the barons and warlords are at war with each other in his Cabinet and party.

Mahathir too, as Prime Minister, was swallowed up by the YAB (the Right Honorable) syndrome and forgot himself. Now he is back in the real world, minus the adulations and trappings of the office of prime minister. I am sure in his private moments he is full of regrets. Eventually, like us, he too will face Almighty Allah and have to account for his deeds. I admire the man greatly yet I am quite disappointed with his management of our country and UMNO.

I am an admirer of Mahathir, but I find that he does not have the ability to choose good people. You pointed this out to me years ago. You were right.

The hallmark of a good leader is the ability to nurture a pool of able would-be successors. The idea of “a crown prince” is wrong and dangerous, as we saw with Anwar Ibrahim.

To get things done, a leader needs capable subordinates and great followers. Before one can be a good leader, one must first be a good follower (not ahli bodek [yes man])). Was Mahathir a good follower? Examine what he did to the Tunku and Tun Hussein Onn. That is something I learned in management and from James McGregor Burn’s excellent book on leadership. Leadership is critical for success in business and politics. A good leader must have a grasp for details, not just vision. Overall, Mahathir was a good leader.

I cannot believe that a strong leader like Mahathir cares what UMNO wants or thinks. He always had his way, by fair means or otherwise. For him to say that Badawi is what UMNO wants is a little far-fetched. Like Nehru, Mahathir did not develop people under him. He made all the decisions; he did not empower his ministers and party colleagues. He had zero tolerance for “smart fellas.” He never had time for you, Bakri, or me, or anyone with views of their own.

UMNO needs to be strong and always relevant. It must have a built-in system of self-renewal and an organized machinery (cadre system if you like). It must stick to its tradition of listening to, and respecting the grassroots. Otherwise, Malay sovereignty and control over national politics and public administration will be lost. We must not lose our premier position in national politics.

The democratic system is essentially adversarial. It is a battle of ideas and programs aimed at delivering maximum happiness to the Malays. This should always be UMNO’s first concern; then comes the other Malaysians. If UMNO is careless and complacent, PAS and its allies can take over.

UMNO needs strong, able and dedicated leaders, not corrupt ones. That is why we must get rid of money politics, and all forms of corruption. Today, as you never fail to remind me, UMNO is corrupt to the core. God help us, the Malays, if UMNO does not reform itself soon.

UMNO leaders have forgotten their original struggle. Leaders like Najib (he is corrupt, so I am told, and with a greedy wife to boot!) who talks about Melayu glokal are out of touch. We cannot even compete locally with non-Malays. How can we go global and compete with the rest of the world?

Amanat Presiden (President’s Address) over the years contained plenty of platitudes, gushes of hot air, free flowing rhetoric, and irrelevant foreign policy pronouncements. Ordinary Malays cannot relate to them in any meaningful way. UMNO should re-look at the content of its Amanat Presiden. It should be a report card, practical, and simple. Focus on things that are achievable within the context of the overall vision and plan. Be modest and down-to-earth. The General Assembly is the only time when the party President has the chance to speak to the grassroots.

I am not sure that Badawi is aware of his weaknesses. His sycophants tell him that he is great, wise, and a Yang Amat Berhormat, and they kiss his hands. He is the proverbial Emperor with no clothes. He has only his “imagined reality,” and his advisors keep him isolated. Intellectually too, he is isolated as he does not read widely.

He thinks that running a country is simply reading speeches, inspecting Guards of Honor, and making official visits abroad and at home. To put it crassly, he has an attitude problem. You said it well when you wrote about The Sultan Syndrome in your The Malay Dilemma Revisited. Malaysia already has an Agung and nearly a dozen sultans. It does not need another one.

To be a leader one needs mental strength, a set of unshakable beliefs, plenty of guts, and mastery of details. A leader must lead and not be concerned with being a populist. He must do what is right, not what is popular.

In the end, he must have the character and integrity to say what he means and means what he says. Meaning, he must execute.

Fortunately, I am not a member of any political party. It is great to be just the man in the street.


Kassim Ahmad : Readers’ Responses

Monday, September 26th, 2005

Kasim Ahmad: Readers’ Responses:

I am pleased at the number of comments on my essays about Kassim Ahmad (“A Tribute to Kassim Ahmad” and “The Thesis that Shook Malay Minds”). In a culture that prizes conformity and does not tolerate dissent, Kassim shows remarkable courage in defying the existing order. I admire and salute Kassim for his courage in expressing his conviction.

It is easy for me living in the comfort of my California home and away from the social and peer pressures of fellow Malaysians (and beyond the reach of the Internal Security Act!) to be a contrarian, and to be critical. It is quite another for someone like Kassim who has to see his family, friends, and neighbors every day. Unlike me, Kassim has to be wary of the folks from the Special Branch and the Religious Department who could come bouncing into his living room at any time of the day or night!

My highlighting Kassim’s ideas and careers is for two reasons. One is to show that we Malays are not a race of sheep; when one baas, all the rest join in. God has been fair and granted us our share of the independent and brave minded. If we do not smoother them, we may encourage others to manifest themselves.

My other reason is to show that two people with completely opposing worldview can engage each other in a decorous dialogue. There is no need to resort to name calling or challenging each other’s patriotism and piety. More than that, we actually admire each other’s works and ideas.

Today public discourses in Malaysia are becoming increasingly course. We question each other’s patriotism simply because we do not belong to same political party. We insult each other as kafirs (infidels) again for daring to have a different interpretation of the Quran and Hadith.

I am also pleased that this exercise has produced one unexpected and highly gratifying consequence. I succeed in introducing Kassim to many young readers and others who have never heard of him. The establishment media and publishing houses in Malaysia are intent on silencing and marginalizing him. Talent, like water, always rises to its level. Kassim’s Hadith: A Re-Evaluation may be banned in Malaysia, but that does not stop a respectable publishing outfit in America from translating and distributing it. With the Internet, Kassim has another far more effective and formidable outlet for his ideas.

The sampling of letters below (apart from the comments posted on this website) gives a flavor of the strong responses Kassim evokes. I have edited them for brevity and clarity. Also included is Kassim’s reply to one of the readers. Have a pleasant reading!

[From www.Malaysia-Today (re-posted with permission]

alrawa said:
Kassim was at his best while leading the PSRM [Socialist Party of Malaysia] and fighting for the causes of the downtrodden. Somehow, he changed midstream. I wonder why.
Pro-rights said:
Kassim Ahmad is perceived to be anti-West. He also clashes with certain ulama and their ideology. As an intellect, he is expounding truths based on logics, whereas the ulama expound based on faith. He allegedly blames the ulama for preventing Muslims from engaging in constructive dialogue based on reasons and logics. If you read what he writes, he actually has a strong case to back his contentions, but of course there are scholars who argue that historic reports pertaining to the prophet’s life could not be disputed or be subjected to open discussions. As there is no central authority in Islam, no one has the jurisdiction to stop the various interpretations.

awang kera said:
Both Kassim Ahmad and Bakri Musa often evoke very negative responses from some of your website’s [Malaysia-Today] respondents. I have a simple explanation: they know no other intelligent way to counter or refute the views and opinions of these two individuals. Thus they resort to name calling, stereotyping, and labeling. That seems to be the standard response in Malaysia today. I assume, for example, that the person who labeled Kassim the Salman Rushdie of Malaysia has read The Satanic Verses. Kids stuff! Grow up, debate and discuss the issues more intelligently. Learn to accept the fact that others are entitled to their own views.
Since I am a kera/monyet, please explain to me in very simple terms. If you cannot, then please stop your nonsense.
As a Malay/Malaysian-born surgeon, Dr. Bakri is doing a very good job. The system works for him and others like him in America. He should be congratulated. He is a boy from Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan who has made good in a foreign country.
I see some merit in Kassim Ahmad’s views and arguments. He is entitled to his opinion, Bakri’s his, and you, yours. There is no reason to be rude or crude. Being rude is a sign of bad upbringing. I am sure you have an opinion on that too. Maybe it is a sign of protest!

bat8 said:
Al Rawa writes, “…Kassim was at his best when he headed PRSM.” His long “internship” in Kemunting under ISA however, really broke the man. The interrogations he underwent during that detention really stripped him of the Kassim Ahmad we knew.
Read his book Universiti Kedua [Second University] where he detailed what he when through during the whole ordeal. Syed Husin Ali also went through similar experiences, but upon his release, Syed Husin’s conviction remains intact. He continued fighting his cause. I cannot say the same about Kassim Ahmad. Syed Husin was released without any condition imposed on him because he refused to accept release with conditions as that would imply guilt to the trumped-up charges leveled against him. Kassim was released because he was willing to accept the conditions imposed by the authorities!
I have read several books by other ISA detainees who wrote of their Kemunting experience during the time they were incarcerated with Kassim and Syed Husin. Kassim, according to them, banyak bersedih dengan apa yang menimpanya (had an abundance of self pity for his fate].
That may explain mengapa dia terus membisu selepas dibebaskandan terus menyepi dari perjuangannya. Kesengsaraan yang dialaminya semasa di tahan dibawah ISA benar-benar mencabut semangat perjuangan dan keyakinan politiknya ke akar umbi. Kemasukan Kasim kedalm UMNO juga memeranjatkan sekiranya kita mengetahuiperjuangannya daam PSRM. Lebih mengherankan beliau sering tampil untuk membela UMNO dan Mahathir [why he remained quiet after his release and separated himself from his ideological struggles. The ordeal he went through while under detention truly exhausted his spirits. His subsequent admission into UMNO too was surprising especially considering his political ideals as he articulated while leading PSRM. Even more astounding, he has become an apologist for UMNO and Mahathir].

LChuah said:
bat8 said… “…long ‘internship’ in Kemunting under ISA really broke the man down to pieces. The interrogations he underwent during his ISA detention really stripped him of the Kassim Ahmad we knew.” That was how I felt too, bat8. Those who want to judge Kassim should first have a taste of what he experienced. My heart goes out to him, and my respect for him remains as strong as the time when I read his articles in his party newspaper (late sixties?).

Mr. Smith said:
I was an admirer of Kassim Ahmad when he was Chairman of PSRM and during his incarceration under the ISA. However, on his release, the lion turned into a mouse. Nevertheless, he retained his intellect and wisdom. Whoever he is, Bakri Musa has the God-given right to shower his adulations upon Kassim. It is not for anyone of us to judge Bakri. If anyone wishes to criticize Bakri Musa or Kassim, may I appeal to that person to be civil and cultured. Resorting to crude language and name calling only devalues and demeans that person.

johnleemk said:
Tsk…tsk. I do think this article is not exactly Bakri’s strongest ever … but I do not think that that is a license to insult the man. I do not see how you can insult him if you really have not read practically everything he has written. His The Malay Dilemma Revisited is one of the most precise and succinct expressions of the repressed opinions of many non-Malays.

olifante said:
Golongan Anti Hadis adalah mereka yang menolak atau meragui Hadis atau Sunnah Nabi Muhamad s.a.w. sebagai sumber kedua syariat Islam selepas al-Quran. Pandangan kita Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah Hadis atau Sunnah Nabi Muhamad s.a.w. merupakan sumber kedua syariat Islam selepas al-Quran. Sumber pengambilan hukum yang terlah disepakati oleh para ulamak ada empat,iaitu: Al-Quran; Al-Sunnah atau Hadis; Ijmak; Qiyas.
Golongan Anti Hadis Di Malaysia telah dipelopori oleh Kasim Ahmad melalui bukunya “Hadis: Satu Penilaian Semula” (1986). Golongan ini meragui kedudukan Hadis sebagai sumber kedua syariat Islam. Mereka menyeru agar umat Islam kembali kepada al-Quran sahaja. Kemudian beliau cuba menubuhkan Jamaah al-Quran Malaysia (JAM) tetapi gagal kerana tidak mendapat kebenaran dari kerajaan Malaysia. Walaupun begitu, tidak bermakna beliau tidak dapat bergerak langsung, malahan beliau masih aktif menulis di akhbar-akhbar utama mencurahkan idea-idea anti Hadisnya.
Antaranya ialah sebuah rencana yang ditulis di dalam sebuah akhbar tempatan mengenai masalah perpecahan umat Islam. Beliau menyeru agar umat Islam kembali kepada al-Quran sahaja.
Kassim Ahmad mengaku dalam buku sesatnya bahawa beliau dipengaruhi oleh fahaman Rashad Khalifa yang terang-terangan menolak hadis.

[MBM’s approximate translation: The group that styles itself as anti-Hadith denies that the sayings and conducts of the prophet are the valid second source of Islamic wisdom. The group exhorts Muslims to revert to the only authentic and primary source, the Quran. Muslim jurists however had long established the fact that there are four sources of wisdom in Islam: The Quran, hadith, consensus, and analogy.
The anti-Hadith group is led by Kassim Ahmad through his book Hadith: A Critical Re-Evaluation. Kassim tried unsuccessfully to start an organization to propagate his views, but it was denied registration by the authorities. Nonetheless, he continues to do so through his many articles and publications. On of his essays traces the fission among Muslims and he exhorts Muslims to revert to the Quran to solve ourproblems.]
The Submitters are followers of the late Rashad Khalifa, a man who claimed to be a Messenger of Allah. This claim in itself is sufficient to remove the Submitters from Islam as the Qur’an states (translation): “O people! Muhammad has no sons among ye men, but verily, he is the Messenger of Allah and the last in the line of Prophets. And Allah is aware of everything.” (33:40)
Much of Rashad Khalifa’s misguidance can be traced to his obsession with numerology and his contention that the Qur’an contains a mathematical code which revolved around the number 19.

Through personal e-mails to me:


WOW Thanks! This is what we should ALL be reading! Salute to the true Malay intellectual!


Your writing is quite beneficial for some, but please be careful when you touch on political issues such as the reform phenomenon in Malaysia. Kassim may seem great to you but not to others who really liberate their mind with Islamic teachings through strong ‘ilm on Islamic syari’ah and thoughts.
Do not compare Kassim’s reform agenda with the one that faced our country during the 1998 ‘reformasi’ phenomenon. That was a totally a different issue. A real people’s fighter is one who has an excellent track record in serving the people. This is way different from just a mere academic writer. I also read Kassim’s ideas. I agree on the principle of only those who serve the interest of justice and protecting the rakyat should be given loyalty and those who becomes the culprit of the rakyat as for most of the ministers nowadays are, should not be given that loyalty. Raja adil raja disembah, raja zalim raja disanggah. [Loyal to a just ruler, resist a tyrant one]
Kassim’s thought on Hadith is way off the limit. His anti-hadith thoughts cannot be permitted to influence the people’s mind in safeguarding the true ‘aqidah Islamiyyah!
If you want to question the validity of hadith, one must be well learned in several required disciplines, such as mastery of Arabic language, ‘ilm al-bayan, balaghah, ulum al-hadith, ‘ilm ta’wil, ‘ilm tafsir, fiqh, usul al-fiqh, mantiq and few others, just to name a few. There are many more to master before one is qualified to evaluate hadith!
You cannot simply argue the validity of hadith if you just have the conventional knowledge and use the faculty of reason without the required knowledge. I have attended a session a long time ago where Kassim Ahmad has been called to discus his anti-hadith views. It is dangerous to the very aqidah Islamyyah.
I am learned in both religous ‘ilm and scientific knowledge but I still humbly say I feel that there is more to learn. Please, do not simply argue on something that we are not qualified to do so or else we might be propagating misleading information and the worse case become the factor of destroying the very sacred Aqidah Islamiyyah. Be careful brother.
May Allah protect us from those who are transgressors from the right path.

Kassim Ahmad’s response:

Dear MFK:

Allow me to disabuse you of some of the misguided views you have of me. I do not claim greatness. Nor am I an expert in Arabic or Hadith. I am simply claiming my right to speak and to be fairly heard.
I have not the slightest desire to mislead you in the purity of your belief. I gain nothing from doing that. Surely the first book of guidance for all believers is the Quran. Do you oppose me because I call Muslims back to the Quran?
I know you will counter by arguing that the Hadith interpretes the Quran. Nowhere in the Quran is such a statement found. It is also not logical. Since Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. could not know the future, how could he explain it? What is clearly stated is that God teaches through the Quran.
You must also know the difference between truth and falsehood. You must distinguish between on one hand a report of what happened and what actually happened. A report about what our prophet Muhammad s.a.w. did and said might be false. How are you going to verify? Not just on the insistence of Bukhari and his string of reporters. You must verify with the Quran, for the Quran verifies all other sources.
I wish you all the best in your quest to protect the purity of your belief. We must remember that only God who can guide us, and nobody else.
Yours sincerely,
Kassim Ahmad.

The Curious Silence on Endon’s Health

Saturday, September 24th, 2005

The Curious Silence on Endon’s Health

[Reposted from, September 24, 2005]

The sudden announcement of Prime Minister Tun Razak’s death in 1976 stunned the nation. Malaysians had no inkling that their beloved leader was ailing. The medical professionals who took care of him and the Tun’s close associates did a superb job in protecting their man’s privacy, but they failed the nation. Malaysians were completely unprepared for the tragic news.

We now accept that the physical and mental wellbeing of our leaders is the rightful concern of citizens. The public must be appropriately informed. As the health and wellbeing of the Prime Minister’s immediate family also affects him, the nation is also entitled to such news.

It is common knowledge that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s wife, Endon, has breast cancer and undergoing intensive chemotherapy in Los Angeles. Our prayers and thoughts are with her and her family during their difficult ordeal. I have treated many such patients and can appreciate the turmoil they and their family undergo.

We do not know the extent of her disease or the prognosis. The public is not entitled to her complete medical records; that would be a breach of patient confidentiality. On the other hand, bland reassuring statements are not adequate either.

When Nancy Reagan had breast cancer while her husband was president, her physicians gave a full public accounting, including the stage of her disease and details of treatment. We knew for example that she declined chemotherapy and opted for total removal of her breast, a therapy that was then rapidly losing acceptance.

The same full disclosure occurred with Mrs. Betty Ford. As an aside, both Mrs. Reagan and Mrs. Ford are today doing well as their disease had not advanced. Malaysians have not been assured that this is the case with Endon.

The details of President Bush and Vice-President Cheney are also released, right down to their cholesterol levels and pulse rates.

Impact of Health on Decision Making

The nation’s chief executive makes many consequential decisions. The public has a right to know the elements that could bear on that important process. His personal as well as that of his immediate family’s mental and physical health is one such element.

This has not always been the case. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s paralysis was hidden from the public, as was President Kennedy’s dependence on steroids. We will never know to what extent their medical conditions influenced their decisions.

Soon after declaring the First Gulf War, President George Bush, Sr., was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, a medical condition that among other things makes one irritable and impulsive. Was that an unrecognized factor in his making that fateful decision?

History is replete with examples of how an illness in the first family affects the fate of a nation. The last Czar of Russia, Nicholas, and his consort, Alexandra, were consumed with the illness of their only son Alexis to the extent that they neglected the affairs of state.

When there is a personal problem, especially within a loving and close-knit family, all other matters become secondary. If it were the first family, then matters of state are neglected. There were many reasons for the collapse of the Russian Empire and the success of the Bolshevik Revolution, but it certainly did not help that the Czar was distracted by and consumed with his son’s sufferings.

The health of leaders and that of their immediate family definitely has an impact on the leaders’ ability to make decisions affecting the state; hence the right of the public to be informed of such matters. That is not all, however.

During the Watergate crisis, with President Nixon preoccupied with possible impeachment, there were contingencies in place should the old man succumb to the pressure and make erratic decisions. This was especially critical as the world then was in the midst of the Cold War.

This full disclosure extends not just to matters of health but also to business and other affairs. Currently there is great scrutiny over the financial dealings of Kofi Annan’s son. When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, there were similar inquiries on the business affairs of her grown-up children. Back in Malaysia, there were concerns recently over the involvement of one of the companies (Scomi) associated with the Prime Minister’s son. It was suspected of selling parts that could be used in making nuclear weapons.

When one of Prime Minister Blair’s children had a brush with the law, that too was duly reported, likewise when one of the Bush’s twins used a false ID to secure a drink at a local bar. The purpose of such disclosures was not to embarrass the first families (although that did happen) but to inform the public of a potential element that could affect the state of mind of the leader.

The underlying assumption is that what happens to members of the first family (or any family) have an impact on the head of that family. This in turn could adversely influence their decision-making process elsewhere.

Few leaders could compartmentalize their lives as well as President Bill Clinton did. While facing impeachment, he could continue with the affairs of state as if nothing had happened to him. At least that was the impression he was trying to create. The reality was far different. He was fast losing his effectiveness as well as presidential authority, moral and otherwise.

Paucity of Information on Endon’s Health

Malaysians are blissfully unaware of Endon’s personal battle with cancer. We all wish her well and pray for her recovery. She has been away from her husband for months now and that alone must surely place a strain on her and the Prime Minister. The emotional stress must be intense.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi appears restless and distracted. He makes frequent trips abroad, and when he is at home, he is out of his office frequently. There is no follow through on his major initiatives, like combating corruption and reform of the police force. His Minister for Federal Affairs, though found guilty for “money politics,” is still on the government payroll. The Royal Police Commission had long submitted its report, but there is nothing much happening beyond that. These are all symptoms of a man whose mind is preoccupied elsewhere. This is not amateur psychoanalysis on my part, rather simple common observation.

Sadly, Malaysians are unaware of this important matter of his wife’s illness and the extent it affects the Prime Minister’s state of mind. Should a personal tragedy occur, are the citizens assured that there is a viable contingency plan to cover such an eventuality?

While our sympathy then would naturally go to the Prime Minster and his family, the overriding concern of those entrusted with the affairs of state is that the nation’s business and security must not in any way be compromised. Malaysians must be assured of this.

Acknowledging and facing this sensitive issue right on is the first step in reassuring the citizens that we are indeed prepared.

Memoirs Serve to Inform and Educate

Tuesday, September 20th, 2005

Memoirs Serve to Inform and Educate

[This is an expanded version of my essay published in the Sun, Weekend Edition, September 16, 2005]

It is heartening that Tun Mahathir is busy penning his memoir. I look forward to reading his accounts of the pivotal moments in our history, as well as his take on the key personalities.

I never read history in school or college. Professional historians, with rare exceptions, have talent elsewhere other than in writing. My teachers’ soporific teaching style did not help either.

The accounts of or by players in history on the other hand, fascinate me. I am drawn not by the chronology of events or exposition of facts, rather by the interplay and dynamics of the major players.

In reading Kissinger’s voluminous writings, I am struck at his callousness towards nations where America has little strategic interest, like the poor hapless Cambodians.

As a physician, I am attuned to the nuances of human behavior, in particular how we communicate. “I am fine!” can mean differently from one patient to the next, depending on the tone and body language. In reading these memoirs, I have the advantage of appreciating such subtleties. Granted, one cannot assess body language in a written work, still there are other clues like context and choice of words.

A recent innovation – oral history – provides another dimension. Competently handled, it can be very informative. In the hands of sycophantic amateurs, it degenerates into an unrestrained love fest.

There is an oral history recording of the late Tunku Abdul Rahman. Judging from the transcript (K. Das & The Tunku’s Tapes), the sessions were nothing more than reminiscences interspersed with bitching sessions between a has-been journalist and an ageing statesman. The historical value was minimal.

Obligation to Document

A memoir, even when ghost-written and self-serving, involves some personal reflection. After reading Lee Kuan Yew’s memoir where he related being shocked as a youth seeing a British couple exuberantly copulating on the deck of a steamship, I understand better the republic’s priggish attitude towards sex.

Similarly, I appreciate better the prickly relationship between Singapore and Malaysia after reading an account by Mahathir where he was snubbed and mistaken for a driver when visiting a Chinese home in Singapore.

Both had plenty of other experiences in their youth, but the fact that they remember those specific incidents and more importantly, feel compelled to mention them, is indeed revealing.

Tunku Abdul Rahman died without writing his memoir, except for his columns in a local daily that he later recycled into a book. A few of his contemporaries like Khir Johari and Ghaffar Baba are still alive, but they have no sense of obligation to document their views and recollections. When asked on his recent birthday why he had not written his memoir, Ghazali Shafie, a former foreign minister and member of the commission that created Malaysia, replied that he had no need to as his life is an open book. What a pathetic excuse!

Another diplomat, Razali Ismail, had the rare honor of presiding over the UN’s General Assembly. He too does not feel obliged to record his experiences. Surely this onetime English major could craft some readable prose without too much difficulty. One does not need Churchill’s flair to pen a readable account.

What do the Ghazali Shafies, Musa Hitams and Razali Ismails do in their retirement? There is only so much golf that one can play. They have been blessed with interesting and rewarding lives, surely they must have the urge to write about them.

I would go further. As the fortunate few who have had the opportunity to guide our nation, they have an obligation to document their experiences.

I am told that the late Tun Ismail, briefly Prime Minister pro tempore, had his memoir locked up as he had some very frank remarks about his contemporaries. I hope his trustees will see fit to release it soon.

Instructive Examples

After reading Kassim Ahmad’s poignant account of his incarceration under the Internal Security Act (Universiti Kedua – Second University), I have nothing but contempt for the establishment. I cried where Kassim forlornly recounted how the guards destroyed his painstakingly-written manuscript.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s moving account of his banishment to Pulau Buru, Nyanyian Sunyi Seorang Bisu (The Mute’s Soliloquy), is a powerful indictment of the inhumanity of the Suharto administration, much more powerful than any Amnesty International report.

I am currently reading a memoir of Mustapha Hussin (Malay Nationalism Before UMNO), a major figure in the nationalist movement but a minor one in our history. Not only did he give some interesting insights on the local reactions to the Birch murder, a pivotal event in our history, but also a rare personal account on a little known fact: local citizens as the Japanese fifth column during World War II.

On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Royal Professor Ungku Aziz related some of his experiences as Vice Chancellor of the University of Malaya. One in particular was highly instructive. He was requesting funds to buy books for the library. The senior civil servant in charge denied his request on the basis that there were still some books there that had not been read! That little anecdote will never appear in any official documents or archives, but it speaks volumes of the caliber of our civil servants as well as the generally sorry state of our public libraries. I wish the Ungku will relate many more such insightful personal recollections in his memoir.

Sadly, many of the giants in our history like Suffian Hashim, our first Chief Justice, and Ismail Ali, first central banker, died without recording their experiences and insights.

As Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir contributed much. His memoir will prove that even in retirement he has much more to give.

The writer has just released his latest book (co-written with his wife Karen), With Love, From Malaysia, an account of their life together in Malaysia in the mid 1970s.

Making Peace, Piece by Piece

Thursday, September 15th, 2005

Making Peace, Piece by Piece
M. Bakri Musa

[Portions of this essay constitute my welcoming remarks at the recent Piece Process 3, an exhibition of works by Arab, Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian artists at Gavilan College, sponsored jointly by the local Muslim and Jewish communities, and the college.]
Reposted from, September 15, 2005

As President of the South Valley Islamic Community, one of the co-sponsors of today’s event, I welcome you all. I am very excited this afternoon to embark on this journey of discovery through this Piece Process 3, an art exhibit of Israeli and Palestinian as well as Jewish and Arab artists. *

Today is September 11, a time for us to pause and reflect on the tragedies that struck four years ago, and to keep the victims and their loved ones in our prayers and thoughts.

As I pause and reflect, two observations keep recurring. One, all faiths have the same purpose of bringing peace and order in this world. The other is that since time immemorial, religions have been invoked to justify killings and destructions.

The recurring refrain in the Quran is, “Command good and forbid evil!” I am certain that all the other Holy Books bear this same theme, or variations thereof. Another manifestation of the same idea is the “Golden Rule,” to do unto others what you would want done to yourself. Again, all the Holy men and Books preach this message. I have yet to come across a religion that commands its followers to create havoc.

Today, violence and terrorism are being perpetrated in the name of my faith, Islam. That is a reality. The followers of this great faith are invoking it to kill and maim not only non-Muslims but also fellow believers. The Sunnis and Shiites are slaughtering each other in the Middle East. Less publicized are the continuing persecutions of the Ismailis in Pakistan and elsewhere.

The other reality less well acknowledged is that this is unique neither to Islam nor to our current period. One needs only look at the continuing sectarian strife in Northern Ireland. History is replete with many more ghastly examples.

Potential Enemies Becoming Real Enemies

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir once made this observation of China. One sure way to make that great nation your enemy, he said, is to treat it as a potential one. A wise remark!

In labeling a nation, faith, or anyone for that matter as being prone to terrorism and violence, we are in effect making that faith, nation or someone our potential enemy. From there it is merely but a few short steps away from becoming a real enemy. We then would have fallen into our own unwary trap, and unwittingly create our own feared future.

The West must never fall for the trap of considering the Islamic world as its potential enemy. The clash of civilizations may be the forecast of brilliant minds, but the fate of human society is never preordained. More often than not, we create our own future.

We must remember that those violent Muslim extremists and terrorists, like their non-Muslim counterparts, are the enemy of all peace-loving people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Muslims and non-Muslims, Westerners and Easterners, have a common mission to get rid of the extremists in our midst.

Just as a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step, then embarking on the journey for permanent peace must begin with a small piece of peace at a time. The peace process is indeed a piece process, taken a piece at a time in order to achieve the whole. It is an appropriate theme for this event.

Today we gather not only to understand each other but also a troubled region dear and critical to us all, the Middle East. It is a region thirsting for peace. We are constantly being showered with news, commentaries and polemics on the issues so much so that we feel inundated rather than illuminated.

Today and in the subsequent six Sundays, we get to view the landscape not from the rarified macro plane of the policy wonks and pundits, rather at the micro level of the participants, in particular the artists.

Artists have a special talent that I admire – and envy – of making us view the familiar as well as the unfamiliar in ways we have never thought of before. As a bonus, they do so in ways that are artistic, meaning, esthetically pleasing. We thus satisfy our intellect as well as gratify our senses. We thank them very much for allowing their works to be displayed here today.

This exhibition has already achieved something remarkable even before it has started. First, it has further increased Gavilan College’s involvement in the community. An ivory tower Gavilan is not. What is remarkable this time is that Gavilan is reaching out to the Muslim and Jewish communities. Both are small minorities. I congratulate the Gavilan College community for its effort.

Gavilan has a special place in my heart. Not only have I taken many courses here for personal enrichment, but my wife Karen also taught here. This afternoon’s exhibition continues on Gavilan’s mission of enriching the lives of the members of the community.

Second, and equally important, this event has brought the Jewish and the Muslim communities closer together again. Shortly after 9-11, jointly with St. Catherine Church of Morgan Hill, we had an inter faith service to remember the victims of that tragic event. That singular service was a balm on our collective wound; it reinforced the theme that we are after all part of the same family.

We have some other exciting collaborative plans with South Valley’s Emeth Congregation. We hope to see their fruition soon.

Islam and Freedom

The Muslim community here is small, about fifty families. We came together only a few years ago. We gather in a converted barn at one of our member’s property for our congregational prayers and other activities.

Our local Muslim community, like the greater American community, is incredibly diverse. At last count we have members who come from all the continents and claim no less than a dozen native languages, from Malay to Mandarin and Swahili to Singhalese. Since this is a college audience, I will not insult you by asking you in which countries these languages are spoken!

We are equally diverse theologically, from the ultraliberal Ismailis to the conservative Wahabis. The only commonality is that we identify ourselves as Muslims, meaning, we subscribe to the five basic tenets of our faith.

Ethnically and culturally too, we are equally diverse. I need not dwell on our political views!
We can accept and celebrate this diversity and make it an asset, or by default, it becomes a liability. What a liability! Today’s headlines carry unending tales of woes of those who do not consider this diversity an asset.

As a Muslim, I am blessed to be living in this great country. The egalitarian ideals as well as that of freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness crafted by the founding fathers, also represent the ideals of my faith. This freedom, enshrined in our constitution and validated daily in our lives, enables me to practice my faith. We take this precious freedom for granted. For those who migrated or escaped from countries where such freedoms are indeed precious but for a very different reason – its scarcity – we are forever thankful for the privileges afforded here.

It is this freedom that enables me to learn about the other great faiths as well as the various traditions within my own religion. From the conservative Wahabis I learn to value the anchoring stability of rituals and traditions, from the Ismailis, pragmatic accommodation and communal charity. I also learn from non-Muslim scholars of Islam. Alas, this freedom of intellectual and spiritual exploration is nonexistent in many Muslim countries.

I came from Malaysia, a country by the prevailing standards of the Muslim world, free and developed. There I would end up in jail if I were to read Shiite literature. Imagine if I were to make references to the Bible or the Torah. I do not have to wait for the Hereafter, I will suffer my own Hell right here on earth!

Islam flourishes only when there is freedom, and America amply provides this. This led Osman Bakar, a Malaysian scholar at Georgetown University’s Center for the Understanding of Christianity and Islam, to declare that America will be a second Mecca.

In his book, What’s Right with Islam, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf marvels at the splendid opportunity that America provides for him to practice his faith. He boldly proclaims that America is “Shariah-compliant” meaning, it is living up to the ideals of Islam. I agree wholeheartedly with him.

Let us then seek the blessings and guidance of The Almighty as we embark on this journey of discovery, and may peace be upon us all.

* The artists participating are: Granite Amit, Doris Bittar, Tom Block, Rajie Cook, Hanah Diab, Michele Feder-Nardoff, Nick Fox-Gieg, John Halaka, Kanaan Kanaan, John Pitman-Weber, and Amie Postic.

I will post some of the exhibits later.MBM

Thank You, Dear Readers!

Monday, September 12th, 2005

Thank You, Dear Readers!

On this, my 51st posting, I thank readers for visiting my website.

This exercise began purely for a practical purpose. I wanted an electronic repository for my published works so that when readers query me on my past essays, I can simply refer them to my website. It has rapidly morphed, much to my delight, to a blog of sorts.

I truly appreciate those readers who have taken their time to e-mail me or post their comments on my website, as well as through “Letters to the Editor” of the Sun and, and comments on These editors, Zainon Ahmad and Chong Cheng Hai of the Sun, Steven Gan of, and Raja Petra Kamarudin of, have kindly given me permission to republish some of their materials. I also thank them for giving me valuable space in their respective publications and portals.

A writer without readers is like a bird without wings; it simply would not fly. I do not fancy myself as a writer; I reserve that exalted designation for such talent as Kassim Ahmad and Shahnon Ahmad. I write simply to share my ideas, and to start a dialogue. In order to make myself heard I have to convey my ideas in a clear, rational and readable format.

There are billions of printed pages and websites out there, so I am fully aware of the competition for readers’ attention. I am also respectful of your time. Thus, I am mindful not to post or publish anything that would waste your time or insult your intelligence. My writings and postings have undergone multiple reviews and rewrites to ensure that they are clear and free of unnecessary words. Even that does not prevent the inevitable errors and typos. I am grateful to readers who have kindly brought them to my attention.

Minimal Deletion of Comments

As my purpose in writing is to initiate dialogues and encourage discussions, I have rarely deleted posted comments. Exceptions are the obvious spammers; in particular, those annoying relatives of now defunct African potentates who promise my readers fabulous riches, and operators of obscure casinos looking for lost winners.

I have also deleted the postings of protected copyright materials. This is not only a matter of Internet etiquette but also a legal one. There is liberal interpretation of the fair use of such materials, but I am certain that en bloc re-posting would not be viewed as such.

Referring to legal issues, I am always conscious of potentially libelous postings. Fortunately, I have not had to delete any on this basis. This reflects favorably on the type of readers I attract. I again thank you for your sound judgment on this matter.

I have also avoided re-posting other people’s materials. On the rare occasions where I have done so, I have asked and been granted permission. There is one special case. With his consent, I have posted my private exchanges with my dear friend Din Merican. My collaboration with Din goes back many years, and I value immensely his contributions.

Another possible reason for deletion would be the use of profanities. Again, reflecting the quality of the readership, I have not had to do this.

I am pleased that my commentaries have elicited many responses, some very passionate and forceful. It is immaterial whether I agree or disagree with them, the fact that I have started and contributed to the discussion is satisfaction enough.

No one has the monopoly on truth or wisdom. It is important that we hear a variety of views and ideas. A few are undoubtedly extreme and perhaps beyond the pale, but as long as there are no profanities and libelous materials, that is fine with me. I trust my readers to render their own judgment as to their merit or taste.

Heightened Obligation

I am truly grateful and humbled by the responses, and the obligations that go along with that. They heighten my sensitivity to ensure that what I write and post are fair, responsible, and in good taste. I strive to live up to the four-way test of my Rotary Club. Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendship? Will it be beneficial to all?

The Quran says it more succinctly and eloquently: Command good and forbid evil.

I am naturally pleased with the exponential increase in the number of readers. One figure not tallied but can be easily derived is the comment-to-readers ratio. It is gratifyingly high, meaning, my readers are engaging me. I am also grateful to the bloggers and others who have thoughtfully provided links from their websites.

A few readers have indicated their discomfort about posting on my website because of their perceived English language inadequacies. Rest assured my website is not a writing contest; we – readers and I – are interested in your views, not in your writing flair. I am comfortable in both Malay and English; readers are welcome to post in either language. Alternatively, you can e-mail me directly and I can suggest editorial changes and return the message back to you for your posting.

This website would have remained in its conceptual stage had it not been for the intervention from a fellow Malaysian here in Silicon Valley, Jason Pittam and his lovely wife Sue Ishak. I consider them to be part of my family. After one long discussion at my home, he knew exactly what I had in mind. The next morning I had a surprise e-mail from him, “Abang! I created a website for you and downloaded some of your earlier essays!”

I am committed to ensuring that the time you spend on my website is well worth it. I am equally committed to sharing with and learning from you.

Again, I thank you and express my heartfelt gratitude for visiting my website.

Basking in the Luminaries’ Limelight

Thursday, September 8th, 2005

Basking in the Luminaries’ Limelight
M. Bakri Musa

[Initially posted on September 7, 2005]

Malaysia has a penchant for hiring international luminaries. The latest, the International Advisory Panel (IAP), left the country recently singing high praises for the country and its leadership. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, basking in their limelight, generously patted himself on the back and pronounced that Malaysia is on track to achieving its Vision 2020 goals.

Malaysia never lacks for the “vision thing.” Its problem is one of execution, due primarily to lack of political will and secondarily, the shortage of technical expertise. Foreign experts may be of help with the second; but with the first, that has to come from within.

A few years back, then Prime Minister Mahathir empanelled a similar stellar committee to spearhead the country’s entry into the “high tech” age. Today, Bill Gates probably could not place Malaysia on the map. His and fellow panelists’ sojourn in Malaysia did not even merit an entry on their resumes.

The Malaysian leadership knows what are the right things to do, but not how to do them right. Those experts may be able to show how others have done theirs right; they cannot tell us how to do ours right. That would require them to know us well and appreciate our weaknesses and sensitive points.

These experts can help analyze where and how we have gone wrong, but only if we are willing to learn from our mistakes, and then to change our ways based on that insight. Both are major challenges.

The first requires some degree of humility, and an ability to face and admit one’s mistakes. That is no easy task. The second requires us to be flexible. Change is never easy and always stressful. The default human position is to stick with the familiar. Witness the recent clamor by UMNO leaders for more generous special privileges.

Malaysia has not learned much from Mahathir’s panel of eminent experts. They have not documented their local experiences; their advice was presumably proprietary or protected by intellectual property rights and available only to those who paid for their services. Thus, the learning opportunities for the rest of us not directly involved are limited. These experts’ legacy, the still struggling Multimedia Super Corridor, is for all to see.

Exemplary Use of a Foreign Expert

In the 1970s, Tun Razak engaged an American expert to spruce up the civil service. At the end of his tenure, Milton Esman duly submitted his official report, dry and full of bureaucratese. That document is readily available to Malaysian officials.

Being an academic, the professor also wrote a highly readable account of his experiences in Malaysia. Unfortunately, few locals have read his book, and that is a shame.

In it, the professor had some revealing anecdotes. For example, in a regular meeting of the ministries’ highest officials – Secretaries-General – the bulk of the time was consumed with such trivial matters as who would get which prized government quarters. The foreigner’s presence did not in the least inhibit or embarrass those officials. Obviously to them, those were substantive issues! I would have thought (so did Esman) that there would be some rigorous discussions of major policy initiatives.

In a training session with Treasury officials on solving the backlog of voucher payments (yes, they had that same problem back then), the professor was flabbergasted when he could not get any suggestions from them. It was a dud initial session. It did not take long for the perceptive professor to figure out the problem. It was rooted deep in the Malaysian culture.

To those civil servants, Esman was the exalted expert. They were there to learn from him, and he to teach them how to do it right. When Esman told them that they were the ones best equipped to solve their problems, they were dumbfounded!

Today’s experts on the cultural dimensions of management will recognize this familiar problem immediately. Esman knew it only intuitively then; that is, the huge cultural barrier that makes the transfer of concepts or role models from one society to another problematic.

Those civil servants at Treasury are the cream of the service. If that is the caliber of the personnel at Treasury, imagine the quality of talent at the land office!

Esman was in Malaysia for months; he was totally committed. He had taken a leave of absence from his university. He learned and absorbed local cultural subtleties. Esman’s succeeded in professionalizing the civil service, although one could hardly discern that today.

Abdullah Badawi’s IAP members have fulltime commitments elsewhere; it would be a challenge for them to appreciate local nuances and subtleties.

Choosing Consultants

Consultants are a feature of today’s complex enterprises. We need them to help provide specific expertise not readily available or too expensive to have in house. Nations and companies engage them for a variety of reasons: to validate assumptions, help with specific operating problems, or simply for strategic planning.

Selecting the right consultants involves knowing what we want them to achieve for us. That in itself is a skill. Even more demanding is to evaluate their recommendations and put them into our scheme of things.

Malaysia’s problem is one of execution. Consequently I would favor hiring experts with substantive executive experiences especially in cross cultural settings. The IAP is heavily weighted towards academics. Their forte is reflection, not execution. Granted there are exceptions. Jeffery Garten, the Yale academic, has substantial government and private sector experiences. Another, UC Davis’ economist Woo Wing Thye, is local born and bred.

Seasoned executives bring their own set of problems. As they have their own corporations to manage, we should not expect their full attention.

There is one valuable resource not widely appreciated – retired executives. We are familiar with Jack Welch (GE), Louis Gerstner (IBM) and Paul O’Neill (former Alcoa CEO as well Treasury Secretary) but there are others. Many devote their post-retirement careers to advising foreign entities and the non-profit sector. Being retired, they can be brutally frank with their advice as they need not worry about alienating potential clients or customers.

I am no fan of committees. The more far-flung their members are geographically and philosophically as this one is, the more they would be consumed with simply ironing out their differences. Instead of an advisory panel, I would seek out those retired executives and have them spend substantial time locally in the manner of Milton Esman. When they are finished, apart from their official report, encourage them to document their personal experiences so others too could benefit.

In reading O’Neil’s recent memoir, I am impressed with his practical ideas on rural development gleaned while touring Africa as Treasury Secretary. O’Neill estimated that he could supply all Ugandan villages with potable water at a cost of only a few million dollars. Excited, he sought out the president, only to be told that a few years earlier a World Bank consultant had a blueprint with the estimated cost of over a billion! Stunned, O’Neill reviewed the World Bank’s plans. What he found were details for an ultra modern, high-maintenance facility that far exceeded the standards of the Cleveland Water District! The cost of the report alone could have financed half of O’Neill’s projects.

John Perkin’s Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is a cautionary tale of foreign consultants and their recommendations. O’Neill’s revelation reinforces Perkin’s confession.

With only 15 years left to reaching our Vision 2020, there is no time for Malaysian leaders to bask in the limelight of international luminaries. The focus should be on execution, and only on execution.

Merdeka In All Its Manifestations

Monday, September 5th, 2005

Merdeka In All Its Manifestations

[Reposted from (September 4, 2005). This is an expanded version of the one published in the Merdeka supplement of the Sun]

As we celebrate Merdeka Day, we joyfully recall the events that led to it. It is equally important for us to ponder on what did not happen or could have happened. What took place was obvious; Malaysia gained her freedom from colonial rule. What did not take or could have taken place requires some reflection.

Unlike Independence Day celebrations of many nations, we do not have to pay tributes to slain warriors. Thanks to the wisdom of our earlier leaders, there were no “glorious” wars of independence and therefore no fallen heroes. Further, with many nations the dream of freedom quickly degenerated into a nightmare of national tragedies. Malaysia was thankfully spared such horrors.

Gandhi with his nonviolence philosophy humbled the mighty British into granting India its independence peacefully, but he could not tame his fellow citizens bent on massacring each other. The Indonesians fought hard for their independence, only to see their cherished freedom debauched by their egomaniacal president, Sukarno.

True Hero Of Our Independence

Our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman held true to our prophetic tradition of the pen being mightier than the sword. He resorted to the negotiating table, not the battlefield, and enlisted lawyers not soldiers in our struggle for independence. Honoring fallen heroes of such wars as martyrs, national heroes, or freedom fighters does not lessen the pain their loved ones endure. We owe Tunku a massive debt of gratitude for sparing us such misfortune. He was truly the quiet and unsung hero of our independence.

This fact needs emphasizing, lest we forget. Already there are “revisionist” historians and other commentators intimidating that such an honor belongs to the likes of some obscure failed politicians and former thugs and terrorists. To me, the true hero is not the dashing rescuer who saved the drowning damsel, rather the young boy who kept his finger in the dike and thus prevented a flood.

Tunku went further. Whereas India and Indonesia degenerated into anarchy, Malaysia enjoyed a decade of peace and prosperity following independence. This led Tunku to boast that he was the “world’s happiest prime minister.” God later humbled him and the nation. The 1969 tragic race riot took place during his watch; it remains a blemish on our history.

If Tunku’s wisdom was in sparing us the dream from disintegrating into a nightmare, his successor’s genius was in giving substance to that collective dream. Tun Razak’s bold rural development schemes and imaginative economic initiatives gave Malaysians their greatest freedom – that from privation and poverty. Later, Dr. Mahathir drove development to greater heights, and equally greater excesses.

These leaders have done their part. It would take an even greater measure of genius and wisdom from today’s leaders to fulfill the promise of merdeka in all its facets.

Abridgment Of Our Merdeka

It would be a great irony and outright perversion if today’s leaders were to deprive Malaysians of their personal merdeka in the name of defending the nation’s freedom. Yet today hundreds are being incarcerated without being charged, let alone tried in court. The state has summarily stripped them of their precious rights as citizens and as human beings.

We do not respect nor honor the spirit of merdeka when we arbitrarily abridge the freedom of our citizens. The authorities crudely remind the citizens that they cannot read certain books, attend particular plays, or watch specific movies. For Muslims, the stricture is even narrower: Islam is what the government says it is; we deviate at our own earthly peril.

While lamenting the shortage of books written in Malay, these leaders do not hesitate in banning the works of Malay writers who dare express independent thought. The nation’s foremost thinker, Kassim Ahmad, had his Hadith: A Re-Evaluation banned. He also endured years of incarceration for his political views.

A sinister recent development is the intimidation of journalists through seizures of their computers, and the jailing of writers for what they write. Far from being intimidated, Malaysians continue to express themselves freely through other media, in particular, the Internet. That is a singular tribute to the ingenuity of Malaysians.

The attitude towards our best and brightest is no more enlightened. We want them to think and be creative, but we insist that they conform. Top positions in universities are given to pseudo academics whose chief function is to ensure that faculty members abide by Akujanji (a loyalty oath) rather than to their scholarly duties.

It would indeed be a perversion if not a great tragedy were we to be freed from the yoke of colonial oppression only to be subjugated and suppressed by our own kind. We are ever vigilant of threats from outside, we must remain equally wary of intrusions from within. The best of intentions and the noblest of motives do not prevent their perversion; the proverbial road to hell is paved with the best of intentions. I look askance at the restrictions placed on citizens all in the name of the “public good.”

Loss to the Nation

It is also a sad commentary when the cream of the younger generation leaves us; a loss we can hardly afford. It is even sadder when we fail to develop the young talent in our villages. That represents a double tragedy, for the individuals as well as the nation.

Today’s headlines carry unending tales of financial scandals and shenanigans, from approved permits for importing cars dispensed to cronies to the massive losses at government-linked companies. The waste is colossal. As staggering as that may be, an even far greater loss is the opportunity cost. Had we spent the resources on educating our young, building good schools, and training teachers, there would be no limit to the height of their – as well as the nation’s – achievements.

The first generation of leaders freed us from British rule; the next lifted us from privation and poverty. Tun Mahathir, the last leader, gave us economic freedom, albeit to the exclusion of other freedoms. The challenge for today’s leaders is to give us merdeka in all its manifestations.

The Thesis That Shook Malay Minds

Friday, September 2nd, 2005

The Thesis That Shook Malay Minds
M. Bakri Musa

It is symbolic that on this anniversary of Malaysia’s merdeka that I should be posting on the Internet ( the thesis that shook the thinking of Malays and liberated their minds.

Kassim Ahmad’s Characterisation in Hikayat Hang Tuah began as an academic exercise. It was an honor’s thesis in partial fulfillment for the Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Malay Studies at the University of Malaya, Singapore. Kassim Ahmad ended up shaking the very foundation of Malay society. Not many academic or other writings can claim to have such an impact!

Kassim’s brilliant insight makes Malays alter fundamentally how we view our sultans and society. We now can clearly differentiate between loyalties to principles versus personalities.

As a free, civilized and law-abiding society, we remain true to our values and principles. Leaders come and go, but our values remain firm. Those who deviate from our values do not deserve our loyalty. That is the essence of Kassim’s message.

Sultans, like fashion, change with the seasons, but the enduring values of our society remain true, to guide and save us.

Personal loyalties are also notably fickle. We can buy those loyalties; each of us has our price. Some can be had with mere wealth, others by fancy titles or simple flattery. Only the price varies.

The problem with bought loyalty is just that; thus others can offer a much better price. This can lead to the downfall of a society.

The British bought Malay sultans by giving them the impression that they were on par with His Majesty. Just to be sure, the British also gave those sultans impressive royal titles and the perfunctory visit to Buckingham Palace, full of pomp and ceremony of course. Oh yes, there were also the meager royal allowances and the occasional Roll Royces. With those, the British effectively controlled those kampong potentates and successfully colonized Malaysia. Malay sultans’ loyalty was to their British lord and not the rakyats. In effect, the sultans had betrayed their loyalty to Malay society.

Following Kassim’s thesis, remaining blindly loyal to the sultans would mean pledging our loyalty to the British. Those who rebelled against the sultans for betraying society would then be our heroes, not the sultans. These heroes were loyal to the values and principles of our society.

Today UMNO politicians can be bought through “money politics.” Right now only corrupt Malay businessmen are doing the buying. It would only be a matter of time before others, meaning non-Malays and foreigners, more corrupt and more generous would have these UMNO politicians, and by proxy, our nation.

Kassim’s ideas are truly revolutionary. He did not know this, but Kassim is a genuine reformer or reformis, as we say in today’s Malay. He was one long before that bastardized English word entered our lexicon. Unlike today’s “reformers,” whose antics and ugly demonstrations resulted in nothing but endless traffic jams and disruptions of businesses, the reform initiated by Kassim is more enduring.

A century from now, our grandchildren would have forgotten today’s leaders and sultans, but thanks to Kassim’s genius, the debate on who is worthy of emulation, Hang Tuah or Hang Jebat, will still be vigorously pursued. That is the lasting tribute to Kassim Ahmad.

It is tempting to compare Kassim’s thesis to Martin Luther’s famous Ninety-Five Theses that he posted on the church doors of Medieval Europe. Luther frontally challenged the excesses of the entrenched Catholic establishment and went on to start a new religious movement; Kassim let his words do the challenging.

Even though he was doing his degree in Malay Studies, Kassim Ahmad wrote his thesis in English. This dissertation would have remained an obscure academic exercise known only to the few Malays literate in that language except that the newly established Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Literary and Language Agency) was desperate to publish works in Malay and thus translated Kassim’s work.

My first introduction to this seminal work was in my Malay class during high school. Our regular teacher, a Malay-educated individual, was sick and his substitute was our geography teacher, himself Malay, who had taught us in English. His literacy in that language enabled him to read Kassim’s thesis and thereby passed on the wisdom to us. I do not remember anything he taught me in geography, but in that one substitute class, he ignited a spark in me.

I am honored and privileged that Kassim has entrusted me to disseminate his writings. With his kind permission, I have created a website for him to serve as an electronic repository for his essays and books. In future, I will also post the Malay translation (Perwatakan Hikayat Hang Tuah) with its modern Malay spelling.

My future projects include posting Kassim’s Hadis: Satu Penilaian Baru in its original Malay. Currently there is a link to the entire translation in English on Kassim’s website.

I believe very strongly that Kassim’s views deserve a wider audience. That is my mission. It is also my modest contribution to and acknowledgment of this great intellectual in our midst. It is symbolically appropriate that I start the project today, on Malaysia’s 48th anniversary of independence. Kassim’s ideas opened my mind; they liberated me and gave me my intellectual merdeka. I hope they will do the same for you.

The installment begins in a few days. I will be posting a few thousand words at a time, a length that is easily readable at one surfing of the webpage.

Please visit Kassim’s website at: or simply click on the link on the side bar (blogroll) of this webpage. Happy reading!

M. Bakri Musa
August 31, 2005