Toppling The Malay Coconut Shell
- M. Bakri Musa
The Malay coconut shell had been toppled many times in our history, and not necessarily through our own efforts, as when those early Muslim traders entered our world. They came to trade but through their exemplary day-to-day activities and conduct, they upended our core belief system. Those Muslim traders transformed Malays from believing in multiple deities to a one All-Powerful and All-Encompassing God. That did not change our physical world but it was momentous nonetheless precisely because of that. We adapted to that new world in a smooth and seamless transition. We became better for it.
The colonials too flipped over our shell. Unlike those Muslims traders, the changes the colonials brought about were physical and demographic, as when they flooded the country with immigrants to work the tin mines and rubber estates. Those colonialists also made their presence known in no uncertain terms, to the natives as well as immigrants, who was in charge.
We cursed the colonials for upending our familiar comfortable world. Nonetheless their flipping over our coconut shell exposed us to a new and much wider world. At the micro or personal level, if not for the colonials I would still today be an orang hamba (slave) at the istana (palace), just like my ancestors. There are others who argue that the colonialism itself was a form of slavery. That may well be so.
At the macro or societal level, the British colonials (though not the earlier Dutch or Portuguese) introduced modern education. Thousands benefited from that. To be sure, those colonials did not do that with much enthusiasm nor funded it with bountiful generosity. They did it in portions just enough to satisfy their collective conscience and to meet their pragmatic need for locally qualified people to help them rule us more effectively and, not to be discounted, cheaply.
There were other less appreciated but nonetheless significant and enduring benefits of colonial rule. That may not be a politically correct assertion to make, nonetheless the British gave us Munshi Abdullah. If not for them, he too would be another indentured laborer at the istana, and Malay literature would remain nothing more than the chronicles of khayalan (fantasies).
Another global cataclysm that toppled the metaphorical coconut shell of our Malay world was World War II. While the colonialists’ entry forced a sea change in our Malay way of life and matters physical, the Japanese invasion triggered even more. They not only changed the country physically, and it was a very terrible change, but also and of much greater significance and permanence, triggered a momentous change in the Malay psyche.
The sight of those hitherto invincible white Tuans and their Mems scurrying in their Austins and Morris Minors chased by the short, yellow Japanese on their sardine can-made bicycles made quite an impact on the collective natives’ psyche: The myth of white supremacy forever shattered! It was this that emboldened Malays to pursue with even greater vigor our independence.
While external upheavals can topple our coconut shell, we cannot always count on them or predict the outcome to be in our favor. Nor could we anticipate the costs we would have to bear, which was considerable as we saw with colonialism and the Japanese Occupation. That is a crucial caveat. It would be much more preferable for us to make our own effort at toppling our shell. Then we could control its timing and thus minimize the collateral damage. We would also be more likely to get the changes we desired.
Toppling our coconut shell begins with our freeing ourselves mentally to imagine the world beyond the present. That is the crucial first step. Once we can imagine, then we can fly, or in the words of the great Muhammad Ali, “A man who has no imagination has no wings.”
Imagination rules the world, Napoleon once said. Once one’s imagination is ignited, there is no going back; our shell will be toppled. The question then will be whether it is done with great care so as not to incur collateral damages, or recklessly as in the rampage of a revolution. The former is preferable. However, as the promises of flipping our shell are so great, the fear of the latter should not deter us.
A sure way of igniting our imagination is to be dissatisfied with our present condition. Change, and thus progress, depends on us not being satisfied with the status quo. Once we have this sense of dissatisfaction or even better, anger, that would motivate us to topple over and get out from underneath our shell. Immigrants are successful in their adopted land because they are driven by dissatisfaction with their native land.
A major obstacle for Malays specifically and Muslims generally is our ingrained but misguided notion of satisfaction with the status quo, al qadar – our fate is written in the book – the passive acceptance that there is not much that we can do to alter our destiny. This destructive religious determinism is just as crippling as the pseudo modern biological one – our fate lies with our genes. The latter is from our misunderstanding of science; the former, the misreading of our faith.
There is much that we can do at the individual level to fire up our imagination. Merely looking at and being curious of the wonderful world around and within us would open up our minds. Observing the stars above had triggered many an imagination. With it, Copernicus transformed our view of the universe from a geocentric one that we inherited from the Greeks to a heliocentric one. Many a theological and other shells were shattered by that singular observation.
Exposing ourselves to the imagination of others is another, as with the old storytelling. Today it would be reading. Pictures and videos both expand and restrict that reach. It expands because of the richness of the images; restricts because the photographer or videographer imposes her imagination upon her viewers! Travel and experiencing other cultures too stretch our imagination. Mystics go into seclusion for extended periods to force a change in the normal rhythm of their lives to effect similar ends.
At the societal level, the proven pathways towards igniting our imagination and thus liberating our minds include information, education, and our involvement in trade and commerce.
Once we are aware through education, information and our travels or trading activities that there is a much wider world out there, then we are not likely to be satisfied with our own confined dark space no matter how comfortable it may seem to us at the time or what a paradise it is as per the repeated assurances of our leaders.
All three – information, education, and commerce – apart from opening up our minds and facilitating the toppling of our shell, are also the best ways to prepare us for the new open world. The following chapters will deal with each of these elements. Before proceeding, I pause and reassess where we are, the direction we are headed, and the destination we aspire to reach.
Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.