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A Leader’s Massive Ego in Attempting to Change A Culture

Sunday, July 12th, 2015
A Leader’s Massive Ego in Attempting to Change A Culture 
M. Bakri Musa
Terrible things are done in many cultures in the name of honor. To some, the natural reaction would be either smug dismissal (those barbarians!) or comforting acceptance (all cultures have their warts!). That would also provide a ready excuse for continuing on business as usual.

Or we could have wannabe heroes or even real ones with a messianic mission to change that culture. Many have tried, and equally many have failed. For Malays, there was Mahathir, and before him, Datuk Onn. Undoubtedly there will be many more.

This wanting-to-change-our-people (or culture) zeal is a particular delusion of leaders with massive egos. Our only solace is that Onn and Mahathir did not do more damage. The Chinese under Mao were not so lucky. Millions perished under his Cultural Revolution and other dubious endeavors aimed at “changing” his people.

This preamble is merely to put forth three main points. The first is that the values of any culture are internally consistent; culture is essentially the keeper of society’s values. Customs, rituals and other accouterments of culture must be assumed to be positive; there is no such thing as a “bad” culture, as it would have been eliminated a long time ago. Each culture should thus be examined on its own terms and not by comparison to others.  This truism makes such calls as “Be more like the Chinese!” or “Muslims need our own Martin Luther!” be so much wasted breaths.

The American anthropologist Franz Boas was the first to put forth this proposition. This cultural relativism does not mean that there are no absolutes or universalities in human values. Killing and inflicting harm on your fellow humans are evil deeds in all cultures. On the other hand, “honor” is also another cultural absolute and universal value. In this way killing becomes justified in the name of honor. Patriotism is another variation of honor; we kill “them” so as to protect the honor of “our” country, or variations thereof.

The second point is that meaningful differences in the various cultures would be manifested only when they intersect. That seems obvious. When the early Chinese came to Malaysia in the 15th Century, they did so with no intention to dominate. They had no colonial aspirations. Consequently, the two cultures melded freely, with the Sultan of Melaka marrying a Chinese and those immigrants learning Malay and adopting the trappings of Malay culture, as with their songs and daily attire.

As no one was concerned with dominating or demonstrating self-proclaimed superiority over the other, there was no corresponding obsession with maintaining one’s racial or cultural purity.

Likewise when the South Indians landed in the northwestern part of the peninsula, they mixed and intermarried freely with Malays. A generation later their descendents became ministers, governors and even a prime minister. If they were Ketuanan Melayu champions at the time, no one batted an eyelid.

This natural tendency for cultural osmosis and mutual adaptation would vanish if one culture’s avowed purpose was to dominate, as with the arrival of colonial powers. The dynamics of the interaction would then change dramatically.

When the Europeans landed on the Malay world, they were motivated initially by their capitalistic instinct to monopolize the lucrative spice trade. It did not take long for that to degenerate into total domination in all spheres, especially political. Thus colonialism was born, and with it, the ranking of native cultures vis a vis colonial ones.

The colonials believed that it was their burden, imposed no less by their God, to “elevate” those natives. To reinforce that collective mindset, they had to create certain myths, like that of the “noble savage” (to grant those natives a modicum of respect; they are savages nonetheless and thus needed to be “tamed”) and the “lazy native.”

The reaction of the natives too was governed by their cultural values. The Indians, accustomed to their rigid caste system, readily accepted the superior role of the colonials. Those white men and women became the new “super upper” caste, towering over the native maharajahs and Brahmins. That was the only conceivable explanation to account for the ease with which the British with only a few thousand colonial civil servants could rule hundreds of millions of Indians spread over an entire continent.

The Malay reaction to colonialism was very different, again governed by our culture. Ingrained in our culture never to challenge a ruler, we did not directly do so with the colonialists, except for a few brave souls. They were readily and brutally disposed of, their corpses desecrated as a grim reminder to those who would be similarly tempted. Just to be sure, the British co-opted our sultans so that any revolt would be not just against the British but also our sultans, Allah’s representative on earth.

The only avenue left for Malays who still had streaks of independence was to undertake what psychologists refer to as passive-aggressive resistance, utilizing the technique of quiet non-cooperation. That is the only weapon of the weak, to borrow James C. Scott’s phrase, and that was how we chose to oppose the British.

My third point is that since culture is the aggregate behaviors and attitudes of its members, it is the height of arrogance for anyone to even attempt to change a culture. Any change must by definition come from the ground and not be imposed from above. If only Onn and Mahathir, or Mao, had known this, they would have been spared much grief. For Mao, he would have spared millions of his people even greater misery.

This does not mean that culture cannot be changed; indeed change is a constant with any culture, only that the adaptation must originate with the masses. Often these changes are slow and subtle, their cumulative effects not evident till generations later. Others may be more rapid or even dramatic as when triggered by major social or physical upheaval imposed on that society.

Such tumultuous physical or social stresses would not automatically bring about changes in the culture, only that such events would provide the opportunities for that. This is the only time when leadership could prove decisive. Without such a leadership, that society and culture would quickly degenerate, becoming dysfunctional and unable to survive. Absent those tumultuous changes, the role of leaders would be minimal; change could only come from below and within.

This essay is based on the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Next:  The True Measure of A Culture

Culture Is Internally Consistent

Monday, July 6th, 2015
 Culture Is Internally Consistent

Every group of humans whether dwelling in the same cave or working for the same corporation must share some common goals, values, and worldview, as well as everyday routine practices. This is what culture means; it is the social glue that binds the members together and differentiates them from others. Far from being society’s oppressor, culture is its savior.

The human baby is not born a carnivorous hunter or a vegetarian ascetic anymore than it is born an Aryan or Chinese. The baby may have Aryan characteristics (sharp nose, blond hair, and blue eyes) or that of a Chinese (moon face, jet black hair, and epicanthic folds) but those features do not make what it will be. Whether that baby will turn out to be a proud bearer of a swastika or marches the streets waving Mao’s Little Red Book depends upon the culture in which it has been raised.

Tune to BBC News. If you close your eyes you would assume the announcer to be a lithe English lassie. Look at the screen and your preconceived images would be shattered for behind that flawless British voice might be a lady of African descent or a Semitic-looking Arab woman, minus the purdah of course.

The process by which a group instills its collective ways and values upon its new members – acculturation – is by nature conservative, to uphold prevailing norms and standards. The dark-skinned BBC announcer could not possibly sound so elegantly authoritative had she been brought up in Southside Chicago or a Soweto township.

I had a childhood friend back in the old village. Born as I was during the terrible deprivation of the Japanese Occupation, his family, like so many poor Chinese families in rural Malaysia at that time, was forced to give him up. Growing up in his adopted Malay family, he was no different from the rest of us. I was not even aware that he was adopted despite his obvious non-Malay features.

Later as a teenager he became extremely chauvinistic, espousing fanatical sentiments of Malay nationalism. Even that did not trigger any irony on my part. On one occasion he was particularly virulent in his denunciations of the immigrants while within hearing distance of my parents. When he was gone my father laughed, remarking that someone ought to hold a mirror to my friend’s face whenever he was indulging in his racial demagoguery. Only then did it register on me that he was Chinese looking. The incongruity of his being a Malay supremacist!

My digressing short story here must have an uplifting ending. My friend did indeed outgrow his adolescent delusions and become a successful businessman with a multiracial and international clientele. Today he is the paragon of the liberal, progressive Malay, the ones the PERKASA (the acronym of a Malay ultra right wing group) types love to hate.

Just as my friend’s upbringing (his acculturation) turned him into an insular, chauvinistic nationalist, his later vocation reformed him into an open, worldly businessman. Later, I will pursue this unappreciated but important role of trade and commerce in liberating minds.

Culture provides the backdrop for much of our learning and experiences, as well as the environmental (both physical and social) stimuli that our brain is exposed to. These are what shape our view of reality, or in the language of neuroscience, the subsequent patterns of neural networks. Culture conserves the values and norms of that society and transmits them unchanged to the next generation.

Culture is also internally consistent even though to outsiders some of its norms and practices may appear destructive or non-productive. To the Mafia of southern Italy, being violent and vengeful are valued traits, to maintain family ‘honor.’ In not-so-ancient China members of the triad maintained their strict code of silence through uncompromising and merciless enforcement; the price for breaching being gruesome death. Then there are the “honor killing” of the Pashtuns and the self-immolation suttee where a widowed Indian would throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.

Those destructive acts must have served some purpose otherwise the culture would have abandoned them long ago. The Chinese code of silence was perhaps a protective reaction to the brutish local warlords, while “honor killing” and suttee were meant to demonstrate the supreme value of family honor and marital fidelity. In that culture a widowed woman would be treated so harshly and discriminated against so mercilessly that she would be driven to prostitution or home wrecking.

To someone from a culture where infidelity is the norm (if we can believe Hollywood movies and the scandals involving Bill Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger), suttee and honor killing seem barbaric and way out of proportion.

Likewise hudud’s stoning to death for adultery; to Muslims it reflects the sanctity of marriage and the high premium we place on marital fidelity. Humans being human, the culture does provide an outlet to minimize the possibility of imposing this harsh penalty; thus multiple wives or even “temporary” ones. The ancient Chinese accepted concubines.

As an aside, despite hudud’s current notoriety, it is well to remember that during the four centuries of Ottoman rule, the actual number of cases of “stoning to death” was only one. Compare that to the number of deaths through suttee burning and gentleman’s duel.

The Anglo Saxons’ “duel unto death” is on the same plane as suttee and honor killing; the difference merely in means and methods. The underlying principle and end result are the same – a matter of “honor” and the senseless taking of a life respectively. It illuminates my point that culture is internally consistent. It is futile for anyone, especially outsiders, to pick and choose a particular element of a culture and pronounce it regressive or uncivilized. The true and only meaningful test of a culture is how it prepares its people to stresses and changes, especially when those are sudden and dramatic, or imposed from the outside.

I will use this criterion to grade the resiliency of our Malay culture in meeting the challenges posed by the arrival of Islam, European colonization, and the path we chose to pursue independence.

This essay is excerpted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Next July 5 Excerpt # 8:  Changing a Culture

My Ramadan Prayer for Malay Salvation – Get Rid of JAWI & JAKIM

Sunday, June 28th, 2015

My Ramadan Prayer For Malay Salvation – Get Rid of JAWI and JAKIM
M. Bakri Musa

Ramadan brings exuberant displays of piety among Malays, consumed as we are with personal salvation. There is however, little reflection on our salvation as a society.

Hellfire or the ultimate punishment for us as a society would be to be dumped into the rubbish bin of mankind, dependent on the charity of others while living in a land so blessed by Almighty. The irony, as well as the fact that others thrive in Tanah Melayu, would make the punishment that much more unbearable.

We have ruled this country for over half a century; all instruments of government are in our hands, sultans as well as prime ministers are Malays, and the constitution is generous to us. Yet we remain in a sorry state, reduced to lamenting our fate and blaming the pendatangs.

This lamentation is heard with nauseating frequency, coming from sultans and prime ministers to pundits and kedai kopi commentators. Seizing on that, some (and not just non-Malays) gleefully trumpet their own sense of superiority or denigrate the Malay culture and character.

A former chief minister of Trengganu, a predominantly-Malay and oil-rich state, asked how could we who have lived here for centuries, control the government, and are in the majority feel threatened by the immigrants. The fact that he posed the question reveals how clueless he was in addressing it. Alas his is the caliber of leadership we have been cursed with.

The issue is not who is in charge rather what those charged with leading us are doing. The Pakistanis and Zimbabweans are in charge 100 percent and have no immigrants to contend with, yet their people suffer. The Chinese in Hong Kong thrived under British rule while their brethren on the mainland starved and perished under Mao’s Cultural Revolution and other “Great Leap Forward” follies. Being led by your own kind is not always a blessing.

As for immigrants, the French, Germans and Americans are much richer and in full control of their nations yet they feel imperiled by poor and unarmed Africans, Turks and Mexicans respectively.

Leaders betraying their followers’ trust or natives feeling threatened by immigrants is not unique to Malays.

In an earlier book, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I likened the dilemma we face today to that of the Irish of yore. The Irish then felt overwhelmed by the minority English who dominated just about every aspect of life in Ireland except of course the Catholic Church. The Church meanwhile held a tight grip on the Irish, dictating everything from what they could do in their bedrooms to the schools their children should attend.

As the church banned contraception, they had huge unruly broods, with the fathers busy rebelling or drinking. If there were ambitious Irish parents who dared send their children to the much superior English schools instead of the lousy church-run ones, they risked being excommunicated. More Irish left Ireland than stayed.

Substitute Islam for Catholicism and non-Malays for the English, and we have our current mess, except that we are not emigrating en mass. As for the Irish blight of alcohol and fecundity, we have drugs and HIV infections.

Ireland today is very different nation. The Irish are no longer emigrating and the country hosts many IT giants. Ryan Air, the Dublin-based discount airline, once attempted a takeover of venerable British Airways.

We can learn much from the Irish, their recent economic setbacks notwithstanding. We can begin by choosing enlightened leaders, meaning, those who can crystallize the problems and then craft sensible solutions instead of endlessly extolling the mythical values of Ketuanan Melayu or mindlessly quoting the Holy Book.

Ireland’s transformational leader Sean Lemass began by clipping the powers of the Church. He removed schools from its control and allowed contraceptives. He lifted censorship so the Irish could read dissenting opinions and view on their television sets the world beyond their government’s propaganda.

Irish kids studied science and mathematics instead of reciting catechism. With family planning the unruly messy Irish brood was replaced by a more wholesome and manageable one.

We have our share of potential Lemasses but we do not nurture or elect them. Our leaders instead are consumed in a destructive and dysfunctional dynamics of triangulation, with one element attempting alliance with the second to neutralize the third. Earlier, Mahathir co-opted the religious to take on the third – the sultans. Today’s weakened political leadership emboldens the sultans to re-exert themselves by aligning with the ulamas. Seemingly progressive Perak’s sultan gives free rein to his Taliban-like mufti while Kelantan’s is more imam than sultan, enrapturing Malay hearts. Elsewhere sultans could not find enough ulamas to heap royal honors.

These sultans and politicians have yet to learn a crucial lesson. The Islamic tiger, once ridden, is impossible to dismount. You would be lucky if it would not take you back to its den. Meanwhile you have to endure where it wants to go, and right now it is headed for ISIS.

Only the emergence of other pillars of leadership could break this dysfunctional triangulation. A potential source would be NGOs; BERSIH’s considerable impact attests to this. Another would be for “towering” Malays to be assertive, especially those not tainted by politics, religion, or royalty. Consider that cartoonist Zunar and Laureate Samad Said have more impact than the much-touted Group of 25 “eminent” Malays comprising retired senior civil servants. For a Malay to reach the top in the civil service is no achievement; it would be for a non-Malay. Thus those 25 “eminent” Malays, despite or perhaps because of their fancy royal titles, are not effective role models or catalysts for change.

Barring disruption of this destructive triangulation or the emergence of a local Lemass, there is not much hope except to pray. However, as per the oft-quoted Koranic verse, Allah will not change the condition of a people unless they themselves do it (approximate translation). Our Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., advised us that we must first tie our camel securely and only then pray it does not escape.

Pray we must, but first have to get rid of JAWI, JAKIM and hordes of similar and very expensive agencies.  I could tolerate them as public works programs for otherwise unemployable Malays but those authoritarian and far-from-authoritative government-issued ulamas  are intent on controlling our lives a la the Irish priest of yore.

I would then divert the saved funds, as well as the billions in zakat so generously donated by our people, to improve our schools and universities. Make our religious schools and colleges more like those in America. Catholic schools like California’s Bellarmine, and universities like Indiana’s Notre Dame produce their share of America’ scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. They attract outstanding students and faculty from other faiths.

Had that former chief minister dispensed with his Monsoon Cup and ostentatious crystal mosque and instead used the funds to improve his schools, he would have found the answer to his question.

Incentives and Zero-Sum Mentality

Sunday, June 21st, 2015

Incentives And Zero-Sum Mentality

Bakri Musa (


Unlike my earlier books, in Liberating the Malay Mind I adopt a narrow approach, focusing only on Malays. Some would counter that Malaysians are now at a stage when we should consider ourselves Malaysians rather than Malays, Chinese or Ibans. Thus we should seek an approach applicable to and suitable for all Malaysians. I agree, up to a point.

One does not have to be particularly perceptive to note the obvious and significant differences between the races beyond how we look, dress and what we eat. If there are those obvious differences in such simple things, imagine our differences on more substantive matters, like what we value and aspire to.

Being mindful of our differences does not mean ignoring our commonalities rather that we should be cautious as to the possible variations in how we react to policies and initiatives. We may all aspire to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but those concepts mean a whole lot of different things to different people.

Consider economics. Most of it, as Steven Landsburg observed in his The Armchair Economist, can be summarized in four words:  Humans response to incentives. The rest is commentary. Incentives matter, but what constitute incentives vary considerably with culture.

The example I used in an earlier book to illustrate this central point was of the novice priest sent to preach among the Eskimos. Arriving in the depth of winter, his first sermon was all fire and brimstone to impress his flock. He warned them of the huge perpetual ball of fire in Hell that awaited those who would transgress God’s command. Imagine his anger and astonishment when the very next day his parishioners were exuberantly engaged in those sinful deeds. Responding to his admonishment they replied, “But Father, we want to go to that place where the big fire burns all the time!”

To those in the desert and the tropics, a huge ball of fire is indeed hellish, but in the frigid tundra, that is heaven!

Those who would argue against my focusing only on Malays are revealing their own entrapped minds. There is this mindset, widespread in Malaysia and elsewhere, that when you help or favor one community you are ipso facto against or punishing another. This “zero-sum mentality” is especially ingrained among Malaysians, and is getting worse. It is not productive, in fact destructive.

At the negotiations for merdeka, the participants from the various communities were fully aware that Malays were far behind in just about every aspect. The reasons were many, but simply knowing them did not necessarily lead to solutions. As part of the grand bargain, the participants agreed to a set of special privileges for Malays. That was part political pragmatism (no agreement, no merdeka), and part collective wisdom. Our forefathers and the British recognized that the new nation could not possibly survive if a significant and visibly identifiable segment of the population were to remain marginalized. Their insights were particularly prescient, as demonstrated by the 1969 deadly race riot triggered by the obscene inter-communal inequities of the time.

My thesis is that helping Malays or any underdeveloped segment of the community, especially one so highly visible because of color, culture or demography, is also helping the larger community. If the socioeconomic standing of Malays was lifted, the whole nation would benefit. We would have essentially uplifted nearly two-thirds of the population. That would mean more customers, more economic activity, and consequently more revenue for the country. It is far from being a zero-sum exercise. Increasing the portion size of the pie for one community need not be through making the shares of the others smaller, but by making a bigger pie.

This win/lose mentality can quickly degenerate into an even more destructive dog-in-the-manger mindset, where purely out of spite one prevents another from getting something they would otherwise have no use for anyway. Worse, you would then be actively engaging in activities deliberately detrimental to the other groups without benefiting your own. Sabotage is the proper word.

I will illustrate this point with a personal anecdote. Years back I had a vigorous discussion with my parents on a highly divisive issue in Malaysia at the time. The Chinese community wanted to have a private university and had cleverly chosen the name Merdeka University in the hope of getting Malay (in particular UMNO) support. As that proposal would further advance the Chinese community, and thus put the Malays further behind vis a vis the Chinese, it was vehemently opposed by Malays right across the political spectrum. It was one of the few issues that actually united Malays. My parents were no exception.

When I suggested to them that Merdeka University would indeed be a great idea, worthy of support of all Malaysians, my parents were taken aback and wondered whether I was saying that purely to be argumentative. I assured them that I was not. After all, that university would not cost the government a penny, and if through that campus there were to be many more successful Chinese, Malays too would benefit. For one, those successful Chinese would pay more taxes to what was (still is) essentially a Malay-dominated government. Imagine what it could do with all that extra revenue. For another, some of their graduates or the enterprises they created would meet the needs of Malays, like becoming English teachers in rural schools or employing Malays to attract Malay customers.

Considering the benefits that could potentially accrue upon Malays for which we contributed nothing, the Merdeka University would be a good idea and thus worthy of our support. At the very least we should not oppose it. My parents however were not persuaded, demonstrating a variant of the dog-in-the-manger attitude, except that here while Malays would also benefit, the Chinese would obviously gain more.

So I framed the issue differently. Instead of opposing and being unduly negative about the university, why not explore the concept together with the Chinese community and see how we could make the project beneficial not just for them but also us? Be proactive instead of automatically opposing what the Chinese had suggested. For example, the government could consider supporting through monetary and other grants (like state land). After all, the government had given generous donations to foreign universities in return for agreeing to admit our students.

Likewise Merdeka University could agree to certain mutually beneficial conditions, like attracting students from all communities, especially Malays, and be “Malay friendly” such as serving halal food. Then we could have a truly “win-win” situation, as the cliché would have it. The proponents of the university would benefit as with the extra help they could build a far superior facility than they could otherwise. The students too would benefit, as they would have plenty of opportunities to escape their clannishness with the presence of many non-Chinese classmates. Malays and Malaysia would also benefit from the additional opportunity for tertiary education.

I won my parents over with that argument. I hope to win my readers by pursuing a similar line in this book.

This essay is excerpted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Next Excerpt #7:  The Internal Consistency of a Culture


Re-Examining Three Defining Moments in Mala Culture

Sunday, June 14th, 2015

Re-Examining Three Defining Moments in Malay Culture

Three defining moments in Malay culture are worth recounting. First, the arrival of Islam; second, onset of European colonization; and third, the path we chose towards independence. I will examine how our culture had served us in those three instances; exemplary in the first and third, less so with the second.

It is fashionable these days to blame our culture for what ails our community. Our leaders would let us believe that our culture is our oppressor. When former Prime Minister Mahathir was asked what his greatest failure was, he unhesitatingly asserted his inability to change Malay culture. It reflected the height of arrogance on his part to even consider that he could do so.

Mahathir was neither the first nor the last to blame our culture; he however, went further to fault our very nature – our genes – as he asserted in his book The Malay Dilemma. Early in the 19th Century Munshi Abdullah also railed against our outdated ways while Pendita Za’aba, a century later, echoed similar sentiments. More recently there was Datuk Onn with his presumptuous membetulkan Melayu (correcting Malays). As is apparent, Mahathir has plenty of company.

These individuals are giants in our history. At the risk of appearing self-important or worse, stupid, I will nonetheless take them on, albeit with great trepidation. What those luminaries presumed to be the flaws of Malay culture, as with our fondness for immediate gratification, lack of savings, and apparent disinterest in education, are in fact universal weaknesses of the poor, marginalized, and/ or oppressed. We saw that with Irish-Americans in the early part of the last century, the Irish under the English, and Hispanics and Blacks in America today. Those are also features of a feudal agrarian society, or those just emerging from it. About the only features unique to our Malay culture are our fondness for sambal belacan (chilli shrimp paste) and our passion for our folk melody dondang sayang. Nothing wrong with that!

Culture is essentially conservative; any change would be slow and have to work from bottom up and not the other way around. Those wannabe revolutionaries ensconced in their air-conditioned offices calling for revolusi mental (mental revolution) and who are presumptuous to believe that they have the talent to change our culture are woefully misguided. They are high on their own rhetoric.

A culture is best judged on how its members manage sudden changes, not by observing it through a snapshot in time. Thus it would be fruitful to review the three transformational events in our history referenced earlier. As can be seen, we are still here and intact, which says something of the endurance if not greatness of our culture. Not all cultures are that lucky, and this should give us confidence if not inspire us in facing our current challenges. It also demolishes the arguments of those whose first and natural inclination would be to blame our culture in discussing the “Malay issue.”

Those changes did not just happen; there were individuals and leaders involved. I will recall some of those great open-minded individuals in our history, as well as a few contemporary figures. I will not do justice to their interesting biographical details not out of lessened respect but because my focus here is on their free minds, and the impact they had (and some are still having) on our society. To emphasize the point that they are not anomalies or outliers in our culture, I will recall some seemingly ordinary individuals whose personal achievements reflect their free-mindedness. Their commonplace lives should inspire us all the more.

Again to show that free-mindedness is not alien to but very much part of our culture, I will recall a few such inspiring heroes in Malay literature.

I next detour into neuroscience to explore the concept of a free mind, what it means to have one, and the relationship of the mind to the brain as well as the related notion of mindset. I rely less on religious rationalization or philosophical pondering, more on the insights gleaned from modern neuroscience and human psychology.

Sometimes the best way to understand a word or concept is to examine its antonyms, what it is not. We have an apt expression, katak di bawah tempurung (frog underneath a coconut shell). That is an excellent metaphor for a closed mind, the very opposite of a free one.

In the next section, “Comfort Underneath the Coconut Shell,” I shine the light from a different angle, making the familiar seems less so or even contrary to prevailing perceptions.

Lastly, I distinguish between the “Malay problem” and the “Malay myth.” With the former we could deliberate, study the issues, and then craft workable solutions; with the latter, we are reduced to accepting our fate.

Today there is near universal agreement among Malays that our domination of politics and public administration is our savior. If not for that, so the argument goes, we would have long been reduced to the fringes of Malaysian society. Shining the light from a different angle will illuminate this as nothing more than a delusion. Malays may control politics and other apparatus of the state but we are far from being sophisticated players; we do not wield this considerable power effectively or with any finesse. Thus our dominance in politics and public administration has degenerated into a significant problem instead of being a major part of the solution.

My purpose is to shatter the illusions of those who find comfort in life underneath the coconut shell. I go beyond and explore ways of toppling this coconut shell, how best to liberate our minds. As individuals we achieve this through travel, learning another language, or experiencing another culture. My emphasis however is at the societal level, principally through information, education, and commerce.

Once there is an open and abundant flow of news and information, people would be exposed to a diversity of opinions and viewpoints. That could only be liberating.

Schools and universities should educate, not indoctrinate the young. To this end I advocate broad-based liberal education. Our students should be functionally bilingual and have an understanding of a third, at a minimum. The curriculum should emphasize critical thinking over rote memorization. Regardless of their career choices, our students should have some understanding of the sciences and be competent in basic mathematics.

As for commerce, if our people were to become entrepreneurs or otherwise engaged in trade, then we would view others more as potential customers instead of enemies. We and they would be much better off for that.

Quite apart from the economic benefits, engaging in commerce is the surest way to liberate our minds; likewise with the free flow of information and liberal education. Those are also the most effective ways of preparing us for the open world once we have toppled our shell.

If we do not adequately prepare our people for the wide open world, then they would find it disorienting and far from exciting or full of opportunities. That would only scare them to flee back underneath the old, familiar and comfortable coconut shell.

The principal path pursued by the UMNO government to spearhead Malay engagement in commerce is through the route of government-linked companies (GLCs). It is also the most expensive. As the government is addicted to GLCs, I devote considerable ink in critically examining this initiative. I am no fan of GLCs; their performance over the decades merely confirms my conviction. The current imbroglio with 1MDB is not only the most recent but also most expensive. I go beyond criticizing to suggesting alternatives.

In the section “Imprisoned by Religion,” I examine the other factor besides culture that is central to Malay life. My two central points are first, we should differentiate between Islam and Arabism, and second, we should be aware of the signal difference between label and content with respect to Islam. If we are cognizant of both then our faith, far from imprisoning us, will in fact emancipate us just as it did the ancient Bedouins.

Lastly (Part Eight, “Where We Are Headed”) I reflect on where we would be if we do not change direction. I expand on the three existential threats to Malays mentioned earlier, the fracturing of Malay society along religious, cultural, and socio-cultural cleavages. At a minimal those threats could derail our Vision 2020 aspirations of becoming a developed society. I also explore what it means to be “developed” as a society, going beyond the familiar socio-economic indicators.

I end as I began, on a positive note. For me this was the most fun part of the book, my question-and-answer sessions with the students. They covered a wide gamut of topics and I have grouped them thematically.

This essay is excerpted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Next Excerpt #6:  Incentives and Zero-Sum Mindset

The Curse of Our Obsession With Politics

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

Excerpt #4: The Curse of Our Obsession With Politics
M. Bakri Musa

Malays hold an almost exclusive grip on the political process and leadership. Through demographic dynamics Malays could rule the country without support from any other community, and still do justice to the principle of representative governance and other niceties of democracy.
That we do not is a tribute to our sense of fairness and justice, reflecting the values of our culture. It also shows that we have not been infected with the destructive virus of tribalism, an affliction that grips even the most sophisticated. This point deserves repeating as it is not widely acknowledged much less appreciated.
Contrary to the delusions of many Malays, this near exclusive grip on political power is not all blessing or an advantage. It would be if handled competently, but current Malay leaders across the political spectrum are far from being adroit or sophisticated. This political power is thus more bane than blessing. It distracts us from other important and equally worthy pursuits, especially economic.
Worse, with politics now all-consuming, it corrupts all our other endeavors. Our academics are but politicians with glorified professorial titles; our singers and writers are known less for their talent and creativity, more for their endless praises for our leaders.
Because of their long unchallenged grip on power, our leaders are infected with the megalomania virus. They are immune to criticisms; worse, they delude themselves into believing that they can do no wrong. They deceive themselves into thinking that they could readily transfer their political “skills” to other spheres. They cannot; the skills required to ascend the party hierarchy are very different from those needed to run a ministry, helm a major corporation, or lead an academic institution. It is the rare individual who could make a smooth and successful transition.
More pernicious is that these leaders are increasingly appealing to and catering for the most extreme elements in their party. They had to, to win party elections. When these politicians become leaders of the country those old bad habits remain; instead of becoming statesmen they remain unrepentant politicians only too willing to resort to political expedience.
This of course is not unique to Malaysia. The American Congress is held hostage by its minority members with extreme views. America can afford such shenanigans as it is already cruising at high altitude. Malaysia is still trying to ascend; if it does not accelerate it will stall and crash.
Malays are in perpetual mortal fear of losing their grip on political power. Thus we view the increasingly diverse political views among us as dangerous and detrimental to our future. Our cultural view of “good” citizenship would have us be like sheep, blindly following the command of our leaders. To our leaders, diverse political views dilute our voting power.
The closed minds of both Malay leaders and followers cannot comprehend that political diversity (as with all diversities) is an asset and a blessing. Only through examining multiple views would we find one that would suit us best. Diversity is Allah’s grand design.
Thankfully, this is changing. A dramatic and refreshing demonstration of this was the recent (July 9, 2011) BERSIH 2.0 demonstrations. Malay leaders in UMNO including Prime Minister Najib spared no effort in demonizing BERSIH’s very visible non-Malay organizers as “unpatriotic” or even “anti-Malay.” The government went beyond and declared the organization illegal. Those who dared wear attires in the movement’s trademark color – yellow – risked being arrested. Shockingly, many were.
It was reprehensible that a week or two before, the Imams in their usual canned sermons issued by the religious department declared the planned public rally haram, thus unnecessarily injecting a divisive religious element to what was essentially a civic matter. Despite all that, thousands of Malays defied their government, imams, and the party that had long presumed to speak on their behalf to take part in the rally. Clearly those Malay demonstrators were no longer trapped by tribalism; they had escaped the clutches of chauvinism. Bless them!
That was a significant milestone. Leaders who ignore this seismic change do so at their peril. For aspiring Malay leaders, it is now no longer sufficient to display their nationalistic zeal or ethnic instincts. They have to articulate the issues that matter most to the Malay masses: fairness, honesty, and justice, in elections and everywhere else. I would also add competence. Those are also the concerns of all Malaysians.
Yes, there was a time when Malay leaders could garner support by justifying that the victims of their corruption, injustices and inequality were non-Malays. Those days are now long gone, get used to that! Not that there was any consolation that their victims were not our kind, for we too could be next. And today we are.
The comforting corollary to my observation on BERSIH 2.0 is that those capable non-Malay leaders could be assured of Malay support if they were to address the central issues facing the masses.
Another encouraging consequence to Malay political diversity and maturity is that we now choose leaders according to our political persuasions and their personal qualities like competence and integrity, instead purely on racial sentiment. There was a time when we would accept even scoundrels as leaders as long as they are Malays. The rationale then was that they may be scoundrels but at least they were our scoundrels! Those days too are now thankfully gone.
Thus while my book focuses only on Malays, it has pertinence to non-Malays, especially those aspiring to lead Malaysia.

This essay is adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013

May 31, 2015

Next week: Excerpt #5: Three Defining Moments in Malay Culture

Imagining A Different Future

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

Excerpt #3: Imagining A Different Future
M. Bakri Musa

Much is at stake for Malays. Only those lulled by Hang Tuah’s blustery Takkan Melayu hilang di dunia (Malays will never be lost from this world) would pretend otherwise. History is replete with examples of once great civilizations now reduced to footnotes. At best they are but objects of tourists’ curiosities, as with the Mayans.
It is unlikely for Malay civilization to disappear; there are nearly a quarter billion of us in the greater Nusantara world of Southeast Asia. There is however, a fate far worse, and that is for Malaysia to be developed but with Malays shunted aside, reduced to performing exotic songs and dances for tourists.
There are about 17 million Malays in Malaysia, comparable to the population of the Netherlands. Their colonial record excluded, the Dutch should be our inspiration of what a population of 17 million could achieve.
Consider Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest port. One expects that title to go to a port in Britain, Germany, or Russia. Then consider the following famous brands: Shell (petroleum), Phillips (electronics), Unilever (consumer goods), Heineken (beer), and ING (financial services). Those are all Dutch companies.
Hosts of eminent organizations like the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice are headquartered in the Netherlands. More remarkable is this. That country is behind only America and France in agricultural exports, despite a quarter of its land being below sea level!
Compare that to Malays and Malaysia. Malays are in political control; non-Malays cannot challenge that; it is a demographic reality. We have a land mass ten times that of the Netherlands, and none of it underwater, except when it rains and our rivers get clogged with pollution. Then it seems the entire country is underwater, paralyzed and gasping for air.
Imagine if we could achieve even a tenth of what the Dutch have done! That should be our goal and inspiration, not endless reciting of Hang Tuah’s immortal words or the incessant hollering of Ketuanan Melayu.
We are being hoodwinked by the government’s glossy publications and our leaders’ rosy accounts. Take the “Malaysian Quality of Life 2004 Report” produced by the Prime Minister’s Department. At 113 pages, it is full of glossy pictures of well-trimmed suburban neighborhoods, neat kampong houses, and of course the iconic Petronas Towers. There is also a picture of earnest executives engaged in videoconferencing, highlighting the latest technology gizmo.
The cover features the responsible minister, Mustapa Mohamed, beaming against the backdrop of a lush, luxurious golf course. That image reveals more of the truth, perhaps unintended; the golf course is exactly where you are likely to find these ministers.
Visit the minister’s kampong in Jeli, Kelantan, and the reality would be far different. I have no data specific on Jeli but a recent study of Pulau Redong and Pulau Perhentian, islands off Trengganu, would shock anyone. A fifth of the villagers have no formal education; half only primary level. This in 2011! Their average income is less than what Indonesian maids earn. As a needless reminder, those villagers are Malays.
More shocking and reflective of the malaise, two-thirds of the respondents expect “little” or “no change.” They have given up hope. So much for UMNO’s grandiose promises on “protecting and enhancing” the position of Malays!

When those high-flying UMNO operatives visit the east coast they lodge at the exclusive Chinese-owned Berjaya Resort, with taxpayers footing the bill. There they could partake in video conferencing. For the islanders however, fewer than four percent have Internet access. There is a thriving tourism industry but those jobs are out of reach to the residents for lack of skills and education.
Those islanders’ world is a universe away from that of their fellow Bumiputras like Women Affairs Minister Sharizat Jalil with her ultra-luxury condos courtesy of hefty Bumiputra discounts and generous “soft” government loans.
Tun Razak’s New Economic Policy, Mahathir’s Vision 2020, and now Najib’s 1-Malaysia all have the same aspiration of turning Malaysia into a developed nation. For Malaysia to be developed however, we must first develop its biggest demographic group – Malays. So long as Malays remain backward, so will Malaysia. Tun Razak’s NEP recognized this central reality. Vision 2020 and 1-Malaysia are eerily silent on it.
Despite this glaring omission, Vision 2020 caught on, Mahathir’s domineering personality snuffing out potential criticisms, at least while he was in power. Najib is not so blessed personality-wise; hence his difficulty selling his 1-Malaysia even to his party members.
Solving Malaysia’s problems would necessitate us to first address those of the Malays. That is the focus of my commentaries. The accepted assumption is that by solving Malaysia’s problems, those of the Malays would automatically be resolved, the rising tide lifting all boats. Less appreciated is that a rising tide lifts only those boats that are free to float. Those trapped under low bridges or with short anchor rode would be swamped. For a rising tide to be a benefit and not a threat we must first ensure that all boats are free to float; otherwise they would be doomed.
Liberating the Malay mind is equivalent to freeing our prahus, of giving them adequate anchor lines or moving them away from under bridges and other encumbrances. Today there are just too many Malay boats that are being hampered. We must first free them; otherwise the rising tide would do them no favor. It would only swamp them.

This essay is adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013

May 24, 2015
Next week: Excerpt #4: The Curse of Our Obsession with Politics

Changing The Malay Narrative

Saturday, May 16th, 2015

Excerpt #2:  Changing the Malay Narrative

  1. Bakri Musa



The colonials imposed upon us and the world their narrative of “the lazy native.” They also spun an equally fictional one for themselves – the superiority of the white man. Both myths were needed to justify their deeds.

The Japanese shattered that second myth. The sight of the “superior” white men hightailing it, chased by the Japanese on their sardine can-made bicycles, emboldened Malays to take on the hitherto-considered mighty British. That led to our merdeka. As for the first myth, that too would have been busted had the Japanese Occupation lasted longer. There were no lazy natives during the Occupation; the Japanese made sure of that.

After merdeka, in an ironic twist we substituted our own equally fictional narrative of ourselves. This one, not surprisingly, puts us at the polar opposite of the ‘lazy native.’ We now view ourselves as the privileged “sons of the soil” (Bumiputra). With that we declare our inherent superiority, taking a leaf from the colonials. Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony) is but the latest incarnation of this new narrative.

Alas, while we may have changed our story, the reality remains the same; we are merely trading one mental coconut shell for another. That is no liberation.

Like all good fiction, there is just enough truth laced with an exuberance of artistic license to both the old colonial narrative of the lazy native as well as that of our new privileged ‘sons-of-the-soil.’ Also like all good stories, there is an underlying purpose to such narratives, apart from their being good yarns. Discerning that would require us to undertake some introspection and even greater critical analysis.

The colonialists’ myths of the lazy native and noblesse oblige justified their taking over our country and our rich resources. It also justified their bringing in hordes of indentured labor from India and China. The colonials needed such a narrative to sooth their collective conscience. They further assuaged it by calling us “nature’s gentlemen,” a term only slightly less condescending than “noble savages.”

What purpose would our narrative of Ketuanan Melayu serve? It is good fiction, as judged by its wide acceptance, much like a “good” dime novel has wide readership. Also like a good novel, this Ketuanan Melayu myth has just enough element of truth to it. We Malays are indeed “natives” of Malaysia; at least we have a better claim to that than the Anglo Saxons have of Australia.

Perhaps this narrative of Ketuanan Melayu, like those Harlequin novels and soap operas, serves to encourage escapism into a fantasy world. If that were so, the question remains as to what purpose.

We would not be far wrong if we were to, as the pundits put it, follow the money. Just as those dime novels and soap operas make tons of money for their publishers and producers, so too our narrative of Ketuanan Melayu for its perpetrators.

It is not coincidental that the shrillest proponents of Ketuanan Melayu are also the most privileged of Malays – the UMNO Putras. These are the ones with palatial bungalows, trophy wives, and children in private schools, all made possible through political patronages, “Approve Permits,” and outright corruption.

All myths eventually get punctured. That of the lazy native busted under its own weight. Indications are that this has already begun with Ketuanan Melayu. A Malay has difficulty reveling in his exalted privileged son-of-the-soil status around KLCC; he has difficulty finding a restaurant that would serve him rendang.

Champions of Ketuanan Melayu too sense this impending implosion; hence their preoccupation with creating new conspiracies to bedevil us. First was the hantu of globalization and capitalism. As that did not scare us enough, they concocted hantu pendatang (of immigrants). Meanwhile we are being ensnared by the hantu of religious extremism.

Humans love a good story; indeed we need it. That also reflects how our brain works. Our mind creates a narrative of ourselves and of the universe, and our place within it. Our mind works hard to make that story consistent. When new information intrudes that does not fit our existing narrative, our brain re-interprets the new information to make it conform. When our version of the world is far detached from reality, we become delusional. That is schizophrenia, a serious mental malady.

Another feature of the brain that rivals its ability to edit non-conforming information is its tendency to see the whole instead of the parts; hence the dominance of “framing.”

Just like a portrait can look very different depending on the frame, likewise our perception of reality based on our mental frame. We pick a course of action when it is framed as having an 80 percent chance of success over one with 20 percent chance of failure, despite both expressing the same thing. We drive across town to “save” a dollar even if we have to spend more on getting there.

Society too can be imprisoned by this framing effect. We Malays framed our dilemmas as one of Ketuanan Melayu instead of our lack of competitiveness, as it should be. All of our subsequent actions are thus “framed” by this mindset.

This obsession with Ketuanan Melayu and the various hantus distracts us from recognizing and facing our real existential threats – our laggardness in economics, education and other arenas, as well as our deepening polarization and increasing inequities within our community. Intra-racial inequities and polarization worry me more than the inter-racial variety; I fear less another May 1969, more a Malay civil war.

We also risk being cast aside by global currents. Even once xenophobic China is now embracing globalization and capitalism, to the benefit of its people. In contrast, our obsession with religion puts us right in the target of its extremist elements, turning Malaysia into another Iran or Afghanistan.

We need a new narrative, one that reflects our true nature and the world we live in. If we were to do so, our actions would be more productive and less disruptive. Even if our new story were to have some fanciful elements, with an open mind, associated humility, and willingness to learn, we could tweak and re-edit it to conform to reality.

That is what a free mind does. With a closed mind our narrative would calcify, detaching us from reality. We would then distort reality to make it conform to our warped view.

Liberate the Malay mind, and we topple our coconut shell. Information (freer access to it), education (liberal and broad-based, with competence in science and mathematics), and engagement in trade and commerce (capitalism – the genuine, not the ersatz or rent-seeking variety) are the proven tools to topple our coconut shell and prepare us for the wonderful open world.

Liberate the Malay mind and those hantus would be exposed for what they are, figments of our wild imagination. A free mind turns crises into opportunities. Liberate the Malay mind and we will re-frame our dilemmas. Liberate our minds and we liberate our world.

Begin by acknowledging the forces that have kept and are keeping our minds closed. Foremost are the myriad intrusive and repressive rules, the mother of which is the Internal Security Act. Those are instruments of oppression, not liberation. Then there are our schools and universities, intent on indoctrinating rather than educating our young. More entrenched is the corruption of our cultural values where respect for leaders is mistaken as a license for them to indulge at our expense. Most of all we must discard our myopic interpretation of our faith.

Expose the forces that have entrapped the Malay mind, and we are on our way to liberating it. That essentially summarizes my book. What follows are but elaborations, illustrations, and persuasions.


May 17, 2015


This essay is adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013


Next week:  Excerpt #3:  Imagining a Different Future

Merdekakan Minda Melayu (Liberate The Malay Mind)

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

Merdekakan Minda Melayu (Liberate The Malay Mind)

  1. Bakri Musa

  Malays need to have minda merdeka (free or liberated mind). We do not need another Melayu Baru (New Malay), Glokal Malay (contraction for global and local), Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony), revolusi mental (mental revolution), and other tired slogans. Those would all be for naught if our collective minds remained trapped with their distorted views of the past and present. Facing the future with a closed mind is not the way either, at least not with any hope for success.

The famed Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer published his highly-acclaimed Buru Quartet novels soon after his release from Pulau Buru prison. When asked during a book tour in America how he was able to craft such a wonderful work of art while being imprisoned under the most inhumane conditions, Pramoedya replied, “I create freedom for myself!”

This is what a free mind can do. Your body may be imprisoned and confined to total darkness for 24 hours a day save for a ray of light peeking through the keyhole, as Pramoedya was, but no one could imprison your free mind. Under such cruel circumstances a mind that is not free could easily disintegrate, going wild and berserk, which justifies the continued isolation and inhumane treatment.

Likewise, Malays must create freedom for ourselves. Merdeka Minda Melayu! (Liberate The Malay Mind!) This should be our new battle cry, its rhythmic resonance and arresting alliteration trumping even Hang Tuah’s immortal Takkan Melayu Hilang Di Dunia! (Malays shall never disappear from this Earth!)

Implicit in my choice of the title for this book is the recognition that the Malay mind has long been entrapped. The challenges our community has been grappling with all along can directly or indirectly be attributed to the fact that our collective consciousness has been caged and consequently closed off to seeking out new and innovative solutions.

Contrary to the assertions of many, our problems are not rooted in the presumed deficiencies of our biology or culture. Nor are they caused by colonialism (traditional or the neo-variety), the pendatangs (immigrants), capitalism, globalization, or even our supposed lack of unity. We have been led to believe that these are problems, not opportunities. They will remain so as long our minds are trapped. If we liberate our minds we will then be able to view these challenges as opportunities, and begin to explore them as such. That would be more productive, and the results would be more to our liking.

We have been addicted to the comfort of life underneath the proverbial coconut shell for far too long. Now with the shell breached by globalization and the digital waves, it is dawning upon us that our “comfort” is anything but. There is a far greater, more open, and definitely wondrous universe out there that we have been missing.

Life under the coconut shell is no longer sustainable; for many it is already intolerable. We can either topple this shell ourselves or risk having it done by external forces. With the former we would be in command of our destiny; we could choose the timing, manner, and consequently the outcome. With the latter, we would be at the mercy of events and circumstances beyond our control; we would be reduced to being victims, begging for the kindness and benevolence of others.

Saddam Hussein and his Republican Guards certainly thought they were very comfortable in the desert, secure under their well-camouflaged shells. That is, until those shells were literally blown apart by outside forces.

The Malay coconut shell cannot be physically destroyed as it is only metaphorical – our closed minds. Besides, with the huge pores already created by globalization and the digital revolution, many have already successfully emerged from underneath that shell. The biggest danger is not so much that our shell will be toppled by outside forces or through agitations from within, rather that the world would ignore and leave us to rot underneath it, with only the mushrooms to sustain us.

This would be the fate that awaits those with a closed mind. Perhaps we could rationalize that by adopting a “leave us alone” philosophy. Such an option however, is not for us to choose but for others to impose.

If we do not merdekakan minda kita, that is, liberate our minds, others will define our destiny for us.

In short, the future of Malays depends on, in Pramoedya’s words, our ability to create freedom for ourselves. We would achieve this goal not through endless and meaningless mass exhortations from our leaders rather individual at a time. A Malay with a liberated mind is his or her own leader. We can dispense with the current crop of leaders with trapped minds.


Adapted from M. Bakri Musa:  Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013


Next week:  Changing The Malay Narrative

Malaysia’s Wasted Decade 2004-2014

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

The Toxic Triad of Abdullah, Najib, and UMNO Leadership

Excerpt #5 (Last): Two Black Swans and Many More Dark Crows

Already one component of the toxic triad – Abdullah Badawi – is gone and no longer heaping his share of trash upon the nation. As for UMNO, despite being the largest party and a ruling one at the federal level for over the past half a century, it never gets a foothold in Sarawak. Of the nine states in the peninsula, UMNO is permanently wiped off in Penang, Kelantan, and Selangor. If the federal territory of Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur were also a state, UMNO would be wiped out there too. At one time it was also out in Perak, Kedah, and Trengganu.

That leaves only Najib. My earlier prediction of his premature ending as prime minister notwithstanding (see “Priority of Packaging Over Performance’” page 119), he is now secure at the top of the UMNO rubbish heap. To be the unchallenged skipper of the Titanic is no job security; it could very well undermine your well-being.

I am always amazed at the ability of one person to initiate transformational changes. Often those individuals are the ones we least expect. There is no rhyme or reason for such individuals to emerge except that they somehow appear at the right time and place, with all the right people to help him or her do the right thing in the right manner; in short, the confluence of all the elements and the alignment of all the stars.

In the 1990s Indonesia was threatened to be ripped apart by its bewildering centrifugal forces. Today it celebrates its peaceful democratic transition with a new and promising leader in Joko Widodo. Further east, who would have predicted back in the 1970s that a diminutive, uninspiring and uncharismatic Deng Xiaoping would dismantle the handiwork of the colossal but destructive Mao Zedong?

Further east across the Yellow Sea, in the 1950s the South Koreans depended entirely on the spending of the hundreds of thousands of American GIs stationed there. Then came General Park; today Samsung, Hyundai and LG are global household brand names.

At the same time I do not underestimate the ability of one idiot to wreck untold damage upon a nation while its citizens stand by and let it happen. Nearby there was Indonesia’s Sukarno, further away Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, and in the not-too-distant past, Iraq’s Saddam.

Thus I do not underestimate Najib Razak to do likewise to the great nation of Malaysia if Malaysians let him. I hope they would not.
Malaysia suffered through two horrific man-made disasters in the span of just a few months in 2014. The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 over the South China Sea remains a mystery to this day. While we know what happened to Flight MH17, the question remains of why a MAS plane? After all, a Singapore Airlines jet had earlier flown a similar route while an Air India one was only a few kilometers away.

When a “black swan” (rare, unpredictable) event occurs, it is natural for people to look beyond the realm of the rational for an explanation. This is not an affliction of only the uninformed and poorly educated. In part this reflects the universal recognition that there is a greater power governing us all that we have as yet to fully comprehend.

When 9-11 struck, many religious leaders insensitive to the pain of the victims’ relatives and friends called it divine retribution for America’s tolerance of homosexual ways; likewise when Katrina broke the levees of New Orleans.

At the other end of the world, when the Asian tsunami hit northern Sumatra at Christmas 2004, the iconic image that was seared into everyone’s memory was of the lone mosque standing forlornly and unscathed amidst the sea of destruction around it.

Those with even an inkling of science knew that the tsunami was caused by a shift in the earth’s tectonic plates deep in the floor of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sumatra. That knowledge has profound consequences; it led to the creation of ocean sensors that could detect those earth and giant wave movements well ahead to warn those that may be affected. Along the coast of Japan and western North and South America there are already early warning systems and clearly marked evacuation routes. Indonesia did not have them then.

The science-challenged Indonesian peasants saw things differently. To them, the lone standing mosque was Allah sending them a message. The peace treaty that ended the generations-long civil war in Aceh was signed soon after. Their metaphysical interpretation of events too had a fruitful consequence.

Before we dismiss or belittle the Indonesians’ belief, there is still the question of why the tectonic shift had to occur there and at that particular time and not at some remote uninhabited part of the Pacific. That defies science, at least as we know it. Modern science offers only probabilities.

So when Malaysia suffered through two eerily similar “black swan” tragedies in the two passenger-jet crashes, it was not a surprise that many looked for some explanations beyond science. To be sure, a plane disappearing or crashing is not a black swan event, but MH370 disappeared without leaving any trace, incredulous in this day of round-the-clock ubiquitous satellite surveillance. That tragedy still baffles the experts. As for the ill-fated MH17, while we all knew what happened (it was shot down), still the question remains why a MAS plane was the unfortunate victim.

When an obscure village alim says that the calamities were caused by MAS serving alcohol, he can rightly be scoffed at and be ridiculed. By that theory Emirate Airlines would have been a top casualty. However, when thoughtful commentators like Kadir Jasin, the former editor-in-chief of The New Straits Times, and Zaid Ibrahim, a former cabinet minister and successful corporate lawyer, alluded to bala or divine retribution, then we are compelled to pause and reflect. This is especially so when their views resonated with the general public.

In reality, many had taken figurative pot shots at MAS in the past. Stated differently, long before these two black swans, the airline had had many dark crows. MAS would long ago have been grounded, and many times too, had it not been for the government coming in with expensive rescue bailouts.

Profitable units of the airline, like catering and maintenance, had been siphoned off to UMNO cronies, and then MAS was forced to buy back those services at inflated prices, converting what were once revenue-producing units into revenue-draining ones. On another front, instead of pampering its customers, MAS was pampering its employees, from ramp handlers to top executives. They all happily hogged the company’s trough at the customers’ expense, and with taxpayers ultimately paying the bill.

While other airlines were getting substantial discounts for their new planes and passing those savings back to their companies, MAS was paying full retail price, with the discounts going into the pockets of crony middle men “consultants” in cahoots with top executives. Then there was that “brilliant” idea of selling its headquarters in a prime Kuala Lumpur location and then renting space back from its new owner. It’s akin to selling your house and then paying rent to the new owner, adding another expense. This was what Pan Am Airlines did in 1970. We all know what happened to that company.

Then there was that wonderful scheme of financial engineering scheme dubbed WAU (Widespread Asset Unbundling) where MAS sold its planes and then leased them back. Again it was like selling its headquarters. Not owning your own planes is a smart and effective strategy for a start-up airline; it conserves capital that could be diverted to expanding its market. It is however a dumb move for an established company to do so as that would only add another layer of costs. The only ones wowed by that WAU scheme were the new owners of the planes and the investment bankers who arranged the deal. That deal was also a cute play on words as “wau” is Malay for kite, the airline’s logo.

If MAS shares serve as a metaphor for Malaysia, then what happens to MAS the company mirrors what happens to Malaysia the country. Previously reliable services like power and water that were provided by competent public entities are now privatized, sold at heavily discounted prices to favored political cronies. These ersatz capitalists, pseudo entrepreneurs, and rent seekers came out like bandits, but the pipes often run dry, and when they do flow, the water is not fit to drink. Likewise with electrical supplies; they are erratic and with ever escalating prices.

The government cannot forever protect MAS from the reality of an increasingly competitive world. The price for bailouts keeps escalating and is no longer sustainable. For MAS, the skid was greased by the entry of Air Asia at one end, which cannibalized MAS on the domestic and regional front, and Singapore and other Asian airlines like Cathay Pacific that chipped away at MAS’s long-haul destinations.

The first black swan, MH370 disappearance, exposed the incompetence of Malaysian leaders on the world stage. Malaysians of course have been fully aware of this for a long time. These leaders could not handle even simple queries from journalists and the public. The astute political cartoonist Zunar captured well the bumbling Najib. His biting cartoon depicting a “Too Weak” Najib “Two Weeks” after MH370 was carried by The Washington Post.

Like MAS, Malaysians too have been exposed to the reality of a highly competitive globalized world. They now realize that the “education” they had received at local institutions has been nothing more than indoctrination. Their low English proficiency and abysmal communicating skills and critical thinking faculties do not serve them well in the new marketplace.

I hope Malaysian leaders would heed the wisdom of Zaid Ibrahim and Kadir Jassin, that is, treat the two black swan events as the Indonesians treated their black swan of the Asian tsunami. Keep the Malaysian house pure and in good order, free of what displeases Allah, not to please Him but to please Malaysians.

If Najib and others in UMNO fail to heed this message, then Malaysians are duty bound to remove them and give others the privilege to lead the nation