Archive for November, 2008

Changing Mindsets

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

Changing Mindsets

M. Bakri Musa

[Talk given at a forum at the University of Buffalo, on November 1, 2008, themed “Alif Ba Ta, Towards the New Malay,” organized by Kelab UMNO New York-New Jersey.]

We are familiar with E H Weber’s three-bowl water experiment where if you were to put your right hand in a basin of warm water and the left in cold, and then both in a bowl of water at room temperature, the right would feel it as cold while the left, warm. The physical reality is the same yet your perception is very different, in fact the very opposite.

Dispensing with the philosophical discussion on the meaning of reality, I would modify the oft-quoted observation that “perception is reality” to “perception creates the reality.”

We view reality through our own special lens, which imparts its own hue and tint, the consequence of our experiences and expectations as shaped by, among others, our culture, language, and environment. Language especially, as it is more than just a means of communication; it is also our collective way of looking at and understanding the world, the basic thesis of Edward Sapir.

Additionally, the reality we perceive depends on how it is being framed. Framing, by definition, means highlighting certain elements and excluding others.

Fixed Versus Growth Mindset

While we cannot remove those personal lenses, we can be made aware of the consequent possible distortions and amplifications. One way would be to purposefully put on another pair of lens over it. Only then would we notice that all lenses carry their own special tinting and refracting.

Behind those lenses is our brain that processes all these signals and tries to discern the pattern. This neurological complex is our mindset, the fixed mental attitude or disposition that predetermines our responses to and interpretations of situations; our inclination or habit.

The Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that one has either a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset.” The first group view their talent and ability as fixed, and that their lot in life is ultimately tied up with their innate nature.

Those with the growth mindset believe that their fate is dependent on how adaptive they are in seizing opportunities, as well as how well they grow with and adapt to their experiences. They do not believe that their fate is dependent on what nature had bestowed upon them, the benevolence of some remote emperor, or what had been written in the book of life.

In medieval times those of the fixed mindset believed that their fate was set at birth. Born a peasant and you would always remain one, and so would your children and their children. This was continually reinforced by cultural beliefs and religious convictions (predetermination). In this scientific age, those with a fixed mindset attribute their success to their innate ability, which ultimately is related to their genes.

Scientific sophism aside, this biologic determinism is just as crippling as the religious pre-determinism of yore (or still is today in many Muslim societies).

The good news is that even if you are of the fixed mindset, you can change it into the growth mindset. Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, suggests a number of ways of recognizing whether you are of a fixed mindset, and then learning on how to change it to a growth one.

Changing mindset requires tackling the problem at two levels: individual and societal. Your being here at this conference means that you already have a growth mindset, you have the curiosity to consider contrasting viewpoints.

Your studying at an American university means that you are primed for a growth mindset. To come here you have to have learned English, which is not your native language. That also opens up your mind to looking at the world in a different way, as per Sapir’s thesis. The earlier you learn this second language the greater is the ease with which you can learn it, and the easier is it for you to appreciate that reality can be viewed from different perspectives. This confers other significant cognitive advantages.

Coming here also means living in a different culture in the formative years of your life, another growth mindset primer. To get the maximal benefit however, you must partake fully in your new environment and seize it as an opportunity to enrich your life. You would limit this opportunity were you to cocoon yourself within the familiar environment of your campus and fellow countrymen.

American universities have a unique tradition of liberal education. The best definition of a liberal education is this: It cultivates the mind and refines judgment. Few systems of higher education in the world offer this opportunity to indulge your intellectual curiosity, and explore disciplines that at this stage may seem unrelated to your ultimate career choice. I say at this stage, for as you advance in your career you will find that you will fall back on the wisdom and insights you have gleaned from those apparently unrelated disciplines.

These advantages would be for naught if you have a fixed mindset. Indeed that would only reinforce your preexisting perceptions and prejudices, what social scientists refer to as “confirmation bias,” the tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms your preconceptions and avoid those that do not. If you believe that the West is inherently decadent, then when visiting Washington, D.C., all you would see only are the porn shops, street potholes, and the homeless pandering. You would certainly miss Georgetown University, Library of Congress, and the National Institutes of Health.

The writer Anis Sabirin, a former Fulbright scholar and who spent decades living in Los Angeles, related in her memoir Dua Dunia (Two Worlds) her experience driving across America and visiting the Library of Congress. She was treated with the utmost courtesy and given all the help she needed, in contrast to her miserable experience at the University of Malaya library where she was a former faculty member!

Anis Sabirin is a Claremont PhD in economics; she is the beneficiary of America’s tradition of liberal education. Even though she is passionate about her love for Malaysia as reflected in her stirring syairs, yet she has an open attitude to discern these differences. That is the essence of having a growth mindset.

These two activities – traveling and reading (as reflected by visiting libraries) – are the best ways to enhance a growth mindset, as long as you keep an open mind and be aware of the dangers of confirmation bias. Restrictions on travel, standard in China, Russia and other repressive societies, together with book banning and burning, are the crudest expression of this fixed mindset.

While all of you here are primed for a growth mindset, the opportunities for those back home are much more restricted if not non-existent. Even if they were so inclined to be curious and explore new vistas, the environment is far from conducive, in fact it is downright repressive.

Personal Merdeka

Tradition has it that when an Orang Asli young man comes of age, he would be given his axe and then told to leave the tribal home to fend for himself in the jungle. That is one quick and sure way to learn your way in this world! This ritual “leaving home” symbolizes liberation, a personal merdeka of sorts. The axe represents the appropriate tool for surviving the jungle. That is what we should be doing with our young; liberate them and equip them with the necessary tool, which in the current world would mean knowledge.

We can nurture a growth mindset in our young through enlightened educational policies. One way would be to develop the child’s full spectrum of talent, from learning a second language early to exposing them to the performing and fine arts as well as sports. Only through this wide exposure would we ensure not missing the child’s hidden talent. Further, studies have shown that when a child excels in one area, that transfers on to other areas.

Our universities should emphasize liberal education, with students exposed to the humanities as well as the social and natural sciences regardless of their ultimate career choices. Professional qualifications like law and medicine should be graduate degrees after having obtained a solid liberal education.

As for culture, its tendency is inherently conservative, towards maintaining the status quo. Culture nurtures the fixed mindset, especially so in traditional societies. Malay culture is definitely that, with its emphasis on titles, honorifics, and social hierarchy.

This deference is reinforced by our religion, or rather the way we teach it. We emphasize taqlid, the following of edicts of earlier scholars. It is interesting that the word taql?d is derived from the root qallada, meaning, “to place a collar (qil?dah) around the neck,” thus leading someone “by the collar.”

We should pay due deference to precedents so as to maintain stability, but we should not be trapped by it. To me that is what taqlid means, not blindly following those before you but being guided by them.

Fear of Failure

One crucial cultural attribute to enhancing the growth mindset is the healthy attitude towards failure. In Silicon Valley, a failed entrepreneur would recoup and then try again. He or she considers his failure as a badge of honor, at least on becoming successful. Failure is viewed as a learning experience. In Malay culture we berate those who have bravely tried but failed, instead of offering help and encouragement. Worse, he or she would forever be tagged as a failure and be looked upon as reflecting all the inadequacies of his race.

This fear of and stigma associated with failure are destructive. As Hamka wisely observed, “Takut gaggal adalah gagal sejati!” (The fear of failure is the real failure).

Mistakes and failures are part of life. Physicians have a pragmatic approach to mistakes. In making clinical decisions, all things being equal, we would pursue a path where should we make a mistake it would be more readily corrected than one where our mistakes would be more difficult to remedy. For example, surgeons will opt to operate on a suspected acute appendicitis and find out that it is normal (that is, a “mistake”) rather than risk missing an inflamed appendix that would later rupture and put the patient’s life in jeopardy.

Geography also plays a role in shaping our mindset. Throughout the world coastal areas and others exposed to large body of water are more cosmopolitan than inland. In China, it is Shanghai; Malaysia, Malacca; and India, Goa. With the traditional mode of transportation being over water, areas easily accessible to water would be open to new visitors (traditionally mainly traders). Their residents are thus used to the infusion of new people, cultures, and ideas.

I end my discussion on changing mindset by referring to that delightful feature animation movie, Happy Feet. Even if we are all singers, we should still respect those who cannot sing, for they may well be great dancers. Their rhythmic dancing may complement our fine singing. That film captures the essence of what I am trying to convey here about having an open mind and a growth mindset.

A Fatwa Against Yoga? How Would This Reflect on Muslims?

Friday, November 28th, 2008

Guest commentary:

By Farish A. Noor

Since I became an activist at the age of 19 I have spent more than two decades of my life defending Muslims and the image of Islam. During my 22 years of living in Europe, I must have attended hundreds of conferences, seminars, public debates and lectures where I tried my best to dissuade people from the negative image of Islam that is so prevalent in the international media of late.

But there were moments when it seemed as if this was an uphill struggle where every battle won was soon followed by a string of defeats, thanks to the actions of Muslims who took it upon themselves to ‘defend Islam’ on their own parochial and short-sighted terms; and whose actions and words did untold damage to the image of Muslims. I recall one particularly bitter episode when I was asked to speak about the universalism of Islam – that took place just when the Taliban were occupied with the task of blowing up the Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. It seemed pointless to continue then, and despair has been my lot for the past few years.

Now I find myself again in such a situation, after it was announced that the Fatwa Council of Malaysia has just issued a fatwa declaring that the practice of Yoga is haram and thus forbidden to Muslims. Overnight I was bombarded by emails and sms-es from my Islamist friends in Indonesia where I teach at two Islamic universities, who asked, “What is wrong with you Malaysian Muslims, and haven’t you got anything better to do?” How do I reply to such a question when I am forced to ask it myself?

That the Malaysian Fatwa Council could even contemplate issuing a fatwa on Yoga of all things beggars belief. It leaves many Muslims and non-Muslims alike stunned and speechless for it would suggest that the state of normative religiosity in Malaysia has sunk to such a shallow and superficial level that only the most mundane issues are deemed worthy enough to gain the attention of the country’s ‘defenders of the faith’.

There are three issues that I would like to raise. Firstly it should be noted that for millions of people around the world who may be Hindus or non-Hindus, Yoga is seen primarily as a form of exercise and little else. In Europe where Yoga has been popular since the 1960s, millions of Europeans have been practicing it in their spare time as a hobby or part of their health regimes, with scant attention to its religious and spiritual connotations. If it were indeed the case that Yoga forms an intrinsic part of Hindu belief and that it can be used as a means to convert non-Hindus to Hinduism, then there ought to be millions of Hindus all over Western Europe by today! So where on earth are these closet European Hindus then? Has anyone considered this commonsensical point with any degree of reflection or honesty? If Yoga is seen as merely a regime of exercise, then how on earth does sitting cross-legged miraculously transform me into a Hindu? It would be akin to suggesting that continual consumption of curry would eventually make me an Indian; we can all see how patently ridiculous that is.

Secondly, let us be clear about something: Yoga practices have been part of Southeast Asian culture for more than four thousand years and they are as much a part of Asian society as many of the other cultural legacies left by the period of ancient Indianisation. Another practice that has become normalized and localized over the past four millennia is the practice of massage, which is hugely popular in predominantly-Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia as it is in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Look at the relief carvings on the temples of Prambanan and Borobudur and it will be seen that massage was prevalent during the Hindu-Buddhist period and the detailed carvings show that what Malay-Muslims call ‘urut’ or ‘picit’ (pressure-point massage) was practiced as far back as the Sanjaya and Sailendra dynasties. Today picit and urut are still popular among Malaysian and Indonesian Muslims, and is practiced by Muslims. Has this ancient form of therapy transformed us into Hindus too? Certainly not, so why the fuss over Yoga?

Thirdly, the declaration that Yoga is haram has robbed Malaysia and Malaysians of yet another neutral civic space where Malaysians of all walks of life can meet and interact as Malaysians and friends. As someone who has been practicing Yoga since the age of nineteen, I can say for certain that many of the Yoga classes I have attended were plural, cosmopolitan gatherings where Malaysians of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds can meet and form lasting friendships and acquaintances. To declare this practice haram for Muslims effectively robs us of another space where we can meet other people, thus constraining our personal freedoms and limiting the choices in our lives.

Muslims in Malaysia are more closely guarded and policed than ever before, with more and more laws, rules and restrictions on how we dress, eat, speak, interact and even marry and form relationships with. After this fatwa on Yoga, what will be next? A fatwa on karate, kung-fu, pilates, Qi Jong?

At the root of the matter is the fact that the Malaysian Fatwa Council has acted unilaterally once again by issuing a blanket prohibition in the name of Islam and all Muslims. Well, I did not vote or elect any of the members of this council; and neither did any other Muslims in the country. Here lies the real problematic of power behind such appointed bodies that have been given so much power and authority over our lives. Lest it be forgotten, the only body that is allowed to legislate on our behalf as Malaysian citizens is Parliament that was elected by the citizenry. Yet over the past three decades of an Islamisation process that has gone out of control, more and more non-elected and non-democratic bodies have been created that wield enormous power over the lives of Malaysians, particularly Muslims.

What has aroused the anger of Malaysian Muslims in the case of this fatwa is the fact that it was issued unilaterally without any consultation with society. This reflects the extent to which the Fatwa council is in fact a body that is not answerable to the Malaysian public. More so than a question of theology or theocratic details and fine-print, the workings of the Fatwa Council in Malaysia has demonstrated the workings of a state that has abdicated its responsibility to lead the way towards a modern, progressive Islam that is relevant to the plural and multicultural world we live in today. Yet ironically all this is happening under the watch of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who made it his project to promote an ‘Islam Hadari’ that is modern and tolerant. How, pray tell, can there be a tolerant, moderate and modern Islam when books are banned on a monthly basis and Muslims are not even allowed to exercise and meditate in peace? And once again, it is the image of Islam that has suffered the most.

Towards a Competitive Malaysia #82

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

Chapter 12: Fragmentation of Malaysian Society

Race Relations in Malaysia

The deadly race riots of 1969 and other minor incidents since then excepted, Malaysia is a model of interracial harmony. It is instructive that the 1969 riots coincided with the modern flare-ups of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. While Malaysians today are living in relative harmony, the folks in Northern Ireland are still busy settling their deadly scores.

Only Canada and Switzerland have a better record. Australians who love to lecture Malaysians on matters racial conveniently forget that it was only recently that they did away with their odiously racist White Australia Policy. Their handling of their own minorities in particular their Aborigines is far from exemplary. Canada offers many useful lessons. It successfully healed not only the delicate and often volatile English/French dilemma, but also its relationships with its indigenous groups like the Inuit and Indians.5 The French separatist movement in Quebec is now dissipating, with young Quebecois more concerned with economics than politics. In the past they were busy memorizing their catechism and lining up to enter the monasteries; today, armed with their engineering talent and business skills, they are busy capturing global markets. Whereas in the past, schools and colleges in Quebec were heavy on religion, today they emphasize the sciences and mathematics. There is an important lesson here for Malaysia.

Race relations in Malaysia are comparable if not superior to that in America. Both adopt radically different approaches in integrating their diverse citizens, and both are equally successful in their own way. Malaysia opts for the salad bowl model; America, the melting pot. The Malaysian model is better suited for the globalized world.

The Americans would have immigrants be acculturated into the mainstream as quickly as possible. This works, at least until recently, for two reasons. The first is that there is a dominant and successful preexisting culture, that of the Anglo-Saxons. Second, those early European immigrants were forced out of their homeland; they were more than eager to integrate. The Russians and Polish with their tongue twisting names readily anglicized them to meld with the mainstream, with Pawlinsky becoming Paul, and Steyvenovich, plain Stevens. The Chinese, brought in to work on the railways, too readily anglicized their names, with Lui morphing into Louie. Not exactly Anglo-Saxon, but close enough, and certainly less Chinese, at least in print. Today even though Chinese New Year is celebrated with exuberance in San Francisco, most American Chinese are indifferent to the occasion, having been totally acculturated to the American way.

Unlike their counterpart in Malaysia, American Chinese have no desire to champion their language, culture, or way of life. They do not seek to have their own schools or have Chinese New Year declared a public holiday.

The recent massive influx of Hispanic immigrants challenged this model. Unlike earlier European immigrants who had to cross the vast ocean and thus had no thought of ever returning home, these Hispanics (primarily Mexicans) had only to cross the Rio Grande or scale the fence along the southern American border.

They come and go frequently and have little need to adopt or adapt to the American way. They hang on to their culture, language and way of life, with little incentive to merge into the mainstream.

They could survive and indeed thrive within their barrios, complete with their own shops, radio and television channels, newspapers and magazines, and other amenities. In tandem with their increasing economic clout is their rising political power. Hispanics also have the highest fertility rates; this translates directly into significant political assets. In the last general elections, the major presidential candidates went out of their way to court Hispanic votes by addressing rallies in Spanish.

There is a growing backlash to their seeming resistance to merge into the mainstream and defying the melting pot tradition. It is as if they are telling earlier immigrants that they need not give up their heritage to be Americans. Chinese and Indian immigrants to Malaysia too came not to settle but to work on the tin mines and rubber estates. They were exclusively men and had every intention of returning once they made their fortune. Only a few did. Besides, life in Malaysia as a coolie under the British, though lonely and tough, was considerably better than back in China where they would be preyed upon by their predatory warlords.

These immigrants with their balek tongsan (returning to the motherland) sentiments made no attempt at learning the local ways, much less integrating with the local populace. The exceptions were the “Straits Chinese”—the Nyonyas and Babas—who came much earlier; they adopted Malay ways, including the language and culture.

The dominant culture in pre-independent Malaysia was Anglo-Saxon, the colonialists’. Asian cultures including Malay were subsidiary and subservient, if not actively denigrated. All—Malays, Chinese and Indians—were consumed with trying to be Orang Puteh (White Man). They went to English schools, affected British accents, and wore suits even in the heat of the day. They did so because those reflected success.

When the British left, there was a cultural vacuum. Malays thought theirs was the dominant culture being that Malaysia was Tanah Melayu (lit. Land of the Malays) and they, the indigenous people. Unfortunately, Malays lacked economic power to enforce their contention. The only power they had was political, which they used effectively to enforce the dominance of Malay culture and language.

The Chinese thought that since they were the most powerful economically, their culture and language should be dominant, or at least be given equal standing. The Indians were (still are) marginal players. Not only were their numbers small, they were further subdivided into the various sub-ethnic groups, sharing little in common.

The battle for the alpha race or culture status was essentially between Malays and Chinese. This was reflected in the major racial skirmishes, including the two-week insurrection by the predominantly Chinese Malaysian Communist Party in 1948, and the 1969 riots.

Through legislative fiat, made possible through political power, Malays established the dominance of their culture, language, and mores. However, such matters cannot be mandated except in an authoritarian state, which Malaysia is surely not. Often, it is the market that rules. We see this in America with the increasing prominence of Hispanic culture and language in tandem with their increasing economic clout. In Malaysia, the economic clout of Malays is not commensurate with their political powers. Consequently Malays have difficulty establishing the reality of the supremacy of Malay culture and language.

Malay may be the official language, but Chinese newspapers and publications have a far greater share of the advertising dollar. Officially, Malay culture reigns supreme, but Chinese movies and celebrities command more fans. More tellingly, Chinese New Year holidays have much greater impact on day-to-day life in Malaysia than does Hari Raya. It is this gap between reality and aspiration that is at the root of Malay angst.

UMNO Crippled By Institutional Inertia

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

Notwithstanding the high hopes and exhilarated expectations of many, especially its members, the upcoming UMNO leadership elections [now deferred to March 2009] will not bring any change to the party. There will only be the changes of faces, nothing more. The party is crippled by institutional inertia; it is incapable of self-renewal, of making the desperately needed reforms to meet the changed environment.

All institutions suffer from some degree of inertia; that is how they maintain stability and continuity. The law of inertia, otherwise known as Newton’s First Law of Motion (“A body in motion tends to remain in motion, a body at rest tends to remain at rest.”), is not the curiosity of physics, it is also applicable to social systems.

The reason is obvious. Those currently benefiting from the status quo would vigorously resist attempts at change. The promised gains from any change will remain just that, a promise, and only a potential until that change is successfully accomplished. Meanwhile the loss is being felt right away whether the change is successful or not.

For another, the beneficiaries of the current system, while may be small in number, clearly see their self-interest linked with maintaining the status quo. They will be vigorous beyond their small numbers to resist change. Meanwhile the likely beneficiaries, even though they may be more numerous and even be the majority, are diffused. They have yet to be convinced that they would benefit from the change. Even if it could be shown that they would, they first would have to be convinced that the change would be feasible. Otherwise they would not risk investing their stake (personal and otherwise) to bring about the needed change.

Such an asymmetric dynamics will remain so until the later stages when the whole system would break down (or threaten to) and everyone would be the loser.

This is the perennial dilemma plaguing those charged with formulating public policies.

To its members, UMNO is not yet at that final stage; it will be inevitable come the next general elections, if not sooner. It lost significant power in this last elections but the magnitude of that loss has not registered on the members and leaders because they still maintain a simple majority at the federal level despite major losses elsewhere.

To UMNO, the last election was an aberration, not a portentous defeat, the harbinger of future collapse; hence the lack of a sense of urgency.

Re-Branding Instead of Re-Engineering

At the last UMNO Supreme Council meeting, the party’s governing and policymaking body, the leaders were preoccupied with “re-branding” the party. The assumption is that there is nothing wrong with the organization, only it is being wrongly perceived by voters. Hence the preoccupation is not with reforming the organization, rather with public relations exercises.

The millions spent by the party’s Youth and Puteri wings to set up cyber-troopers and UMNO-friendly websites reflects this mindset. When that did not work, party operatives did not re-examine their assumptions. Instead they assumed that they were right all along and re-directed their efforts towards intimidating and censoring individuals, organizations, publications, and websites they deemed hostile to UMNO in the hope to neutralize if not eliminate them. The jailing under the ISA of Malaysia-Today’s Raja Petra is part of this nefarious scheme.

This search for a convenient scapegoat, somebody or anybody to take the blame for the party’s recent electoral debacle, has also turned inwards. To me the surprise was how quickly the blame landed squarely on its leader Abdullah Badawi. After all, this was the leader who right after the last elections claimed that he still had a “victory.” Even more remarkable, his assertion was supported by everyone in the party, barring a few brave dissenting souls like Tengku Razaleigh.

Abdullah is without a doubt an inept, incompetent and far-from-incorrupt leader. His earlier “Mr. Clean” moniker is now a cruel joke. Though necessary, getting rid of Abdullah will not solve UMNO’s problems.

The party has yet to address the fundamental issue of how such a clearly untalented individual could have risen to its pinnacle of leadership. Thus far it has failed to do that.

UMNO’s biggest structural impediment to adopting reforms is its inability to attract new talent. This is due to three major factors. First is the concentration of power within the party, made worse by the coupling of party with governmental positions. State party leaders are also division heads, Supreme Council members, and heads of the party’s many wings. In addition they may be in the cabinet or holding senior government positions. Such a concentration of power not only breeds corruption in the party as well as in the government but it also inhibits the nurturing of fresh leadership talents.

Dismantling the system so party leaders are not allowed to hold more than one position would immediately open up many leadership channels, and a chance to preview new talents. A leader cannot be a division head, wing chief, and a Supreme Council member all at the same time, except in an ex-officio capacity. Nor should party leaders (except for the president) be appointed ministers. Decoupling party and governmental positions would also make these leaders more effective. It would also provide some rudiments of checks and balances, at least within the party. Besides, it is tough enough being a Youth leader without at the same time leading the Ministry of Education. You cannot do justice to either simultaneously.

The second impediment is that the current election system heavily favors incumbents. The glacial change in UMNO’s leadership matches only that of the old Soviet Politburo! Mahathir introduced this nomination barrier following his close leadership battle with Tengku Razaleigh back in 1987. It was meant to minimize divisive party politics, but the long-term price was high. Even Mahathir is now calling for dismantling it!

If the American Democratic Party had UMNO’s nomination system, it would not have discovered Barack Obama to be its presidential nominee.

The third deficiency is that there are no recruitments into UMNO at the senior levels. Its leaders all have to trek the ladder from the very bottom; consequently they are very insular and susceptible to dangerous “group think.” By the time they reach the top they are old and sclerotic. Many young and highly qualified potential candidates are too busy developing their careers to be bothered with party politics at the ground floor. Consequently those entering UMNO are those who by their own assessment feel that they could advance further and faster through UMNO than on their own. They are benefiting from and using the party, instead of the other way round. UMNO fails to attract the cream of the professions as they are too busy honing their skills.

The party provides for the president to “helicopter in” high profile candidates into its Supreme Council; he could appoint 10 out of its 40 members. No president save the late Tun Razak has wisely exercised this provision.

Looking at the crop of the next generation of UMNO leaders currently in its Youth and Puteri wings gives one little reason to be optimistic. Many are bright and talented, infused with generous doses of idealism – initially. Many professed their commitment to changing UMNO, but after being in the party, instead of changing the party they were changed by it. These young leaders are even more chauvinistic; they are hopelessly trapped in a warped time frame. They too are fond of the current system; this practically guarantees that UMNO will never grow.

The one bright spot is that at least UMNO Youth members collectively have yet to acquire the sheep-like mentality of their leaders. These youths have shown wisdom in nominating at least three candidates to lead their wing. They have not succumbed to the misplaced faith of their elders; at least these young members still believe in competition. Give them time, however!

Money politics, corruption at all levels, and continued factionalisms with various “warlords” exerting their controls are all signs of an organization unable to correct itself and incapable of self renewal.

The current leadership of UMNO is in no hurry to change the rules as they are clearly benefiting from the system. Besides, their mindset is already fixed; there is nothing wrong with UMNO, the fault lies with “them,” those outside the party. Consequently, expect the momentum towards UMNO’s implosion to remain unabated.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #81

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

Chapter 12: Fragmentation of Malaysian Society

The Divisiveness of Politics

Religion and elective politics are the two elements most responsible for the polarization of Malays (and also Malaysians). Political schisms are most pronounced naturally enough during UMNO and national elections. Perversely, UMNO elections are more pivotal because the party’s political hegemony has been unchallenged for over half a century, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. This is less a tribute to UMNO’s resilience and ability to change with the times but more the reflection of the weaknesses of the other parties. Whatever foibles and weaknesses UMNO has, the other parties have them worse.

During national elections, UMNO battles PAS specifically in the arena of Islam. Each would be consumed with burnishing its Islamic credentials, or to use Farish Noor’s phrase, to “out Islam the other.” Substantive economic and other issues are ignored.

During UMNO elections, the candidates are consumed with proving that they are the greatest defenders and champions of Malay rights and hegemony. It is at these times that expressions of Malay chauvinism are at their most ugly and crude.

In the past, such raw and nasty displays of racism by UMNO members would precipitate equally ballistic responses from members of the other races, in particular the Chinese. The results invariably were not pretty, with the May 1969 riot being the worse. Today in the heat of UMNO politics, its members would shamelessly make references to that hideous moment as if to prove their political manhood. They would be consumed with impressing others that they are the worthy modern day successors to Hang Tuah, the legendary warrior of feudal times. These UMNO warriors obviously view the 1969 incident as their moment of glory.

It would be best to ignore the antics and tantrums of these UMNO theater warriors. Behind every fiery rhetoric is a politician desperate for the members’ votes. Some non-Malays are slow at comprehending this; they have not quite grasped the essence of this Malay shadow play or sandiwara. Especially slow learners are DAP leaders like Lim Kit Siang. He and his supporters invariably get suckered into taking the bait. They end up merely amplifying the rhetoric and antics of these pseudo Hang Tuah wannabes.

Eventually even DAP leaders would learn that these UMNO personalities are merely engaging in a shadow boxing match, a wayang kulit (puppet show) of sorts, with only themselves and the dwindling faithful as the audience. Everyone else has turned them off or left the theater.

The religious polarization between UMNO and PAS is more problematic. There is no common external enemy to distract or make them rally together. In contrast, the political rivalry between UMNO and PAS could often be pushed aside by creating a presumed common enemy out there. The usual targets are the non-Malays, in particular the Chinese. That usually works, if only temporarily. Not so with the religious tussles between UMNO and PAS.

Non-Muslims are content to ignore this intra-faith battle among Malays; an unwise move as eventually it would affect them profoundly. If PAS wins (albeit a very remote possibility) and fulfills its promise of creating an Islamic state, non-Muslims would become essentially second-class citizens. If UMNO wins, it would be no different either as by then it would have been pushed far into the fundamentalist camp. There would not be much difference between UMNO and PAS in terms of their Islamic philosophy. The only difference is that UMNO is corrupt and PAS, incompetent.

This UMNO/PAS rivalry impacts Malays more than non-Malays. The biggest losers would be progressive, liberal Malays; the “winners” would be the fundamentalists. Their political “victory” would embolden them to become even more extreme. With the modern world passing them by, these fundamentalists would be forced to retreat further into their ever-shrinking shell. There they would preach their increasingly isolationist message to those who would be even more receptive, their fellow believers who are unable to adapt to the modern world.

Once in a while, out of sheer necessity they would emerge, not like what they see, and return to their shell even more galvanized to spread their message, with violence if need be. This is what is happening in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Non-Muslim Malaysians, immune to the influence of the fundamentalists, will increasingly become the relevant models for Malays who want to succeed. We already see this today, with otherwise chauvinistic Malay leaders unabashedly and without any trace of irony exhorting their followers to emulate the Chinese. The perennially impoverished conditions in Kedah, Trengganu and Kelantan, overwhelmingly Malay states that coincidentally also have strong Islamic influence, will further imprint on the minds of Malays that Islam equals backwardness.

If Malaysia were a closed society like Iran, I can see the fundamentalists tightening their grip. Even there, the fundamentalist are fast losing their hold, thanks to the influence of the Internet and satellite television. Iranian blogs are having far greater impact on young Iranians today than the Ayatollahs’ sermons.

Malays have already tasted the sweet fruits of freedom and free enterprise. They have the highest standard of living among Muslims including those from oil-rich Brunei and Saudi Arabia. Malays know that the modern amenities that make life so much more bearable if not downright enjoyable are brought about by technology that those fundamentalists so readily dismiss. The fundamentalists’ promise of a grander heaven will not persuade many. Muslims in Indonesia and the rest of Third World have yet to taste the comforts of modern life; the promise of a glorious afterlife is all they have to look forward.

I expect the number of fundamentalist Malays to decline, but they will become even more committed, more fanatical, and consequently more dangerous. The divide between liberal and fundamentalist Malays would not only deepen but would also take on the added dimension of social class. It is this confluence that is so treacherous. Islam and Malays would suffer. Instead of bringing Malays together, Islam would divide us. Instead of being an element to help us cope with the increasingly technological world, the faith would become a barrier to our successful adaptation.

These fates are not preordained. Later in Chapter 18, I will explore the more positive and exciting possibilities that Islam could play in the Malay world and beyond.

Next: Race Relations in Malaysia

Note To A Malaysian OBama

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

SEEING IT MY WAY, November 13, 2009

M. Bakri Musa

On Tuesday November 4th, 2008, America became, in the words of comedian Jon Stewart, more of a “show” nation and less of a “tell” one. In electing Barack Obama, America shows the world that it is now closer to being that “more perfect Union,” to quote the preamble to its constitution. Nations are like people; it matters not where you have been, more important is where you are headed.

In his victory speech Obama cited 106-year old Ann Dixon Cooper from the South who recalls only too well the time when women and blacks were not allowed to vote. The fate of blacks was worse. In his stirring speech Obama challenged Americans to imagine their nation a century hence; what his young daughters would experience should they be lucky enough to live as long as Ms. Cooper. Would they too see comparable progress as that witnessed by her?

Obama’s victory captured the world’s imagination, especially in Kenya where his father was born, and also in Malaysia, but for a far different reason. I had intimation of this when on meeting Malaysian students in New York the weekend before the elections I was asked whether Malaysia is ready for her own Barack Obama. Before replying, I countered with a question of my own: Is there a Malaysian Obama, or more specifically, is Malaysia capable of producing one?

Labeling Barack Obama

Obama is the product of a white mother and a black father. To be sure, they were no ordinary parents; both had PhDs, with his father’s from Harvard. Obama however was brought up for the most part by his maternal grandparents, a solid Middle America couple from Kansas.

In achievements, Barack followed the trajectory more typical of an ambitious white middle class family: exclusive “prep” school and an Ivy League education. While Obama could throw a mean basketball hoop, his climb to the top was through academics, not athletics or music. Stated differently, Obama’s path to success hews closer to a Kennedy than a Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Obama adopted the faith of his mother and grandparents, not of his Muslim father or stepfather, which is a minority albeit a fast-growing faith in America.

In his speeches, from the imageries and metaphors he uses down to his accent and delivery, Obama is more Jack Kennedy than Jesse Jackson, more Cambridge, Massachusetts than Southside Chicago. Obama’s favorite expression is, “My fellow Americans!” not, “Yo! Brother!” Obama favors conservative dark suits and well trimmed look, not brash-colored Afro suits and daring hairdo.

Culturally at least, Obama is more white than black. Indeed, during the early part of his political campaign, he had to fight hard the widely-held perception in the black community that he “ain’t black enough.”

Yet to the dominant American society, Obama is labeled black, not white. The reason is obvious; he carries the physical features of a black, including or especially his skin color. During the intense campaign there were concerted efforts to paint him as being “not one of us.” This would have happened even if he were a conservative with a waspish name like Alan Lee Keyes and not a foreign one like Barack Hussein Obama.

In particular, Obama had to constantly deny that he was a Muslim. It is doubtful that Obama would have secured his party’s nomination, let alone the election, had he been a Muslim. This does not mean that America is anti-Muslim rather that it is not quite yet ready to accept someone from a minority faith to be in the White House. A generation ago America had difficulty digesting the fact that a Catholic would be president. This recent election season also saw during the Republican primaries misgivings about Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith.

The path to “a more perfect Union,” while steady, is slow.

Contrast that to Malaysia. There are many children of Malay-Caucasian as well as Malay-Chinese and Malay-Indian marriages exhibiting very “un-Malay” features. Yet Malay culture has been very welcoming of them, unhesitatingly embracing them as Malays. This is not a recent phenomenon. I had many childhood friends and classmates who had distinctly Chinese or Indian appearances because of adoption or mixed marriages, yet they were all considered and treated as Malays.

Why the children of mixed marriages between a member of the majority and a minority are not regarded as the majority in America, but they are in Malaysia, is an observation worth pondering. I am certain this is related to an underlying obsession with “racial purity.”

On this point, as a Malay I am heartened that my culture is very welcoming of those who are adopted, from mixed marriages, and do not look like us, whatever that presumed “Malay appearance” might be. We are, thankfully, not consumed with maintaining our “purity.”

My view is that Malaysia already has her Barack Obama in the person of Mahathir Muhamad. We do not recognize him as such because unlike in America where its Obama is considered a member of the minority, Malaysia’s majority Malays warmly and quickly embrace their Obama as one of their own. Nor is Mahathir alone; earlier leaders like Datuk Onn and Tunku Abdul Rahman also had mixed ancestry.

By biological heritage, Obama has equal claim to being black or white. Yet because of his unalterable physical characteristics Obama is labeled black. Even if Obama were to resort to the miracles of plastic surgery, skin-whitening cream, and hair coloring and straightening a la Michael Jackson, which Obama does not, he would still be labeled black.

For contrast, examine the group portrait of UMNO Supreme Council members. If they were to dispense with their songkok and Baju Melayu and instead put on modern attire, some of them could easily be mistaken as delegates from MCA or MIC, that is, until they open their big mouth and chant their chauvinistic slogan of Ketuanan Melayu!

Malaysian Obama Wannabe

Malaysians do not recognize their Obamas because they have adopted and are comfortable with the cultural values of the majority; they consider themselves and are being treated as a member of that majority.

Our Malaysian Obamas are comfortable with and have successfully adopted the dominant culture. They are fluent in Malay, not the language of their forefathers, just like Obama cannot speak a word of Swahili, or whatever language his late father used in Kenya.

The heroes Obama invokes are Jefferson and Lincoln, not some Mau Mau chief or Zulu King. Likewise, a Malaysian Obama wannabe must invoke local heroes, not Churchill, Nehru, or Mao. Similarly, just as Obama has a fondness for conservative business suits and not colorful Kenyan robes, his Malaysian wannabe must not only be comfortable in songkok and batik, but must also look good in them. You will not endear yourself to the majority (which is the first step to earning their votes) if you balk at wearing the songkok when in the palace to pay homage to the King or Sultan, or entering their place of worship wearing a short skirt and dispensing with a headscarf.

Clearly Malaysia is not only ready for a Barack Obama, it has already produced many. However, if we dispense with the racial label and ask the more substantive question of whether Malaysia could produce a future leader the caliber and transforming character of Barack Obama, then the answer is more complex and problematic.

Obama captures the imagination of Americans with his brilliance, eloquence, and charisma. He appeals to their finer instincts; he brings Americans together, transcending class, region, and most of all, race.

Despite all that it is well to be reminded that Obama would not have secured his party’s nomination if the Democratic Party had adopted the procedures of the Republican Party, with its winner-takes-all rules. Had the Democrats done that, Hilary Clinton would have been their nominee, not Obama.

For another, Obama owes his meteoric rise in the Democratic Party to many senior party leaders, in particular his fellow senator and himself a former presidential candidate, John Kerry. It was Kerry who spotlighted Obama by giving him a slot to address the Democratic National Convention in 2004 that catapulted Obama to the national scene. Obama followed that with his stirring all-American success story in his bestselling autobiographies, Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope.

I am certain that Allah in His justness has also blessed Malaysia with individuals with the leadership talent and charisma of Obama. Whether they would be nurtured by our institutions would be the biggest challenge. Our schools and universities would more than likely stunt their development.

Even if such individuals were lucky enough to escape the local system by attending international schools in Malaysia and then proceeding to great universities abroad, there is little reason to expect that they would be welcome back home. More than likely such scarce talents would have been seduced by the more lucrative and challenging opportunities abroad. Even if they were to return home they would have been tempted by the more rewarding careers in the private sector.

This problem is not unique to Malaysia but also plagues the developing world. It also afflicts economically “First World” but culturally and politically “Third World” countries like Singapore.

Even if our brilliant young Malaysian Obama could fend off those temptations and opt for a career in politics, his path would not be fast or clear. For one, he would have difficulty being accepted by the local party branch as those insecure village leaders would be wary of new challengers. Even if he were to be accepted, there would not be a Kerry-like senior figure to grease the path. Malaysian leaders promote only their kith and kind, not some unknown talent no matter how promising.

Lastly, the political structure and hierarchy in Malaysia do not lend themselves to such rapid renewals of leadership. The pattern is akin to the landing slots at major airports, with the third or fourth tier leaders all dutifully lining up taking their turns. If perchance one proves later to be a dud, it matters not; his or her turn is coming up anyway.

There is indeed a Malaysian Obama out there, but nobody cares or would bother to find or nurture him. That unfortunately is a loss for him, but more so for the nation.

Change Does Not Have To Take 400 Years to Happen

Friday, November 14th, 2008

Farish A. Noor

The electoral victory of Barack Obama as the new President of the United States of America is long overdue, and many of us are thankful for it. No, its not because the rest of us are racists who hate white men; and no, its not because we are captive to the essentialised idea that black Americans are all victims and are necessarily good and innocent, in toto. Its simply because change is refreshing and we believe that change is good and healthy for the nation and humanity in general.

I recall taking a flight from Frankfurt to Kuala Lumpur once, when the pilot spoke to the passengers before take off. Suddenly there was a collective gasp of surprise when we realised that our pilot was a woman! I was suddenly gripped by an overwhelming sense of relief and curious pride, for somewhere in my settled conscience the idea had been sedimented that all pilots (like all doctors, scientists and Presidents) had to be male. Throughout the flight I had to resist the temptation of bursting into the cockpit to congratulate her, and to tell her how proud I was to be flying in a plane piloted by a woman for a change. (Though of course because I am Muslim I would have been arrested immediately and handcuffed for fear of being a terrorist!)

That is how change happens. It takes us by surprise and in a second it is over and the historical moment has passed. But it requires that one vital element that makes change possible in the first place: human agency. There would not have been a woman pilot on my flight if this woman had not pursued her ambition to become a pilot relentlessly, never giving up on her dream despite the obstacles she may or may not have faced.

I am only raising this point now as I have noticed a rather disturbing, and potentially dangerous, narrative that has and is being spun in the wake of Obama’s victory. This is the narrative that the change that has come to the United States is due to the long historically determined and linear process of evolution; that we are told takes time, time and more time. We are fed the line that “Of course America has finally changed because it took four hundred years for black Americans to rise to where they are today.”

This sort of non-historical nonsense is served to us warmed up as a pseudo-scientific account of how and why historical progression needs to follow its own appointed destiny, and work within a fixed template that is set and determined in all cases. But this, the historian would like to add, is also utter nonsense.

The French lived under centuries of feudal rule by despotic Kings and Emperors like other Europeans, and for centuries they tried again and again to release themselves from the yoke of feudal domination. Until the time came when contingent historical factors occasioned a radical opening that allowed for revolutionary change at last; likewise black Americans have been struggling against racism as soon as they were enslaved and brought to America in chains, and it was not just yesterday that they realised that one of them could run for President.

For this reason we should not see Obama’s victory as a sudden and novel development of American society, but rather as one of those openings that allow for rupture from continuity and the historical progression of the same. Historical moments like these are always contingent, radical and unexpected, but they happen because there are human beings who exercise their free will and agency to will and fight for change, rather than to sit by and let history takes its course. History may always be a repetition of sameness, but historical moments take place when that sameness is challenged and successfully ruptured.

Therefore let us not swallow the silly argument that just because it took Americans 400 years to elect a black man as President every other country on the planet needs to wait 400 years before we can do the same too. No, change does not take 400 years to happen. In countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and others, change has been on the boil for some time now and there is ample evidence that the old crumbling structures of governments and institutionalised power are falling apart. Will Malaysians have to wait 400 years before they see a woman as Prime Minister? Or a Malaysian-minded Prime Minister who breaks away from the outdated structures of racialised politics? Will countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, India also have to wait 400 years before we see real change?

The narrative of history threads together elements of the same and the familiar to form a story that is consistent and intelligible, but the historian will tell you that history is replete with contingencies and ironies that broke the mould of the past and charted a new course for the future. For that reason, America’s success and Obama’s success should inspire us not to repeat history, but to go against it. Obama’s struggle against the tide of time makes him a man of our times; let us hope that for so many other countries in Asia that same untimeliness will prevail as well. We can start by exercising our will for change, and by saying ‘No, we will not wait four hundred years before we dream of a better world today.’

Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor, Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Block S4, Level B4, Nanyang Avenue, Singapore, 639798. Tel: (Office) 0065 6790 6128, Main line: 0065 6793 2991.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #80

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

Chapter 12:  Fragmentation of Malaysian Society



Learning to Disagree Agreeably


We must not only tolerate but more importantly also encourage differing viewpoints. That would force us to re-examine our own position more carefully. It would also be more productive if we could learn the etiquette of disagreement. Diversities are signs of Allah’s beauty and blessing, but only if we do not let them divide us; otherwise they would be a curse.

There will always be differences in views; it is how we handle them that matters. Doing away with those who disagree with us is not the answer, although this is often the reflex response of those in power, justifying it in the name of peace, unity, or national security.

That strategy is also inefficient. Dissenters often are among the most profound thinkers, or at least the ones likely to see what the crowd does not. Getting rid of them would deplete the community of such talent. It would also discourage new ideas and innovations. Only by subjecting ideas and policies to robust cross-examinations and discussions would we discover their strengths and weaknesses.

As Rumi indicated in his beautiful poetry, tweaking the familiar story of the blind men and the elephant, differences arise because we are all in a dark room and seeing only the part of the elephant available to our non-visual senses. Differences in opinion could be likened to lighting the candle, attempts at illumination. Even if the light were to illuminate only a small part of the room and would result only in reinforcing our previous perception, that light might just be enough to help others see their part of the elephant better.

Granted, some light may cast shadows and hide important elements; nonetheless with skills we could still infer something from those shadows. Yes, some lights are shone purposely to create shadows and hide blemishes and other aspects of reality one would not want highlighted, the standard trick of skilled photographers. Still others may light a match intentionally to ignite, not illuminate the room. Such individuals should be condemned before they destroy themselves and others. The wisdom is in separating those who wish to illuminate from the pyromaniacs.

The current diversity of views among Malays is positive, not negative; it should be encouraged. The challenge is to ensure that such differences be the source of strength, of forcing us to be critical. That is the only safeguard against the group being collectively led astray. Differences should not be sources of divisions and acrimonies. The solution is not to stifle dissent but to learn how to manage it, to convert divisive competition into fruitful cooperation. That would determine whether the current diversity among Malays would be a blessing or a curse.

There is little attempt at teaching Malays on managing differences. The tendency is to rally around the current leaders; they in turn exploit this by manufacturing imagined enemies in order to galvanize their followers. In such an environment, it is easy to label those with opposing views as traitors.

This lesson must begin with the leaders, but they have been derelict in setting good examples. We see too few public displays of civility among them. They are content with demonizing each other; they set the tone for their junior leaders and followers.

UMNO’s Abdullah and PAS’s Nik Aziz, are both ulamas. Soon after becoming Prime Minister, Abdullah made a big deal of leading his ministers in a communal prayer, of being their imam. Pictures of this were splashed all over, and later conveniently replayed during the elections. This was a blatant public relations attempt to convey the perception of the Prime Minister as Grand Imam, and to recall the powerful images of the Grand Caliphs of yore who were political as well as spiritual leaders.

Sadly I have yet to see both Abdullah and Nik Aziz praying together or listening to each other’s sermon. I doubt whether they would ever be at the same mosque. So much for the charity of spirit so cherished in Islam.

This lack of civility is seen among UMNO leaders. During UMNO’s Diamond Jubilee celebration in May 2006, Abdullah and Mahathir were conspicuous for their coolness towards each other. They refused to be in the same group photograph, even when prompted by their host, the Sultan of Johor. That is a terrible message to impart to their followers. In contrast, former Presidents Bush, Sr., and Clinton, once bitter political rivals came together to raise money for the Tsunami and Katrina disasters.

A few months later the verbal volleys between Abdullah’s ministers and Mahathir became increasingly ugly and uncivil. It culminated with Mahathir being pepper-sprayed on a visit to Kota Baru. A disgusting display of vulgarity!

UMNO Youth leaders found it advantageous to play an annual golf game with their counterparts in Singapore’s People Action Party (whose leader Lee Kuan Yew was once—perhaps still is—regarded as viscerally anti Malay). I have yet to see UMNO Youth leaders socializing with their counterparts in PAS or Keadilan.

As in politics, so it is with civil society. Leaders of Malay NGOs with differing philosophies rarely engage one another in civil dialogue. In their private moments, members of the conservative Muslim Youth Movement (known by its Malay acronym ABIM) would consider the more liberal members of Sisters-in-Islam as apostates! That is the most insulting epithet in Islam. Even the supposedly more educated groups like the Muslim Professional Forum are no better. Its members consider those Muslims of liberal theological persuasions as posing a “clear and present danger!”

The only times these leaders would get together were through the sponsorship of foreign entities, as when the younger leaders from the various political parties met in Washington, DC under the auspices of Johns Hopkins University, and NGO leaders in Kuala Lumpur under the sponsorship of the Adenauer Foundation. It took the father figure of the White Man to bring these young native leaders together.

Malaysians have yet to learn to disagree agreeably. They have not learned on how to engage one another in a civil manner. It is within our culture and tradition to do so. When differences arise, they should be the stimulus for us to find common grounds. At the very least it should prompt us to re-examine our respective positions. We are not always right and our adversaries not always wrong. We must have some tolerance for doubts and uncertainties. We must disabuse ourselves of our certitude.

Malays ritualistically resort to labeling those they disagree with; it is an intellectually lazy way to manage differences. It unnecessarily divides the world into “us” and “them,” further widening the chasm. We should be building bridges, not deepening the gulf.



The Divisiveness of Politics


Towards The New Malay

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

[Talk given at a forum at the University of Buffalo, on November 1, 2008, themed “Alif Ba Ta, Towards the New Malay,” organized by Kelab UMNO New York-New Jersey. The contents here are from my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia.]

Whenever the theme of this conference (or variations thereof, as with the “Malay Problem” or “Malay Dilemma”) is discussed, whether in the hallowed halls of Putrajaya or the warong kopi in Kota Baru, the various arguments expounded could be crystallized around two main clusters. On one side there are those who would confidently assert that there is nothing wrong with us, rather the fault is with the evil outside world intent on doing us in. The other would find nothing right with us; we are our own problems.

The two viewpoints may be poles apart in their basic assumptions, but they share one underlying commonality. They view Malays essentially as victims, with the first seeing us as victims of the merciless outsiders – the “them” – while the second viewing us as invalids, the tragic victims of our inadequacies, real and perceived.

The cruel “them” could be the colonialists. If only they had stayed out of our world, we would not today be burdened with a dangerous race problem, and we would not have to work so hard to keep up with them. We would then enjoy our tropical nirvana shaded by the lush fronds of the coconut tree and soothed by the lapping waves of the South China Sea.

Colonialism is now long gone. It is no longer cool to be a colonialist, except in such odd places as Russia. Still colonialism, or its variants, is being invoked every so often, and not just by the less informed. With the old form gone, the more sophisticated have invented new players to fill in the void. Enter the neo-colonialist. This modern variant is even more virulent as it is concerned with colonizing us mentally rather than just physically! Worse, those who fall victims to this new spell do not even realize that they are being colonized! Such are the awesome powers of the neo-colonialists!

If only these neo-colonialists in the form of the cabals of evil international financiers with their foreign ideology of capitalism would leave us alone, we would still have Bank Bumiputra and its massive portfolio of dud loans.

The “self blamers” do not lack for ammunition either. We are burdened by the inadequacies of our culture, we are being repeatedly reminded ad nauseam, and not just by our own kind. We are too nice and not aggressive enough, hence we are easily taken advantage off by others.

If only we are a wee bit kurang jar (uncouth), more kiasau (crude), or be more like “them!” Hence we are urged to have our own Revolusi Mental (Mental Revolution!”), be a Melayu Baru (New Malay), and assert our Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Hegemony). That would be our salvation, we are repeatedly assured.

There is yet a variation of this theme. If only we Malays were united! They would like us to be like sheep, meekly and blindly following the shepherd; follow our leaders, we are endlessly exhorted, even if they are corrupt and incompetent as they lead us over a cliff. To them unity is unanimity.

Culture is not our only burden. We have also strayed from our faith, they piously chastise us. Thus more religion, especially for our young, hugely expanded religious establishments, and more religious police to make sure that we stay on the straight and narrow path. Just to be sure, we also concocted a new and presumably improved version of our faith, Islam Hadhari.

My favorite is the self-blamers’ pseudo-scientific theory that the fault is with our genes, our fate sealed the moment we were conceived. There is nothing that we can do to alter that; so accept it. It is our price for indulging in too much inbreeding! “We must intermarry!” our supposedly scientifically enlightened leaders urge us!

If our ancestors’ psyche was destroyed by the religious determinism of the past (our fate is written in the book – al kadar), today our minds, especially those of the young, are being crippled by the biologic determinism propagated by these pseudo scientists whose understanding of modern genetics is gleaned from reading Readers’ Digest.

A Different Approach

My approach to the “Malay problem” is different. I could not care less what caused our present tribulations; I am more interested in solving or at least ameliorating them. Physicians treat and at times cure complicated diseases like cancers or even simple ones like appendicitis without ever knowing the cause. We do with what works. That is my approach to the “Malay problem.”

I do not belittle the importance of understanding the cause of something. Consider the miracle of the polio vaccine, made possible because we know exactly what caused the disease. Polio is now wiped out, and with that the elaborate iron lungs and fancy reconstructive surgeries.

In the sphere of human and social behaviors however, unlike that of the natural sciences, there is rarely a unitary cause or principle to explain reality. Often it is multi-factorial, their interactions and dynamics rarely predictable. The best that we can hope for is that by replicating some of these conditions we might also reproduce the same results.

In approaching the “Malay problem,” I am also guided by another overriding assumption. That is, there is nothing unique to the problems we face; others have faced similar problems. The corollary to this is that there is much that we can learn from others, those who are successful as well as those less so.

Voluminous treatises have been written on the rise and fall of great civilizations and empires. Today however, I am discussing the fate of smaller social units and over a much shorter time span. The rise and fall of civilizations span centuries; the relevant field of studies there being primarily history, archeology, and perhaps the classics. My discussions today examine the development of societies over a much shorter time period of a generation or two, within the memory of those currently living. The relevant disciplines here are essentially the social sciences, specifically economics.

Diamond of Development

When we study successful societies, we can anchor the various contributing factors around four main pillars: leadership, people, culture, and geography. These elements form the four angles of my “Diamond of Development,” with each factor influencing and in turn being influenced by the other three. When all four are favorable, they create a virtuous cycle, with each synergistically reinforcing the other three. Conversely when all elements are negative, there would be a rapid downward spiral.

The importance of leadership is readily apparent, as encapsulated in our traditional wisdom: Endah negeri kerana penghulu (Great country, great leadership!) Leaders are to a country what wings are to a plane; they define and limit the capability and performance. The old double wings were suitable for slow single piston planes but would impose a severe drag on faster jets; they need backswept wings with adjustable leading and trailing ends to adjust the wing shape to effect maximal lift at low speed and minimal drag at high speed. Likewise with leaders; the all-knowing powerful dictator may be best for an emerging society but he would be out of place for an educated sophisticated nation.

As for people, the UNDP declares that people are the real wealth of a nation. As for the crucial interactions between the two, consider that Saddam Hussein could never be elected dog catcher in America. He was lucky to have been caught by the Americans and not the Iraqis. Had he been caught by his own people; he would have been butchered and his corpse desecrated. Saddam’s sadism had spread to the Iraqi people, illustrating my point on the interactions between all factors, in this particular instance, between leader and people.

Culture is society’s DNA (genes); it determines the behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all the other products of human work and thought that we socially transmit to members of our society. Economist Douglass North defines institutions, a component of culture, as the rules of the game, the humanly devised constraints that shape human interactions. Cultures and institutions assure some predictability to our interactions and thus serve to reduce transaction costs.

Of the four factors, only geography is the gift of nature and thus essentially unalterable. A society is either fortunate to be endowed with favorable geographic attributes or it does not. There is not much we can do to alter that reality. The other three are human creations, and thus potentially alterable. While we cannot change our geographic attributes, we can modify our attitudes towards them, which in turn govern our relationship with and how we treat them.

If we treat our coastlines and rivers as sources of pestilence and inherently evil, the place where the hantu laut (sea spirit) and hantu darat (land spirit) are in constant conflict as portrayed by Joseph Conrad’s many Malay novels, then our attitude towards those properties would be negative. Consequently we would not hesitate dumping our garbage there with abandon; we would not care for the ensuing pollution.

We could however, alter our mindset and instead respect and appreciate those geographic attributes. We would then build levees and canals as in the Sacramento delta and south Florida so we could have beautiful marinas, fertile farmlands, and prime real estate. Similarly, while we cannot change the hot humid south, but through air-conditioning and skillful marketing, we can create the desirable Sunbelt.

In desert Las Vegas with less than 10 inches of rain annually, homes sport fountains and swimming pools. Good governance and institutions make that possible. Malaysia has daily downpours, yet its taps are frequently dry; blame bad institutions for that. Milton Friedman once famously remarked that with inept governments and corrupt institutions even sand could be made scarce in Saudi Arabia!

Unitary Versus Systemic Approach

Relating my Diamond of Development to the “Malay problem,” there are two possible approaches: unitary versus systemic. The unitary approach would be to focus on one factor, for example leadership, in the hope that it would pull up the other three. Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., was an example of such a transforming leader; he transformed the Arabs, their culture, and the area’s political geography. The risk with such a single-approach strategy is that we could also end up with a Hitler; he too transformed the German people, their culture, and the geography of Europe.!

Likewise, there are many ready examples of society being transformed by pivotal changes in culture, people, or even geographic events. Malay culture was transformed with the coming of Islam, European colonization, and currently, capitalism and globalization. Islam ended our animist beliefs; it also brought the written culture, and with that, a quantum leap in the intellectual development of our society. Colonization upended our feudalism, ending for example, slavery and indentured labor. The impact of capitalism and globalization is yet to be reckoned.

Cataclysmic geographic events can also have transforming effects on people, culture, and leaders. In his book Guns, Germs. And Steel. The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond theorized that climactic and environmental changes doomed the Norwegians in Greenland and the Easter Islanders; their leaders, people, and culture could not cope with the new physical environmental demands required of them.

Those are the dangers of focusing or depending on changing any one factor alone. A surer and more achievable approach would be of small incremental enhancements targeting all four factors simultaneously.

Elect slightly more competent and less corrupt leaders, provide more education and better health services for your people, tame some of the non-productive and destructive elements of your culture, and have some respect for the environment. These small incremental changes could be readily implemented, and they would reinforce each other and combined, they would produce great synergy.

An equally important consideration is that if we were to make a mistake (inevitably there will be), it would be more readily corrected and its negative consequences more readily contained and hopefully be restrained by all the other elements that are working right.

There is one overriding consideration to my Diamond of Development; it is premised upon the fact that there must be peace. If citizen are at war with each other, there can be no development and the ideas represented by my diamond of development are mute. When people are in turmoil as in war, their primary concern is survival, not development.

Leaning From Others

Lastly, returning to my earlier theme of learning from others, there is much that we can learn from the exemplary society, certainly in the eyes of Muslims, of the first Muslim community in Medinah led by Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w.

Here we had a truly transforming leader; selected no less by Allah. It is instructive what he did first at Medinah. He recognized that he did not have as yet a united community, his followers divided between the native Medinans (al Ansar) and the immigrant Meccans (Muhajireen). Instead of dwelling on their real and potentially divisive differences (tribal, geographic, etc.), he appealed to their commonality, their commitment to the new faith. This is the crucial point. We need leaders who can bring people together not divide us. This is true in Malaysia as in America and elsewhere, as well as today and in the past.

This brings the centrality and assumption of my diamond of development. There must be first peace before there can be any economic development. This was what the prophet emphasized, by appealing to the commonality of the Muhajireens and Ansars.

Once he had his people committed to a common goal, the prophet then addressed the other three elements of my diamond. First he made sure that his followers were educated. He offered his prisoners freedom if they were to teach the Muslims. He also built bazaars so citizens could partake in trade among themselves. He did not charge them for using those facilities. He encouraged them to trade, as indicated by this hadith (approximately translated), it is better to give than to receive a paycheck, meaning, better to be an employer than an employee. That is also the essence of free enterprise and capitalism.

As for the environment, knowing that Medina was at the time wrecked by malaria, he had the swamps drained and advised citizens to cover their water at night to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. Even the minutest element of hygiene did not escape him as when he urged Muslims not to urinate on stagnant water. The prophet essentially addressed the two key determinants as to the quality of people: health and education.

The last point is culture; he removed some of the more odious practices of the Arabs like slavery, female infanticide, and the denigration of women. He did all these mundane but necessary things without waiting for divine revelations. His leadership style was one through personal examples (quadrhat hasanah). He not only told people what to do, he also showed them how.

During this forum I hope that my diamond of development would help you organize your thoughts. I look forward to the discussions. Thank you.

Neo-Colonialism is Never the Answer

Friday, November 7th, 2008

By Farish A. Noor

I recently had a conversation with an Indonesian political analyst in Singapore, where I am currently based. In the course of our discussion about the state of Indonesian politics, he let slip a statement that I felt terribly uncomfortable with. While lamenting the state of Indonesia’s convoluted politics, he opined thus: “I wonder if Indonesia’s problems could be solved if we allowed a foreign government to run our country?”

Now, talk like this usually sends shivers up my spine. We will recall that up to the late 1990s, it even became fashionable to talk about the necessity for the re-colonization of Africa. This sort of nonsense was all the rage in some American political magazines and journals, and of course this neo-colonial bile was dressed up in the discourse of altruism and universal humanism, as if the colonization of any country was an altruistic act between fellow human concerned about the fate of others. Never mind the fact that the ones doing the colonizing would be the same Western powers and the ones being colonized would be the same hapless denizens of the Third World.

It is true that Indonesia’s political situation at present is a mess to say the least. With the next elections almost half a year away, the political parties – and there are more than 35 of them, at the last count – are already campaigning in earnest. Vast amounts of money are being spent (or rather wasted) on publicity campaigns and electoral drives that are designed to puff up the already inflated egos of political aspirants than to do any real good to the people. On top of that the political discourse of parties like Hanura and Gerindra seem full of fluff and froth as the leaders have little to say on how they will actually set about changing things for the better.

In the case of Indonesia, as it is with the other countries of Southeast Asia, the perennial problem is the same: Aspiring elites want to speak for the people and represent them, but they do not even know what the people want. The political disconnect between the elites of Jakarta and the masses across the archipelago is mirrored in the disconnect we see among the elites of Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Manila and Bangkok too. Why?

Answering this may also lead us to the answer the earlier comment about the need for Indonesia to be re-colonised for its own good.

The bottom line is that the governmental structures of Indonesia – as in Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and many other post-colonial societies – remain rooted in the structures of colonial rule. Now colonial rule was unique in the sense that the colonial governments could govern with scant attention paid to the colonial subjects themselves, hence the ‘success’ of British colonial rule in Burma, Malaya and Singapore and Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia. The British, French, Dutch, Spanish and American colonizers who governed Southeast Asia were not answerable to their colonial societies, but rather the metropolitan capitals of London, Hague, Paris and Washington. Thus British Malaya, Burma and Singapore were governed at a long-distance, with orders from London being enacted and executed in Malaya. Likewise orders from the Hague were put to work in Indonesia. At no point was this metropole-colony relationship equal or reciprocal.

Today the structures of colonial rule persist with colonial laws such as Malaysia’s Internal Security Act still in place; and the ruling elite of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and other countries are likewise distanced from their own people. Like the colonial masters of the past, they view their own fellow citizens with incredulity, and fail to understand how plural and complex their societies really are. The ‘success’ of colonial rule – if you could call it that – was that it blanketed the real pluralism and differences in these colonized societies and made them look homogeneous.

Today, Southeast Asia’s internal pluralism and difference are coming to the forefront in no uncertain terms. Indonesia’s complex political landscape merely mirrors the complexity of Indonesia’s plural society, a fact that was thinly disguised during the three decades of Suharto’s centralized authoritarian rule. We need to remember that the manifold forms and modes of socio-political activity we see in Indonesia today that includes also the new ‘radical’ groups like the Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia, the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and even mainstream Islamist parties like the PKS are also genuine expressions of Indonesian pluralism. The MMI, HTI and PKS are not from Mars or Sweden: they are part and parcel of Indonesian society and the products of the same political processes that created the political elite in Jakarta who do not understand them.

It is imperative therefore that we recognize two things. One, post-colonial societies have yet to jettison the colonial mindset of colonial governmentality; and two, we need to develop a new mode of representative politics that reflects the complexity of the societies we reside in. Indonesia’s new political elites may be jockeying for position and running for the biggest prize of all – the Presidential seat – next year. But they need to remember that to be President of Indonesia today means being President of one of the most complex, confounding, plural and internally-differentiated societies in the world. The sooner the political elites of Indonesia (and Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines) realize this, and the sooner they behave like democratic representatives rather than colonial bureaucrats, the better it will be for everyone.

Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor, Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Block S4, Level B4, Nanyang Avenue, Singapore, 639798 Tel: (Office) 0065 6790 6128 Main line: 0065 6793 2991