Archive for June, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #21

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Chapter 3: Lessons From The Past

Next: The Reformers’ Charter Oath of Five Articles

Just three months after being restored, the reformers, through the emperor, made a historic proclamation called The Charter Oath of Five Articles. It promised:

1) Public discussion of all matters;
2) The participation of all classes, high and low, in the administration of the state;
3) Freedom of all persons to pursue their own calling;
4) Abandoning the evil customs of the past and to rely on the just laws of Nature;
5) Seek knowledge from throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.

Seen in the context of a feudal society, the declaration was truly radical. Calling for the participation of all classes in the administration of the state and not just the nobility and warrior class was distinctly revolutionary. Similarly, the freedom to choose one’s own calling or career represented a quantum leap forward in thinking in a society where previously what you did or who you were was dictated by your class or birth. The last two elements of the charter reflected the recognition by the young imperial advisors that the ways of the old were clearly wanting and that they had a lot to learn from the outside world. Merely shutting themselves off from foreign influence was not the answer. Instead the Japanese had to learn from the advanced societies of the time: the West.

The old mantra of revering the emperor and expelling the barbarians was replaced by more pragmatic and decidedly constructive slogans, such as wakon yosai (Japanese spirit, Western learning).

The Japanese took to learning from the West with a vengeance. Initially, as would be expected of a nation that had been humiliated, the Japanese were intent and content with merely aping the ways of the foreigners. Thus they began sporting coat tails and European-style sideburns. The latter must have been a particularly difficult for the non-hirsute Japanese! A minister even divorced his wife formally, Western style, instead of merely tolerating her and taking on concubines. That would have been, well, so Japanese! The Japanese even converted their calendar to the Western Gregorian one.

Amidst such banalities and trivialities however, the Japanese did commit themselves to learning the more enduring values of Western civilization. English classes were held everywhere and Western books were widely translated into Japanese. Japanese masses were now exposed to the great philosophers and thinkers of the West.

To dramatically symbolize its new beginning and a break from the past, the Meiji administration moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the new regime was its committed and disciplined search for models outside of Japan that would be applicable in rebuilding its own institutions.

This commitment to Western learning was publicly demonstrated when the government dispatched a “learning mission” to the capitals of the modern world. The mission, composed of ministers and senior administrators, circled the globe visiting advanced countries, learning and making comparative studies of the various governments, systems of education, industrial development, and economic models. Japanese embassies were specifically instructed to observe the systems and institutions in their host countries that were worthy of being emulated, and to scout for talent to be recruited to teach the Japanese. Leading American educators were invited to help modernize the schools and universities. The Japanese were fully cognizant of their backward status, and they were intent on modernizing. They were committed to learning the best from the West.

The Japanese made the profound yet simple discovery that learning and interacting with foreigners did not in any way compromise their own culture or independence. More significantly, they realized that the advancement and superiority of the West was of recent onset and that Japan was not that far behind after all. And that with hard work and eagerness to learn, they were confident they could catch up.

That such a learning mission was created in the first place was remarkable. It conveyed the Japanese total commitment to learning from others. Imagine senior administrators and ministers leaving en mass for months on end, with Japan essentially under caretakers’ hands or absentee government. In many countries there would have been a coup d’etat. But those ministers and administrators returned with renewed vigor and utter confidence in their nation’s ability not only to learn the best but also to catch up and eventually join the ranks of developed nations. This Japan did very successfully, and like the West, Japan too went on to become a colonizing power, much to the chagrin of her neighbors, especially China and Korea.

Within a generation Japan was transformed from a xenophobic closed society, steeped in its feudal ways, into a modern egalitarian state, and at the same time restoring its traditional imperial emperor. Truly remarkable! With that transformation, Japan went on to become a major power, able to conquer militarily most of Asia in World War II, and to economically dominate most of the world in the later half of the 20th century.

In any revolution, and the Meiji Restoration was one, there would inevitably be winners and losers. In this instance, the nation as a whole emerged the winner. Within the society however, there were definite casualties.

Clearly the warlords and assorted nobilities lost; they became irrelevant with the centralization of administration in Tokyo. The egalitarian policies benefited the masses. The removal of the ban on intermarriages between the different classes was symbolic of this new attitude towards equality. Farmers too came out ahead as they were now no longer tenants but able to own the land they tilled; a significant step forward towards private property ownership.

When Emperor Mutsuhito died in July 1912, he was given the name of the momentous period he had overseen, the Age of Enlightened Rule: the Meiji Emperor. Japan and its people had indeed undergone a historic transformation, all within one generation.

Why did the young imperial advisors use the emperor and not do it themselves? They knew that the ideas they were contemplating and the changes they were embarking upon were truly radical. These changes would be more readily acceptable to the masses when presented wrapped within the cloak of their traditions. Thus they shrewdly used the emperor as a convenient vehicle.

A generation later at the end of World War II, General Douglas McArthur wisely used the institution of the emperor to successfully institute yet another radical change upon Japanese society. He effectively democratized Japan under the banner of the emperor.

To take home the Japanese lesson, I have little sympathy with modern-day Malay “reformers” who are intent on imposing changes on our society without heeding our underlying cultural traditions. Such calls as Melayu Baru (New Malay) and Reformasi would have Malays be ripped off the anchoring stability of our traditions and heritage. Such attempts at reform are bound to fail.

We must use the elements of our culture to effect changes. As an example, Malays are deeply attached to Islam and to the sultans. That being the case we should reform the institutions of Islam and royalty first, and through them effect changes on the greater society. We can begin by having enlightened and progressive ulama lecture to our students and in our mosques. We should have more reasoned and cerebral sermons instead of the usual fire and brimstone variety. If we can reform our ulama not to be obsessed with the hereafter and instead focus on the present life first, then we may be able to persuade the masses.

We do this by changing the way in which they are being trained. Exposed them to modern ideas! It is too late to change those already set in their ways but we can do something with the next generation of ulama. Likewise if we can reform our sultans and princes, making sure that they are well educated and exposed to progressive ideas, then they would become valued role models.

What impressed me about the radical changes in early Mecca during the time of our prophet, in medieval Europe during the reformation, and in Japan during the Meiji Restoration, was the exemplary leadership of those who were in the forefront of making those changes. The reforms began with them, and then filtered down. To effect comparable reforms in contemporary Malaysia, its leaders (political, hereditary, and religious) must first change their ways. Reforms must begin with them, and then through personal examples, filtered down to the masses.

While this chapter focused on examples from the past, the next will examine more contemporary societies, to reemphasize my theme of how to effect changes and reform.

Next: Chapter 4: Modern Model States

UMNO’s Opportunistic Ulama

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

UMNO’s Opportunistic Ulama
M. Bakri Musa

Like his predecessors Abdullah Badawi and Dr. Mahathir, Prime Minister Najib Razak endlessly proclaims Malaysia to be an Islamic state. Now with 40 young ulama joining the party, Najib must feel that his assertion to be the truth. He could not be more wrong.

Yes, ulama play a central role in an Islamic state. In his book, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, Noah Feldman attributed the longevity and eminence of earlier Islamic states to the critical role of the ulama and scholars.

The Islamic governing principle is simple. Rulers are to govern according to God’s law, as stated in the Quran and elaborated in the hadith (sayings and practices of Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w.). The central tenet is, “Command good and forbid evil!” As long as the ruler fulfils this obligation, his power and authority are legitimate and deemed divinely-sanctioned.

It was a tribute to their political skills and intellectual prowess that those early scholars were able to formulate from the Quran and hadith a set of laws – the Shari’a – that today still governs the everyday lives of Muslims, even those not living in Islamic states. At its time the Shari’a represented a quantum leap in the recognition of basic human dignity and rights. As Feldman noted, “For most of its history, Islamic law offered the most liberal and humane legal principles available anywhere in the world.”

The central precept of the Shari’a is that all, rulers and the ruled alike, are governed by it. No one, not even the sultan, is exempted. That is the rule of law at its core.

The ulama’s other major contribution was that they exerted the necessary checks and balances on the powers of the rulers. It was the scholars, not the rulers, who determined what was “good” or “evil.” A ruler had to abide by the decisions of the ulama, for not doing so would mean deviating from God’s law, a sure route towards de-legitimatizing the ruler’s authority.

These two central elements (fidelity to the rule of law and institutionalized checks and balances on the powers of the rulers by the ulama) accounted for the remarkable success and endurance of those early Islamic states.

The absence of both is what dooms many so-called Islamic states today, or indeed any state. Show me a backward society, and I will show one that has no respect for the rule of law and without an institutionalized system of checks and balances. This is true not only in the Islamic World but also elsewhere. Sadly, Malaysia is fast headed there.

The most “Islamic” state today is Iran. There the clergy class has assumed absolute power; there are no checks and balances. Criticizing the mullahs is viewed as criticizing Islam; they thus effectively put themselves above the law. Those who view Iran as the model Islamic state obviously missed the essence and beauty of Islamic principles of governance.

UMNO’s Ulamas

As for the 40 ulama joining UMNO recently, the charitable part of me would like to believe that this was a noble move on their part, an attempt at emulating their illustrious ancient predecessors. That is, they saw the excesses of UMNO and felt compelled to step in to save a venerable institution by providing much-needed checks and balances.

Alas that was not the reason, at least not the one stated by their representative, Fadlan Othman, a junior academic at a local university. His primary reason for joining was to “proselytize from within, for the benefit of UMNO members whom I feel are ripe to have their knowledge, religiosity and spirituality uplifted.” (“Tujuan utama kami memasuki UMNO adalah untuk berdakwah dari dalam, untuk kebaikan ahli-ahli UMNO yang kami rasakan amat subur untuk proses peningkatan ilmiah, keagamaan dan kerohanian.”)

Well, at least he read UMNO members well. I would have been satisfied if he had a more modest goal, like trying to make UMNO and its members more honest and less corrupt.

I am heartened that the announcement of the ulama joining UMNO coincided with the party’s rescinding its earlier decision to legalize sports gambling. If the two were indeed related, then that certainly was a good beginning. Now if as the result of their joining the party, UMNO would also declare “money politics” and corruption haram, then they truly are on the path of rehabilitating the organization and its members.

The realist in me however, saw something else; a bunch of folks with otherwise unpromising careers spotting an opportunity to advance themselves. I see no difference between them and the many not-too-talented young Malays who, unable to advance on their own prowess, sought the patronage of UMNO.

UMNO is inundated with lawyers who cannot draw up a coherent contract and engineers more adept at building a bridge with more water flowing over than under it. This latest crop of recruits is no different. Google their names and their meager scholarly output becomes apparent. As for their khutba (sermons), that too are canned, produced by a committee at headquarters.

Just as these ulama are using UMNO to advance their careers, so too is UMNO exploiting them to enhance the party’s tarnished Islamic image, what with its unwise earlier decision to allow betting in sports. These ulama are there to sanitize UMNO. “Whitewash” is the more appropriate term.

These ulama ought to be reminded that exploitative relationships, personal as well as political, rarely endure.

The game that UMNO is engaged in and where these ulama are only too willing participants is a very old one. Throughout history, locally and elsewhere, the powers-that-be had successfully co-opted willing ulama. Ulama, like other mortals, can be bought; only the price varies. For some, the promise of a steady salary, government-issued car and quarters would do it; for others, an impressive title. However, whether the price is a penny or a pot of gold, a hooker is still a hooker.

Prime Minister and UMNO President Najib Razak is certainly well attuned to these corrupt relationships. Consider his bald statement during the recent Sibu by-election, “You help me, I help you!”

In Malaysia, the market for ulama is saturated. Seen in that light, their eagerness to join UMNO is understandable. They are certainly doing themselves some good, at least in this world, but whether they are also doing the community any good is another matter.

These political ulama, whether in UMNO or PAS, are a far cry from those illustrious earlier ones for whom the prophetic saying, “Scholars are the heirs of the Prophet!” was apt. Likewise, today’s Islamic states, Malaysia included, are a far cry from those earlier ones, which Feldman describes as “so Islamic that they did not need the adjective to describe themselves.”

No wonder Malaysian Prime Ministers from Mahathir to Najib are obsessed in calling Malaysia an Islamic state. They have to, for Malaysia has nothing to show for it but the label.

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #20

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Chapter 3: Lessons From The Past

The Meiji Restoration

Japan of the 18th Century was a feudal society ruled by a series of territorial warlords, the shoguns. The society was also rigidly stratified, with the samurai or warrior class on top, followed by peasants, artisans and, way at the bottom, the merchants. Surprisingly the peasants were regarded higher than the merchants because those peasants, being farmers, at least produced something useful and tangible.

The foreign missionaries that had come to Japan were preaching to an increasingly receptive mass, a development that threatened the established social order. The Japanese were only too aware that in nearby countries, in particular China, the foreigners were becoming very assertive. The shoguns rightly viewed the mounting activities of foreigners around and within Japan with increasing alacrity.

The shoguns may not have cared about the British in China, but they had to deal with the foreigners within Japan. To control what the Japanese regarded as the “menace of the White man,” the shoguns decided to suddenly seal off the country. The missionaries were forcefully expelled, and those remaining were massacred. The sentiment of the time was encapsulated by the popular slogan, Sonno joi (Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians). This sealing of Japan lasted until the late 19th Century.

The Japanese may have thought that they had dealt effectively with the issue of foreigners by getting rid of them. The Japanese though that the only solution was simply to cocoon themselves. Unfortunately the world around Japan carried on with its own pace. The imperial powers of the day continued their activities in the region. To them Japan is no different from the other Asian countries, to be colonized or at least plundered through trading. Being dismissed as mere barbarians by the Japanese did not stop them from meddling with Japan.

Despite the sealing of the country, the Japanese were not totally unaware of the happenings around them. Nearby China had been “opened up” by the British through the Opium Wars. These developments further strengthened the arguments of the Japanese nationalists to keep foreigners out at all costs. The few realists among the Japanese knew however, that Japan must deal with the inevitable forces around them. Thus they advocated accommodation before Japan would be completely overwhelmed.

Others suggested the blending of Japanese and Western values, and coined the slogan Toyo no dotoku, Seiyo no gakugei (Eastern ethics, Western science), but these moderate voices were drowned out by the fierce nationalists. Those who advocated reform or opening up Japan to the West were ostracized and forced to commit suicide in shame. Those who failed to do so were assassinated. Thus the opposition forces were effectively neutralized.

Despite that, by the 1830’s the shoguns were clearly losing control, and with it the loss of respect. Their failure to deal with the concomitant internal crises of drought and crop failure, and the subsequent famine further undermined their authority. And with rampant corruption and incompetence in the ruling class, the stage was set for a revolution.

At about this time, in July 1853 the American steamship US Commodore under Matthew Perry steamed into Edo Bay with four other escort ships. His mandate was clear: to open up Japanese ports for provisions, fuel, and trade. He impressed upon the Japanese that, sealed or not, Japan had to accede to his demands. Having presented the ultimatum, he abruptly left, with the promise to return the following year to hear the answer. Such confidence and arrogance!

The Japanese were totally confounded by this brazen breach of their shield. They thought that they had effectively protected themselves against those evil foreigners. When Perry returned later in February of 1855, this time with nine ships in case his earlier message had not registered, the Japanese were powerless to resist. This show of power by Perry was so overwhelming that the Japanese had no choice but to agree to the terms dictated.

Having sealed their nation from the outside world they suddenly realized how far behind and backward they were. The Japanese door was not merely pried but smashed wide open. Emboldened by the American success, other foreign powers quickly forced Japan to sign similar treaties with them, with each nation seeking even greater concessions. The Japanese were forced to sign lopsided treaties. One galling aspect of those treaties was the extra territorial rights granted to foreigners. Foreigners who broke Japanese laws were to be tried by their own consul and not Japanese courts. This humiliated the Japanese.

Perhaps the shogunate would have crumbled anyway even without the foreigners greasing the skids. There were attempts at change from within; alas those reforms were too little, too late. With the shogunate weakened from within and without, supporters of the emperor (who hitherto had been shunted aside) seized power under the pretext of “restoring” the monarchy.

Thus began the Meiji Restoration in 1868; the emperor was only 15 years old when installed. The shoguns had ruled for over 700 years, and in the end they could not deal with the internal changes brought by their own corruption and incompetence as well as by the external challenges posed by the foreign powers.

It was unlikely that the “restored” Emperor Mutsuhito (only later called Meiji, the Age of Enlightenment), being only a teenager at the time, could have masterminded his own comeback. He was obviously the front or agent for his court officials or those who wanted to institute changes in Japan. Surprisingly, most of the emperor’s advisors were young men too. They were consumed with their desire to do good for their country and also of course, for themselves. Getting rid of the shogunate was their first objective, but unable to do that by themselves, they used the convenient banner and authority of the emperor.

Perhaps it was a blessing that the emperor was so young; he did what he was told by his equally young advisors. Or perhaps, advisor and advisee, being of the same generation, were more or less in sync in their thinking and attitude.

Next: The Reformers’ Charter Oath of Five Articles

Melayu Bangkit, Cerdek, and Celek

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

Melayu Bangkit, Cerdek, And Celek!
(Malays Awake, Smart, and Eyes Open!)
M. Bakri Musa

It is commendable that Gertak, the Malay NGO, would have as its mission Melayu Bangkit (to awaken Malays). It should go further and ensure that we Malays are also cerdek (smart), and celek! (eyes wide open!) That would ensure that we would not be forever pelek (puzzled), unable to comprehend events around us and be left behind.

It is not enough for Malays to be awake, for if we still keep our eyes closed (even if we close only one eye!), then we might as well go back to sleep. At least then we could benefit from its recuperative powers. And if we are awake and have our eyes wide open but we remain dumb (not cerdek), that would be no improvement either.

Once we are bangkit, cerdik and celek, only then would Ketuanan Melayu be a reality, and not as now, merely a hollow slogan. Then Article 153 of our constitution would no longer be contentious as it would be of interest only to historians, as its provisions would have become irrelevant.

Now that would be a worthy goal! At least one worth shouting about!

Predictable Behavior

The Melayu Bangkit organizers’ choice of the keynote speaker at their “massive” rally in Kuala Trengganu on June 14, 2010 was revealing. If Mahathir could not awaken Malays when he ruled the country for 22 years and had all the powers of the state at his disposal, there is little hope that he could do so now when he is so much older and without power, especially the power to bestow favors.

The behaviors of those leaders were predictable, culturally. They hewed closely to our aphorism, Bila hilang aleh ka pangkal (When you are lost, revert to the source).

Malays today are at a crossroad; we are lost. However, instead of bravely assessing the choices and moving forward on a course that would best meet those challenges, we have retreated in the hope of reaching the starting point and beginning afresh. That is, to reboot, in computer language.

Alas there is no reboot or reset button. What we should do instead is extract the wisdom of our culture that had stood us well in our daily kampong life and apply that to our current predicament. Those pithy, catchy sayings are just that; they do not help us comprehend our problems, much less solve them.

If we reflect on our days back in the belukar (jungle), when we were lost we would move on, hacking the path forward as best as we could determine. There was no turning back for we knew that the path back would have been overgrown. We would just as likely to get lost in going back as in going forward.

By choosing Mahathir, Gertak leaders were going back. They were clearly counting on him to be the big draw. Just as obvious, they did not have the confidence in the pulling power of their own ideals and mission.

They were half right. They were wrong in thinking that Mahathir would bring in the crowd, but they were right in that they could not sell their ideas, not even in the heartland of Malays.

There are two ways at looking at the poor attendance. One is that Malays were still tidor (asleep), literally, what with the World Cup soccer series going on. If we were not asleep literally, then perhaps we were figuratively. After all it was not that too long ago when we were being led by that sultan of slumber, Abdullah Badawi. Perhaps we have not yet awakened to the fact that the nation now has a new leader. Or it could be that our new leader is no different from the old sleepy head he replaced.

To me, the low attendance was due to more practical reasons. It was a Monday, a working day, and those Malays, like other Malaysians, were busy working. What with the government withdrawing subsidies for such essentials as sugar and cooking oil, Malaysians have to work doubly hard. They do not have time much less inclination to listen to frustrated politicians ventilating. The rakyats are fed up with hot and foul air; the country is sweltering and fetid enough already. Besides, they have heard those promises before.

To the organizers however, Monday is no different from any other day. Being from the rent-seeking class, they do not have to work and thus have plenty of time for berseminar and berkongress.

Contrary to the perception of those Melayu Bangkit boys, we Malays have not been asleep. We have been alert and awake, with our eyes wide open. It is just that we do not like what we have been hearing or seeing.

Mahathir must have an inflated sense of his influence post-retirement, especially after his success in bringing down his successor. I do give him credit in breaking down our taboo of criticizing leaders. However, before he crows or claims credit for Abdullah’s downfall, we need to remind Mahathir that Abdullah was no great trophy. To claim credit would be akin to the weekend hunter bragging of his shooting prowess on bringing down a lame caged kancil (mouse deer). Abdullah would have stumbled anyway, on his own lameness.

It was pathetic to see Mahathir frittering away his still considerable reservoir of goodwill, and soiling the prestige of his former office by associating with the lunatic fringe of Malay extremists and losers. Surely it would not be too difficult for him to find a more select audience to exercise his intellectual and other faculties.

It was also disappointing to see a former prime minister and once the leader of all Malaysians indulging in the same old tired “us” versus “them” rhetoric. Mahathir lamented that while Malays constitute the majority, our political power is divided, with Malays now also supporting PAS and Keadilan. Yes, there was a time when UMNO and Malays were synonymous. What did we get for that? An arrogant, rent-seeking class – the UMNOPutras – grown glutton on the nation’s riches which they think belong to them, and only to them. They are the ones now presuming to “lead” us.

These are not the leaders who will take us to the Promised Land. Judging from the abysmal attendance at the rally, the average Malay is also very much aware of that.

Granting Us Our Merdeka

If these leaders are truly interested in awakening and liberating Malays, in short, granting us our merdeka, then I suggest they focus on two critical areas: education and information.

Good education means equipping us with the necessary language and mathematical skills, as well as the capacity for critical thinking. Make us cerdek! Giving good education is like waking us up (bangkit) and then lighting the pelita (candle). With us now wide awake, the candle would lift the darkness, and with our eyes wide open (celek), we could then find our way out.

You can tell much about a society and predict its future by looking at the schools. When I look at our national schools, especially those in rural areas catering to Malays, I need not bother with the national statistics to tell me about the fate of our people. Yet in those “kongresses” I hear little on how to improve our schools or enhance the educational achievements of our people.

Instead what are often recommended would result in the closing of Malay minds, as with discouraging our young from learning English, deeming it to be the language of oppressors.

Superior education alone is not sufficient, for if we close the world on our people we would succeed only in creating the worse possible combination: a mass of highly educated but deeply frustrated citizens. That would not be good for the ruler or the ruled.

Removing censorship would go a long way in opening the world of ideas to our people. We should do away with such archaic practices as banning books and requiring special permits for publications. Nor should we restrict who can preach our faith. Such restrictions are futile in this digital age. Nations can no more control the flow of information then they could of air.

In this regard I applaud Mahathir’s decision not to sue his critics. Leaders should be willing to accept criticisms, even blatantly unfair ones. Leaders should not abuse the court system to intimidate or silence their critics. Likewise, I applaud UMNO Youth’s Khairy in calling for repeal of the Printing Press Act. My only regret is that he did not pursue that when he had access to the highest power in the land.

The Melayu Bangkit folks should influence us through their ideas, not threats, intimidations, or gertak. Impress us with the brilliance of your brain and the innovativeness of your ideas.

I have been trying to get copies of the papers presented at this and earlier seminars but to no avail. Those presenters are not proud of or keen to have their ideas disseminated. The organizers should have at the very least videotaped the proceedings and posted them on the Web for a wider audience; likewise with their papers. Those folks should not be content only with submitting those ideas “to the authorities.” God knows, that had been done umpteen times before, and we know what the results were.

We should demand more of our leaders beyond their shouting of old slogans, resurrecting of phantom enemies, or fantasizing the good old days under the coconut tree. For them to be leaders, they must first be bangkit, cerdek, and celek. We have no wish to be led by Pak Tidor (Sleepy head), Si Bodoh (Moron), or Mek Mato Tup Soboleh (The one-eyed).

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #19

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

Chapter 3: Lessons From The Past

The European Reformation

The Reformation refers to the religious revolution that took place in Western Europe during the 16th century. The pivotal event occurred in October 31, 1517, when the German preacher, Martin Luther, publicly posted his Ninety-Five Theses challenging the authority and practices of the Catholic Church. Needless to say, the Pope was not amused. Luther’s aim was to reform the institution; instead his protest ended up splitting the church, hence the terms Reformation and Protestant.

Luther was not the first, nor the only one to protest against the excesses of the Church. To understand why there was such widespread discontent among Christians then, an account of the behaviors and practices of the church establishment at the time is warranted.

The Church during Luther’s time was more than a pan-European religious institution. It was also the unchallenged social, political, and even economic power. Having wielded unchallenged authority for so long, it was inevitable that corruption, nepotism (or to put it in modern political term, cronyism), and other unsavory practices would emerge among Church leaders.

A few examples will illustrate the decadent state, both with personnel as well as practices. The clergy was less concerned with ministering to the spiritual needs of the faithful than being powerful potentates indulging in the material offerings of their followers. The masses and the educated disliked the clergy class, offended by both their lifestyles and theological practices. The clergy class reserved unto themselves the sole right to interpret the bible, written as it was in the ancient and dying language of Latin. Mere mortals need not partake in such intellectual and spiritual exercises. Suffice for them to listen to the Sunday sermons and pithy wisdom dispensed by the priests and bishops.

While the peasants were struggling, the Church continued to use its funds to build ever larger and grander churches in Rome and elsewhere. Egregious abuses of power by the clergy were rampant. One Cardinal John of Lorraine, for example, received his first religious appointment at the tender age of three! No less scandalous, his nephew received the archbishoporic of Rheims, a significant position, at age 14. Church properties and titles became possessions of great families to be dispensed at their pleasure. One prelate, Albert of Brandenburg, spent his time traveling in style, attended by his mistresses tactfully dressed in male costumes. Well, at least they were not the choirboys!

The Church was no less ingenious in raising funds. Apart from the standard solicitation of gold for church appointments and dispensing repentances for the princes and other aristocrats, it initiated other novel schemes of extracting wealth from the masses. One such practice is “indulgence,” where the clergy would dispense pardons for the presumed sins of the faithful (or their loved ones), all for a fee of course. We are familiar with the Catholic confessionals, where every Sunday the faithful would confess their sins to and receive repentance from the priest sitting behind the closed curtain. Presumably the slate would thus be swept clean, ready for the following week’s transgressions. The only problem was that there was no exchange of cash or coins, but this was soon corrected by the avarice of the clergy. Enter the “indulgence” box.

With the tinkling of every dropped coin into these boxes, supposedly the doors to heaven would open for the salvation of a designated soul, or so the faithful were told. It was a sophisticated theological rendition of the old “wishing well” idea. The concept was a resounding success, with the rich and poor rushing to deposit their gold coins to save the souls of their departed loved ones. I can imagine at the end of the day the bishop coming home with the boxful of glittering gold. If he had not been tempted before, he would certainly be by now. Besides, he could always blame the devil for tempting him!

As a revenue-generating scheme, the indulgence box was pure genius. It certainly beat taxes and tithes where you would be forced to cough up the money. With indulgence boxes, the faithful willingly parted with their gold. The ploy was even better and more lucrative than church-sponsored bingos! With bingo there are eager participants too, but there will only be a few winners; the majority will receive nothing. With indulgence boxes, perversely all the participants felt that they were winners as they parted with their hard-earned coins. One could not concoct a better scheme than that! No wonder it was so popular, especially with the clergy class.

The indulgence boxes epitomized the corruption and depravity of the church that so enraged Luther and others. When he nailed his Theses on that church door, he was frontally challenging the establishment. He enumerated the egregious abuses and outright fraud perpetrated by the priests, a long list eloquently spelled out in a common language understood by the masses, and not in some obscure fancy Latin. The results were electric: the masses overwhelmingly supported him. The Church in turn demanded that he retract his accusations or face excommunication. Or worse! Luther did not budge but became even more strident in his denunciations.

In truth Luther was not the first to be incensed by the excesses of the Church. Two centuries earlier, England’s John Wycliffe too rebelled against the tyranny of the clergy. For that, he and his followers were persecuted. John Huss of Bohemia amplified on Wycliffe’s ideas and ended up by being burned at the stake. The risks to reformers then, as now, were indeed severe.

To appreciate why Luther succeeded and did not end up being burned at the stake as others before him were, it is necessary to examine other parallel events occurring at the time. He was helped considerably by four converging trends. First, the excesses and abuses of the church had been going on for centuries and that sooner or later they had to end, to implode. Luther appeared when conditions were just ripe, resentments and anger had reached a critical stage. Second, there appeared throughout Europe universities that were outside the influence of the church. At such centers like Oxford there emerged the new movement of humanism that emphasizes the centrality of man and his ideas. This directly challenged the hegemony of the church that hitherto felt it had the final and sole authority to interpret everything.

Third was the ready availability of the printing press that enabled ideas to spread far and wide, and very quickly too. Luther took full advantage of this new medium to disseminate his ideas. With the masses now able to read and reading materials widely available, the clergy no longer had the monopoly on knowledge or information. Last, with the emergence of the political idea of nation-state, Luther was able to capitalize on the national sentiments of the Germanic people against those of Latin Europe, in particular, Rome. Luther was greatly helped when the local bishops shipped off the gold (after their have taken their generous portion) to Rome for building yet another monument there.

What are the relevant lessons from the Reformation? The first is that institutions and people with entrenched and unchallenged power will inevitably be corrupted; the greater the power, the worse the corruption. It matters not who these individuals are, for even the most pious are not immune. Second, the more entrenched the power, the more difficult it would be to eradicate the abuses without dismantling the whole structure. The European Reformation resulted not only in the formation of many breakaway Protestant sects but it also spawned a counter reformation within the Catholic Church.

Third, Luther had been through and excelled in the system; thus he had great credibility when he challenged the existing order. Fourth, he personified the very opposite qualities for which he criticized the Church. Where the clergymen were ostentatious, Luther was modest; while they hid behind their obtuse Latin, Luther used the language of the common folk. Being highly educated, Luther was facile with Latin but he chose to communicate in the language of the masses. Additionally he had a complete and viable alternative program ready. He had written not only his Ninety-Five Theses but also a whole set of sermons, hymns, and catechisms for his new church so that when he was expelled from the Catholic Church, he had a ready alternative. Luther did not have to scramble from scratch.

By far his most important strategy was to align his movement with the emerging new ideals. He shrewdly capitalized on the burgeoning nationalism, effectively exploiting the “us versus them” theme – the “them” being the distant church in Rome and the Italians. Similarly, he aligned himself with the growing humanist movement of the day. All these convergences helped him succeed.

When I compare Luther’s reformation with the Malaysian reformasi, (at the risk of flattering Anwar Ibrahim, its leader, by comparing him to Martin Luther!) a number of glaring differences emerge. Like the Catholic Church in the Middle Age, Malaysia’s ruling party is also burdened by corruption and cronyism, a consequence of being in power for so long. Like an overripe jackfruit that was still hanging, UMNO is ready to fall anytime. Unlike an overripe jackfruit which gives off a sweet smell, an overripe ripe gives off, well, an overripe smell!

Anwar however, is no Luther. For one, his reformasi forces aligned themselves with foreign elements rather than domestic ones. It was as if Luther was trying to co-opt the Italians for support instead of his own German followers. For another, reformasi activists did maximize the use of the new medium of the Internet to galvanize support and to discredit the ruling Barisan government as Malaysians generally were not quite savvy with this new medium. At least not yet then! [Note: Things changed materially by the time of the 2008 general elections with Internet penetration reaching a critical mass. No longer having control of information, the ruling coalition suffered its greatest loss.]

While Luther’s Theses was detailed, articulate, and down to earth, Anwar’s Permatang Pauh Declaration (its “Mission Statement”) was brief, pompous, and pretentious. Luther’s views were well known as he had articulated them well and often. He even put down details of his church services right down to the hymns and sermons. He wrote voluminously.

In striking contrast, reformasi and the political party it spawned, Keadilan was not quite ready for prime time. Undoubtedly, Anwar’s jailing took the momentum away from the movement. Without him, the party was fumbling with such pivotal issues as the role of religion in a plural society, inequities within and between races, and special privileges for Bumiputras.

But the most critical lesson is how to prevent the government and other institutions in Malaysia from degenerating into a medieval Catholic Church. Distressingly Malaysia today is acquiring many of the unsavory characteristics of the medieval church. Malaysian institutions are under tight government control. Additionally, the government is a significant player in the economy, controlling many major corporations. As a result corporate decisions are influenced less by market factors than by political calculations. The most glaring example is Malaysia Airlines, which stumbles from one major crisis to another. Despite that it continues to be led by less-than-competent political appointees. Current political leaders in Malaysia are control freaks, unable or unwilling to relent.

The differences between the medieval Catholic Church and the Malaysian political establishment today are merely quantitative, a matter of degree. Unchecked, Malaysia too will meet the same fate as the medieval Catholic Church.

Next: The Meiji Restoration

Old Habits Die Hard with Malaysia’s Five-Year Plans

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

Old Habits Die Hard With Malaysia’s Five-Year Plans

M. Bakri Musa

The old Soviet Union may have long ago crumbled, but the underlying mindset – the penchant to control and “plan” everything centrally – still has a tenacious hold, and not just on Russian leaders.

Joseph Stalin initiated the first Five Year Plan, incorporating Lenin’s New Economic Plan (NEP). However, not many would associate Five-Year Plans with Stalin, as he had acquired other notorieties.

It is ironic that 82 years later, an avowedly anti-communist Malaysia would still embrace Five Year Plans and NEP with gusto. The last Soviet Plan was its 12th; the collapse of the Empire took care of the 13th. Even the Communist Chinese have wised up; they now call their “Plan” only a “guideline.”

A century hence Malaysia will still be unveiling its latest Malaysia Plan (MP). In tone and substance, I predict it will be like the present Tenth MP, and all previous ones. It will boast of the wonderful attributes of our blessed country, and how fortunate we are to have such farsighted leaders. Then realizing the incongruity of such lavish praises with the need for yet another plan, the report will lament the squandered opportunities of the past.

Then just like the current Tenth MP, it will bravely call for a “transformation plan to become a high income, developed, resilient and competitive nation,” and exhort us to “think outside the box,” peppering its report with such phrases as “holistic measures,” “development with equity,” and other clichés of the time.

If we aspire for developed status – the stated objective of all these Plans – then at least we should learn from those who are already there. None of them have Five Year Plans. That should be a hint for us to abandon this whole notion of five-year plans and the attendant “command and control” mindset.

The Straight Jacket of a Five-Year Time Table

There is nothing magical about a five-year time span. At least with a decade for example, a child becomes a teenager, and a pimply teenager a young adult. Five years? There is no correlate in nature.

Five years would be an eon with Information Technology. Today few remember Netscape, much less use it as a browser. You need a much shorter time span in planning and be incredibly nimble to survive in that sector.

On the other hand, five years is but a fleeting moment with education. Here planning should span decades. We are only now seeing the follies of the changes instituted back in the 1970s.

Likewise with trade and investment policies; investors need a stable environment so their investments would not be subjected to the latest political intrigue or capricious regulatory changes.

Canada best demonstrates this wisdom. It is not surprising that its banks remain robust despite the current global financial crisis. There, legislations governing financial institutions are reviewed only every five years (previously every ten). Consequently its banks and bankers are not seduced by the latest financial fashions and “engineering” that had snared their hip colleagues in America, Iceland, and elsewhere.

Instead of an all-encompassing five-year plan, we should opt for a sector approach. For education, we should have a ten-year plan; likewise with trade and investment policies. For agriculture, the traditional five-year plan – the time-span for a rubber or palm sapling to reach maturity – is appropriate.

These five-year plans are also disruptive. The end of the current plan would invariably be consumed with planning for the next, a major distraction from executing the projects at hand. There is no hiatus between plans, and thus no opportunity to pause and learn. The learning curve is flat, the same mistakes repeated umpteen times. Then just as the plan gets going it would be time for the “mid-term review,” an exercise less in reviewing, more excuse-finding.

Then there is the long lapse between planning and execution. By the time a project is completed, the original assumptions have changed substantially. Consider the addition to the hospital in Johor Baru where I was attached. It was mulled during the Second MP, but did not get funded until the Third. When it was completed in the Fourth MP period, it proved hopelessly inadequate with the vastly increased demands.

Now that the Ninth MP is coming to a close, I predict that many of its projects either remain incomplete or not yet even started. I once suggested that the sole objective of the next plan should be to complete all those incomplete projects of earlier plans. I did not get praised for that practical suggestion!

Events and circumstances also have the habit of upending even the best laid plans, as the 1997 Asian economic contagion did to the Seventh MP. I thought that experience would definitely disabuse our leaders of their obsession with five-year plans.

Disconnect From Reality

Like its predecessors, this Tenth MP has a glaring disconnect from reality. Only days earlier a minister in Najib’s own department warned of impending bankruptcy should we stay the present fiscal course, specifically with respect to subsidies. The Tenth MP only perfunctorily addresses the issue with the promise to rationalize “energy pricing gradually to match market price.” Only a promise, no concrete action plan!

A few months earlier, the National Economic Action Council (a unit of the Prime Minister’s office) unveiled its brave New Economic Model (NEM), one cognizant of market realities and the need to be competitive instead of hiding behind protective barriers and special set-aside programs.

Alas only the talk was brave, the courage was fleeting. NEM was an exercise in futility. The Najib Razak who earlier boldly challenged Malaysia to transform itself was easily gertak (bluffed) by the likes of Ibrahim Ali, the populous critic of NEM.

If Najib would easily capitulate to a two-bit politician from the ulu of Kelantan, I wonder how he would fare with tough foreign leaders. No wonder the contested Limbang oilfield ended being given to Brunei, a real tough adversary! What next?

The major concerns of Malaysians are rampant corruption, escalating crime, and an ill-disciplined police force. Yet, hardly a word on these! Not that it would have made any difference. The Ninth MP’s remedy for corruption was to rename the anti-corruption agency and set up the National Integrity Institute. Meanwhile corruption remains unabated.

The few good ideas in the Tenth MP, if competently executed (a huge caveat!), would be positive developments. The explicit commitment away from physical to non-physical infrastructure, specifically human capital development, is one. I also applaud the expansion of preschools, the lowering to five years the age for entering primary school (only a consideration at this stage), and enhancing the qualifications of primary school teachers.

Old habits die hard; in Malaysia, they never do. Najib could not wean himself from his dependency on GLCs despite their abysmal performance. This Plan, like its predecessors, spawns its own set of GLCs. Nor could Najib unhook himself from the “30 Percent Bumiputra Equity Participation” obsession, despite the irrelevance of that figure and objective.

In his effort to recruit foreign talent, Najib predictably set up the Talent Corporation, another GLC to be run by UMNO operatives, of course. Another rent-seeking exercise! He never thought of giving our universities, the real talent corporations, the funds directly so they could do their own recruiting. Najib cannot find a GLC he does not like.

Najib used the metaphor of a soccer team to illustrate his point on teamwork. Had he followed through on that metaphor, he would realize that a team is only as good as its members and leaders. One inept player could cost the team the game. The pathetic dearth of talent in Najib’s team is matched only by his own deficits.

The only thing worse than a central “command and control” economy is one where the leader is also clueless, lacks conviction, and without courage. Najib Razak is all three.

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #18

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Chapter 3: Lessons From The Past

Chapter 3: Lessons From the Past

The Relevant Lessons of Early Islam

Much can be learned from the travails of the early Muslims. It helps considerably of course if God is on your side. That aside, there is much that we can emulate from the experiences and wisdom of the early Muslims.

First is the character of the prophet (pbuh) himself. Forgetting for a moment that he was Allah’s chosen Rasul (messenger), there are many attributes of the man that are noteworthy. His style of leadership was one of personal example. Long before Allah chose him, he already had a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness, as attested by his title Al-Ameen. Further, he had significant worldly achievements before he became Allah’s messenger. He was a successful trader, bringing bountiful profits to his employer. So impressed was her with his performance that she took the most unusual step of asking him to marry her. In a society where a woman’s status is only slightly higher than that of a camel, this was an unusual gesture on Khatijah’s part. Even more significant, Muhammad (pbuh) was not threatened by her audacity, a reflection of his conviction that women shared equal standing with men: a revolutionary concept at the time. He married her and she later became his most ardent and important supporter.

Unlike our prophet, all too often today’s Malaysian leaders have not demonstrated excellence in any endeavor. They may have dabbled in many fields but have left no significant mark; they are busy padding their resumes rather than achieving anything of significance. We have plenty of lawyers in Mahathir’s cabinet but I would not trust any of them to handle my traffic ticket. A few are former executives, but the companies they ran were monopolies; no particular managerial talent is required to run such enterprises. As for the academics in the cabinet, their scholarly achievements are such that they would have a tough time gaining tenure elsewhere.

The second point is that Muhammad (pbuh), in the hip-hop language of today, not only “talk the talk but also walk the walk.” His commitment to equality was not mere lip service; he demonstrated it in the most dramatic ways. He abhorred slavery; and demonstrated this by freeing those slaves who became Muslims. Indeed some of his trusted companions and brilliant lieutenants were former slaves. He not only preached tolerance, but also personified forbearance and charity. Thus when his daughters married non-Muslims he did not disown them nor did he chastise their husbands or proclaim that they and their children would rot in hell. Yet today many supposedly devout Muslims willingly disown their own kin for much lesser sins.

Muhammad (pbuh) was no autocratic leader. In battles he consulted his lieutenants liberally; he did not embark on a course of action unless he could carry his followers with him. He knew that once his followers were committed, there would be no limit to their achievements. The near disaster they experienced at Uhud was in part attributable to the fact that many of the Muslims were fighting for the wrong reason – the spoils of war rather than for the cause.

We see this same phenomenon in UMNO today. Because it is the ruling party with many “goodies” in the form of public contracts and patronages to dispense, UMNO attracts many for the wrong reasons. Many members and leaders are fighting not for the party but for the bounties afforded by the party. The lowliest positions are keenly contested not because of the opportunity to advance the cause but for the accompanying government contracts and largess they would bring. The opposition Islamic Party PAS on the other hand, with no comparable rewards to distribute, attracts only the most committed. The crucial test for PAS is when it gains control of a few more jurisdictions, and then the fight will surely begin.

Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in the second volume of his memoir, related similar experiences with his ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). As it has been in power for a long time, it attracted political climbers and opportunists rather than true believers.

To his credit, Lee recognized this very early and took immediate drastic measures. He stepped up recruitments from other than the usual sources instead of merely waiting passively for new members. Today, Singapore’s second tier of leaders includes some of its best and brightest who has been successfully recruited laterally, instead of depending exclusively on the rank and file.

In striking contrast, Malaysia’s young leaders are an uninspiring bunch. Indeed Prime Minister Mahathir lamented that he is trapped in his position. If he were to retire now (2002), there would be a mad and unseemly struggle for power.

One aspect of our prophet’s leadership deserves emphasis. Even though he was painfully aware of his burden of spreading Allah’s message and thus the righteousness of his mission, yet he demonstrated remarkable restrain. Thus he was willing to delay his pilgrimage, dear to all Muslims, for a year if that would avoid an unnecessary war. He was keen to heal, not create new or open old wounds. Contrast that to today’s Malaysian leaders, Muslims and non-Muslims, who are so consumed with the righteousness of their cause that they are prepared to create havoc, sacrifice lives, and even destroy the nation if that is what it takes for them to gain power.

PAS leaders in their zeal for spreading the truth as they see it are oblivious of the dangerous polarization of the ummah (community) that they cause. They brazenly declare that those who vote against PAS are surely punching their ticket to hell. Such righteousness! Such certitude! That their listeners believe in such nonsense is reflective of the stupidity of both leaders and followers. Such crude preaching perverts the true message of Islam. To PAS and UMNO leaders, it matters not that their actions would create permanent deep fissures among Malays as long as they could capture votes. They are political animals to the core rather than true leaders who will lead the nation to greater heights.

Malaysian leaders would do well to emulate our prophet (pbuh). It was not simply that he was preaching the message of Allah that accounted for Islam’s phenomenal success; it was also the sheer power of his personality and sense of leadership that attracted many committed followers.

To his great tribute, Muhammad (pbuh) strongly discouraged a personality cult built around him. Imagine had he done so or in any way aggrandized himself. Muslims today would be busy adoring and worshipping the man instead of his message. Muslim homes would be decorated with ornately framed portraits of the prophet, his family and companions. Mosques and monuments would be named after him. Muslim babies would be carrying amulets and other artifacts of him for good luck charms and symbols. Young Muslim radicals would be waving little green books and chanting “The Thoughts of Chairman Muhammad.”

In his wisdom the prophet (pbuh) clearly distinguished between the divine revelations he received, and his own preaching. With the former he made sure that they were immediately and accurately memorized and transcribed by his followers. But he specifically forbade them from recording his own words lest later Muslims would confuse the two messages. Because the prophet did not focus on himself but on Allah’s message, the faith remains true to its original divine mission.

I look askance at today’s leaders, especially in the Muslim world, where every home is adorned with portraits of the “beloved” leader. Every room and street in Baghdad is plastered with pictures of Saddam Hussein in various forms: farmer, soldier (highly decorated of course), and preacher. Iranians can hardly escape the scowling stare of Ayotallah Khomeini from every public wall.

Because he attracted such capable and distinguished personalities as his companions, Muhammad (pbuh) did not see fit to arrange for a formal succession mechanism. Rightly so, after all he was chosen by Allah to be His Last Messenger, and thus by definition, there cannot be a successor. Nevertheless in the ordinary workings of mortals, there must be a system for an orderly transition of leadership and smooth transfer of power.

Fortunately his closest companions were men of integrity and honor. They learned well the lessons of Islam. Between them they were able to agree on a caliph, the successor to lead the faithful. The first was Abu Bakar, followed by Omar, Uthman, and lastly, Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law. Their leadership was exemplary. Abu Bakar created a much-needed sense of stability and continuity. Uthman collated the revelations into the Holy Koran, a complete message for mankind for all ages and at all times. Omar was a legendary administrator known for his fabled walkabout brand of management where he would disguise himself as an ordinary citizen and wander the streets to determine how his subjects were actually doing, instead of relying on reports from his subordinates. His kind-heartedness and concern for the ordinary citizens were the stuff of legends. Such achievements notwithstanding, three of the four Caliphs ended being assassinated by fellow Muslims. There are reports that Abu Bakar’s brief tenure was because he was poisoned.

Muhammad (pbuh) was the personification of tolerance. Muslims today do not quite grasp this unique and enduring quality of our prophet. Much of the split in the Muslim world today is the result of differences in interpretations and not on matters of basic principles. The schism between the two major sects, Sunni and Shi’i, is over who should succeed the prophet, that is, differences over personnel, not principle.

One of the disheartening aspects of public discourse in Malaysia today is precisely this lack of tolerance of divergent opinions. Those who dare disagree are quickly labeled deviant, subversive, or worse, infidels destined for hell. Malaysians emphasize differences rather than commonalities.

Muslims are urged to emulate the ways of the holy prophet (pbuh). We cannot hope to aspire for his qualities of miracles; those are properly the exclusive gift of Almighty Allah. But we can emulate his other human attributes.

Earlier I alluded to his legendary tolerance. When his uncle Abu Talib died without embracing Islam, the prophet did not forsake him or condemn him to eternal hell. His uncle may not have been a Muslim but he was still worthy of Muhammad’s love and respect.

When one sees the deep schism among Muslims today, it is easy to forget that the essence of the faith is rather simple and agreed to by all. Islam’s tenets are its five pillars: belief in Allah and Mohammad as his Last Messenger, and in the Day of Judgment; praying five times a day; fasting during Ramadan; giving tithe; and if conditions permit, a pilgrimage to Mecca. Everything else are frills, ornaments that will vary with times and cultures. If we can tolerate these variations then we would be able to get along better with our fellow Muslims, and in turn, with non-Muslims.

Just as in a building, these pillars may be displayed differently. A functional builder shows the structural pillars boldly to glorify their massive strengths and advertise their supporting functions, as we see in modern warehouse-like offices. A more esthetic architect may want them camouflaged as Grecian or Roman columns. A post-modernist designer would hide or blend them into the walls.

So it is with Islam. Some Muslims display their faith exuberantly, others more subdued but no less pious. Living in America, I am blessed with the opportunity to learn from fellow Muslims from all over the world. From the conservative Wahabis I value the anchoring stability of traditions and rituals; from the liberal Ismailis, pragmatic accommodation. They both enrich my understanding of the faith.

Our prophet (pbuh) implicitly recognized this diversity when he declared, “Differences of opinion within my community is a sign of the bounty of Allah.” It pains me immensely to see Muslims polarized and divided over mere interpretations. We should have a Jeffersonian generosity: every difference in opinion is not a difference of principle.

Islam spreads because people recognize implicitly the value and truth of this divine message. Ancient Malays readily accepted Islam despite its foreign origin because of its evident truth. Yet today we frequently hear the refrain that globalization and free enterprise are not suited for Malaysia because they originated with the Anglo Saxons and thus alien to our ways. If the ideas work, embrace them; if not, discard. The world readily accepted the Arabic numeral system without caring who invented it.

I find this insular attitude among Muslim leaders and scholars of denigrating and dismissing the works and contributions of non-Muslims dangerous and a major obstacle to the modernization of Islam. Islam is too important to be left to the religious scholars alone. We would be abrogating our responsibility as Muslims if we suspend our critical judgment and blindly accept the pronouncements of our ulama. A passage in the Qur’an reminds us that on the Day of Judgment we will be judged by our own deeds. We cannot excuse ourselves by saying that we followed the teachings of this alim (singular for ulama) or that scholar.

It is instructive that one of the significant advances in medical education in the 20th century was started not by educators or even doctors, but an insurance salesman, Abraham Flexner. Prior to 1911 medical education in America was a haphazard affair. A medical college was less a place to train doctors but more a moneymaking enterprise. And the product showed. In 1911 Flexner, appalled at how future doctors were being trained, produced his famous report that later became the basis for revamping medial education in America. Today American medical schools are unanimously regarded as the best. Had the medical establishment simply dismissed Flexner because of his lack of medical or educational training, American medical schools would have remained third rate.

In the final analysis it is the merit of the idea that matters, not where or from whom it originated.

Next: The European Reformation

Perkasa, Kampung Baru, and the Failure of Malay Leadership

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

Perkasa, Kampung Baru, and the Failure of Malay Leadership
M. Bakri Musa

Squatting within view of KL’s gleaming skyscrapers like a blob of dung at the tip of a high-heeled boot is a collection of quaint kampong houses. To patronizing foreigners, those wooden houses on stilts in Kampung Baru are a welcomed relief to the concrete jungle of a modern metropolis. To its inhabitants, taken in by the curious and feigned interests of gawking tourists, Kampung Baru is their tropical urban Shangri-La.

To Malaysians however, it is nothing but your typical Third World slum. Kampung Baru assaults your sensibilities and senses, especially olfactory. Not that the rest of KL is pristine and sweet smelling!

Alas to Malays, Kampung Baru is an embarrassing and glaring reminder that beneath the bravado of Ketuanan Melayu we remain marginalized, despite over half a century of independence and a continuous succession of Malay sultans and prime ministers. Not to mention Article 153 protecting our “special” position!

If Kampung Baru is the physical reminder of the impotence of Malay leaders in tackling the challenges facing our community, then Perkasa and the coalition it leads, People’s Awakening Movement – Gerakan Kebangkitan Rakyat (Gertak) – reflect the intellectual bankruptcy of our leaders.

Sultan Syndrome and Abracadabra Leaders

In an earlier book I described a malady peculiar to our leaders, the sultan syndrome, where leaders behave like sultans, content with being mere figureheads and indulging the perks of their positions. Engaged executives they are not.

Like sultans, these leaders are consumed with issuing endless edicts (titah). They have no idea what those would entail, much less how to execute them or the challenges involved. Hence we hear with nauseating frequency their exhorting us to, “Be efficient!” or “Be competitive!” When asked how, they would be silenced. The best they could muster would be to mumble something like, “Be like the Japanese!”

I am being generous in describing them as leaders. Like sultans, they are there not to lead us but for us to sembah (pay homage to) them. Like religious figurines in Hindu homes, they are there for us to pay tribute. And pay it we must, for any hint of disrespect would be met with harshly. Those sultans and sultan wannabes are like Hindu gods; there is no escaping their spell. Anger them at your peril! Public hand kissing, endless gifts of trinkets, and effusive displays of loyalty are all part of this homage paying.

Their demands keep getting more voracious and insatiable. What we need is not Article 153 (to protect the sultans) but its reverse, to protect us from our rapacious sultans and sultan wannabes.

This sultan syndrome is associated with what I would call “abracadabra leaders.” These are ‘leaders’ who, when issuing their titah and arahan (directive) delude themselves into thinking that that alone is sufficient, like waving a magic wand. Little do they know that the real world does not work that way, even if they were to incant, “Abracadabra!” It takes hard work and creative thinking to translate your vision into reality, and that is what these abracadabra leaders lack.

In his latest pronouncement, complete with the frothing of the mouth, flaring of the nostrils, and the obligatory brandishing of the keris (this time thankfully spared of the ketchup), Gertak leader Ibrahim Ali demanded that NEP be maintained and Malays accorded a specified portion of the economic pie. There was as usual no mention on how that could be achieved. Ibrahim forgot his “Abracadabra!”

I am not surprised that Ibrahim is gaining traction with Malays; we have always been partial to soaring rhetoric. The Indonesians would listen for hours to Sukarno’s pidato. Meanwhile their country spiraled into chaos and mass starvation. What surprises me is when the likes of Mahathir fall for Ibrahim. To think that Malays are pinning our hopes on this Al-Katak! (Jumping Frog, in reference to his party hopping habit.)

Fellow commentator Azly Rahman reminds us that gertak means “childish verbal threat.” Ibrahim Ali is certainly childish and all verbal, but he is no threat. Only those who could easily be gertak would perceive him as a threat. Unfortunately Najib Razak is one of those.

In his usual humorous but biting take, Azly suggests that the coalition change its acronym to Gelak – Gerakan Anti-Lawan Antara Kaum (Movement Against Inter-Communal Conflict), a more noble goal. Gelak also means “laughter,” appropriate as Ibrahim (and his movement) is already a laughing stock.

Developing Kampung Baru

Lamentably, Ibrahim Ali’s laughable big but empty talk is the norm among Malay leaders.

Consider the lack of development in Kampung Baru, a problem that has challenged leaders since Datuk Onn in the 1940s. The only innovative thinking had been the British gazetting the area in 1900. Whatever we may think of the merit of the idea today, without it Kampung Baru would have long been gone.

This latest folly of 60-40 partnership with non-Malays has been wisely torpedoed by the residents. It is not difficult to sympathize with them. They have heard too many half-baked ideas before, of leaders spouting without thinking, and their not making any attempt at understanding the problem. Often, as demonstrated by this latest idiocy, these leaders would blame the residents when those ideas fail.

For example, knowing Malay inheritance laws and traditions, these properties have multiple owners and have been hopelessly fragmented, made worse with Malays having no written wills, not even those with substantial estates, as attested by many high-profile inheritance disputes. We do not know the magnitude of this problem as there is no survey of land ownership in Kampung Baru.

A major obstacle to developing Malay properties is this multiple and unclear ownership, and the attendant difficulties in decision making. Unless resolved, this will remain an insurmountable obstacle to development.

Tun Razak was aware of this when he started FELDA. Thus FELDA land cannot be subdivided but must be inherited by only one son. This apparent contradicting of Islamic and traditional inheritance practices did not prompt outcries from the Islamists and traditionalists. They saw it as a sensible solution to a major problem.

This ownership conundrum in Kampung Baru and other Malay Reservation land could be solved by creating a family corporation, where the ownership of the title may be divided but the land itself cannot; it remains under this new entity.

In his forthcoming book, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back The Middle East, Timur Kuran suggests that Arab (and Muslim) underdevelopment is attributed in part to this inheritance practice. While the Quranic injunction is just, it results in the fragmentation of estates. The European medieval practice where the entire inheritance went to the eldest son may be unjust but it had the advantage of keeping intact the family’s estate.

It is this fragmentation of estate that prevented Muslim enterprises from growing from one generation to the next, a problem shared by Malays. However, we have yet to acknowledge let alone solve it. Consider the current inheritance litigation over Naza Corporation; there are many others.

As for restrictive land ownership, statutes like the Malay Reservation Act are not unique to Malaysia. America has its Indian Reservations and Hawaiian Native land trusts. That did not prevent development on those reservations as attested by the gleaming casinos and hotels. In Hawaii, native-trust land can be leased long-term; its low price compared to freehold properties a competitive advantage. An all-Malay ownership need not be an obstacle to development; cheap land could be a formidable advantage.

As for the tangled ownership, the entire Kampung Baru could be made into a corporation with its present owners as shareholders. That corporation could then negotiate with developers, foreign and local, to get the best deal for a BLT (Built, Lease, and Transfer) or similar arrangement for the whole area. Those owners would get a unit or more in the development based on their contributions through their land. The rest would be rented out, as with any development. Properly structured and managed, a gentrified Kampung Baru could be an economic jewel as well as the model for developing other Malay Reservation land.

The government’s proposed Kampung Baru Development Corporation, already approved by the cabinet, is precisely the wrong approach. It is a top-down initiative, with the corporation controlled by ministry bureaucrats instead of the landowners. It calls for a GLC to develop the property, presumably without competitive bidding (as is the usual practice with these GLCs). That is just another scheme to enrich the politically powerful.

These and other dilemmas of Malays could be solved only through careful studies and analyses. The faculties needed for that are humility (to facilitate your knowing what you don’t know), political skills (to craft the necessary compromise among the competing demands), and intellectual integrity (to enhance your learning curve).

Unfortunately those are the very skills lacking among our leaders today. Consequently, count on Perkasa and Kampung Baru being with us for a very long time.

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #17

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Chapter 3: Lessons From The Past

Spreading the Word of God

When Muhammad (pbuh) received his first revelation in that cave high above Mecca, he was already well prepared. Nonetheless for the first few years he preached Allah’s message in secret, first to his immediate family and later, his close friends. He understood the vast implications of his mission.

Muhammad (pbuh) knew that Islam would frontally challenge the existing order. Even though he was committed to Allah’s cause, nonetheless he had no intention of destroying his community in order to save it, to use a Vietnam-era military maxim. He was fully cognizant of the intense opposition to his mission from the existing power structure. His forcing the message would only result in further turmoil, a civil war. His mission was to save, not destroy society.

Despite that caution, those early Muslims faced tremendous hostile opposition. Without divine protection, Muhammad’s fate could easily have been like that of Zaid and other earlier reformers. More down to earth, Muhammad (pbuh) was also fortunate to have the protection of his uncle Abu Talib. It was significant that his uncle, though highly supportive of Muhammad’s mission, was unable to commit himself to the new faith. He was already set in his ways. The first few years were difficult for the Muslims, with open hostilities and violent opposition. Many were tortured and killed.

In the face of such intense resistance, Muhammad (pbuh) wisely decided to send some of his followers to migrate to Abyssinia, then under the reign of a tolerant Christian king. More practically, the migration eased the sense of threat felt by the Quareshis. But as more Arabs accepted this new faith, the establishment felt even more threatened, which in turn prompted them to take even more extreme measures to neutralize Muhammad (pbuh) and his followers.

When bribes did not work with the honest Mohammad, they resorted to harassment. This reference to bribery is well documented. Aware of the devastating consequences to them and their existing way of life of Muhammad’s message, the Arabs persuaded his uncle Abdullah, a pagan, to coax the prophet to give up his mission with promises of riches and titles. They would have willingly surrendered to him the tribal leadership if only the prophet would give up his cause. This prompted the famous response: “By the grace of Allah,” said the prophet, “even if you give me the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left, I will not give up His work.” Meaning, even had the Bedouins promised Muhammad the world, he still would not have changed course. Allah’s messenger could not be bought at any price.

It was no easy mission. The remaining Muslims in Mecca continued to be harassed and boycotted. They were not allowed to trade or interact socially with the community, an ancient version of social and economic sanctions. In the end the boycott backfired. The stoic sufferings of the Muslims evoked sympathy from the populace, gaining the new faith even more converts.

The Muslims continued to grow to a critical mass where they felt they could successfully challenge the existing order. The prophet (pbuh), fully aware that such an open declaration would result in an ugly and vicious civil war – pitting brother against brother, father against son, and uncle against nephew – sought another solution. Creating social upheavals would not be in the best interest of Islam or the community.

With guidance from Allah, he began preparing his followers for migration to Medina where he would encounter less resistance. His preliminary inquiries indicated that that community was more hospitable and tolerant. The migration was secretly planned and executed, with Muslims escaping in the middle of the night to avoid detection by their non-Muslim tribesmen. This migration, or Hijrah, was such a momentous event that the Muslim calendar began from that date, the first year of the Hijrah (AH) being 632CE (Common Era). It is to be emphasized that the hijra was a positive mission to establish the first viable Muslim community, and not a negative one of escaping the persecution at Mecca.

Medina did prove to be a receptive environment. It became the first proper Muslim community, with the prophet (pbuh) able to spread his message more systematically and openly. And the faith continued to spread. But there were still battles to be fought and enemies to be overcome. Of the many battles of the early Muslims, the two most celebrated ones were the Battle of Badr, in which the Muslims won despite overwhelming odds, and the Battle of Uhud, in which the well-prepared but over-confident Muslims were routed and with the prophet (pbuh) himself sustaining injury. These exploits reached legendary proportions to instill in Muslims the lesson that victory is not always assured simply because of the justness of the cause, and of the dangers of over confidence.

To me the genius of our prophet’s military leadership was exemplified not in the heroic battles he won, rather in the conflicts he avoided. The peace treaty he signed with the pagan Meccans at Al-Hudaibiyah is particularly instructive.

It was the tenth year of the Hijrah, the prophet (pbuh) had declared his intention to lead his followers on their first pilgrimage to Mecca. He publicly demonstrated his peaceful intentions by forbidding his followers from carrying arms except their daggers, the traditional accoutrement of desert travelers. To the non-Muslim Meccans, the news was greeted with considerable apprehension; it meant another possible confrontation with the Muslims. It was also a frontal challenge to the Quraishi’s authority as custodians of the Ka’aba.

As the Muslims were preparing for their pilgrimage, Muhammad (pbuh) sent numerous emissaries ahead to assure the Meccans of his peaceful and religious intentions. The Meccans however, were not impressed and remained downright suspicious. They in turn sent delegations to Muhammad to discourage him and his followers from undertaking the pilgrimage, and also to assess the Muslims’ strength. The Muslims were not dissuaded and proceeded with their pilgrimage. They encamped at the plains of Al-Hudaibiyah, just outside of Mecca. Legend has it that the prophet’s camel refused to budge further. After a series of negotiations with and posturing by the Meccans, Muhammad (pbuh) finally agreed to a peace treaty. The Meccans were relieved in not having to fight the determined Muslims and Muhammad (pbuh) in turn was comforted by the fact that he had averted a civil war. He knew only too well that his followers would be fighting their own kin and kind. He also knew that the wounds of this fratricide would take a long time to heal.

Many of the Muslims were not comforted, as the treaty was decidedly lopsided in favor of the Meccans. The Muslims avoided war all right, but the price was stiff; they had to defer their pilgrimage for a year and to stop spreading Islam among the Meccans. Delaying the pilgrimage was a tough sell as the Muslims were already in heightened religious fervor. To be disrupted in one’s pilgrimage is an event of singular significance to Muslims, then and now. In the end despite the rumblings, Muhammad (pbuh) was able to calm his followers. The treaty meant that the Muslims were spared further harassment from the powerful Meccans.

To Muhammad (pbuh), the big relief was in sparing lives and casualties both for his followers as well as for his kinsmen back at Mecca. The welcomed respite from fighting the Meccans also enabled the Muslims to concentrate on propagating their faith elsewhere.

In the following year when the prophet (pbuh) gathered his followers for the deferred pilgrimage, he had an even bigger crowd. More significantly, the Meccans were so impressed by the Muslims’ peaceful mission and tolerant gestures the year earlier, contrary to the propaganda they had been fed by their leaders, that many joined the new faith. Thus what had previously been generally perceived as a defeat for Muhammad (pbuh) and a victory for the Meccans, turned out a year later to be just the reverse.

Next: The Relevant Lessons of Early Islam