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The Superiority of Growth Versus Fixed Mindset

Sunday, April 17th, 2016

The Superiority of Growth Versus Fixed Mindset
Bakri Musa

The corollary to my earlier discussion is that it is far better to have a mindset with the capacity to grow and adapt than one that is fixated on its existing worldview. Harping on “changing mindset,” as our leaders are wont to do, is misplaced.

The Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck describes the two mindsets: the growth versus the fixed. They differ not only in their hypothesis of the outside world but also how they view their inner being.

Those with a fixed mindset view their talent and ability as fixed and tied to their innate ability. They view themselves as being governed by whatever abilities that they have been endowed with by nature. They are trapped by their biologic pre-determinism, which can be just as crippling as the more familiar religious variety afflicting simple villagers – “My fate is written in the book of life!”

The “book of life” of those with fixed mindset and are science-literate is the sequence of amino acids encoded in their DNA strands. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe that their fate depends on their ability to adapt and learn from new challenges and experiences, not on whatever nature has bestowed upon them through their chromosomes. To these individuals, opportunities are the flipside of crises, as the ancient Chinese wisdom would have it. Success depends on their ability to convert the latter to the former.

Those with a growth mindset are not trapped or limited by whatever nature had endowed upon them. Nor do they believe that their fate is dependent upon the benevolence of a remote emperor or what had been written in the book of life, either the theological or biological edition.

In medieval times those with 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 the belief of Ina and Sabu, the characters in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s short story Djangus dan Babu. That mindset is continually being reinforced by cultural beliefs and religious convictions.

Leaders with a fixed mindset are the likes of Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew, firm believers in their innate abilities. Presidents Nixon and Reagan best exemplified leaders with a growth mindset. Nixon was a staunch conservative and firm supporter of Taiwan, but that did not stop him from opening up to China. Reagan, like Nixon, was also staunchly conservative and anti-communist, but he had no difficulty working with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The signal difference between those with fixed versus growth mindset is their attitude towards failure. The former would treat failure as reflecting their inner being, an affirmation of their inadequacies and lack of natural ability. Worse, their failure also reflects that of their race or culture, or both. They would then retreat, never to challenge the situation again.

Those with a growth mindset on the other hand consider failures as part and parcel of learning and adapting. They bounce right back. In Silicon Valley, California, a failed entrepreneur wears his failure as a warrior would his battle scars, and then moves on. Nixon and Reagan were both defeated on their first try at the presidency, but both went on to win substantial majorities on subsequent attempt.

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, over one where it would be more difficult to remedy. For example in a clinically ambiguous situation, surgeons will opt to operate on a case of suspected acute appendicitis only to find out that it is normal rather than wait to be certain and risk the inflamed appendix rupturing and jeopardizing the patient’s life. The consequences of the first mistake (operating too soon) are less severe and more remediable than with the second (operating too late).

Hamka’s words best encapsulate the attitude of those with a fixed mindset, Takut gagal adalah gagal sejati. The fear of failure is the real failure, the hallmark of those with a fixed mindset.

We can develop or train ourselves to have a growth mindset. This is best tackled simultaneously at two levels: individual and societal. For individuals, we should expose ourselves to as many new experiences as possible thus enabling our brain to forge those new neural pathways. At the societal and cultural levels, it would be anything that would encourage and facilitate our people in having those new experiences.

Geography plays a major role in shaping our mindset. Inhabitants of coastal areas and others exposed to large bodies of water (traditional means of transportation in ancient times) are more cosmopolitan than those inland. In China, it is Shanghai; Malaysia, Malacca; and India, Goa. Their residents are exposed to many visitors (mainly traders in the old days) from different lands bringing with them new cultures and ideas. Today, technology, specifically modern means of communications, has overcome this limitations imposed by geography.

With frequent exposures to new people and experiences, as with traveling, we increase our comfort level with the unfamiliar and different. With that comes tolerance and appreciation.

This only works if we have a growth mindset. If we have a fixed one, then all those new experiences would only reinforce our existing prejudices. Psychologists refer to this as “confirmation bias,” the tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms our preconceptions and avoid those that do not. To return to my earlier metaphor, we would be concerned only with “re-editing” the facts to fit our pre-existing narrative instead of creating a new one.

If you believe that the West is inherently decadent, then when visiting Washington, D.C, all you would see are the porn shops, street potholes, and the homeless pandering. You would miss Georgetown University, Library of Congress, and the National Institutes of Health.

The writer Anis Sabirin, a former Fulbright scholar who spent decades living in Los Angeles, related in her memoir Dua Dunia (Two Worlds) her experience visiting the Library of Congress. There she was treated with the utmost courtesy and given all the help she needed, a vast contrast to her miserable experience when she visited the University of Malaya library. To make it even more unbearable and unbelievable, she was a former faculty member at that institution!

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 Malaysia as reflected in her stirring syairs (poetry), nonetheless she has an open mind to discern the differences between her native land and America. She is also confident of her patriotism such that she is not afraid to criticize her homeland and praise America. That also personifies a growth mindset and a free mind.

The 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 issue in China, Russia and other repressive societies, together with book banning and burning, are the crudest expression of this fixed mindset. Unfortunately that is the path Malaysian leaders have chosen, with their penchant on banning and/or licensing speakers.

With a free mind and a growth mindset we can explore the many transformational events in our history and view them from a perspective different from what we have been used to. Only then could we learn and benefit from the exercise, and making our learning curve steeper. With a closed mind, our review of history and past experiences would result only in syok sendiri (self-gratification or glorification), with our learning curve remaining flat and our narrative unchanged.

Next: Self-Affirmation and Stereotype Threat

Excerpted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013.

The Trap Of Our Mindset

Saturday, April 9th, 2016


The Trap of Our Mindset

  1. M. Bakri Musa


Related to the concept of a free mind is that of mindset, defined as one’s attitude to or philosophy of life. With all the established neural networks and stored memories in the brain, it forms a working hypothesis of what reality is. How the brain perceives new information is influenced by its existing working hypothesis, its pre-set narrative of reality.

If the brain were to receive new information that would not conform to or diametrically contradict the brain’s preexisting narrative, then it (the brain) would use various ingenuous interpretations to make the new data conform to that pre-set pattern.

A dramatic demonstration of this is the rare clinical condition called Cabgras delusion. Here the sufferer, through injury or stroke, has lost the capacity to recognize hitherto familiar faces including those of close family members. The patient would readily admit that the person facing him looks, speaks and even smells like his mother for example, but would adamantly refuse to admit that is who she is. Instead he is convinced that she is nothing more than a look-alike imposter, intent on swindling him for some nefarious ends, as with claiming insurance benefits. Imagine the mother’s heartbreak!

During the heyday of Freudian psychoanalysis, psychiatrists had a great time invoking the Oedipus complex* as a defense mechanism to explain the dynamics of this malady. Those explanations may make for titillating reading but they do not in any way help the poor patient.

The University of California, San Diego, neurologist Ramachandran studied these patients using modern clinical techniques and came up with a much more scientifically supportable explanation. In so doing he was also able to help his patients, the ultimate goal, while in the process greatly expanding our understanding of the brain.

What happened to the patient was that when he saw his mother, he did not experience the usual associated warm feelings one typically expects on meeting one’s loved ones. Apparently the accident had interrupted the neural pathway between the patient’s eyes to his thalamus and hypothalamus – the seats of emotions. Thus while the brain recognized the images of his mother, those images did not trigger the usual associated warm emotions to corroborate the identity. To resolve this discordance, the brain (or its thinking or cortical part) ingeniously concocted a new “explanation,” and the only “logical” one would be to interpret the woman not as the familiar warm mother but a conniving impostor. That would neatly “explain” the lack of emotions.

Fortunately for this particular patient, the neural pathway from his ears to the thalamus and hypothalamus was intact. So to treat the patient Ramachandran had the mother phone the patient from another room without being seen by him. He of course recognized the voice as coming from his mother, as the pathway from his ears to the thalamus was intact and with it, the associated warm emotional feelings were evoked on hearing her familiar voice. As he did not see her, there were no conflicting visual images to confuse his brain.

Then gradually the mother would approach the patient while still talking with him on a mobile phone, finally making eye contact while still talking on the phone. Through repeating this process many times, the patient was able to bring back his pre-existing, familiar, warm emotions for his mother as he had now learned to integrate the voice with the visual images of the face. The plasticity of his brain enabled it to form new pathways from his eyes to the thalamus to bypass the previously damaged ones.

The mind has a coherent picture of reality, and this picture in turn is created through our experiences and learning. If there are elements in the current reality that are jarring or do not fit that existing pattern, then the mind “re-edits” those elements so as to fit the pre-existing pattern.

This composite and internally consistent hypothesis our brain has of reality is what’s meant by mindset. In so far as members of a particular group, race, or profession have the commonality of experiences and thus developed a common internally consistent hypothesis of reality, then they can be said to share the same mindset. Such is the difference between the Malay mindset and the colonial one.

These established neural networks remain unchanged except through injuries or disease when those connections could be interfered with. Stated differently, we cannot change our mindset. What we can do is subject ourselves to new experiences and with that, learning opportunities, so our brain can form new pathways and establish new networks. When those new patterns prove to be more efficient or useful to us in interpreting reality, we would gradually replace the old, less efficient pathways.

For that to happen we must first have the willingness if not eagerness to learn new things and be exposed to new experiences so our brain cells can forge those new networks and then slowly discard the old and less-useful ones. There is of course no guarantee that our mind would form new networks but merely simply reinterpret the new data and information to conform to our existing view of the world, as the patient with the Capgras delusion. The hope however, is that with sufficient new experiences and the opening of new neural channels and networks, our brain would use those new ones and then prune off the old and less used and less reliable patterns of the past. That was precisely the strategy used in treating the patient with the Capgras syndrome.

Thus it is not so much as a new mindset rather that the old one that has been “improved” upon to such a degree as to be sufficiently different from the old one. Therefor it would be more fruitful to talk about a mindset that can grow (or improved upon) with new experiences instead of a new mindset.

Next:  “Fixed” Versus “Growth” Mindset

Adapted from the writer’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013.

*Greek myth wherein Oedipus killed his father out of sexual competition for his (Oedipus’s) mother.

The Brain, Mind, and Mindset

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016

The Brain, Mind, and Mindset
M. Bakri Musa

A discussion on the “free mind” begins with clarifying three related terms: brain, mind, and mindset.

The brain is the jelly-like structure in our skull, part of our central nervous system. To use the language of computers, the brain is the central processing unit of our nervous system. It is, however, much more; the brain is the core of our consciousness.

Like any other organ, the brain has its own blood supply, support structures, and nutritional requirements. Like the heart, any developmental or other abnormalities of the brain will adversely affect its many functions. Unlike the heart however, which is fully developed and functional at birth (a baby’s heart functions in the same manner as an adult’s), the brain continues its development for many years after birth. Indeed, significant development of the brain occurs after birth, especially in the first few critical years of early childhood.

There is another major difference between the brain and other organs. While the internal parts of the heart for example, do communicate with each other, they do so only so they can function in a coordinated and rhythmic way to make the organ mechanically efficient. In the brain however, the communications of its various internal parts define the function of the whole brain. The significant point is that this development of communication pathways is as much dependent on what had been programmed in that individual through his genetic make-up as much as on the environment, internal and external, physical as well as non-physical.

The definition of the mind that is relevant here refers to the intellect and consciousness, our thoughts, perceptions, memory, emotions, will and imagination, among others. The mind is also our thinking process, the rational aspects of our behavior. Thus behaving in an aberrant fashion is referred to as being out of one’s mind. Dispensing with the philosophical and theological, and stating it differently and briefly while albeit simplistically, the mind is the brain at work. If the brain does not work, as for example by the clamping of the blood supply and thus depriving it of life-giving oxygen, the brain would be dead, and with that, the mind and the person.

I am aware of the many accounts of near-death experiences that would seem to challenge this assertion. As a junior physician I was part of a team that successfully resuscitated a journalist who had a heart attack. Later he was able to recall the drama minute by minute. It was as if, as he related, he had had an out-of-body experience and was watching the whole event from the ceiling, detached. Others have described similar experiences. The overall theme, heavy with religious connotations, is that the mind or soul is separate from and independent of the anatomical brain. I will leave it at that and not get into that line of inquiry, which is heavy on philosophy and theology.

Mindset on the other hand refers to our outlook in or philosophy of life. It is the set of ideas, attitudes and assumptions that we as individuals or members of a group share of reality, or what we perceive to be it. Neurologically speaking, mindset is the preexisting neural pattern in our brain; conceptually, it is our mental hypothesis of reality.

While the brain is something physical and can be touched, mind and mindset are but concepts. All three are interrelated but the nature and level of the relationships are not well understood. Increasingly but not exclusively they point towards the molecular (specifically neurotransmitter) level, or what neuroscientists refer to as the “neurotransmitter correlates of consciousness.”

Two relevant and related insights of modern neuroscience are the brain’s ability to change with new experiences or in response to injury, an attribute termed neuroplasticity, and the other, the concept of “use it or lose it.”

At the cellular level, neuroplasticity means the ability of the brain to form new pathways based on fresh stimuli (experiences). This is best demonstrated in the almost miraculous ability of the adult brain to readjust following injuries. Initially this plasticity was thought to be the exclusive property of the young brain, but now it is recognized to be a lifelong capacity, although obviously most pronounced in the young.

As for “use it or lose it,” a baby’s brain has almost limitless ability to learn and form new neural networks. However, over time if these pathways are not used, meaning, if a particular mental faculty associated with that network is not utilized, then it will atrophy, a process termed “synaptic pruning.”

The classic example is the lazy eye syndrome in childhood; untreated it will lead to blindness of that eye. When the muscles of one eye are not well coordinated or weak, that eye sends a different image from that of the good eye. This confuses the brain, and it adapts by “ignoring” the image from the bad eye. Over time through synaptic pruning, the neural wiring from that bad eye to the brain will atrophy and you will get the condition of “cortical blindness” where between the brain and that eye has atrophied from disuse.

Conversely, those mental faculties (and thus neural networks) that are used often will be strengthened. In this regard the brain is like the muscle, the more we use it the stronger it becomes; the less, the faster it atrophies.

The environment, especially social and emotional, plays a major role in both neuroplasticity and synaptic pruning; hence the importance of a nurturing and stimulating environment especially in early childhood.

Lifelong neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to form new networks in response to new experiences or injuries, and “synaptic pruning,” letting those rarely-used pathways atrophy, are the essence of the brain, not its size, proportion, capacity, or whatever innate ability.

There are exceptions, of course, specifically the outliers at either end of the spectrum. At one end are the unfortunate few with mental developmental deficits. At the other, unfortunately equally few, are the exceptionally gifted and talented. While we know more about the first group, to the extent of being able to prevent or ameliorate specific maladies as with phenylketonuria (PKU – mental retardation due to the inability to utilize the essential amino acid phenylalanine), we are woefully ignorant of those with exceptional talents.

Again cognizant of the complexity, the brain’s plasticity is the good news, but not all the time. There is no guarantee that when those new networks are formed as a consequence of new experiences that they would always be beneficial. They could well be maladaptive and confer no benefits and may indeed make things worse. An example would be the phantom pain syndrome amputees suffer. Here the nerve to the amputated leg has been severed but the brain forms new pathways to compensate for that loss. Consequently the patient still suffers from the old pain he had before the amputation. This new phantom “pain” can just be disabling.

Simplistically put, the mind is the brain with the composite of all these neural networks together with its established patterns and archives of memories. To use the computer analogy, the brain is the combination of both hardware and software, while the mind is the computer, which in addition to its hardware and software would also include all applications and files, downloaded materials that had been stored, and the set default positions.

In so far as those from the same family, tribe, race, culture and profession would share commonality of experiences and learning, then we could have the Malay mind, the legal mind, or the mind of an economist.

As cultures differ, and with that our experiences, norms and values, it is not a surprise that there should be differences between a Malay and English mind for example, just as we would expect differences between a legal mind and the mind of an economist. A policeman used to encountering the criminal elements of society would greet a stranger in a very different way than a priest. The former would be more circumspect and suspicious while the latter, spontaneous and warmly welcoming.

These are the predictable and understandable differences. Physicians are specifically trained to be sensitive to these nuances in our patients, to be alert and able to read, as it were, their patient’s mind. To a stoic farmer, “It hurts just a wee bit!” has an entirely different meaning from, “It hurts all over!” lament of a hysterical actress.

It is less important whether we have a Malay or an English mind, or whether we approach a problem with a legal mind or the mind of an economist, more important that we have a free mind unencumbered by or at least aware of the baggage of our preconceptions and past experiences. Our past experiences should be a guide or compass, not a trap or a baggage.

To summarize, the brain with all its existing neural networks and stored memories is the mind. That is an oversimplification but operationally it is sufficient for the purpose of this book. A free mind is not a brain that denies or pretends that all these networks and stored memories do not exist, rather one that still maintains its plasticity, meaning the ability to form new networks and store new memories. In short, a free mind is a brain that remains as fresh as that of a newborn, ever eager to learn from new experiences and more than ready to give up its old, no longer valid pathways and assumptions.

Excerpts from the author’s last book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013.

The Meaning Of A Free Mind

Monday, March 28th, 2016

The Meaning of A Free Mind

  1. Bakri Musa


The meaning of a free mind can best be illustrated by this story of Mullah Nasaruddin, a fictitious alim known for his effective use of simple and often self-deprecating stories to drive home a point, illuminate a concept, or challenge conventional wisdom.

He had a neighbor who was fond of borrowing items from him and then conveniently forgetting to return them. One day this neighbor came to the mullah to borrow his donkey. Anticipating this, the mullah had locked his animal away in the barn and out of sight. Upon hearing the request, the mullah confidently replied that his donkey had been taken away earlier by his brother. Just as the disappointed neighbor turned away, the donkey brayed. He turned around and remarked, “You said your donkey was gone!”

To which the mullah replied, “Do you believe the braying of a donkey or the words of a mullah?”

If you can accept that at times a donkey can be the bearer of the truth, and a mullah the purveyor of untruth, then you have exhibited a free mind, minda merdeka. There are many reasons why we continue believing the mullah despite the donkey braying in our face, and I will explore some of these subsequently.

Our mission must be the molding of free minds, or to put in Malay, Mengasoh Minda Merdeka. We want Malays to believe the braying donkey even if the mullah were to say otherwise. Mengasoh Minda Merdeka is a nobler and definitely more productive pursuit than the current mindless obsession with Ketuanan Melayu or Agama, Bangsa, Negara. It is also a much more evocative mantra.

Datuk Onn’s free mind enabled him to hear the braying of the donkey, the rakyats’ abhorrence of the Malayan Union Treaty, and wisely ignored the words of his mullah, the sultan. When you hear the donkey bray, do not let the sweet words of the mullah persuade you otherwise, lest you risk being made to look like an ass, or worse.

Malays have been politically free since 1957, but the Malay mind is still entrapped. Time to liberate it, to grant its cherished freedom – Merdeka Minda Melayu! The philosopher Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, better known as HAMKA, described best what a free mind is with this last-but-one stanza of his poem, Nikmat Hidup (Life’s Bounty):

Menahan fikiran aku tak mungkin / Menumpul kalam aku tak kuasa.

Merdeka berfikir gagah perkasa / Berani menyebut yang aku yakin. (57-60)

My approximate translation is:

Censoring ideas is not my deal / Nor putting to rest my writing quill.

Fearless are those who dare to think / And put to words their inner being.

I challenge readers to find among Malay leaders today those who are Merdeka berfikir (free thinking) and gagah perkasa (fearless core). To be free minded is to be courageous to the core; that is what Hamka meant with his stirring line, Merdeka befikir gagah perkasa.

Merdeka berfikir alone, courageous and laudatory as that may be, is not sufficient. You must also have the conviction to articulate your ideas and then share them with others. Otherwise it would be like a tree falling in the forest; with no one hearing it, will it make any sound? More importantly, will it matter? Thus Hamka’s berani menyebut! (Dare to voice).

We can share our thoughts orally, with colleagues and friends over coffee, or more formally as at seminars and congresses. In such instances only those present would hear you, and they in turn would, it is to be hoped, spread the idea. Modern technology such as audio and video recording greatly expands the reach.

The Ayatollah Khomeini triggered the Islamic Revolution from his safe sanctuary in France through audiotape recordings of his sermons. Those tapes were then smuggled into Iran. The digital revolution obviates the need for physical smuggling as those tapes could be digitized and then be made available worldwide in real time. I can listen to Mahathir’s speech at the Save Malaysia People’s Congress last Sunday, March 27, 2016 in the comfort of my living room, and with no risk of being harassed by the police.

Writing extends this reach further through space and time. Writing, in the words of Prameodya Ananta Toer, is “one person speaking to many,” now and forever. Hamka is long gone but his wisdom lives on through his words.

Writing, unlike speaking, imposes a certain discipline. You have to gather, organize, and then present your thoughts in a logical and attractive fashion so as to interest your readers. You do not have a captive audience. Readers could just toss away what they are reading if they think it is rubbish. No such constraints exist with talking. Undisciplined, it readily degenerates into nonproductive “coffee shop talk.” “Cakap kosong je!” (empty talk only!), as the villagers put it.

Back to a free mind, another way to grasp its meaning would be to seek its synonyms and antonyms. An open, liberated or flexible mind would mean the same as a free mind. Its opposite would be a closed or rigid mind. Malays have a saying, katak di bawah tempurung (frog underneath a coconut shell). That is an apt and beautiful metaphorical imagery of a closed mind, the very opposite of a free mind.

A free mind is Allah’s command. Consider his command to Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w, as revealed in Surah Al-Rud (Thunder), “. . . Thy duty is no more than to deliver the message; the reckoning is Ours!” (13:40 – approximate translation). The prophet was to deliver the divine message but not to force it. This is reinforced in Surah Al-Rahf (The Cave, 18-29), “… Let him who will, believe; and whosoever will, let him disbelieve.”

A faith enforced is no faith. That is the essence of those verses. We accept Islam of our own free will, not because it is forced upon us. A free mind is thus a necessary condition to being a believer.

We have an obligation, to ourselves and to our Creator, not to let our minds be enslaved. Nor should we enslave others. The road to serfdom however, to borrow von Hayek’s phrase, is often laid with the best of intentions. We can be easily lulled into following the paved path that leads to our mental enslavement.

We also have an obligation to those mentally enslaved, to help topple their coconut shell. To do so effectively, we first must appreciate and understand the challenges and obstacles they face. Our obligation extends beyond. Not only must we help them topple their coconut shell but we must also support them in adjusting to the new open world. Unprepared, they would find this new world far from exhilarating and rewarding but instead, disorienting and full of problems.

With the old certitudes of life under the shell now gone, we grope for new ones. Unfortunately, there are few except this:  Have faith that a free mind will get you through. The corresponding beauty is that once a mind is free it cannot be fettered ever again. A free mind is the best guarantor that a new shell would never encroach upon us again. Our physical freedom can be taken away, often capriciously as in a country like Malaysia, but with a free mind we create our own freedom, as Pramoedya forcefully reminded us.

A nation aspiring for greatness needs citizens and leaders with free minds. We can do without the Pak Turut (“Yes men”) leaders, content with echoing and regurgitating what they have been programmed to say, encapsulated in the hallowed ethos of our civil service, Saya menunggu arahan! (I await directives), or the equally servile Kami menurut perentah! (I follow orders). Their brand of “leadership” is merely to lead us plodding along the well-trodden path. They are incapable of carving new ones; they would persist along the same path even when it is riddled with potholes and ruts or ravaged by floods and landslides. They are also incapable of comprehending that the well-trodden path is often the one that leads to the garbage dump.

Malaysia cannot aspire to Vision 2020, much less greatness, with such leadership. We need leaders willing and capable of paving new paths. In short, leaders with a free mind.

To have such leaders we need citizens with free minds. Free-minded followers have free-minded leaders. Even without such leaders, our free-mindedness would enable us to carve our own path, to believe the braying donkey and not the smooth-talking Mullah. If we were to be successful, then others would follow and improve on our path. Then we would truly be makhlok soleh (exemplary being) and our society, masyarakat soleh (exemplary society).

Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya. Its second edition was released recently on January 2016.

GLCs The Problem, Not The Solution

Monday, March 21st, 2016


GLCs The Problem, Not The Solution

  1. M.Bakri Musa



Last of Six Parts


Malaysia is today paralyzed – and polarized – by the scandal of One Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a government-linked company (GLC). Rest assured that this debacle will not be the last. The other certainty is that future ones will carry even far greater costs.


The only sure way to prevent this is to get rid of GLCs. Sell them, and use the proceeds to enhance the quality of our human capital. In the final analysis that is the only matrix that matters.


GLCs are now very much part of if not the problem, as exemplified by 1MDB. They are not the solution, not even part of it.


As massive as the price tag of the 1MDB fiasco is (and it’s still growing), far more consequential is the accompanying erosion of our institutions and degradation of our values. You cannot quantify those damages.


We have ulamas now saying that we should tolerate corrupt leaders; to throw them out is haram or un-Islamic! The integrity of the Anti-Corruption Agency, the Attorney-General’s office, Bank Negara, and hosts of other key institutions is now shattered. They are less guardians of public trust, more enablers for a corrupt leader.


Restoring our previous values will be no easy task. These corrupt acts are now viewed as otherwise; they are our new norms.


Tun Razak introduced GLCs in the 1960s to achieve three objectives. First, he wanted to level the economic playing field by challenging and giving much-needed competition to the existing monopolies and monopsonies of large primarily colonial and a smattering of Chinese-owned companies. Doing so would pave the way for new entrants, in particular Malay entities. Only the government then had the might to take on those massive established enterprises.


This is the same rationale China uses to justify its GLCs, to take on the giant global companies that are now entering the country as a result of Deng’s economic liberalization policies. China, being new to capitalism, has no domestic enterprises with the financial might or managerial expertise to compete with these global giants.


Second, GLCs were to spearhead Malay entry into the private sector.


These two objectives were integral to Razak’s larger scheme of “restructuring society to eradiate the identification of race with economic activities,” the foundation of his New Economic Policy.


Third and last, Razak wanted to bypass the byzantine ways and sluggish pace of the civil service. The civil service of yore, despite the nostalgic memories to the contrary of its now-retired members, was never the paragon of efficiency or innovation. They, like their counterparts today, epitomized their motto, “Kami menurut perentah” (We follow orders!), only too well.


Six decades later, those three objectives have yet to be accomplished. Worse, GLCs have created many new and even more serious problems as exemplified by 1MDB, quite apart from their being a drag on the Treasury and thus taxpayers.


Consider Malay participation in the corporate sector. Today the figure is stuck at under 20 percent, stagnant if not declining, and far below our share of the population. GLCs have succeeded only in breeding an entrenched class of rent seekers and ersatz capitalists among Malays, while squeezing out the genuine variety. Far too often GLCs compete with genuine Bumiputra entrepreneurs.


Of relevance here, how many Malay entrepreneurs have these GLCs spawned either in their supply chain or through the ranks of their employees?


As for leveling the economic playing field, far from achieving that GLCs further distort it. These GLCs also suck in Malay talent that would otherwise be the initiators of their own enterprises, or find their way up in the private corporate sector. When these GLCs comprise 40 percent (by value) of the Stock Exchange (KLSE), they make a mockery of the free market dynamics.


Nor have these GLCs succeeded in bypassing the inefficiencies of the lumbering civil service. On the contrary those non-productive practices of the civil service are now the norms in GLCs. What do you expect when the governing bodies and upper echelons of these GLCs have now become the cushy preserve of retired, compliant senior civil servants?


The prospect of a lucrative post-retirement appointment in GLCs is a pernicious influence on the behaviors of top public servants. Be too critical of the stupid ideas of your political superiors and you blow your chances of such lucrative assignments. It is not hard to miss that those retired civil servants who are now so critical of the government are also the ones who had been denied their plump post-retirement appointments.


At another level, what these former senior government officials now working in GLCs do not or refuse to acknowledge is that they are “double dipping.” They “retire” and draw their pensions from their old government job and then work in another government entity and accruing a fresh set of pension! If they have any sense of ethics or basic fairness they should not draw on their civil service pensions and instead consider themselves as continuing their employment but at another governmental entity. These selfish individuals are oblivious of the burden they impose on taxpayers. In fact, they are ripping off the taxpayers. This should stop.


Sell these GLCs to the highest bidders. I could not care less whether they are Malays or non-Malays, Malaysians or foreigners. Focus on getting the best price.


The first and immediate positive impact of such a move would be the removal of a major and continuing source of public corruption and political patronage. We would be spared of future 1MDBs. Political has-beens like Isa Samad (head of FELDA’s FGV) and retired senior civil servants like Sidek Hassan (Petronas) would now have to prove their executive talent to secure lucrative corporate jobs instead of banking on their loyalty to their political superiors.


Have professional managers, local or foreign, manage those funds generated from the sales. Divest these GLCs slowly and deliberately to avoid a “fire-sale” psychology, like spreading it over a decade or two and selling only a portion of a company at a time. That was how Canada privatized its PetroCanada. The Canadian government received increasingly premium prices with each subsequent sale.


Stipulate that the bulk of the funds be invested domestically. Apart from investing in our schools and colleges, part of that local investment should include funding individuals to start their own enterprises in a manner of a venture capitalist, as well as investing in physical infrastructures, from the lowly pasar minggu facilities to modern shopping plazas, to encourage trading among our people.


When Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., started his community in Medinah, the first thing he did was build a marketplace where citizens could trade. He knew the importance of trade in promoting harmony among the then plural societies of Medinah, between the immigrant Muslims from Mecca and the host Muslims, and between Muslims and non-Muslims. To signal the importance of trade, the prophet did not charge for use of the facility, considering it a public good.


Examples of venture capital investment could be the financing such low-ticket items like helping taxi drivers buy their own cabs or fishermen their outboard motors. Imagine the boost to their income if our taxi drivers owned their vehicles. Taxis in Malaysia should be owner-operated. We can do without another layer of unnecessary costs as with having non-operator owners skimming the profits off the drivers’ backs.


However, instead of just giving the money and then see those dealers jack up their prices, negotiate on behalf of those taxi drivers and fishermen to get massive fleet discounts and then pass the savings on to them. Leverage the clout of the investment company to extract the best deals from the dealers.


The recent example of Selangor’s religious department using zakat funds to buy food trucks for lease or sale to hawkers is an excellent example.


From there venture on to bigger ticket items, like funding furloughed but enterprising MAS pilots to buy planes to start their own private jet or cargo services. Or an enterprising group of physicians or teachers wanting to build their own private hospitals or schools.


What I would not do is start companies or in anyway resurrect the GLC concept. Doing that would only perpetuate the makan gaji (“salary man”) mentality of Malays. Instead actively seek out entrepreneurial Malays and fund them to start their own ventures. Governments should not start companies; only enterprising individuals should.


We should instill in Malays the wisdom of our Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., that is, it is far more meritorious to be the dispensers rather than the recipients of salaries.


When you fund these individuals, do not give them the total lump sum right away in the manner of the disbursement of the RM250 million to a minister’s spouse to start that infamous cattle ranch in Gemas. Instead make the disbursements contingent upon satisfactory performance or progress at every stage. Had that been done we would not have the expensive embarrassment of the National Cattle Feedlot scandal.


As is apparent, there are many potential recipients of those investments funds. Think of the graduates of MARA catering school who could start their own restaurants, agricultural graduates who wish to start their own sheep ranch or durian dusun, and the hundreds of mechanics, plumbers and electricians, the products of our technical institutes, who wish to have their own workshops.


Even if we do not spawn a class of entrepreneurial Malays from these funds, getting rid of these GLCs would at least achieve the major goals of removing a major and expensive source of embarrassment to the nation and the nidus for corrupt political patronages. We would also discourage the parasitic class of Malay economic rentiers. Those would be achievements enough.


Speech delivered at the launching by Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz of my book, Liberating The Malay Mind, on January 30, 2016, at Shah Alam.

Islamic Institutions Have Failed The Ummah

Monday, March 14th, 2016


Islamic Institutions Have Failed The Ummah

Fifth of Six Parts

Religion imprisons the Malay mind. Islam in Malaysia is what those government-issued ulamas say it is. Express a different viewpoint and you risk being labelled a deviant, a murtad, and suffer the consequences.


If that is not enough of a burden, Islamic institutions in Malaysia, as in much of the Muslim world, have also failed the ummah. In part this is because they are run by Islamic Studies graduates. Their narrow training, heavy on revealed knowledge and prophetic traditions but woefully deficient in such relevant subjects as economics, management and statistics, ill prepare them for such heavy responsibilities.


This glaring deficit is obvious to all but Islamic educators.


I am fortunate to live in the West. Through the freedom afforded me, I am free to explore the vast universe of Islamic thoughts, ancient and modern, East and West, Sunni and Shiite. That enriches my understanding of this great religion and simultaneously deepens my faith. In striking contrast, in Malaysia at the International Islamic University for example, literature on Shiitism is under lock and key. If you were to even inquire, you would be reported to the Vice Chancellor and put under extra surveillance!


Islam elevated the ancient Bedouins out of its Age of Jahiliyyah (Ignorance), making them abandon their culture of female infanticide and “an eye for an eye” sense of justice. Islam as practiced and propagated in Malaysia however, is anything but that. It is but a crude instrument of a repressive government intent on imprisoning Malay minds.


Like the clergy class that gripped the Irish during the first half of the last century, the religious bureaucrats control Malay minds through their tight leash on the social, economic, educational, and other institutions. Non-Muslim Malaysians are spared this curse and stranglehold.


Malays flock to Islamic institutions; the Islamic cachet sells. Thus when these institutions fail, the consequences are enormous.


Islamic educational institutions treat the young (and old) as dustbins to be filled with dogmas instead of a knife to be sharpened. With the former, you get only what you put in, at best, and after what is lost through attrition. With the latter, there are no limits to the potential returns on your investment.


Islamic schools and colleges are intent on indoctrinating instead of educating. With Malays flocking to such institutions like maggots to rotten carcasses, no surprise that we are overrepresented in the unemployable category.


Instead of remedying the deficits of Islamic schools and colleges, Malaysia vastly expanded its Islamic establishment to cater to these graduates, turning it into nothing more than a bloated and expensive public works project. Contrast that to America where Catholic schools and colleges with their broad-based liberal education produce more than their share of the nation’s scientists, engineers and managers. The quality of those religious schools is such that they attract many non-Catholics, Muslims included.


Contemporary Muslim educators belittle “secular” knowledge, deeming it inferior to the “religious” variety. Modern liberal Western education, they sniff, is consumed with turning its products into cobs for the capitalist machinery. These Islamic educators forget that those “cobs” contribute to the greater good and the smooth running of society.


A prophetic tradition has it that a prostitute was let into Heaven because she once saved a dog dying of thirst by bringing it water. If that were so, imagine the rewards for a veterinarian! Yet these ulamas condemn Muslim veterinary students for hugging dogs.


A Muslim engineer best demonstrates his iman (faith) not by building bridges adorned with Koranic verses but by making those structures withstand floods and heavy traffic. You achieve that through understanding the properties of materials and doing your mathematics right, not by how well you recite the holy book. Likewise, a Muslim accountant would ensure that zakat funds and the savings of would-be pilgrims are invested prudently and not diverted to corrupt leaders.


This obsession with differentiating secular versus religious knowledge is a recent phenomenon, likewise the current fixation with the “Islamization” of knowledge, an equally futile exercise. Ibn Rashid and Ibn Sina discerned no such distinction; they felt no need for such “Islamization.” Those ancient Muslim scholars saw no problem in learning from and absorbing ideas from the atheistic Greeks.


On the social front, the Islamic establishment is intent on turning the ummah into a flock of sheep and they, the only approved shepherd. Their operating principle is taqlid, obedience. No surprise that our young are good at memorizing and regurgitating while utterly incapable of critical thinking or original thought.


These present-day ulamas and scholars forget that tajdid, reform or renewal, is also very much part of Islamic tradition. Tajdid gave us such luminaries as Imam Ghazali and Ibn Khaldun.


Progress depends on the ummah questioning or at least not being satisfied with the status quo, the very antithesis of taqlid which demands that one accepts if not reveres the existing order.


Another prophetic tradition predicted that the ummah would be divided into 73 sects, but the followers of only one would enter heaven, meaning, being right. The consequence of this teaching is that every Muslim believes that his sect is the only true and correct Islam, all others being ‘misled.’


If your sect has only 1 in 73 (slightly over 1 percent) chance of being right, that also means that it has a 72 out of 73 (nearly 99 percent) of being false. If we teach our young some statistics, they would learn that a 1 percent probability of being right means a near certainty of being wrong. Similarly, if the forecast says that there is a 99 percent chance of a storm, you would be stupid (or have a death wish) to venture out to sea.


Far more consequential, the first interpretation leads you to become intolerant of other viewpoints, deeming them as bida’a, adulteration of the faith; the second makes you humble and eager to learn from the other sects. The first sows discord; the second encourages learning and fosters greater understanding among the ummah.


On the economic front, Malaysia, like other Muslim countries, fails to innovate and leverage such Islamic financial instruments as waqaf (trusts), zakat (tithe), and takaful (insurance). Properly utilized these are powerful tools for the preservation, formation, and protection of capital, respectively. And capital is the lifeblood of economic development.


Consider waqaf. Large swaths of land in Klang Valley were once under waqaf. However, unlike similar trust lands in Hawaii which are imaginatively and productively managed to benefit the natives, waqaf lands in Malaysia have been exploited for the enrichment of the privileged few.


As Timur Kuran writes in his The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back The Middle East, it is this failure to innovate that retards economic development in the Middle East. The West on the other hand enhances those elements of waqaf and tawakal into the modern concept of a corporation (or limited liability company) and insurance. And with that capitalism, and the West, blossomed.


It is hard to encourage innovation among your ummah when your operating premise is taqlid, obedience to and reverence for the existing order.


Then consider the irony of the average Muslim’s attitude to wealth. Unlike other major religions, Islam does not glorify the poor. Its has no comparable “the poor shall inherit the earth” mindset. Instead Islam celebrates wealth and its acquisition. Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam. To give zakat, mandatory for Muslims, one must first acquire wealth. That is why, unlike other religions, begging and being dependent on charity is frowned upon in Islam.


Tradition has it that a man once came begging at the mosque where the prophet was preaching. The prophet counselled the congregation not to give the man any money but instead to lend him an axe so he could go into the forest and cut some firewood to sell.


Donating money to the begging man robs him of his dignity; lending him an axe enables him to earn a living. With the former, he is dependent on society; the latter, a contributor. That does wonders to one’s self-worth. That is the essence of Islam.


An aside with current relevance, Prime Minister Najib received billions in “donations” from the Arabs. See what it does to his dignity!


Billions are collected through zakat annually but there is a glaring lack of transparency on how the funds are managed. Little goes to the poor; instead they are diverted to buying golf simulators for our “modern” Islamic bureaucrats. Consequently, the Muslim poor have to depend on the benevolence of the churches, and then risked being accused of being murtad.


Malaysia of today reminds me of Latin America of the 1960s where the churches and cathedrals were grandiose but the flock mired in abject poverty. A few blocks from the opulent crystal mosque in Kuala Trengganu are slums and dire poverty that assault one’s sensibilities. Nobody thought of using zakat to alleviate the deplorable condition, like providing potable water and sewer system so the ummah would be much healthier and thus have a fighting chance to get out of poverty.


This obscenity epitomizes the sensibilities (or more correctly, the lack of one) as well as the priorities of the Malaysian religious establishment. Its priority remains to imprison the minds of their flock.


Speech delivered at the launching by Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz of my book, Liberating The Malay Mind, on January 30, 2016, at Shah Alam.

The Imprisoned Malay Mind The Greatest Obstacle

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016


The Imprisoned Malay Mind The Biggest Obstacle

M. Bakri Musa


Fourth of Six Parts


In the first three essays I pointed out that the Malay problem is real and not a mere myth. It is also solvable and not unique unto our community. Thus there is much that we can learn from others.


I posited that the four critical foundations of society – leadership, citizenry, culture, and geography – interact with one another in a feed-back loop mechanism. Where the interaction is positive, that society would advance fast; where negative, it would be in a quick downhill slide.


Of the four, only geography is immutable. Of the remaining three, leadership is the easiest to change; culture, most difficult.


The greatest barrier to changing and emancipating our people is our closed minds. The Malay mind has been trapped, or more correctly imprisoned into believing that our world beneath the coconut shell is perfect despite the obvious evidence to the contrary. We are reminded of this harsh reality often, and in ways that are unpleasant or even crude. We don’t like it a bit and we lash out at and blame others.


The worst prison is one without walls or fences. Then you do not even realize that you are being imprisoned. In San Diego Zoo there is a small island surrounded by a moat no wider than a few feet. The deer on the island could easily hop over but they do not because they do not feel being imprisoned and thus have no need to escape.


However, if you were to fence the island, those animals would be pacing the perimeter looking for a break to escape.


Likewise, the Malay mind; it does not realize it is being imprisoned underneath the coconut shell. To that mind the world under the shell in the entire universe, and it is cozy and comfortable, sheltered from the harsh blistering tropical sun, thank you very much! There is no need to escape.


That sense of security and comfort however, is illusory. The digital waves have already breached our coconut shell, and with impunity. Whether we realize it or not, and whether we like it or not, those cooped up under the coconut shell are increasingly becoming aware of the vast wonderful world outside. They may not as yet be able to experience the physical reality of that world but at least they can partake in it virtually.


That however only whets the appetite, leading to increasing frustration and consequent agitation. Make no mistake; our coconut shell will be toppled. It is inevitable. The only question is when, how, by whom, and whether under controlled conditions or a free-for-all.


When the toppling is done by us and under our control, we could choose the timing and adjust the pace to suit us, thus eliminating or at least minimizing possible collateral damages. If our coconut shell were to be toppled as a consequence of swirling external events and thus beyond our control, then we would be reduced to being hapless victims, begging for the mercy and kindheartedness of others. The consequences would be equally ugly if our coconut shell were to be toppled because of internal explosion.


The coconut shell of the Arabs was toppled by events beyond their control. Those Arabs are still not yet done paying the severe price of their Arab Spring.


We must not only prepare our people to topple their coconut shell but also make them ready for the ensuing wide open world. If they are not, then they would find the new world not only blindingly bright but also very disorienting. Their immediate reaction then would be to scramble and find another coconut shell to hide under and seek comfort.


Helping them topple their own coconut shell would also simultaneously prepare them in adjusting to the new wide open world.


The Malay mind is imprisoned as a consequence of many factors, among them our warped interpretation of our religion, our corrupt and inept leadership, our crumbling and ineffective institutions, and the residuum of our previous regressive feudal culture. These elements also retard or discourage our active participation in the world of business. Engaging in trade and commerce is a powerful instrument in toppling our coconut shell.


In an earlier book, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I remarked how eerily the Malaysia of today resembles the Ireland of the 1950s. Malays today, like the Irish then, are in the tight clutches of religion (Islam for Malays, Catholicism for the Irish).


Young Malays flock to study Arabic, hadith, and revealed knowledge, instead of English, science, and mathematics. The Irish then fled to the convents and monasteries to recite their rosaries and memorize the catechism. Malays today are in the psychological grips of their ulamas and ustazes, just as the Irish were with their bishops and priests.


The Irish then were consumed with trying to resurrect their dead language, Gaelic. Malays today are obsessed with making sure that their young do not study any other language but Malay. Learning another language, in particular English, is seen as an expression of hatred for one’s own.


In business, the major enterprises in Malaysia today are in the hands of the Chinese minority, and politics with the Malays. In Ireland then, the major businesses were in English hands while the Irish were consumed with republican politics and endless dreams of reunification with the North. With Irish education tightly under Church control and consumed with religious instructions, the leading intellectual centers were naturally the Protestant-affiliated universities.


If there were any ambitious Irish parents who dared dream of a better future for their children by enrolling them in the much superior English schools, they risked being excommunicated. That is, being considered a murtad, in local lingo.


Sounds familiar?


In Malaysia, the schools favored by Malays are the religious and national schools with their heavy emphasis on religion, while non-Malays choose vernacular schools and private English-language colleges with their emphasis on science, technology, and other secular subjects.


It took one man, Sean Lemass, Prime Minister from 1959–66, to lead the quiet revolution in Ireland. He began by clipping the powers and influences of the Catholic Church by stripping its control over education and social policies. Freed from the suffocating control of the Church, the Irish could abandon their inferior Catholic schools and colleges to attend the much superior English universities without fear that they would be (or seen as) committing a sin. Likewise, they could use contraceptives without fear of eternal damnation, or more practically, of being condemned by their priests and bishops.


Lemass also liberalized the media including state-owned ones. They could now show foreign programs thus exposing the Irish to the greater outer world. He not only tolerated but also encouraged criticisms of his leadership and policies, a reflection of his confidence and competence


Despite the Irish antipathy towards things English, he made English, not Gaelic, the language of Ireland. Lemass was a pragmatic leader.


It took nearly fifty years for Ireland to achieve its present prosperity following the reforms Lemass initiated in the 1950s. If a Malaysian Lemass were to appear today, we could look forward to 2065 before Malaysia—in particular Malays—could be considered developed.


We have many potential Lemasses in our midst. The challenge is to vote them into power instead of keeping the present crop of crippled and corrupt OKUs (Orang Kuat UMNO). Lemass liberated the Irish from their invisible prison. Our Lemass too would do likewise to Malays.


Next: Fifth of Six Parts:  Leveraging Islamic Financial Instruments


Speech delivered at the launching by Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz of my book, Liberating The Malay Mind, on January 30, 2016, at Shah Alam.

Four Factors The Determine The Fate of a Society

Monday, February 29th, 2016

Four Factors That Determine the Fate of a Society

  1. Bakri Musa


Third of Six Parts


In my earlier two essays I highlighted the issues surrounding the “Malay Problem.” I suggested that it is not unique unto our community. As such, there is much that we could learn from others, from successful societies on what to do, and the unsuccessful ones on what not to do.


There are four critical factors that determine the fate of a society: leadership; people; culture (this includes institutions, governmental as well as non-governmental, religious as well as non-religious); and geography. In an earlier book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I put forth the concept of the “Diamond of Development,” with each factor interacting with and influencing the other three.


For example, wise leaders would invest in their citizens, ensuring that they would receive good education so they could make better and more informed decisions, as well as be more productive. Good leaders also foster good institutions, and protect the country’s natural resources and the environment. Educated and wise citizens would in turn elect prudent leaders, and the positive-loop feedback would rapidly lead to a quantum leap in the advancement of that society.


The reverse is also true. Meaning, a corrupt leader would bribe his way to power by literally buying citizens’ votes. Corrupt citizens would reinforce this negative loop feedback by electing even more corrupt leaders, and a vicious cycle thus ensues. Once that takes hold, the rapid and irreversible decline of a nation into another Nigeria or Pakistan is all but certain. Malaysia is on that rapid downward trajectory today under Najib’s leadership.


The perversity is that Najib does not consider his buying of citizens’ votes as a corrupt act. On the contrary he deems that an act of public service!


Let’s explore the interactions of leaders, people, and culture towards geography. Take Norway and Saudi Arabia. Both are blessed with an abundance of oil. In Saudi Arabia all you have to do is drill a hole in the desert sand and the oil would gush out. In Norway the oil is below the deep frigid North Sea, swept by huge waves and strong winds. Its oil is considerably more difficult and expensive to extract.


When oil was first discovered there in the 1970s, the Norwegians pretended that they did not have the windfall and saved nearly all their oil earnings. After all they had lived for centuries without the oil bonanza; they saw no reason to change their lifestyle and be suddenly profligate.


As a result, today the Norwegian oil trust fund is expected to reach a trillion (a million million) US dollars by 2020. If all economic activities in the country were to cease, the Norwegians could still live quite well off their trust fund’s earnings.


At another level, because of the fund’s size Norway could impose its own standards for ethical investing. Its investment policies are much more “Islamic” than those of the Saudis. The Norwegians have for example, divested from such local Malaysian companies as Samling Global for its illegal logging activities and horrible environmental and ecological practices, as well as from Singapore Engineering Technologies for its production of landmines.


Back to the Saudis, with the drop in oil price, they are now facing a deficit. One could easily imagine those Bedouins reverting to their primitive desert existence once their oil runs out.


Similar geographic blessings, but what a difference in the fate of the two societies simply because of the differences in leadership, people, and culture.


A more local and sinister example of leader/geography toxic dynamics is demonstrated by the environmental disaster now poisoning Kuantan from bauxite mining. The worse part is that no official, from federal ministers down to the state chief minster, displays any sense of urgency or in any way demonstrates concerns on the ongoing environmental catastrophe. The sultan, despite his frequent public claims of looking after his subjects’ interests, remains curiously silent.


Of the four factors, only one cannot be changed, and that is geography. Why a country is blessed with oil or cursed with typhoons and earthquakes, Allah hu alam (only Allah knows).


Of the remaining three factors, the easiest to change is leadership. A single bullet eliminated Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and South Korea’s General Pak. The most difficult to change is culture. Even the most determined leader like Mahathir had to admit defeat in this endeavor.


People on the other hand are more amenable to change, and quickly too, both individually and as a society. My Iban friend Thaddeus Demong remembers vividly his headhunter father scalping Japanese soldiers during the war. Through superior education and in only one generation, the young Demong was transformed to a well-known corneal transplant surgeon in Canada.


I used to tease Dr. Demong that the only difference between him and his late father is this. Demong Junior is more refined in his skills, harvesting only the corneas rather than the whole head, and getting very well compensated for that!


On a societal level, Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore Chinese from one prone to uncouth loud hacking and disgusting spitting on the streets to the most hygienic Asian community. Visit Beijing and Singapore; the residents in both cities are Chinese, but what a difference in their level of personal and social hygiene! When those mainland Chinese visit the island republic, you can tell them apart right away from the local variety.


In Liberating The Malay Mind I explore the ways in which Malays can change, as individuals as well as a society. I examine what it is about us, individually as well as collectively, such that we have not been able to change for the better during these past few generations.


Next: Fourth of Six Parts:  Our Closed Minds The Biggest Barrier


Speech delivered at the launching by Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz of my book, Liberating The Malay Mind, on January 30 at Shah Alam.

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

The “Malay Problem” Is Not Unique Unto Us
M. Bakri Musa

Second of Six Parts

In Part One I argued that the “Malay Problem” is real and not simply a myth. As such we could study, analyze and research it systematically so as to enable us to craft sensible solutions and develop pilot programs to overcome it. In short, a problem is potentially solvable, in contrast to a mere myth where we would have to employ dukuns to exorcize our demons.

In this essay I argue that our problem is not unique unto our community. A just and compassionate Allah would not single out Malays to be thus burdened. Nor have our ancestors committed grievous sins for Allah now to punish us, their zuriats (descendants).

The corollary to my observation is that there is much that we can learn from others, from those who have been successful on what to do, as well as from those not so lucky on what not to do.

Lessons From Others

When I lived in Montreal in the 1970s, I was struck by the barely-concealed contempt the English-Canadians had of their French-speaking compatriots. Struck not by its strangeness rather its familiarity, what with memories of Malaysia of the 1950s still fresh in me, and reinforced by my having visited Malaysia during the height of the May 1969 race riots.

Those Francophones were interested only in their beer, weekend frolics, and making babies, the English-Canadians sneered. Come Sunday morning those French-Canadians would flock to their churches to confess their sins. Cleansed and refreshed, by Monday they would start the whole destructive cycle all over again.

McGill University, the country’s premier institution, was then conspicuous for its rarity of Francophone students. Sounds all too familiar at that time to a Malaysian.

A few decades earlier and across the Atlantic in Ireland, the dynamics between the majority Catholic Irish and minority Protestant English too seemed deja vu to a Malaysian. The mutual contempt and disdain they had for each other would every so often erupt into their own version of “May 13 incident.” Again, all too familiar to a Malaysian!

If any Irish parents then were to aspire higher and dream of a better future for their children by enrolling them in the much superior “godless” Protestant English schools and colleges, they risked being excommunicated. That is, being a murtad, to put in local lingo, by the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile in Italy, those northerners considered their compatriots from the south as all gangsters and members of the mafia. If only it could get rid of the southern part of the country, Italy would be crime-free and fast become an economic power, those northerners claimed.

There are other ready examples. In my book, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I noted the remarkable similar dynamics we Malays had vis a vis the English colonialists as the Koreans their Japanese colonizers. Granted, Korea’s colonization was much briefer, but its brutality was unmatched. For example, those Koreans were not allowed even to speak their language; they also had to “Japanize” their names.

Today, the Irish and South Koreans are very different societies. Consider that Ryan Air, the Dublin-based discount airline, once attempted a takeover of venerable British Airways! As for South Korea, Samsung smart phones have bested even Apple’s. Even rice cookers are now Korean-made, eclipsing Japan’s National brand.

As for the French-Canadians, consider that Hydro Quebec is the world’s largest generator of renewal energy through its hydroelectric plants while Bombardier, the original skidoo manufacturer started by a French-Canadian mechanic in his garage, is a leader in regional jets and rapid transit transportation. Meanwhile the next President of Stanford is a French-Canadian, and not just any French-Canadian but one who was the first in his immediate family to attend college.

Going back to the Ireland of the 1950s, substitute Irish for Malays, the English for non-Malays (the Chinese specifically), Catholicism for Islam, and the entrenched clergy class for JAKIM and our government-issued ulamas, the social dynamics would be eerily comparable.

In Malaysia in the Era of Globalization I also cited a negative example, Argentina. A century ago it was a shining star, “The Land of Silver.” Today it struggles through one crisis after another, economic and otherwise.

My point here is that the so-called “Malay Problem” is not unique unto us. Societies that were once colonized or one just emerging from peasantry and subsistence existence share similar tribulations. And Malay society is both.

The corollary to my observation is that there is much that we can learn from the Irish, French-Canadians, and South Koreans on what to do, as well as from the Argentineans on what not to do.

There is yet another though minor facet to the Malay problem, and I will illustrate it thus. I know of many Malays who have graduated from elite American universities or have succeeded in America, but they are not from Malaysia, or if from there originally now no longer consider themselves Malaysians except perhaps only emotionally.

Consider that the first Malay Harvard PhD was not from Malaysia but Thailand, Surin Pitsuwan. He received his degree 18 years before Perak’s Raza Nazrin had his. Raza Nazrin was a crown prince while Surin was an ordinary citizen from impoverished southern Thailand. Ponder that!

Yet another observation. At one time there were more Malays from Singapore than from Malaysia at UC Berkeley. Last, I know of many Malay medical specialists in America, but again only a few are from Malaysia. The others came from such places as South Africa and Sri Lanka.

You can bet that there are no Ketuanan Melayu doctrines in those countries.

I once chided an important visitor from Malaysia who could not stop bragging about his son attending a third-rate American university on a Malaysian government scholarship. I reminded him not-so-subtly that the man driving him around during his visit to California, a Malay originally from Kedah, had a son who graduated from the University of Southern California, an elite campus, sans any MARA or government scholarship.

When I told Ahmad Sabian that I have more respect for him than those Malaysian “big shots” he was driving around, he could not hold back his tears, the tears of joy, pride and accomplishment.

Today, nearly six decades after merdeka, with the sultans and prime ministers being Malays, a government almost exclusively in Malay hands, and a national constitution that blatantly favors our community, we are still left behind. I explore this paradox in my next essay.

Next: Third of Six Parts: Four Foundations That Would Determine the Fate of A Society

Speech delivered at the launching by Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz of my book, Liberating The Malay Mind, on January 30 at Shah Alam.

Endless, Meaningless Debates on “The Malay Problem”

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Endless, Meaningless Debates on “The Malay Problem”

M. Bakri Musa


First of Six Parts


For as long as I can remember, the so-called Masaalah Melayu (“The Malay Problem”) has been stridently debated ad nauseam. Endless meaningless seminars, symposiums and “kongresses,” have been devoted to it, not to mention the countless discussions at Pak Mat’s warong kopi in Kota Baru to the lofty ministerial suites at Putrajaya


I am now entering the seventh decade of my life. Chances are that when my grandchildren become grandparents, our community would still be debating the issue.


Pendita Zaaba was the first to coin the phrase “Masaalah Melayu.” In his prolific writings he would never cease to menegur (chastise) our community for our spendthrift ways, our not emphasizing education for our young, and our myopic interpretations of our great faith of Islam.


Earlier in the 19th Century, Munshi Abdullah wondered out loud what it was about our community that we were not at all curious about and thus not eager to learn from the English. Yes, they were our colonizers, but surely as Abdullah noted, there must be something that we could learn from a society that brought in the Age of Enlightenment as well as ushered in the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions.


More recently there was Datuk Onn, arrogantly wanting to membetulkan orang Melayu (to correct the Malays). To him we were but wayward children who needed to be whipped into shape.


Then there was Mahathir who thought that Malays were OKU, a Malay acronym for those who are challenged, mentally, physically and in many other ways. His messianic mission was to change us, our culture as well as our biology. He too failed; he could not even change his own OKUs (Orang Kuat UMNO – diehard UMNO supporters).


Compared to those giants, today’s Perkasa’s Ibrahim Ali and other strident champions of Ketuanan Melayu are but mere pygmies. Giants or pygmies, the results of their efforts are, well, we are still discussing the issue.


I likened the “Malay Problem” to an elephant in a dark room. What these giants and pygmies had done was merely to shine the light from only one angle, the rear. No surprise that what they saw was its posterior and all its ugliness. They also dared not examine the view closely for fear of being whipped by the beast’s tail, or worse, get sprayed.


In my book Liberating The Malay Mind, as well as in all my earlier books, I shine the light from as many different angles as possible so as to get a better appreciation of the magnitude and complexity of the problem, as well as all its myriad manifestations.


I begin by posing four fundamental questions. One, what is meant by the phrase “The Malay Problem?” Two, is it a genuine problem or merely a myth? Three, if it is the former, is it unique only unto Malays? And four, why is it now with Malaysia about to celebrate its Diamond Anniversary of Merdeka, with the sultans and prime ministers being Malays, the government almost exclusively in Malay hands, as well as a constitution that is blatantly favoring our community, Malays are still left behind?


My Liberating The Malay Mind explores this particular question. Before proceeding, I will briefly dispose of the first three.


The meaning of the phrase “The Malay Problem” is best answered through a series of illustrations rather than with a formal definition.


If you, a Malay, has a leaky pipe at home or a broken air-conditioner, who would you most likely call to fix the problem? Ahmad, Ah Chong, Arumugam, or even not a Malaysian?


Walk along any street of any town. You don’t see many signboards touting Rahimah Restaurant, Halimah Hair Saloon, or Aziz Accountancy Services. Don’t keep your eyes off the road too much in looking for those signboards lest you risk being run down by those road roaches, the Mat Rempits on their ear-splitting motorcycles.


Incidentally where would those Mat Rempits go to have their machines fixed?


Yes, we have ZICO, the country’s largest law firm founded by Datuk Zaid Ibrahim. Such successes however are the “outliers,” not reflective of the norm.


Then open up the daily papers. The headlines are of hundreds of thousands of unemployed graduates, babies abandoned in toilets and ditches, and the epidemic of drug addicts and HIV sufferers ravaging our society.


You do not need to read the World Bank Reports or expensive consultants’ studies to realize that our community is fast being marginalized in our own Tanah Melayu.


Even by the government’s own accounting, our contribution to the economy barely exceeds 20 percent, despite we being in the majority. Take away the role of the government-linked companies (GLCs), and our contribution is but in the single digits, percentage wise.


The “Malay Problem” is real, not just a mere myth. Noam Chomsky differentiates between a problem and a myth thus. With a problem you could study, analyze and research it, hire experts to help you, and design pilot programs to overcome it. When you have a successful initiative, expand on it. Likewise, when you have an ineffective one, terminate it right away and learn from the experience. In short, a problem is potentially solvable.


With myths on the other hand, you would need a shaman or dukun. He would chant mysterious verses, invoke unseen forces, burn incense, cook yellow saffron rice, and slaughter black cockerels to appease those evil spirits.


Malays behave as if we are being bedeviled by myths and not problems. We invoke various hantus (devils) as sources of our difficulties, as with the hantu of colonialism, hantu pendatang (immigrants), hantu capitalism, and the latest, hantu globalization and hantu “Islam liberal.”


The “Malay Problem” is real, not a mere myth ala Syed Hussein’s Myth of the Lazy Native. The next query then is whether our problem is unique only unto us. I will explore this and the other two questions in subsequent essays.


Next: Second of Six Parts – The Malay Problem Is Not Unique Unto Us


Speech delivered at the launching by Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz of my book, Liberating The Malay Mind, on January 30 at Shah Alam.