Archive for April, 2007

Reining In Our Stable of Sultans

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

Reining In Our Stable of Sultans

The recent installation of the 13th Agong was certainly glittering.  While all that glitters may not be gold, this particular event certainly sucks in a bundle of that precious metal.  And Malaysia has an abundance of these royal extravaganzas.  In its 50-year history, Malaysia has had more royal installations than general elections.

These elaborate royal rituals take their toll directly on the nation’s treasury in terms of outlays and actual expenses, and indirectly through their impact on the nation’s productivity.  The latter is the more expensive and destructive burden.

At the most elementary (and readily comprehensible) level, you can bet that on the day of the installation, together with the preceding week of preparations and rehearsals as well as the few days following with the banquets and celebrations, ministers and senior civil servants would be consumed with the event.  All meaningful works in the various ministries and departments would have come to a screeching halt.  Not that much gets accomplished on any regular workday anyway.

At the abstract level, these sultans squat on the apex of the special privileges heap.  Additionally for Malays, these sultans are more than the constitutional symbolic head of state; they are also the head of Islam, and Allah’s representatives on earth.  Why God would need such a representative escapes me.  There are no such references in the Quran, and most Muslim countries have done away with their sultans.

Consequently these sultans have a disproportionate hold on Malays.  Attempts at reforming the race, be they revolusi mental (mental revolution), Melayu Baru (New Malay), or Melayu Glokal (Global Malay) must therefore begin with the sultans.  Similarly, any examination of the New Economic Policy, in particular its special privileges provisions, must begin with a critical review of the special position and privileges enjoyed by these sultans.

 

The Burden of Having Sultans

Even the British with their greater affluence and more efficient economy are questioning the burden of having their Queen, and her relevance.  For Malaysia, the burden would be tolerable and bearable if there is only one royal head.  Unfortunately, we have a glut of sultans and sultan wannabes.

In addition to the king and nine state sultans, there are the four non-royal heads of state (the governors) who have equally grandiose royal pretensions and accompanying extravagant tastes.  If that long list were not enough, we now have the latest addition – and by far the most expensive – in the person of pseudo sultan Prime Minister Abdullah.

Abdullah successfully fooled everyone (including former Prime Minister Mahathir) with his carefully cultivated fraudulent image of humility, piety, and honesty.  He refused to move into his relatively new official residence until it had undergone multi million-dollar renovations.  Even President Bush did not need such lavish renovations before moving into the White House.  Abdullah’s current obsession is luxurious corporate jets.  What’s next?

It is amazing how this hitherto simple kampong imam has quickly degenerated and acquired such expensive tastes, all at the nation’s expense.  Equally amazing is how Malaysians have indulged him.

Of course, if the Prime Minister has a luxurious corporate jet at his disposal and multimillion-dollar renovations to his official residence, the King must have more.  Thus the obscene race of exorbitant spending begins, with a new RM400-million palace being built, never mind that there is already one in Putrajaya as well as the perfectly adequate existing Istana Negara.

With a “monkey see, monkey do” mentality, when one sultan gets a new expensive toy, the others would soon want it too.  Therein lies the expensive burden.

 

The Toll of the Sultan Syndrome

As expensive as it is to maintain these sultans, governors, and the Prime Minister with their never-satisfied profligate tastes, the more destructive effect is the negative impact their wasteful ways have on the citizens.

Elsewhere I describe the corrosive consequences of the sultan syndrome, of ministers, departmental heads and senior officials aping the sultans and assuming a detached and imperious role instead of being an engaged executive.  They preoccupy themselves with the trapping of their offices and are consumed with entertaining dignitaries or endless “do good” social activities while neglecting their primary responsibilities.  They busy themselves planning Quran reading competitions or Merdeka Day celebrations while our rivers remain deadly polluted and universities continue their steep decline.

These mini pseudo sultans also engage in their own version of “royal visits.”  “Visit” is the appropriate word, for that is all they do.  Do not expect them to be curious or ask probing questions of their subordinates.  If those units happen to be located at desirable destinations like resort towns or shopping havens, those “official” visits are nothing more than a convenient cover for an all-expense paid personal trip.

I have met my share of senior Malaysian personnel on “official” visits to America.  Most are more concerned with shopping or visiting their children in college.

The real royal visits are also disruptive to the normal workings of the visited department.  About the only tangible benefit may be a fresh coat of paint for the visited premises.  Meanwhile the costs mount, with the already stretched departmental budget being diverted to entertain the royal visitors and their inevitable huge entourage.

The new King seems aware of these wasteful practices.  That is a good sign.  He has mandated that palace affairs must start promptly and end by 10:30 PM so as not to interfere with the next day’s regular working schedule.  That is a good step, although the impact would be more symbolic than real.  The King would have much greater effect and at the same time incur considerable savings if he were to sharply reduce the long royal birthday honor lists.

His Majesty should also decline invitations to make royal visits to government departments.  At least that would not disrupt the officials’ work routine.  He does not need these royal visits to know how those departments are doing, or more correctly, not doing.  He does not have to visit the Ministry of the Environment to know that it is doing a lousy job.  Just look at our rivers, or the drains outside the palace gate.

If the King were to fancy himself emulating the legendary Caliph Omar’s style of wandering incognito around the marketplace in order to assess how the citizens are faring, he could have the same information logging anonymously onto the Internet and reading Malaysiakini, Malaysia Today, and Ahiruddin Atan’s blog.  The King would get a far more accurate picture of his kingdom than from all those royal visits and briefings.  If he is computer illiterate, do not despair.  One of the palace official’s teenage sons could have him be Internet-savvy within minutes.

 

The Royal Family Beyond the Palace

An unexamined issue is the increasingly common practice of having sultans and crown princes or their consorts chair the governing bodies of important institutions.  Public universities invariably have sultans or sultanahs as chancellors.

While implying no disrespect, the presence of these royal figures hinders more than helps these institutions.  Malaysians, even those highly educated, have yet to escape the clutch of our feudal traditions. Few would dare challenge the views of these royal chancellors.  Consequently, discussions at these board meetings in the presence of these royal figures lack vigor, as participants become unduly deferential.  Do not expect robust policy debates.

My observation also applies to the increasing participation of immediate members of the royal family in commerce.  Any member of the royal family on the civil list, that is, getting an allowance from the state by virtue of their being a member of the royalty, would lose that allowance should they participate in commerce; likewise if they were employed.  This would encourage them to donate their services and skills pro bono.  As the public is already paying them through their royal allowances, their getting an additional public salary would be tantamount to “double dipping.”  It would be patently unfair.

If they were to be involved in business, an independent review body should scrutinize any government contract they receive to ensure that it had been awarded fairly.

If we do not have such strict guidelines, there is a danger that these sultans and their family members would assume the mentality of the Sultan of Brunei, of confusing the state treasury as their personal piggy bank.

The last time someone tried to rein in the excesses of the sultans, it precipitated a constitutional crisis.  It took the courage of a Mahathir to take on the sultans.  Today with a Prime Minister more enamored with getting royal awards and joining the sultans into their jet-set luxurious lifestyle at public expense, there is no one left to check the excesses of the royal class, the real as well the pretenders.

 

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #3

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #3

Introduction, Overview and Acknowledgment (Cont’d)

Returning to the Old Groove

One of the more unnerving aspects of my visits to my old village is how easily I slip into my old grove. Seeing those kids desperate for shelter under the roadside tree in the heat of the day waiting for the erratic (still!) rickety school bus brings forth my own old but not so sweet memories. But by the grace of God, those kids could be my own; indeed many are the children of my nieces and nephews, once or twice removed. I keep wondering who among that little crowd might be the lucky one (or maybe two) to enjoy a fate similar to mine, knowing full well that for the rest, they and their children will repeat the same pattern a generation hence. That is, if Malaysia keeps on its present path.

On one visit, the villagers—my friends and relatives—implored me to stay just a few days longer so as to partake in the wedding of the daughter of a distant but important relative. Surely as a surgeon in private practice, they argued, I could afford the extra few days off and not be constrained as other “mere” wage earners. Those villagers had not lost their knack for putting on subtle but powerful heart-tugging arguments! Alas, I had to leave. Yes, I told them, I may be my own boss and could take holidays at any time, but like the rubber tappers in the village, unless I am actually tapping the trees, I would have no income. Unlike them who would lose only their income, my being away would be a double hit. Not only would I have no income, I still would have my overhead to pay!

They may be simple villagers, but when I framed my argument in a metaphor and imagery familiar to them, they readily understood it. I missed the wedding without slighting anyone.

As I came to the West straight from my village after high school, I missed much of the modernization of Malaysia. My speech and mannerisms are still of the old Negri Sembilan village mode, with its distinctive sounds and images. I am thankfully spared the Bahasa Baku and other modish fads. I consider it the highest compliment when those villagers comment that while I have been away all these years nonetheless I still retain my distinctive dialect, very unlike those who venture to the cities for a few months only to return “forgetting” their old loghat (ways).

On another visit, I was harvesting rambutans from the yard of my old village house when I had to answer an urgent call of nature. My wife suggested that I wait until we return to our hotel, but unable to bear it much longer, I slipped right back into my old groove by disappearing into the stream at the back of the property. I may have flown in a 747 a few days earlier and stayed at the Marriott, but when push came to shove (or bear!), I readily slipped back to my old kampong form without skipping a beat.

Thus I have no patience for and am contemptuous of those who dismiss my contributions as the ranting of a dilettante luxuriating in the comfort of his California home.

 

Organization and Overview

This book is in four parts. The first surveys ideas on the evolution of societies. The opening chapter summarizes the views of the ancient, from the Greek philosopher Ptolemy to the 14th century Ibn Khaldun, and to modern thinkers like the biologist Jared Diamond. The following chapter, “The Diamond of Development,” is my concept on how the major elements bear on the development of a society during the limited timeframe of a few generations. I schematized this as a diamond, with each factor—leadership, people, culture, and geography—forming one angle of that diamond. Each factor influences and is in turn being influenced by the other three, as per the diagram on this book cover.

A nation progresses only when its citizens and enterprises are competitive. The next chapter explores the meaning of being competitive, and its relationship to efficiency and productivity.

Being competitive enables a society to progress; not being competitive means regress and decline. There is no neutral zone. While we aspire for progress and prosperity, there are consequences, good and bad as well as anticipated and unanticipated. I explore these in the chapter that follows.

Part Two, Basic Building Blocks, expands on the role of the four elements of my diamond of development as they apply to Malaysia, with individual chapters devoted to leadership, people, and geography. As culture plays such a pivotal role, I devote two chapters to it, one dealing with the role of culture as a society’s template, and the other to institutions, an important element of culture.

Institutions are crucial in development, and Malaysian institutions are fast losing their integrity and efficiency through the twin blights of corruption and incompetence. Next to the fragmentation of society, the deterioration of institutions is a major obstacle to the nation’s progress. To quote India’s President Abdul Kalam, we have to demand from our institutions the impossible, and the possible will emerge.6 For that to happen, our institutions must be effective and free of corruption. Anything less, and Malaysia risks becoming a perpetual “half-past six nation,” to borrow Tun Mahathir’s phrase. Meaning, only slightly beyond elementary.

In Part Three, “Where We Are Now,” I reflect on the Malaysia of today. An important aspect of reflection is to learn from our experiences, both the successes as well as the failures. Malaysia has done many things right, and well. It was spared destructive wars of independence, and is one of the few countries that successfully defeated communist insurgency. Malaysia also achieved the remarkable feat of having economic growth with equity. Those are remarkable achievements and reflect the great heights the nation is capable of through unity of purpose and the commitment of all. I recap these in Chapter 10.

The next two chapters examine the parallel challenges facing Malaysia: fragmentation of its society (the people component of my Diamond of Development), and the deterioration of institutions.

Chapter 13 examines environmental, regional, and global issues, all aspects of geography. It is appropriate that environmental concerns be addressed with regional and global challenges. Pollution and environmental degradations often require regional or even global approaches. The haze that now regularly afflicts Malaysia is a ready example. I follow this with a chapter examining past policies (Chapter 14); and another critiquing current strategies (Chapter 15). Malaysia is still enamored with the Soviet-style Five-Year Plans and central planning.

I begin the final Part Four, “Where We Could Be,” by contemplating the positive consequences if Malaysians were to be liberated and be granted their personal merdeka (Chapter 16). I then examine the tantalizing prospects of Malaysia leading the Malay world (Chapter 17), and being a model for the greater Muslim ummah (Chapter 18). The chapter following explores the unique and special opportunities for Malaysia to serve as the bridge between East and West, and between the West and the Islamic world.

Malaysia is already home to all the major cultural traditions of Asia, and Malaysians are familiar and comfortable with Western values. As a modern, liberal and developed Muslim country, Malaysia is poised to lead the larger Muslim world to greater heights, and to serve as a viable model of the compatibility of Islam with modernity. To Muslims, Malaysia would then represent the real meaning of being “modern,” while to the West, Malaysia would represent the enlightened face of Islam. I believe it is the nation’s destiny to play this crucial bridging role.

The last chapter critically examines the leadership of Prime Minister Abdullah, and whether his promise of gemilang, cemerlang, and terbilang (excellence, glory, and distinction) is for real or merely temberang (hot air). I end with a summary in the form of an open letter to the Prime Minister.

This volume expands on ideas developed in my earlier books and essays, tailoring them to the Abdullah Administration. Some repetitions are inevitable; I do that for continuity and emphasis.

This is not the time for Malaysia to merely coast along; there are too many pressing problems that have been allowed to fester. Unless addressed effectively, Malaysia risks being trapped in perpetual Third World status, or worst. Creatively handled and Malaysia would be poised to enter its next trajectory of development, and with it, a significant improvement in the well being of Malaysians.

It would also enable the nation to play its rightful role on the global stage.

 

Acknowledgments

I am appreciative of and express my sincere thank you to the many readers who have taken their valuable time to comment on my essays and books directly to me, through postings on my website (www.bakrimusa.com), or through “Letters to the Editor” of the various publications I write for.

I am indebted to Steven Gan and his brave team at Malaysiakini (www.malaysiakini.com) for affording me a column, Seeing It My Way. Despite the many intimidations by the authorities, this news portal continues to push the boundaries for journalistic freedom. A special note of appreciation is due to Raja Petra Kamarudin. He started the very popular and highly successful Internet news and commentary publication, Malaysia Today (www.malaysia-today.net). He puts to shame the nation’s established journalists and pundits with his aggressive brand of investigative journalism and pungent commentaries. He too suffered through many intimidations from the authorities, including being incarcerated without trial under the Internal Security Act, and of course the seizures of his computers, as with Malaysiakini. He remains unfazed and not in the least intimidated, a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Our nation is truly blessed to have him.

Still in cyberspace, I thank Arif Hazlan for doing something that I had wanted to do for a long time: to have my essays translated into Malay so as to reach the very audience I wanted to influence. He has done a superb job, and I thank him and the operator of Laman Marhaen (http://marhaen.kelatedaily.net).

The Sun’s Zainon Ahmad, Cheong Hai and Rash Bhattacharjee have generously granted me space in their newspaper. I am pleased that the Sun is fast becoming a must-read in Malaysia; it has the largest circulation in influential Klang Valley. Its Internet version (www.sun2surf.com) is well designed and a pleasure to read. The Sun’s success, as well as the increasing popularity of the alternative media, reflects the hunger Malaysians have for reliable and independent sources of news, information, and viewpoints. It also, sadly, indicates the sorry state of mainstream journalism in Malaysia.

The good news is that the erosion of credibility and quality of the mainstream media encourages the development of new and independent providers. Fathol Zaman’s Ipoh Echo (www.ipohecho.com) exemplifies this. Undoubtedly there would be many more if only those bureaucrats in the Home Ministry were to view their job as encouraging, not inhibiting, such positive developments.

A special appreciation and thank you to an old friend and frequent collaborator, Din Merican; I value his opinions, backed by his long and varied experiences in government, government-linked companies (GLCs), and the private sector. Din is of my generation; he graduated from the University of Malaya back in the 1960s. It was a reflection of the caliber of that institution then, the wisdom of the government of the day, and Din’s own considerable talent that he ended up and excelled at a leading American graduate business school. It is fortunate for Malaysia that he returned home; it is unfortunate that his considerable expertise is not more appreciated. Din is frank and unafraid to express his views. Elsewhere, that is a refreshing trait; in Malaysia, damaging to one’s career! Din is currently Visiting Professor of Business Strategy at the University of Cambodia and a member of the International Advisory Board of its Asia Economic Forum (www.aef.org.kb). Thank you Din for reviewing the manuscript and offering many useful suggestions! I appreciate that greatly. I have also taken Din’s suggestion for the subtitle of this book.

Back in California, many thanks to Susanah Ishak and Jason Pittam, a husband and wife team of graphic designer and former engineer respectively. If not for them, I would still be planning and mulling over my website. They rightly diagnosed my state of “paralysis by analysis.” One evening following a dinner visit to our home, they phoned me saying that my website was up and running, and that it was now my responsibility to post my essays, or else the website would be blank! That was the stimulus I badly needed! I thank Su and her Dayang Design for the imaginative book cover. It captures and illustrates well the concept of the reinforcing elements of the “diamond” theme of my book.

My sons Azlan and Zack also contributed, partly out of filial obligation and partly for the intellectual stimulation of the engagement (I hope more of the latter!). Azlan’s skills came in handy. As an instructor for the American SAT preparatory course, he was intolerant of gross grammatical gaffes and pompous ponderous prose. Alliterations he tolerated, sparingly! I readily tapped Zack’s editorial experience from his old campus newspaper. The legal training my daughter Melindah and her husband Nathan helped ensure that my reasoning and analyses are not sloppy; their international experiences lend me a wider perspective.

Lastly to my wife Karen; I am fully aware that my time at the laptop means less time at the tractor. The more time I spent pruning my prose means less time trimming the roses. She has been most forgiving. I have also imposed on her to read the manuscript numerous times, fully recognizing that I am at a competitive disadvantage with her own favorite writers. Such indeed are the true expressions of love!

 

M. Bakri Musa

bakrimusa@juno.com (www.bakrimusa.com)

Morgan Hill, CA

November 2006

Next:  Part I  Chapter 1:  On Being Competitive

 

Kassim Ahmad’s Di Ambang Dunia Baru

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

Kassim Ahmad’s On the Eve Of A New World

[Note: I was thrilled to be asked by Kassim Ahmad early last year to write a foreward for his latest book, Di Ambang Sebuah Dunia Baru (On the Eve of a New World). In particular, I complimented the publisher, considering that it was an establishment outfit. My praise however, turned out to be premature. The publisher reneged on Kassim and refused to publish the volume unless Kassim excised the more critical commentaries. That would have meant removing nearly a third of the volume. Kassim rightly refused to go along. Bravo to him!

Here is what I wrote.]

Kassim Ahmad’s Di Ambang Sebuah Dunia Baru

Foreward by M. Bakri Musa

In a country where the official retirement age is 55 (now 56) years, and where many do indeed stop working on reaching that age, it is heartening to note that Kassim Ahmad is bucking the trend. He is still intellectually productive, as evidenced by this collection of his essays, Di Ambang Sebuah Dunia Baru (On the Eve of A  New World), his third. The title aptly describes the theme of these commentaries.

Bucking the trend defines Kassim. I first came across his work while in secondary school nearly half a century ago. At the time Kassim had just published his The Characterization in Hikayat Hang Tuah, an academic exercise in partial fulfillment for his honors degree. It was a thesis that would later shake the Malay world out of its cultural comfort zone.

In his dissertation Kassim took a decidedly different and necessarily negative view of the hitherto hero, Hang Tuah; instead Kassim extolled the virtues of the presumed renegade, Hang Jebat. In part, Kassim was reflecting the general anti-hero sentiment of the 1950s and 60s; the era of the Beatles, long hair, and social rebelliousness. It was also the time of my youth, the phase in one’s life where challenging tradition and accepted wisdom was a given. Thus Kassim’s dismissal of our legendary hero and cultural icon resonated with me.

Kassim did more. By shining the light away from its usual focus, he forced us to shift our view to a different angle. Consequently the same reality can now look very different. To many, that can be unnerving; to others, exhilarating. Regardless of how one reacts, one inevitably begins asking questions. To me, that is a healthy intellectual development; to those in power, very threatening. This is especially true in a feudal society; and ours is still one steeped in its feudalistic traditions and strictures.

Stimulating us to ask questions is what Kassim does best; therein lays his major problem. Our culture does not look kindly upon those who would dare see or imagine the world differently.

If we cannot find the solution, chances are we have asked the wrong question. That is the axiom in science. If we listen to the many questions stimulated by Kassim’s writings, chances are some will be the right questions. Once we have asked the right questions, then we are that much closer to finding the right answers.

I still treasure my frayed and faded translated copy of Kassim’s thesis. A few months ago, with Kassim’s permission, I posted his entire thesis in its original format and language (English) on the website, www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com. This will bring his work younger set, at least the Internet-savvy ones. It is my hope that this website will also be a repository of Kassim’s writings.

Characterization was only the beginning. Three decades later, Kassim again shook the Malay world with his Hadith: Satu Penilaian (Hadith: A Re-Examination). Sadly and true to form, before I could get my copy the authorities had banned the book!

Fortunately, some sympathetic soul in America saw fit to translate that important book into English, and I was able to obtain my copy.* In it, Kassim challenged the accepted wisdom that places the centrality of hadith on par with if not over and above the Holy Quran. The book did not endear him to the establishment, both religious and political. Kassim was effectively ostracized and forever tagged as “anti-Hadith,” plus some other equally derogatory terms.

I recently profiled Kassim Ahmad for the Sun. I was astounded by the responses from readers who were critical of him yet had not even read his books! Modern myths, like the classical ones about the purported heroism of Hang Tuah, do not die easily.

To me, Kassim’s Hadith, like his earlier Characterization, brings a much-needed fresh perspective. He again challenges accepted wisdom and forces us to think and re-examine our assumptions. To those in authority, enquiring minds can be very threatening, even dangerous.

It is precisely this quality of Kassim that is becoming rare in our society. We should be nurturing, not discouraging, this trait especially in our young lest we become a nation of sheep blindly following the shepherd. We are fast becoming what my friend Din Merican calls a society of ahli bodek (sucking up to the powerful).

I am reminded of the teaching techniques of the Sufi Mullah Nasrudin. He delighted in making fun of himself to illustrate a point to his students. One day his neighbor came to his door to demand the return of the mule the Mullah had borrowed a few weeks earlier. “I don’t have your mule,” lied Nasrudin. Unfortunately at that very moment the donkey brayed, and the neighbor exclaimed, “But I can hear the animal in your barn!” Whereupon Nasrudin, looking shock, replied in feigned indignation, “Would you take the word of a mule over the word of a Mullah?”

The moral of this delightful tale is that we should have the courage to not believe even those in authority if what they say does not agree with our experience and common sense. Even a donkey may the bearer of truth, and a mullah, lies. This is the recurring thread in Kassim’s essays and commentaries.

Back at my kampong, the villagers have a way of dismissing the hyperboles and grandiose promises of those in power: Tak masuk akal (It does not make sense!). What Kassim is saying is that we should have the courage to tell our leaders when what they preach tak masok akal.

I thoroughly enjoy reading Kassim’s essays; I learn so much both when I agree as well as when I disagree with him. It would be unfair for me to single out my favorites in this collection.

Kassim’s view on Islam is closer to what I profess. In particular, I share his concerns and dismay over the increasing assertiveness and overreaching of ulama in contemporary Muslim societies, Malaysia included. The Islamic establishment in many Muslim countries today is degenerating into the pattern of Orthodox Christianity of Medieval Europe.

The excesses of the clergy class were the undoing of the Catholic Church (helped by the invention of the printing press and growth of the humanist movement). The excesses of the ulama class today will have the same outcome, as we have seen in Iran and Taliban Afghanistan. The ubiquitous Internet and the spread of mass education will grease the slide.

In many Muslim countries, the religious establishment works in cahoots with the political authorities to tighten their grip over the ummah (community). The instruments of Islam are increasingly being used not to emancipate the masses but to oppress them. Friday sermons, that most sacred of our faith’s rituals, have degenerated into yet another propaganda medium for the state. Islam is being abused to justify denying women their rights to vote, an education, and their freedom. The height of perversion of our great faith is seen in Saudi Arabia where women are not allowed to vote, drive a car, or be out of their homes unless accompanied by their husbands, all in the name of “protecting” the womenfolk! Next door in Iran, with the Mullahs in charge, blatant abuses of basic human rights occur with impunity.

The Mullahs and their likes have conveniently framed the discourse in Islam such that criticizing them is tantamount to criticizing the faith. This is the fitnah (poison) the religious establishment is throwing at Kassim. I am appalled at how freely they throw around such contemptuous labels like murtad (apostasy) and kafir (infidel).

It is a tribute to Kassim’s inner strength and conviction that he is not silenced by such treatment. He has seen and experienced worse.

The powerful (religious and secular) would not indulge in their excesses without the complicity of others, in particular the intellectuals and commentators. It is this lack of effective checks and balances that undermines our nation. Kassim’s plaintive plea to the country’s editors and journalists, “Katakan Yang Benar!” (Utter Only the Truth!), is written more in sorrow, less in anger.

Kassim has every right to be angry at his country. That he is not is a tribute to the man’s basic humanity and inner sense of dignity.

His forthrightness landed him in jail once, courtesy of the intrinsically “un-Islamic” Internal Security Act that permits incarceration without trial. After his release, he wrote his Universiti Kedua (Second University). It makes for painful reading. If I have my way, I would make it mandatory reading for all ministers and civil servants responsible for that inhuman statute.

My political persuasion could not be more different from Kassim. He is a staunch socialist; I, a committed capitalist. To me capitalism has uplifted the fate and living conditions of the most number of humans. Through capitalism, literally hundreds of millions of Chinese have been freed from the oppressive clutches of poverty. Yes there are excesses and imperfections with capitalism; it is after all the creation of mortals, not of God. Many are diligently working towards correcting those imperfections and thus enhancing its effectiveness. The capitalism of today is far more humane and effective than the raw form that existed during Dickens’ time. The capitalism of tomorrow will also be far more fair and superior than the current version.

Kassim on the other hand views those imperfections and excesses as integral to the system; they cannot be separated away. To him, capitalism is inherently evil, exploitative, and destructive.

He extols the virtues and ideals of socialism. Yes, they are laudable; I share them too. Unfortunately they are just that – ideals. No one has yet been able to translate them into a workable and practical system. The collapse of the Soviet system is a tragic reminder of this flawed system. China avoids the fate of the Soviet Empire by “modifying” its socialism, putting a “Chinese” face to it. Practically it is capitalism in all but label, and with that China is fast emerging as an economic super power.

Socialism would more likely succeed if only humans were saints or angels, but we are not. We have to face or at least acknowledge this reality.

It is Kassim’s political views that landed him in trouble with the authorities. They could not discern the difference between communism, which Kassim passionately abhors not least for its atheistic foundation, and socialism, which espouses social justice.

Today, true to form, Kassim is not content with the status quo. He is currently exploring the so-called “Third Way” that would combine the idealism of socialism with the workable pragmatism of capitalism. He has uniquely combined his thinking with infusions of Islamic ideals. I find that extremely exciting.

In his New Year’s speech welcoming 2006, Prime Minister Abdullah exhorts Malaysians to work with him and the government to solve the nation’s problems. This patriot Kassim has done his part with these and other contributions. I only wish that those in power would heed his words.

It is a reflection of the times in Malaysia today that an establishment publisher, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Press, is publishing this volume. There was a time in the not too distant past when many editors would shy away from associating with Kassim. Consequently, some of the essays published here have previously appeared only in foreign publications. I congratulate UKM Press for undertaking to issue this volume. Its parent institution had earlier recognized Kassim Ahmad by conferring him an honorary doctorate in letters. It is good when a premier institution honors a premier intellect.

Though all these, Kassim has remained the same; what has changed, and for the better, is our society. It is now willing to embrace ideas beyond the accepted ones. More importantly, we are now willing and brave enough to ask questions that previously we would not have dared think about. We, individually and as a nation, owe Kassim a huge debt of gratitude for nurturing the Hang Jebat in all of us. That he is successful rekindles my optimism in our people and nation.

M. Bakri Musa

Morgan Hill, CA

January 2006



 

* A link to the entire manuscript is found on the same website (www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com).

Three Hundred Instances of Nonsense

Friday, April 20th, 2007

Three Hundred Instances of Nonsense

By Farish A. Noor

A small country, whose citizens are virtuous men all, is pitted against the might of an overwhelming foe whose customs and traditions are barbaric, licentious, violent, decadent and immoral. The ruler of the opposing empire is a hedonistic and corrupt megalomaniac and his followers blind fanatics devoid of free will, agency and identity. They march at the instigation of the whip and the point of a sword, and they lay down their lives not for the sake of their beliefs but out of deference to their God-King whose will is absolute and whose tyrannical ambitions are all-consuming. The lumbering army of the foreign invaders is even equipped with weapons of mass destruction:  War elephants, rampaging rhinos, war galleys, incendiary fire-bombs, catapults, arrows, spears, the lot.

The outnumbered citizens of the virtuous state however are upright men of honor, who fight and die for their beliefs. Their values sound curiously modern:  Liberty, freedom, justice, defense of their country and the pursuit of their own destiny.  They are armed only with their spears and shields, and do not even have the luxury of armor.  As they face their enemies they know that they will all die, but only to be taken up into the fold of posterity and remembered forever as brave heroes and free men who died for freedom.

Sounds familiar? One would think that such a scenario would befit the collective imaginings of any tiny state surrounded by potentially hostile enemies, such as Israel, for instance.  One would also be forgiven if one made the mistake to think that this was the plot to some modern political thriller, designed to send chills up the spines of the beleaguered citizens of the civilized Western world, faced with the threat of invasion by the hordes of Asia.  For “Asia” is indeed the enemy here, and Asians appear as a tide of non-distinct, mindless drones who simply walk into the trap and are slaughtered by the hundreds.

But no, this calculated attempt at historical revisionism comes from the film ’300′, which chronicles (or rather mis-chronicles) the tale of the three hundred Spartans led by their king Leonidas who fought at the battle of Thermopylae against the invading armies of Xerxes the Persian king.  Little wonder if the government of Iran is less than pleased by this latest blockbuster which looks and sounds like some hammy muscle-flick set to rock music and animated to look like a video game.  There is enough blood in the film to ensure that kids would not be able to watch it.  But perhaps that too is a good thing, for the last thing any child needs now is to be fed a skewered account of history that throws facts out of the window and makes propaganda look respectable instead.

Critics of this sorry excuse for blood-letting have already pointed out the historical inaccuracies that litter the movie: King Leonidas extols the virtues of nationalism and calls on his men to defend their country, at a time when nation-states did not exist and there was no such thing as the Spartan nation-state in the first place.  The Persians in turn are presented as less than human, stunted and misshapen barbarians, looking more like the Orcs and Gremlins of “Lord of the Rings” than Central Asians.  For some reason known only to the directors and producers of the film, the few Persians we see (save for Xerxes, their King), tend to be darker too, with decidedly African features.  Xerxes looks like a malevolent Boy George dressed in golden panties with ear, nose and nipple piercing to boot.

In a world already divided neatly between the forces of Good and Evil as framed in the dichotomous logic of Bush and his Neo-Con allies, this contrast of light and darkness was a tad too crude to digest.

So why the sudden interest in history, and why this remake of the tale of the Spartans today? It is interesting to note that as the governments of the Western world look upon the impending rise of China and India as the next economic superpowers of the world, the gigantesque image of Asia looms ever larger.  Was this little more than yet another pathetic attempt to draw the cultural and political frontiers between the West and Asia, yet again? And if so, is the Occidental conscience still troubled by the thought of an Asia on the rise?

Certainly the film “300” is replete with stereotypes of every type and cast of Asians and their inscrutable ways:  The Asians of the Persian empire in the movie look, sound and behave every bit as foreign as can be imagined.  To add insult to injury, the famous “immortals” of the Persian army are dressed almost to look like ninjas (and armed with short swords that look like Japanese Katanas and Wakizashis), and are all masked uniformly.  All Asians look alike?  Perhaps in the minds of Occidental film producers and game designers that may be the case.

Coming at a time when the political vocabulary of international relations discourse has been hijacked to suit the interests of Washington, and when the War on Terror is, so we have been told, fundamentally a battle between the free world and the forces of religious fanaticism (despite the fact that there are more than enough religious fanatics in the USA as it is), the film “300” is a case of political propaganda dressed up as pop historical entertainment at its worst.

But one should never doubt the efficacy of such propaganda in the immediate present.  Today we all know that the real history of the American Wild West was not as simple as it was made out to be, but did we not as children root for John Wayne and accept the false premise that the American Indians were the bad guys?  In accepting the premises of 300 at face value, are we not in danger of falling into the same trap, and passively buying the line that civilization has to be defended at all costs, even violence; and that all that is foreign has to be alien too, and therefore dangerous and to be rejected as well?  Forget the Spartans who are dead and gone, and remember instead Guantanamo Bay where some real injustice is being meted out in the here and now.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, and one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site.


				

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #2

Thursday, April 19th, 2007

Chapter 1:  Introduction, Overview, and Acknowledgments  (Cont’d)

The Power of Words

As a physician, I am fully aware of the devastating impact my words can have on my patients and their loved ones. I therefore weigh carefully what I say, and above all, I must be truthful. Anything less would be disrespectful of my patients and their families; it would also be unethical, if not illegal.

The 1970 Nobel laureate in physics, Abdus Salam, stated it simply and much more eloquently, “When all else fails, you can always tell the truth.”2 There is an art in packaging the truth. It need not necessarily be brutal, on the contrary, artfully handled it is often liberating. Inability to present the truth (as you see it) in a palatable form is not an excuse to deny or withhold it. Lying, even when skillfully done, is still lying, and no good purpose would be served. That is the premise I hold in writing this book.

The guiding principles of my Rotary Club’s Four-Way Test are helpful.3 It must be the truth, fair to all, build goodwill and better friendship, and be beneficial to all. Speaking the truth of the leadership is fair and would benefit all. Lying, or any of its infinite variations, does none of those.

We all can tell the outright lies and deceptions; besides, they will be exposed eventually. Those are not the problem. The human mind however is infinite in its sophistry. With time, practice, and adequate reward we can easily convince ourselves that flattery, cheerleading, apologia, spins, and of course “sparing the truth to be kind” are not lies but the unvarnished truth. Or, we may hide the truth and utter outright lies to ingratiate ourselves to the powerful—the ahli bodek (courtiers) and ahli kipas (flatterers), as my old villagers would say.

In early 1976, soon after I began working as a surgeon at the General Hospital, Kuala Lumpur, the Minister of Health summoned my colleagues and me for a meeting. What prompted the ‘invitation’ was the rash of complaints from the public about the hospital. That was nothing new, then or now. All forty of us specialists were assembled in this large room. The minister was as usual, late, very late. After the customary (and very tedious) introductions all around, he assured us that he was interested more in solving the problems rather than assigning blame. He then listened patiently as my colleagues took turns venting their accumulated frustrations. My turn came last, being the most junior member. I had nothing more to add; besides, I was too recent an addition. Earlier, my seasoned colleagues had assured me that nothing meaningful would come out of the meeting; they had been through many such sessions before.

I told the Honorable Minister that if he could solve only a quarter of the problems raised by my colleagues, I would be very happy. He was surprised, and inquired whether if that were to happen, would I remain in government service? I assured him that I would even if only ten percent of the problems were resolved. I then added that I did not notice anyone taking notes. Whereupon there was a scramble among the presumably senior civil servants present to find a piece of paper to write.

After the meeting, one of my senior colleagues remarked to me, “Bakri, I agree with what you said, but I would never have dared say it!” Today, thirty years later, that is still the familiar refrain I hear, this time from my readers.

When that minister queried me, I assumed that he wanted my honest opinion. I owed him that much: honesty and frankness from a subordinate. When writing, I have the same obligation to my readers.

Still, the question lingers. Why did my former colleagues feel that they could not be frank and honest with their superior, the minister? Likewise, why do my readers see fit to describe my writings as “brave,” “honest,” and “frank?” The corollary must be that much of what they read locally is not.

On reflection, what separated me from my earlier colleagues was that I had freedom and options. If I could not tolerate government service I could always leave (which I did thirty months later).

When confronted with an entity or situation that you are not satisfied with, you have three choices: exit, voice, and loyalty, to quote the economist Hirschman.4 You leave (exit), try to improve from within (voice), or stick with it and hope for the best (loyalty). Hirschman oversimplifies things. If the organization were the only entity in town, you would have no choice; and when you could not leave, your voice would automatically be ineffective and your loyalty not valued. If I have a qualification recognized only in Malaysia or fluent in a language that was understood only locally, then I would have been stuck. I was fortunate to be able to exercise not one but all three options. I left, but my voice and loyalty live through my books and commentaries.

This freedom separates me from other commentators in Malaysia. I do not have to worry about the police knocking on my door in the middle of the night, as had happened to Kassim Ahmad, Syed Hussin Ali, Raja Petra Kamarudin, and many others.5 If Malaysian outfits shy from publishing my commentaries, I can do it myself. Nor do I have to worry that the government would threaten my livelihood should I write something critical.

I am fully aware of the obligations that go along with this freedom: to be fair, honest, and constructive, and to remain within the bounds of common courtesy and good taste.

 

Reasons For Writing

My claim to originality—and hence the excuse to write this book—is in adapting the ideas and insights of leading lights elsewhere to the issues and challenges facing Malaysia.

There is a tendency amongst individuals as well as societies to think that the problems they face are unique unto themselves. The consequence to this thinking is that they feel that they have little to learn from the experiences of others; those are deemed irrelevant. My thesis is the very opposite. There is nothing unique to the problems Malaysians and Malaysia face. Others, elsewhere today and in the past, have successfully solved many of the same dilemmas, albeit expressed in their infinite variations and manifestations. There is much that we can learn from others both in how to as well as how not to in addressing these issues.

For some, learning from others is a natural; for others, it would take courage and more than just a little dose of humility. At the very least, learning from others would spare you from repeating their mistakes.

I am fortunate to be among the few in my generation to benefit from superior education, a necessary basic tool for understanding ideas and intellectual developments elsewhere. Additionally, again the consequence of my education, I am blessed with a profession that I truly love and where I find personal and professional fulfillment. Just as fortunately, it rewards me generously, thus affording me the luxury to pursue interests outside the narrow focus of my work.

There are many Malaysians who have benefited from even more superior education.

They may also have far greater resources, but living in Malaysia, they lack the social and intellectual stimulation to pursue their passion, or to express freely their thoughts. I am fortunate to live in a society that puts a premium on personal freedom. I am free to pursue my ideas, and equally important, free to express them.

The intellectual, social and other environments of my contemporaries back in Malaysia are much more constrained. They are limited to what they can read or view beyond what are officially approved. They are not free to explore ideas that are too far off the accepted wisdom. Their freedom to express themselves is similarly restricted. The courageous few who dare push the envelope find themselves, much to their and their loved ones’ anguish, paying a very steep price. Hundreds of Malaysians today languish in jails; their only offence being pursuing and expressing their ideas, thoughts, and beliefs.

Their numbers may be small, but not their visibility. It is not a surprise that they and their families are keenly interested in raising their profiles in public in the hope of securing their release. The authorities too are eager to highlight their plight, but for a different and more sinister reason. The incarceration of these individuals serves as a constant and chilling reminder to the rest of the population, especially those who otherwise feel tempted to push the accepted boundaries.

I am in a privileged position and therefore feel compelled to document my views. I am also driven by the fact that not many of my countrymen have chosen to reflect upon and record their views and experiences for the benefit of those following. I owe the next and subsequent generations that much.

The few who do write, succumb to the easy path of ingratiating themselves to the powerful and being essentially apologists for the establishment. When the nation and its leaders need sober analyses, they resort to unabashed cheerleading.

I write for another far more important reason. Like many, I feel strongly that the country of my birth is headed in the wrong direction. The challenges are many, from coping with globalization, increasing crime and corruption, polarization between and within races, declining schools and institutions, eroding competitiveness, and declining productivity. The responses have been nothing but senseless sloganeering and endless exhortations. These problems cannot be wished away by waving the magic wand. Leaders delude themselves and their followers if they think that they could solve these intractable problems merely by making surprise visits to agencies and departments, or by continually uttering positive pronouncements. Malaysia’s myriad problems require careful analyses, thoughtful policies, and imaginative executions to solve them.

This book is my attempt at this. My analyses may be flawed and remedies wrong, but if I have succeeded in at least ringing alarm bells and initiating a dialogue, that is reward enough.

I have no patience for nor do I wish to engage those who view ideas first and foremost on the pedigree of their bearers. Instead I am directing myself to those who weigh the message rather than the messenger. Nonetheless, knowledge of the messenger often enhances understanding of the message, hence a brief outline of my perspective.

I am one of the increasingly many Malaysians who for a variety of reasons choose to live outside of Malaysia. I still have a deep reservoir of love and goodwill towards my country of birth and care enough to write and comment about it. Despite having spent decades abroad I am still deeply rooted emotionally in my native village and culture. I may be out of the kampong but I am proud to say, the kampong is still very much in me.

Next:  Returning to the Old groove

Dealing With Our Differences – Reflections on Mauludul Nabi

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

Dealing with Our Differences:  Reflections on Mauludul Nabi

The third Muslim month of Rabi al-Awwal holds special significance; Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. was born on its twelfth day.  While Muslims universally agree on its significance, there is little agreement on how the day should be observed.

            In many Muslim societies, Mauludul Nabi is celebrated with all the exuberance of a major festival, with elaborate celebrations and joyous activities.  Malaysia has public parades with believers singing praises of the prophet s.a.w. and glittering ceremonies honoring exemplary citizens.  It is also a public holiday.  In the Middle East, festivities of Mauludul Nabi rival that of Eid.

There are those who believe that as Muslims we should always be mindful of the prophet’s teachings and exemplary ways every single day of our life; his birthday should therefore be no different from any other day.  Celebrations or expressions of joy were frowned upon if not condemned as aping the Christians with their Christmas.  That Holy Day has today degenerated into another highly commercialized holiday, its religious foundation all but forgotten.

             In my small California community, for Mauldul Nabi we had a potluck dinner with our imam giving a short lecture recalling the sterling exemplary qualities of our prophet s.a.w.  We did not “celebrate” as much as honor the day.  With that we were able to accommodate the differing views among our congregants.

Attitude towards the prophet’s birthday is not the only issue that divides our ummah.  There are also profound juristic differences (ikhtilaf).  In Pakistan, the Ismailis were once declared as heretics; today the Shiites are branded as kafir (infidel) – a particularly derogatory term.  Meanwhile in Malaysia, you are considered less a Muslim if not an outright kafir if you are not attired in a particular fashion.

In this season of Mauludal Nabi, we would do well to recall how the prophet s.a.w. and those closest to him dealt with differences among them.

He was able to establish a viable community in Medinah by creatively managing the differences not only among Muslims (between the immigrant Meccans and native Medinans) but also between Muslims and non-Muslims.  For the Muslims, he emphasized the commonalities among them, while with non-Muslims he accepted those differences and accommodated them.

 

Degree of Differences

Before we could creatively manage our differences we need to first understand them, their bases and dynamics.  At one extreme are those differences that arise through ignorance.  The solution is as obvious as it is simple:  better education.  At one time the Christians were wrecked with divisions between those who believed the earth was flat versus those who thought it was round.  With better knowledge, that issue is settled.  Today the earth is flat only metaphorically, as per Thomas Friedman.

Caliph Omar once asserted that the prophet said to him that the dead would bear the burden of those who wailed at his or her funeral.  The prophet’s wife Aishah rebutted by referring to the Quranic verse that says (approximately translated) no soul should bear the burden of another.

This incident highlights a number of relevant points.  One, we should not hesitate correcting our leaders if we feel they have erred.  This reminder is more for leaders.  Two, hadiths are not what the prophet s.a.w had uttered, rather what the chain of narrators (isnad) claimed to be the sayings of the prophet.  (Exceptions would be hadith qudzi documented in the Quran.)  This difference is subtle yet profound.  It led to the labeling of those who critically analyzed the hadith as “anti-hadith” and thus “us-Islamic.”  Last, we are blessed in Islam to have an ultimate point of reference not in an authority figure as the Pope, rather a set of documents that was set down at and had remained unchanged since the prophet’s time, and which we believe to be God’s word.  Our fatwas, practices, and hadiths must be validated against the Quran.

In enlightening someone, it is just as important to provide the correct knowledge as in delivering it.  A story is related that the prophet’s grandsons Hussain and Hassan once observed an older man performing ablution incorrectly.  They wanted to correct him but were afraid lest he would be offended.  They devised a plan to have the man judge them as to who was better at performing ablution.  As the two proceeded to perform their ablution, the old man suddenly discovered that he had been performing his incorrectly.  The lesson was effectively imparted.

Often in our self-righteousness and zeal to correct others, we may inadvertently turn them off.

 

Living With Our Differences

At the other extreme is where the differences are so profound as to be irreconcilable, as one being a believer and the other, an atheist.  No amount of education or debate could change that.  In the language of social science, that is an “indivisible conflict.”  It is much more dangerous precisely because it cannot be reconciled.  Religious and civil wars are vicious and difficult to resolve because they are based on indivisible conflicts.

Atheists and believers may have profound differences in their personal beliefs, nonetheless that should not stop them from affording each other the common courtesies as fellow human beings.  The goodwill generated through such social interactions would transcend their profound differences in beliefs, or make those differences irrelevant.  As to who would end up in Heaven, that is the prerogative of God, and only His.  Meanwhile they get to enjoy peace on earth.

When the prophet found that the divine revelations he received were irreconcilable with the existing beliefs of his fellow tribesmen, and he was unable to convert them, he chose (or instructed to by God) to move away rather than risk fratricide.  Thus began the Hijrah.

Between these two extremes of irreconcilable differences and one based on ignorance lie the bulk of the disagreements that divide us.  One is of the old half-full versus half-empty glass variety.  The reality is the same, only our perceptions differ.  We bring different beliefs, cultures, and experiences to bear on our perceptions.  The solution here would be to learn and appreciate the perspective of others.

A related source of difference is illustrated thus.  There is a place in Alaska where the qiblat could either be southeast, if we go by the usual Mercator projection of wall maps, or northwest over the pole if we use Google Earth.

The solution in this instance would be to go with the majority and pray that Allah accepts your prayers.  There would be chaos if one half of the congregation were to face one way and the other half, the opposite.  Heed the wisdom of the Quran:  Allah will not allow His community be in error.  Go with the consensus.

The recurring dispute over whether Ramadan and Eid should be based on moon sighting or calculations falls into this category.

A comparable disagreement arose during the prophet’s time.  In a widely quoted narration, the prophet instructed his followers on a journey to pray Asar at Bani Quraizah.  The party however was delayed and Asar time came while they were enroute.  Disagreement arose as to whether they should stop and pray or wait till they reach their destination.  Half stopped to pray and the other half did not.  At the end of their journey they sought the prophet’s advice and was told that both were correct.

These days hardly a gathering goes by without someone lamenting on the lack of Muslim unity.  If only we were united and not divided into the various sects, our problems would go away.  On the contrary, as in the biological world, the success of Islam is precisely because of our diversity.  It is this that makes Islam universal, adaptable to the nomadic Bedouin tribesmen, the tropical Malaysian fishermen, and dwellers of Mongolian steppes.

We should view differences amongst us as a sign of Allah’s Grace, as eloquently stated in the Quran.  We should go beyond mere tolerating to embracing it.  We should expand our horizon and view our differences in generous terms.  As with America, our diversity is our strength, not our weakness.  Muslim unity does not mean and should not lead to Muslim unanimity.

 

Dina Zaman’s I Am Muslim

Saturday, April 14th, 2007

Hookers, Hustlers and Holy Men:  Dina Zaman on Being A Malaysian Muslim Today

Farish A. Noor

April 2, 2007

I Am Muslim. By Dina Zaman. Silverfish Books, Kuala Lumpur. 2007. 237 pages. Paperback.

Dina Zaman’s I Am Muslim is, in many ways, a timely book that states what should have been stated publicly long ago.

Indeed the very title of the book, taken from the title of her column, is already a statement in itself: “I am Muslim”. And what a statement it is, at once confessional as it is assertive, particular and yet curiously universal, an appeal for acceptance, understanding, sympathy, support, celebration and ever so commonsensical and commonplace.

I Am Muslim (IAM) is the edited collection of Dina Zaman’s columns that first appeared on the on-line newspaper Malaysiakini.com, and in them Dina explores the complex world of ordinary Malaysian Muslims living in the here-and-now of Kuala Lumpur as well as the Malay heartland somewhere out there in the unchartered region between Utopia and Nostalgia.

Those who have read Dina’s IAM articles would know that many of them were written in the somewhat hybrid format of narrative-interviews, an eclectic medium that suited the eclectic crowd she was trying to portray. Perhaps in the end this was the only way that such articles could have been written in the first place, for no degree of empirical certitude could be gauged by scientific studies on the subject; nor would the statistics (if any believable ones can still be found in the country) vouchsafe the testimonies of those whose voices come to life in these pieces. Interestingly, the articles appear to be better served by their publication in book format, for what the reader feels and gets from the individual pieces pales in comparison to the overall sense of pathos that emerges after having read many of them, and having taken some objective distance from the book. I Am Muslim is better (re)read in afterthought, for at the immediate moment of reading these stories we are confronted by contradictions so apparent, so poignant, and sometimes so ridiculous, in the lives of the subjects that little of it makes sense, if at all. But stepping back from them we view the subject in his or her complexity, with the pain, anguish, hope and longings of these people coming to life on a broader canvas.

The rationale behind these pieces was to catch a glimpse of the interior life of Muslims in Malaysia, be they pen-pushing religious bureaucrats, horny housewives, traditionally-dressed and modestly-attired hookers or urban hustlers running just one step ahead of their lagging guilt ad injured consciences. Nor does the author spare herself from the survey.

For continuation, please click:  http://www.othermalaysia.org/content/view/75/

 

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #1

Wednesday, April 11th, 2007

[Note: Beginning today, and on every Wednesday, I will post the serialization of my latest book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia: Development Challenges for the Twenty-First Century. Each installment would be about 1-2,000 words. At nearly500 pages, the whole book should be completely serialized in about two years. Students may get a complimentary copy of the e-version of the book by e-mailing me directly. MBM]

Towards A Competitive Malaysia

Development Challenges in the Twenty-First Century

M. Bakri Musa

Author of The Malay Dilemma Revisited

All Rights Reserved ã 2006 by M. Bakri Musa

Tanah Airku

Di atas garisan Gunung Ledang

Merenung jauh beta memandang

Tampaklah hutan rimba dan ngarai

Lagi pun sawah, telaga nan permai:

Serta gerangan lihatlah pula

Langit yang hijau bertukar warna

Oleh pucuk daun kelapa:

Itulah tanah airku

Malaysia namanya, tumpah darahku.

[With apologies to the Indonesian poet, Muhammad Yamin (1903-1962). His original poem appears in the reference.]

My translation:

My Native Land

High atop the ridge at Gunung Ledang

Amidst the vast grandeur this thought had sprung.

Yonder verdant jungle, lush fields of paddy

Sustained by springs perpetual and pristine

Such intoxicating beauty this blessed country!

The skies above with splashes of green

Lithe coconut fronds swaying so smoothly.

This is my claim, this is my stage

Malaysia is its name; my native land, my heritage.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter 1: Introduction, Overview, and Acknowledgments

Part One On Being Competitive

Chapter 2: Ideas on the Evolution of Societies – From Ibn Khaldun to Jared Diamond

Chapter 3: The Diamond of Development

Chapter 4: On Being Competitive

Chapter 5: Consequences of Progress and Prosperity

Part Two Basic Building Blocks

Chapter 6: Great Nation, Great Leaders

Chapter 7: People: Our Precious Asset

Chapter 8: Culture Counts

Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

Chapter 10: Bless Our Geography

Part Three Where We Are Now

Chapter 11: Learning From Our Successes

Chapter 12: Fragmentation of Malaysian Society

Chapter 13: Deteriorating Institutions

Chapter 14: Environmental, Regional, and Global Challenges

Chapter 15: Examining Past Policies

Chapter 16: Critique of Current Strategies

Part Four Where We Could Be

Chapter 17: Granting Malaysians Their Merdeka

Chapter 18: Beacon for the Malay World

Chapter 19: Islam: The Solution, Not the Problem

Chapter 20: East, West, Islam, and Malaysia

Chapter 21: Gemilang Cemerlang, Terbilang … Atau Temberang!

(Excellence, Glory, and Distinction … Or Merely Hot Air!)

Chapter 22: Summary: Open Letter to Prime Minster Abdullah Badawi

Chapter 1:

Introduction, Overview, and Acknowledgments

Globalization brings the reality of an ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse world to the forefront. For Malaysians, such diversities have long been part of their everyday life. Today, the Malaysian drama of competing racial and other interests is also being played on a much larger scale and with far greater consequences on the global stage.

Malaysia’s success could offer the world a lesson or two on managing diversity, quite apart from the benefits Malaysians would reap. With failure, Malaysians alone would bore the terrible consequences, with the greater world simply ignoring them. Consider the global reactions to the continuing tragedy in such places as Darfur and the Balkans where ethnic diversity is a horrendous liability. That stark reality alone should motivate Malaysians, citizens and leaders alike, to succeed.

Chronicling the Malaysian story is thus a worthy endeavor. With this book I venture beyond simple narration by being critical as well as prescriptive. My motivation is to contribute to the success of the Malaysian experiment.

I began formulating my ideas soon after the 1999 general elections when it was obvious that it would be Prime Minister Mahathir’s last. I had hoped to be done by the time his successor assumed office on November 2003. The delay was fortuitous as it enabled me to assess his successor’s early performance instead of merely speculating how Abdullah Badawi would turn out to be.

If Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi were to complete his full five-year mandate that he received in the general elections of May 2004, the midway point would be November 2006. That would also mark his third anniversary in office. He had presented three Federal budgets, and on March 31st, 2006 he unveiled the Ninth Malaysia Plan (9MP), his development blueprint for the next five years.

We should be able to discern the direction he is heading, or whether he has been merely running around in circles. From his tracks we should also be able to gauge whether his steps are sure and deliberate, or flighty and light.

A few months before Mahathir transferred power to Abdullah, I participated in a panel discussion in Washington, D.C, on what to expect in the post-Mahathir years. My view was that we should not expect much from Abdullah. At best he would merely coast along; Malaysia should count its blessings if he would not mess things up. Mine was definitely a minority viewpoint.1

It is premature to give Abdullah his final report card, but we can give him an interim evaluation. That is my purpose with this book.

Unlike with an undergraduate’s progress report where there is a graded evaluation, this exercise is more akin to a preliminary preview of a graduate student’s development. There are no grades, merely suggestions on improving the experimental model and ideas for possible further exploration. The objective is to ensure that valuable time would not be wasted and that the final dissertation would be complete, acceptable, and possibly exemplary.

The primary beneficiary of an excellent dissertation would be the candidate, with the supervisors and department sharing in the reflected glory. If Abdullah’ tenure is successful, the primary beneficiaries would be Malaysia and Malaysians. For Abdullah, he would have earned the gratitude of the nation. That must surely be the greatest reward and an enduring legacy.

The mark of great leadership is not where you have been or started at, rather where you are headed for and ended up. Initial reservations and expectations are therefore irrelevant; only the final results matter.

Next: The Power of Words

Looking For Some Jantans

Sunday, April 8th, 2007

Looking For Some Jantans

M. Bakri Musa

From Malaysia-Today.net  April 7, 2007

Saddam Hussein did not by himself destroy Iraq; likewise Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe.  These leaders did not become tyrants overnight.  They became monsters only because of the inactions and silence of their followers.  No one had the gumption to restrain them; there were no jantans (alpha males).

These leaders began with the best of intentions and noblest of motives.  The seed of their (and consequently also their country’s) destruction was sown when their early strays were not corrected.  The lack of jantans emboldened these leaders, enabling their suppressed evilness to surface.  Once they morphed into monsters, they could no longer be restrained; they simply devoured everything in their path.

In apportioning blame for the evils perpetrated by these monsters, the culpability of those “enablers” must also be properly accounted for.  They too must be held responsible even though many have already paid dearly with their life.

 

Not Yet A Monster

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is not a tyrant or monster leader, not yet.  With no jantan in his cabinet and UMNO Supreme Council to restrain him, rest assured he will be, and soon.  In the short period since assuming leadership, he has demonstrated many disturbing traits.  He is increasingly intolerant of criticisms, self righteously dismissing his critics as engaging in fitnah, a particularly derisive term deep with religious connotations.

His campaign commitment to integrity was a cruel hoax perpetrated on the electorate.  He tolerated individuals with tainted reputation.  Earlier there were Kasitah Gaddam and Isa Samad; today Deputy Minister Johari and ACA Director Zulkipli.  Under Abdullah, Malaysia has become even more corrupt.

Abdullah is ethically blind to the obscenely rapid accumulation of wealth by his family members.  We would gladly bask in the reflected racial glory had they acquired their wealth through business acumen or entrepreneurial flair.  Instead, they became fabulously wealthy only after Abdullah became Prime Minister, an ugly fact obvious to all except them.

When hundreds of thousands of our citizens were displaced because of massive floods in Johore, Abdullah saw fit to open his brother’s restaurant in Perth.  Such irresponsible and perverted sense of priority!

In all these lapses, there was nary a word of disapproval much less reprimand from the pundits, intellectuals, and editorial writers.  They were curiously silent, a tacit approval for such shenanigans.  We look forlornly for some jantan who could have taken the leadership to task.  Alas, there were none!  Instead we have kaki upahan (hired hands) galore.  The surprise is that they could be had so cheaply.

That Abdullah Badawi has not risen to his position is not the issue.  He demonstrates the classic Peter Principle (of being promoted beyond his competence level) long before becoming Prime Minister.

The nation should not be held captive to former Prime Minister Mahathir’s mistake in selecting Abdullah.  Abdullah’s 2004 landslide electoral victory should not be the excuse for tolerating his continued incompetence and sinister tendencies.  President Nixon’s evil character remained hidden right through his landslide re-election.  Only through the jantan in the person of the special prosecutor was Nixon finally exposed.

We should not let Abdullah interpret his massive electoral victory as a license for his (and his family’s) personal enrichment.  This seemingly religious man, with previously modest taste, has suddenly acquired a fondness for luxury yachts, executive jets, and opulent mansions.  To think that only a few years back when he was kicked out of the cabinet – and with that, out of his government-provided quarters – this “imam” could not even afford a house!  The man’s expensive taste is as recent as it is vulgar.

 

Thank God for Malaysians!

Fortunately Malaysia does not lack for jantans.  Our numbers may not be large enough to throw the rascal out in an election, but we do make our voices heard.

While mainstream editors are content with reprinting government press releases and reporting trivia like the Prime Minister getting yet another royal award, the real journalists and professionals have long abandoned the mainstream media.  Ahirudin Attan is now more influential with his Rocky’s Bru website than when he was with the Malay Mail.  Steven Gan’s Malaysiakini has long been a staple for serious Malaysia observers.  Raja Petra Kamarudin’s Malaysia-Today.net regularly registers nearly two million hits daily.  None of the mainstream media could claim even a tiny fraction of that figure!

The alternative media’s success reflects the hunger Malaysians have for independent news and views.  It also reflects their contempt for the mainstream media.  Despite endless changes in format, editors, and management, the New Straits Times continues to decline, in quality and circulation.

A few jantans are also emerging in academia.  Law professor Azmi Sharom’s commentaries are a refreshing departure from the usual toadying pieces.  Attorney Malik Imtiaz bravely takes on the powerful religious establishment with his fearless defense of religious freedom.

Ordinary Malaysians too are asserting themselves.  Former Anti Corruption Agency official Ramli Manan already caused the non-renewal of his chief’s (Zulkifli) contract.  Ramli did what Abdullah Badawi could not – getting rid of Zulkifli.

In Parliament, jantans like Lim Kit Siang may not get satisfactory answers to his serious queries, but he successfully exposed the stupidities of government ministers and backbenchers, as well as other hired hands.

Another ray of hope is emerging from the most unlikely source.  The Raja Muda of Perak spoke passionately on the importance of the rule of law and the supremacy of our constitution.  He declared that good and upright leadership must be demonstrated, and our nation’s problems must not simply be wished away.  In nation building, Raja Nazrin went on, enforced solutions must be avoided, and the political, social and economic incentives must reward good behaviors and penalize the bad.

He was addressing young Malaysians with those wise words.  Looks like our older leaders need to hear that same message loud and clear, now that they are becoming increasingly deaf, literally and metaphorically.

It is a supreme irony that while a generation ago it was the political leaders who bravely reined in the excesses of the sultans, today it is a Raja Muda who has subtly taken our political leaders to task.

Raja Nazrin as well as brave citizens like Ramli Manan give us hope.  Their vigilance is the best guard against the development of our homegrown Saddam Husseins and Robert Mugabes.

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia – Concluding Thoughts

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

Some thought:

Last week was the final installment of my An Education System Worthy of Malaysia book.  I have thought long and hard of what to add since I finished writing that book in 2003.  Nothing has changed, if anything matters have gotten worse.

In gathering my thought I came across a poem by the young Indonesian poet Argus Sarjono.  He was lamenting the sorry state of Indonesian schools but his sentiments could well apply to our situation in Malaysia.  His poem captures my frustration with our schools.  I tried hard to translate it into English but was unsuccessful, so it remains in Bahasa Indonesia.  In his poetry, Argus writes of the edifice of falsehood starting right from the early years at school where the pupils fake their obedience and reverence for their teachers, and the teachers who fake their teachings, and the authorities with their  fake credentials and qualifications.  In the end we have built a grand edifice of falsehood that awaits its time of massive collapse.  Enjoy the poetry!  Reposted with permission of the poet.

Sajak Palsu

Agus R Sarjono

Selamat pagi pak, selamat pagi bu, ucap anak sekolah
dengan sapaan palsu.  Lalu merekapun belajar
sejarah palsu dari buku-buku palsu.  Di akhir sekolah
mereka terperangah melihat hamparan nilai mereka
yang palsu.  Karena tak cukup nilai, maka berdatanganlah
mereka ke rumah-rumah bapak dan ibu guru
untuk menyerahkan amplop berisi perhatian
dan rasa hormat palsu.  Sambil tersipu palsu
dan membuat tolakan-tolakan palsu, akhirnya pak guru
dan bu guru terima juga amplop itu sambil berjanji palsu
untuk mengubah nilai-nilai palsu dengan
nilai-nilai palsu yang baru.  Masa sekolah
demi masa sekolah berlalu, merekapun lahir
sebagai ekonom-ekonom palsu, ahli hukum palsu,
ahli pertanian palsu, insinyur palsu.
Sebagian menjadi guru, ilmuwan
atau seniman palsu.  Dengan gairah tinggi
mereka menghambur ke tengah pembangunan palsu
dengan ekonomi palsu sebagai panglima
palsu.  Mereka saksikan
ramainya perniagaan palsu dengan ekspor
dan impor palsu yang mengirim dan mendatangkan
berbagai barang kelontong kualitas palsu.
Dan bank-bank palsu dengan giat menawarkan bonus
dan hadiah-hadiah palsu tapi diam-diam meminjam juga
pinjaman dengan ijin dan surat palsu kepada bank negeri
yang dijaga pejabat-pejabat palsu. Masyarakatpun berniaga
dengan uang palsu yang dijamin devisa palsu.  Maka
uang-uang asing menggertak dengan kurs palsu
sehingga semua blingsatan dan terperosok krisis
yang meruntuhkan pemerintahan palsu ke dalam
nasib buruk palsu.  Lalu orang-orang palsu
meneriakkan kegembiraan palsu dan mendebatkan
gagasan-gagasan palsu di tengah seminar
dan dialog-dialog palsu menyambut tibanya
demokrasi palsu yang berkibar-kibar begitu nyaring
dan palsu.

1998