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Modern Technology as the Great Equalizer and Liberator

Monday, September 18th, 2017

Modern Technology as the Great Equalizer and Liberator

M. Bakri Musa

Modern technology, specifically digital, brings us to the outside world, and it to us. Today what happens in the remote caves high in the mountains of Kabul can be recorded on a cell phone and then posted on the Web for the whole world to see. Even a repressive regime like China could not control the dissemination of images of its tanks bulldozing innocent citizens back at Tiananmen Square in 1989, though not for lack of trying.

The success of the Arab Jasmine Revolution owes much to this digital revolution. Through social networks like Facebook and Twitter, ordinary citizens communicated with each other in real time to organize massive demonstrations that brought down powerful leaders like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

I assert that the digital technology is a much more powerful and consequential instrument of leveler and liberation than the AK47, hitherto (still is) the favorite with not-so-bright revolutionaries worldwide.

Mubarak was derailed not by a gunman, like his predecessor Anwar Sadat, but by a social revolution made possible by the online social network. If there were to be a leader of that movement, it would be Google executive Wael Ghonim. Unlike earlier Arab revolutionaries who were military officers, this guy was, for lack of a better word, a geek. What an incredible achievement! No one could have predicted that Mubarak, who only a few months previously was the most powerful man in the Arab world, would face charges of premeditated murder for the deaths of those protestors.

Digital technology is not the only modern agent of liberation. Modern transportation has reduced if not removed the barrier of geography. Today I can fly from San Francisco to Kuala Lumpur in less time than it took my sister to get from Kuala Pilah to her Teachers’ College in Kota Baru via Malayan Railway back in the 1950s.

Travel, in so far as it affords one the opportunity to experience different cultures and realities, can be liberating. While the digital revolution might afford a virtual reality at the convenience and safety on your sofa, travel lets you experience reality in its raw, unfiltered physical form.

The liberating effect of travel works both on the traveler as well as the host. This result however, is not guaranteed. Seeing how the rest of the world operates may not necessarily open up minds; in some it would result in the exact opposite.

The Chinese Emperor of the 15th Century sent explorers out to the vast Pacific and Indian Oceans. Far from opening up Chinese minds, those exotic foreign expeditions merely reaffirmed their smug superiority that they had nothing to learn from the barbarians outside, a manifestation of a collective “confirmation bias” at the societal level. The Chinese were so confident of their superiority that they eschewed the need for further foreign explorations. They went further. They ordered the dismantling of their then advanced and massive maritime infrastructures, including the banning of building of boats, declaring that to be frivolous and resource-wasting exercises.

Meanwhile the Europeans continued with their explorations. The scale was considerably much less, their ships pale imitations of the Chinese. Consider that the length of Columbus’s flagship Santa Maria was less than half the width of Cheng Ho’s.

Unlike the ancient Chinese, the medieval Europeans had no pretensions of grandeur; they explored the world with an open mind. They had no delusions about their ways being the best; instead they observed in those foreign lands things they could take home, like tea and spices. It did not take them long to recognize the enormous potential in trading those commodities by introducing new culinary experiences to European palates. The Europeans also soon discovered that the Chinese had a voracious appetite for opium, which the Brits could secure with ease from India. Lucrative commercial domination soon led to the political variety, and thus colonialism was born.

Why one culture reacted a certain way and another, the very opposite, is intriguing. In the final analysis, it boils down to a culture’s openness to new ideas and experiences, its collective open mindedness. The ancient Chinese had closed minds; the medieval Europeans, open.

Today when some foreigners arrive in a new country, and on encountering an alien culture, would retreat, fearing it would “contaminate” their pristine values. They would close ranks and congregate in their own little ghettoes, refusing to integrate with the native majority. We see this in America as well as Malaysia.

Others view their new experiences as open and endless learning opportunites. Some are grateful to be given a new lease on life after escaping the wretchedness of their native land. Eastern Europeans who came to America early in the last century were grateful and thus more than eager to join the American mainstream. They readily gave up their old ways to integrate as quickly as possible into their new society. They learned English quickly and changed their names to make them sound more Anglo-Saxon, as with Pawlinsky morphing into the less jaw-breaking Paul.

Even when they were actively being discriminated against, and the early Jews, Irish and Italians in America definitely were, they continued to adopt American ways. They did not rush to build Italian or Jewish schools; instead they built their own English schools so their children would not be handicapped in integrating into mainstream American society. They did not consider such actions as repudiating or denigrating their own culture. Far from it! They realized that their own culture and ways of life would more likely survive if they were to thrive and be successful in their adopted land.

Today St. Patrick’s Day and Octoberfest are celebrated more exuberantly in Chicago and Milwaukee respectively than in Dublin or Berlin.

It is tempting to attribute the contrasting reactions of early immigrants to America from Europe to later ones from Asia and Latin America to the differences in circumstances that prompted them to emigrate. The Europeans were forcibly thrown out of their native lands through pogroms or wars. In contrast, recent Asian and Latin American immigrants crossed the border voluntarily, for the most part (the South Vietnamese being the most recent notable exception). The Europeans did not ever want to return to their homelands. By contrast, many recent Hispanics consider their stay in America temporary, remaining just long enough to accumulate some money so they could return and live comfortably back in their native land. As such, they do not feel compelled to learn English or in any way integrate into American society.

A similar “temporary abode” mentality occurred with immigrants from China and India into Malaysia early in the last century. Brought in by the colonials to work the tin mines and rubber plantations, their mindset was to work hard, accumulate enough savings, and then balik Tongsan (return to their motherland, China). Hence there was little need to learn the local language or adapt to local culture. They remained insular, xenophobic, and closed-minded.

They were completely different from the Chinese men and women who came much earlier and voluntarily settled in the Straits Settlement, the Peranakan. They absorbed many of the elements of Malay culture, including the language and attire. They were not obsessed with balik Tongsan. When the British were in charge, those Chinese learned English; in independent Malaysia, they learned Malay and worked with the majority Malays.

The challenge for Malays and non-Malays in this global era is to cultivate an open mind because the alternative means depriving yourself of new opportunities.

Next:  Emigration as Liberation

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Liberation Through Information

Monday, September 4th, 2017

Liberation Through Information

M. Bakri Musa

In the past, the challenge of stirring people out of their comfort zone and igniting their imagination is compounded by their physical isolation. Today, the digital waves penetrate the thickest of coconut shells. Even the most remote villages now have access to the Internet. In the past the expression was, “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Gay Paree!” Today, Gay Paree comes to them, thanks to the digital revolution.

Digital technology levels the playing field; it also opens up a limitless world of news, information, and viewpoints, as well as opportunities. This leveling means that in the cyber world, David can have the same presence as Goliath; similarly, the village idiot and Einstein. Without the capacity for critical thinking one could easily mistake Goliath for David or the village idiot for Einstein. The consequences to the former could be physically devastating; for the latter, intellectually stunting.

That is not the only downside to the digital revolution. Consider the crude attempts by UMNO to influence public opinion by paying bloggers who are sympathetic to its cause. Then there is China, equally clumsy, rewarding those who post pro-government sentiments on anti-government websites. Both attempts of idiots posing as Einsteins are garish and ineffective. Prostitutes, whether literal or metaphorical, are easily spotted. To those capable of critical analyses, fake news and “alternative facts” remain as such no matter how they are presented.

More sinister is the use of the Internet by the state to spy on its citizens. At its crudest there is Iran using images posted on Facebook to trace anti-government activists. More sophisticated is the data-mining software to track the activities of citizens. This penchant for violating citizens’ privacy and rights is a common practice not only with authoritarian regimes like China but also such supposed champions of freedom as America.

While the Internet brings an abundance of news and data it requires one to have some capacity for critical thinking to sift through them. If we lack this faculty we would end up focusing only on those viewpoints that support our preconceived notions, as with UMNO supporters reading (and believing) only The New Straits Times and Utusan Melayu, while those in the opposition, Malaysia Today*[1] and Malaysiakini. This “confirmation bias” is the bad news; it contributes to deepening polarization which is potentially disastrous for a plural society like Malaysia. Far from opening up minds, this confirmation bias closes them.

This pernicious trend is also seen in America despite its more educated citizens and their familiarity with a broad diversity of views. Conservative Americans increasingly tune to Fox News and read the Wall Street Journal exclusively; liberals, CNN and the New York Times. As a result, America today is more polarized.

The solution is not to have a single source of news (those in power would love that so they could control it) but to encourage as many viewpoints and news sources as possible while teaching citizens to think critically and have an open mind.

This is the crucial role of a responsible media. This cannot simply be wished for; the government must actively nurture and be committed to this instead of thwarting it, as the authorities do now.

Having the media in private rather than government hands would not ensure this either. American media is private, and through that they have successfully projected a facade of independence. However, it is only that, a facade. In reality they are beholden to their owners’ private agenda and or special interest groups, in particular their advertisers. In their coverage of the Middle East for example, an area of vital interest to Americans, the US media has been particularly myopic and subservient to these interest groups as well as their owners’ agenda.

Consider the coverage of major international events including and especially the recent uprisings in the Arab world by Al Jazeera, BBC, and the CBC, all government- owned (Qatar, Britain and Canada respectively). Those have been far superior to that of the so-called “independent” American media like the main networks.

Even in America, partly government-funded PBS trumps the venerable, privately-held CBS. What is obvious is that ownership is not the key; the critical element is the professionalism of journalists and editors, and their ability to free themselves from their superiors, be they corporate executives and owners or ruling bureaucrats and politicians.

Journalists are no saints. Consider the recent “documentaries” by British FBC Media on the Malaysian palm oil industry and “interviews” with Prime Minister Najib that were aired on major international media. It turned out that even the esteemed BBC and CNN could be fooled into believing blatant infomercials as documentaries. Those “interviews” with Najib were basically paid commercials, with the money going not to the network but the PR firm. Far from appearing statesman-like, Najib looked like a desperate “John” being tricked by a cheap streetwalker powdered up to look high class.

There was a time when American journalists were the most trusted, personified by the likes of Walter Cronkite, Albert J. Morrow, and more recently, Tom Brokaw and Bernie Shaw. With the proliferation of television channels available through cable, there is now fragmentation of and consequent scramble for viewers. The result is a race to the bottom, catering to the lowest common denominator with hard news being replaced by the salacious and sensational. No wonder the overall audiences for the major networks have declined. Today nobody takes any notice of the news anchors of the major networks. They are more like over-exposed celebrities than trusted journalists; they have lost their gravitas and influence. The Annual White House Correspondents Dinner vie with the Oscars as the social event of the year. Like actors, these journalists revel in the world of make believe.

I have no problem with the major media outlets being government owned, such as Bernama and RTM, or controlled by the major political parties (NST, The Star, Harakah). I just wish that their staff, from cub reporters to senior editors, are aware of their awesome responsibility to inform the public and thus the need to be professional. They should at least appreciate the difference between solid objective news coverage and advocacy editorial commentaries. For this to become a reality they have to be professionally trained.

I am not a fan of “J” schools, but I do wish that Malaysian reporters and editors could have the chance to go beyond just being “Form Five” journalists (middle school graduates). They should have broad-based liberal educations and be capable of exercising independent judgment. They should not be content with regurgitating press releases or being carma (contraction of cari makan; hired hands) journalists.

Only with a responsible professional media could we prepare our citizens to appreciate the Jeffersonian wisdom:  Every difference in opinion is not a difference of principle.

Leaders have a critical role in fostering this climate of healthy discourse; they must set the example. It is for this reason that I cringe whenever I hear Prime Minister Najib labeling opposition leaders as “traitors” and “anti-nationals.” Najib dishonors himself and his office when he resorts to such childishness. His followers are only too willing to ape him; monkey see, monkey do.

We must demand a higher standard of personal decency from our leaders. We should not tolerate it when they descend into the gutter. When they do, we should never follow them. We should expect more displays of civility as demonstrated by the recent (2009) photograph of Prime Minister Najib and Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim enjoying teh tarik in the lobby of Parliament. Sadly, such class acts are becoming rare. Instead today we have Prime Minister Najib calling his predecessor Mahathir a traitor, and the latter likewise labelling his successor a thief.

Next:  Modern Technology as Instruments of Liberation

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

[1] Malaysia Today has today (2017) switched sides; it is now the mouth piece of UMNO.

Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

Make Malaysia Tanah Melayu Again?

Reflections on the Sixtieth Anniversary of Merdeka

M. Bakri Musa

[The serialization of my Liberating The Malay Mind will resume next Sunday, September 3, 2017]

 The deadly white supremacists’ riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, and the much less lethal but no less dangerous fracas at the Nothing-to-Hide 2 Forum in Shah Alam the following day, may have occurred at literally opposite ends of the globe and in a diametrically different cultural milieu, nonetheless the underlying racial and socio-political dynamics share many eerie and frightening similarities.

Factoring time zone differences, the two events took place at about the same time. There were other similarities but before pursuing them it is worth recalling the differences.

While mega terabytes were consumed by tapes of and commentaries on that Charlottesville riot, as befit a tragedy that shook and shocked the comfortable core assumptions of America, the Malaysian fracas was remarkable for the silence of the establishment and mainstream media, reflecting their tacit approval. Only with the vigorous alternate media was this shameful and glaring deficit exposed.

In America, no commentary touched me more than the brief and prescient essay by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. Written last November for The New Yorker’s series “Mourning For Whiteness” following President Trump’s marginal electoral victory, she foresaw early the link between that and the future Charlottesville riot.

To me, born and raised in Malaysia but now domiciled in America, Morrison’s “Making America White Again” illuminated as much about my adopted country as of my native land.

“The choices made by white men who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women,” Morrison wrote, “suggest the true horror of lost status.” The status referred to is white privilege in America.

This “true horror of lost status,” even the hint or threat of, is also what drives Malays to a frenzy of abandoning their humanity out of fear of their fellow non-Malay Malaysians. It prompts young Malays into slipper- and firebomb-throwing riots while their leaders brandish their kerises, threatening to soak them with the blood of non-Malays.

Substitute “white privilege” for “special privileges,” or Ketuanan Melayu in local lingo, and the underlying dynamics are comparable and no less ugly.

Inflammatory words are uttered and crude gestures mimed by UMNO and PERKASA leaders invoking Ketuanan Melayu, not in the heat of emotional electoral debates or idle coffee shop talks but in the lofty air-conditioned halls of party headquarters and modernish ministerial suites at Putrajaya. Those in our public universities too are afflicted by this virulent virus.

“Immigrants to America know (and knew) that if they want to become real, authentic Americans,” observed Morrison, “they must reduce their fealty to their native country and regard it as secondary, subordinate, in order to emphasize their whiteness.”

“… United States holds whiteness as the unifying force,” she continued. “Here, for many people, the definition of ‘Americanness’ is color.”

The “whiteness” equivalence in Malaysia is not skin color (thank Allah, for Malaysians come in various hues!), rather its equally sinister correlate–race. In Malaysia that is also tied to religion, making for an extra toxic and very volatile brew.

In America during slavery, color ranking was obvious; there was little need to be explicit. Non-whites “knew their place,” or ought to! Breach that or in any way be seen as being uppity, and you would pay the terrible consequences.

In today’s post-civil rights America, “white people’s conviction of their natural superiority is being lost. Rapidly lost. There are ‘people of color’ everywhere threatening to erase this long-understood definition of America,” wrote Morrison.

We already had a black President. What more do blacks want, mocked Morrison. Another black President? A predominantly black Senate? Three black Supreme Court Justices? The threat is frightening.

What more do blacks want? That recalls Prime Minister Najib’s earlier chilling threat “what more do the Chinese want?” following his party’s near-death experience with the “Chinese tsunami” of the last general elections.

As in pre-emancipation America, racial identity (and the inevitable ranking) in Malaysia is explicit, enshrined in her constitution and institutions. At least our past leaders rationalized that on the need to ameliorate the socio-economic marginalization of Malays, the country’s largest ethnic entity. Today that provision is being exploited with a vengeance to ape the old colonial “divide and rule” imperative and imperialism.

With norms of human rights and racial equality becoming universal, Malays’ conviction of our natural superiority is being challenged, and fast being lost, echoing Morrison on white privilege.

Everywhere, Malaysia and America included, economic power and political realities on the ground trump established legal provisions and pat historical assumptions. Non-Malays, from the peninsula to East Malaysia, threaten to erase this long understood and accepted definition of Malaysia.

I do not presume to know what non-Malays want. A non-Malay Prime Minister? Appeals Court packed with non-Malay judges? Predominantly non-Malay cabinet ministers? As in America, the threat is both real and frightening.

Witness the raging controversy, public as well as in the rarified chambers of the Bar, to the extension of the due-to-retire Chief Justice Raus Sharif, an ugly manifestation of the fear that the top judicial post could go to a non-Malay, and from East Malaysia to boot.

To limit this possibility of untenable change, and restore Malayness to its status as a marker of national unity and defining character of Malaysia, a number of Malays are sacrificing themselves, like white Americans over their privileges. Malays have begun to do things we clearly don’t really want to be doing, as with abandoning our sense of human dignity and risking the appearance of cowardice, all in the pursuit of making Malaysia Tanah Melayu (Land of the Malays) again.

Much as Malays hate our behavior, and know full well how craven it is, we are willing to let, for example, Malay babies be abandoned rather than be adopted and showered with love by non-Malay families, desecrate the venerated symbols of other faiths, and engage in obscene behaviors in front of homes of non-Malay leaders. As shameful as such demonstrations of weakness are (make no mistake, those are expressions of weakness and desperation, not of courage or wisdom), we continue doing so.

To keep alive this Ketuanan Melayu illusion, Malays tuck our heads under the banner of Malay sultans and legendary heroes like Hang Tuah, while shunning the necessary hard work needed to prepare for modern realities and current challenges. No surprise then that we are overrepresented among the socially dysfunctional. To them, Ketuanan Melayu remains a titillating tease at best and a cruel hoax at worse.

What Malays have done, egged on by our leaders, are not acts of courage or deeds of the wise. Quite the contrary. Only the frightened would do that, and the dumb.

Just as America of the Confederacy was very different than today’s Union (for one, it is considerably larger, with most states joining in after the Civil War; for another, more diverse), likewise today’s Malaysia is far different from the old Tanah Melayu. There is minimal Malayness today or in the past in Sabah and Sarawak, or Penang for that matter.

The path to genuine, laudable and enviable Ketuanan Melayu, in contrast to the mirage of Tuan perpetrated by our leaders or the crippled-on-crutches caricature portrayed by those contemptuous of us, may be difficult but is no secret. Get a good education, pursue something productive, and contribute to society. Then we could become Tuan even in lands other than Tanah Melayu and live Hang Tuah’s immortal words, Takkan Melayu Hilang Di Dunia! (Malays shall not be lost in this world!) Anything less and we are doomed to be hamba (slave) even in Tanah Melayu.

To the sons and daughters of my native Malaysia, on this the sixtieth anniversary of Merdeka, do not be led astray by the false prophets and delusional aspirations of Ketuanan Melayu. Unshackle yourselves. Modify the rallying cry of our forefathers from “Merdeka Tanah Melayu” to “Merdeka Minda Melayu!”

Political Versus Mental Merdeka (Independence)

Sunday, August 27th, 2017

 Political Versus Mental Merdeka (Independence)

M. Bakri Musa 

Much has changed in the world since 1957 when Malaysia achieved its Merdeka (independence), with the pace ever accelerating. Great Britain is no longer great, and the Austins and Morris Minors that used to ply Malaysian roads are today found if at all only in the junkyards and collectors’ garages.

The social landscape too has changed. The Lake Club, a cool oasis in the heart of humid bustling Kuala Lumpur, was once the bastion of colonial privilege where British miners, planters and civil servants retired during the heat of the day to enjoy their stengahs (stouts) and steak, uninterrupted by the offensive sights of the natives spitting on the ground, Chinese maids grunting to clear their throats, and Indian laborers incessantly squirting blood-like betel nut juice through their rotten teeth. Those disgusting and unsanitary habits of the non-colonials could spoil one’s appetite in very short order regardless of the physical ambience.

The staid upscale Robinson Department Store was then thriving despite its lack of customers, at least the native variety. Exclusiveness equaled profitability, a concept that is still being aggressively pursued by today’s advertisers in their endless search for lucrative niches. For Robinson, there was little need to cater to the natives; they did not have the money anyway. The few wealthy ones spotted inspecting the store’s merchandise were only too happy to pay the exorbitant prices for the privilege of rubbing shoulders however briefly with their colonial counterparts. For the store, that was an opportunity to jack up the prices and rake in the profits. Then, as now, there was always money to be made catering to people’s vanity, up to a point.

During a recent visit to Malaysia, I had difficulty finding the old Robinson store. I mean of course the building, as the company itself had long ago disappeared, a casualty of Schumpeter’s creative destruction. As for an evening at the Lake Club, the food–even the Malay cuisines–was way below par compared to those found at the many luxury hotels now in KL. As in those hotels, the Malay food at Lake Club was prepared and served by non-Malays or even non-Malaysians. As for ambience, those foreign hotels are much more luxurious or “exclusive.”

Tourists cannot be faulted for being impressed with Malaysia, especially upon arrival at its gleaming Sepang Airport. At Customs and Immigration, polite English-speaking officials would be there to greet them.

That was not always the case. There was a time when the two departments would, to put it kindly, serve as a good introduction to the country. The negligent services were matched only by the tidak apa (lackadaisical) personnel. Since then, frequent comparisons with the efficient operation at the neighboring Singapore airport, only 30 minutes flying time away, had embarrassed the officials sufficiently into making the necessary improvements.

That is the good news; Malaysians are capable of learning when sufficiently shamed. The bad news is that comparisons with the definitely First World Singapore would rattle most Malaysians, especially the leaders.

When visiting Malaysia, I too like to play tourist, at least for the first few days to ease my transition. There is no point complicating the inevitable jet lag with routines that I have long forgotten, or giving up comforts I have grown accustomed. Once I have recovered, and with the old Malaysian smell and ambience slowly creeping back to re-excite the neurons in the deep recesses of my memory, I yearn to return to the familiar Malaysian ways.

Then I would return to my old village. There, time seems to have remained frozen. This is true of rural Malaysia generally. If there is any change, it is for the worse. Whereas in my youth I had to wait listlessly under the blazing sun for the erratic village bus, today even that service is gone. As for schools, in my time teachers were highly regarded and more than adequately compensated; today the profession is inundated by the bonded and unemployable.

True, during my youth education was a privilege enjoyed by far too few. However, why do we always have to choose between quantity and quality? Strive for both!

Thomas Wolfe’s “you can’t go home again” obviously does not apply to me. When I go back to my village I am indeed returning home and to the time of my youth. Chatting with the old villagers immediately confirms that. It can be unnerving. Sometimes I wonder whether the time I was in medical school and living in North America had just been a dream; awakened, I am back in the drudgery of my kampong life. Only the presence of my wife beside me reassures me otherwise.

In many respects life is now worse for today’s kampong youngsters. At least when I was young I could dream that if I did well in my studies I could escape. Today, even that aspiration is beyond contemplation for most. They may excel in school, but their limited English skills would confine their opportunities and any chance at upward mobility.

There have been many development initiatives introduced over the years, as our politicians constantly remind us, and they all carry exorbitant price tags. Yet for far too many of the villagers and their children–the next generation–life remains unchanged.

It is time for a radical change in approach. Instead of emphasizing the physical aspects of development–freeways, gleaming skyscrapers, and billion-ringgit GLCs–we should focus on changing mindsets, on liberating them. Malays have been longing for a free mind for far too long.

Consider that we had to agitate and at times resort to violence to get our political merdeka; the British did not acquiesce readily or enthusiastically. As for our minda merdeka (free mind), expect even greater obstacles. No one can grant us that; we have to strive for it ourselves, collectively and individually.

It is not in the nature of humans to be cooped under the coconut shell. That is not Allah’s grand design; He wants us to be free so we can undertake our responsibilities as His vice-regents in this universe.

There are only two options. One is the default setting, meaning, we do nothing but wait passively. If we were to do that, we would reduce ourselves to being victims of circumstances. Rest assured, eventually outside events will topple our shell, as has happened before with the Japanese Occupation. Then ready or not, we were flung out onto the outside world. Though we benefited from the change, the collateral damage was unpredictable and at times unbearable.

The better alternative is to topple our coconut shell on our own. That way we could choose the timing and method, thus minimizing possible collateral damages. Doing so would also empower our people and help create the results we desire.

Next:  Toppling Our Coconut Shell

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Solving The Malay Problem: Learning From Others

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

Solving The Malay Problem:  Learning From Others

MBakri Musa

 Learning from others is a natural for some; those are the lucky ones. They consider the exercise mind expanding and liberating. For the rest, learning from others is a difficult endeavor, and often associated with deep embarrassment. To them, ignorance is bliss. Those are the closed-minded.

In my earlier book, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I gave the positive examples of Ireland and South Korea, nations worthy of our emulation, while citing Argentina as a negative one, of what not to do. Early in the last century Argentina was a bright star; a few generations later it was wrecked with one economic crisis after another. For South Korea, in the 1950s it was receiving foreign aid from the Philippines; today, the fate of the two countries could not be more different!

A more relevant example for Malaysia is Ireland of the early 20th Century. Just substitute Malays for the Irish, and Chinese for the English; and Islam for Catholicism. Just as Malays feel inferior to the Chinese, so too were the Irish to the English. Today’s Malays are in the tight grip of the Islamic establishment, so too were the Irish to the Catholic clergy. Only when the Irish mentally freed themselves from the Church were they emancipated. Progress soon ensued.

Malaysia had its Sean Lemass (“The Architect of Modern Ireland”) with the late Tun Razak. Both were leaders for about the same duration (1959-66 for Lemass; 1970-76 for Razak), but without diminishing Razak’s monumental legacy, his impact on Malaysia, specifically Malays, was not comparable to Lemass and Ireland with the Irish.

Both Razak and Lemass correctly focused on the fundamentals–education and the economy–and both brought in bright young talents into their respective administrations. Lemass however, went much further; he altered the social landscape of the Irish by exposing them to new ideas. One was through commerce, culminating with Ireland joining the European Union in 1973, and the other through setting up a state-run television service.

Malaysia also has a state television station, and more. The ruling party UMNO also owns the mainstream media. The crucial difference is this. Lemass used his state television to bring in foreign programs and expose his people to differing viewpoints on such previously taboo matters as contraception, divorce, and religion. Exposures to diverse perspectives helped liberate the Irish from the church’s stranglehold.

In striking contrast, Tun Razak did not even attempt to change the social landscape of Malaysia, of Malays in particular. He was too timid. He used the Malaysian state media not to liberate his people or to expose them to new ideas but for propaganda, to close citizens’ minds.

The digital revolution has castrated these state propaganda machines; they are no longer as effective, reduced to just going through the motions.

Both Lemass and Tun Razak were transforming leaders. Razak took his nation towards development and aggressively addressed inter-communal inequities. Lemass was less concerned with the direction his people chose, more on liberating their minds and giving them the freedom to pursue their own paths. Lemass’s transformation survived him; Razak’s too, but for only a generation. Tak tahan lasak (not enduring). That is the signal difference between the legacies of those two great leaders.

Berdikari (Self-reliance) and Tahan Lasak (Sustainability)

In addition to being pragmatic and to learn from others, my third approach to the Malay problem is based on self-reliance (berdikari) and sustainability (tahan lasak). All too often our leaders tend to not only blame others for our problems but also to demand that they solve them! We demanded foreign and Malaysian Chinese companies to restructure their ownership and employment to include Malays. What gives us that right?

Our leaders are too ready to blame others for what ails us. I could understand their blaming the colonialists. The hantu of colonialism has just enough element of truth. Those colonialists could have done more to help Malays. Consider that when Victoria Institution was set up back in 1895 with a sizable contribution from the then Sultan of Selangor, there were fewer than 10 Malay students out of an enrollment of 200, less than 5 percent!

The colonialists could have at least pay due deference to our cultural sensitivities and named those schools after our heroes or sultans. That would have made those schools sound and appear less foreign to us and thus attract more Malays. When the British finally did just that a few decades later with Tuanku Muhammad School and Sultan Abdul Hamid College (SAHC), Malay parents readily enrolled their children there. Today SAHC rightly claims the pride of having educated two Prime Ministers (Tunku Abdul Rahman and Mahathir Mohamad).

Today we demand non-Malay companies “restructure” themselves to include Malays. Not just any Malay of course, not even the competent ones or those with money to invest, rather those who are politically (specifically UMNO) connected. If those lucky favored Malays do not have the funds then the GLC banks would generously lend them at heavily subsidized interest rates. Far from advancing the entrepreneurial spirit of our people, such schemes diminish it. Today our young are busy in party politics so they could be the lucky meneggek (anointed) millionaires.

Consider that there are many famous Malay names “heading” non-Malay companies and entities like private colleges. That is nothing more than refined bribery; those Malays are being employed not for their executive talent but for their connections with former colleagues in government or the ruling party, and for just being Malays.

Those Malays are not advancing the cause of our community. They are just too busy raking in the loot. Peruse the enrolment of private colleges “headed” by Malays; there are very few Malay students or faculty members. The dynamics are the same with private companies “led” by Malays. I would expect that with the presence of these Malays on the board they would at least exert their influence on their companies to employ more Malay workers, vendors and suppliers.

Those Malay heads are nothing but expensive window dressings. I would rather that those Chinese companies employ their own chairmen, then those Malay CEO’s would be forced to start their own enterprises where they would employ Malays, or at the very least, increase the number of Malay enterprises.

My proposals would not demand anything from the outside world or non-Malays. Those successful non-Malay companies can carry on with what they doing, employing whomever they want to best advance their enterprises; they should not be forced to “restructure.” I also could not care less what the rest of the world does; my solution does not depend on their charity. Goodwill yes, we can always use that. My focus is on Malays maximizing our hallowed cultural traits of berdikari and tahan lasak.

Next: Political Versus Mental Independence

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

A Different Appraoach To “The Malay Problem”

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

A Different Approach to “The Malay Problem”

M. Bakri Musa

I approach the “Malay problem” guided by three principles. First, I tackle it as a physician would a clinical problem, empirically and pragmatically, based on initial pilot studies or trials, as well as learning from the experiences of others.

Second, as alluded earlier, there is nothing unique to our problems. We can and should learn from others, and that includes emulating those who are successful and avoiding the mistakes of those less so.

Third, my solution is not dependent or contingent upon what others would do for us. I do not count on foreign aid or the magnanimity of others. Instead my prescription is based on our best cultural traditions of berdikari (self-reliance) and tahan lasak (sustainability).

Physicians treat and at times cure common diseases like appendicitis or even complicated ones like cancer without ever knowing the cause. We do with what works, and we continually improve our remedies based on controlled trials. We also try to elucidate through basic research the underlying mechanism involved. Consider polio; discovering its causative virus led to an effective vaccine.

There is unlikely to be a single “cause” to the Malay malady; as such there would not be an equivalent of a vaccine or a miracle penicillin. In the sphere of human behaviors, there is rarely a unitary principle. Often it is multi-factorial, their dynamics and interactions rarely predictable. The best that we can hope for is that by replicating some of the conditions we might also reproduce some of the successes.

Even if there were to be an underlying general principle, knowing the inherent diversity and variability of humans, that principle would at best apply only to the bulk (median or average, about 80 percent) of the population. With the 10 percent at either extreme, that principle would have to be severely compromised to make it applicable. Stated differently, for the 10 percent who are saints, we do not need any rules as those individuals would do the “right thing” or good deeds, with or without rules. As for the 10 percent at the other extreme, the diehard crooks, no matter how stringent a rule, they would figure out a way to bypass it. In formulating rules and regulations, we should aim to make it valid and applicable to the 80 percent, not the 10 percent at either extreme.

If you were to make rules so strict in order to take care of the bottom 10 percent, you would stifle the saints in your group, as well as those in the median group. Make the rules too soft in deference to the saints, and that would be seen as open season for the crooks. Then the average would also be tempted or encouraged to be crooks.

On another dimension, a rule or policy is effective or would produce optimal results only within a certain limited range or parameters. Beyond that it could well prove to be counterproductive or even inimical to its original objectives. Consider spending on healthcare. It is good public policy; healthy citizens are productive citizens, which in turn is good for the economy. That is true only up to a point. Spend too much, and it threatens the economy, as America is now experiencing.

Another example would be increasing the interest rates on savings so as to encourage people to save and thus increase capital formation that is so fundamental to economic growth. Again, that is true only within narrow parameters. Too high an interest rate and people would save too much and not spend. That too would be inimical to economic growth, as Japan has been experiencing. Too high a savings interest rates would mean equally high lending rates, and that would choke off economic activities.

Similarly, an adequate social safety net would embolden your people to undertake entrepreneurial risks. Make it too generous and it would become a comfortable hammock. That would only encourage your people to laze around, as the Greeks and Spaniards are now finding out.

The relevance here for Malaysia and Malays specifically is with respect to special privileges. Special privileges enabled thousands of poor young kampong Malays like me to pursue an education and better ourselves. Make those privileges too generous and they would stifle initiatives. Why work hard when you could get easy money simply by selling your APs (Approved Permits) for importing cars and pajak (lease out) your taxi licenses?

I am less concerned with what may have “caused” our present tribulations, more with solving or at least ameliorating them. Granted, knowing the precise cause would lead to the design of a more effective solution. Pending knowledge of that, we should be aggressive and diligent in empirically trying different solutions based on our present knowledge, inadequate though that may be. My approach is “act and learn, not debate and wait,” to quote the legendary bond investor Mohamed El-Erian, again keeping in mind the target being the majority, the middle 80 percent, and not the 10 percent at either extreme.

The Chinese leader Deng had a more plebian saying: cross the river by feeling the stones, meaning, test your way forward. The crucial decision there is not whether what you are stepping on is solid stone or quicksand, rather to first decide to cross the river and not be content with remaining where you are.

There is no shortage of popularly postulated “causes” of Malay backwardness, as with our purported “laziness” and dependency, as well as our preoccupation with immediate gratification and consequent lack of savings. We also do not value learning and are obsessed with religion and the afterlife, so our leaders claim without end.

Conveniently forgotten in such thoughtless assertions is that those “causes” are not unique to Malays. Instead those are features common to all under developed societies. Those are the very same caricatures applied to the Irish by the English in the 19th Century, to French Canadians in Quebec of the 1950s and 60s, and to Black and Hispanic Americans today.

It is what anthropologist Oscar Lewis referred to as the “culture of poverty.” He wisely differentiated between impoverishment and culture of poverty; not all who are poor have a culture of poverty.

The importance of this differentiation is that the once poor who are now wealthy may still not escape their culture of poverty. Behind the façade of wealth and apparent modernity, the residue of this culture of poverty still persists and exerts its destructive effect, only this time on a much more insidious but grand scale. We see this manifested in its crudest form among newly-rich Malays with their obscenely ostentatious lifestyles. They may be millionaires and live in palatial bungalows, but they still send their children to fully subsidized residential schools and wait for government “scholarships” to send them to university. They still have not escaped their “dependent on the dole” culture of poverty.

Tajuddin Ramli, the powerful magnate who once “owned” (courtesy of generous loans from the now bankrupt Bank Bumiputra) Malaysia Airlines, may be a billionaire (at least he was) but he still has not escaped the culture of poverty of his peasant rice-farmer father. The only difference is the price tag of their toys. Tajuddin smokes expensive Havana cigars while his father was equally indulgent with his cheap Indonesian kretek.

Going back to my clinical analogy, physicians may not have changed our approach in treating appendicitis, meaning, we still operate, but the surgical techniques are always improving. Consequently, instead of staying in the hospital for up to a week as in the past, today’s patients go home on the same day or within a day or two.

The Malay community has had many innovations in the past, for instance Tabung Haji and residential schools, but we have not improved on them. Today’s Tabung Haji is no different from the one at its inception over 50 years ago; there is no expansion or innovation of its “product line.” Conceptually and operationally the organization remains the same.

Imagine if Tabung Haji were to develop its own full-service travel agency or even a comprehensive “hospitality” company with its own airline and hotels. After all, the market for travel to Mecca is now all-year-round with the increasing popularity of umrah (mini Hajj). The agency could also expand beyond travel for pilgrims into all financial services to serve the needs of Muslims in the region, with savings for pilgrimage only a part of its portfolio.

The same goes for our residential schools; new ones are constantly being built but they are no different from earlier ones. Again, if we were to liberate our thinking we could have some schools specialize in the creative arts, others in sports and foreign languages. We could also alter the enrolment with some schools reserved for children of the poor, as with the FELDA residential school. Or we could have a few to prepare students for top American universities by offering Advanced Placement classes. In an attempt to reduce costs, we could have some that are only partially residential, or have those who could afford it pay their fair share of the cost. The opportunities for innovations and enhancements are endless. All that is needed is an open mind to imagine the possibilities and act upon them.

There have been many innovations by earlier Malay leaders. The problem is that their later successors have not carried the ball forward, nor are they being encouraged to do so. That is the tragedy.

Next:  Learning From Others

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Malay Underdevelopment Beyond Politics and Public Administration

Sunday, August 6th, 2017


Malay Underdevelopment Beyond Politics and Public Administration

M. Bakri Musa

If Malay immaturity and underdevelopment are so blatant in areas where we dominate (politics and public administration), imagine the situation elsewhere. Again, we do not need expensive consultants’ reports or the academics’ graph-laden presentations to expose that sorry reality.

Consider our marginal role in the economy. Stroll down any street in any town, and that fact would be jarring and obvious. Even if we were to mandate that those business signs be “Malaynized” or in Malay, that would not alter the sorry reality. It would only make the situation worse by camouflaging the problem, as is happening in Thailand and Indonesia. Guess who owns Malaysia’s most successful conglomerate Berjaya (Malay word meaning success)?

If those Malay leaders and civil servants were to have a leak in their home faucets or their cars break down, the plumber or auto mechanic who respond would more likely be a non-Malay, or even non-Malaysian, just as it was half a century ago. At another level, every year thousands of houses expropriated from non-Malay developers and then offered to Malays at substantial discounts remain unsold.

Then consider our young. The overwhelming majority of unemployed graduates are Malays. They are not so much unemployed as unemployable, reflecting the quality of local public institutions, again under Malay leadership, by statutes. We Malays are also overrepresented in the dysfunctional categories, from drug abuse and HIV infections to abandoned babies and broken families.

Those glaring and embarrassing realties would preclude any self-respecting Malay leader from jetting around in luxurious private jets at public expense, or have their children own plush penthouse suites in London and palatial mansions in Beverly Hills. These Malay leaders should be embarrassed. Instead they, from Najib on down, flaunt their flamboyant lifestyles. They lack maruah; they know no shame.

Malays are proud of such “glorious” government-linked companies (GLCs) as Khazanah (a holding company), Petronas (the giant oil company), and Sime Darby (a conglomerate). Those companies are Malays only in terms of their senior leadership and employees, not ownership. Being GLCs, they could easily change their character with a change in the government, as with the state GLCs in Penang. This Malay pride is misplaced for another reason. These GLCs have failed in their mission to spearhead Malay entry into the business world, its reason for being. Instead these GLCs have been debased into a cesspool of continuing corruption. 1MDB is only the latest, as well as most expensive and egregious.

These GLCs suck up scarce public funds. Few are profitable. Again, like the money pocketed by corrupt officials, the lost opportunity for those precious funds is enormous. Think of the good had those billions diverted to UMNO kleptocrats were instead used to better libraries and laboratories in rural schools!

The picture is equally ugly with education. Again, we do not need highfalutin reports to tell us that we are far behind. When Ungku Aziz led the University of Malaya many decades ago, it would consistently rank high; today, well, it is still ahead of the University of Timbuktu, but only slightly.

The sorry decline of our universities is but one example. Another is more simple and direct. In the 1980s I could still find some Malay students at Stanford and other elite American campuses. Today there are as rare as dew in a mid-Malaysian morning. Further back, when I was at Malay College in the early 1960s, it was still preparing students for entry into universities. Today those students have to go elsewhere for their matriculation.

Malay College started its first IB matriculating class in 2011, a full decade in the planning and nearly three decades after the college discontinued its Sixth Form. The college has an impressive governing board, with Raja Nazrin as its chairman. Despite having such luminaries, the pace of change was glacial. Imagine at lesser institutions! While IB everywhere is the top choice for students, not so at Malay College. Its students prefer going elsewhere.

Yet when we peruse the statistics in such publications as the Malaysian Quality of Life 2004 Report, we are assured that we have made great progress. Worse, we believe such reports! Consider the one sector where Malays pride ourselves in having a heavy presence–public transportation. During my youth, nearly all public bus companies were controlled by non-Malays, except for the occasional ones like the one plying in the northeastern states and the old Sri Jaya Company (now defunct) in Kuala Lumpur.

Then there was the Malay Transport Company serving my village at Sri Menanti, Negri Sembilan. Granted, its service was erratic but at least there was a service. Today that company is long gone and the village is now without any bus service, erratic or otherwise.

In the 1980s matters seemingly improved, with many more “Malay” bus companies. That however, was achieved not through the initiatives of Malay entrepreneurs but through fiat. The government forced existing non-Malay companies to “re-structure” and include Malay partners.

The few savvy Chinese businessmen who saw that as an opportunity to cash out their investments by jacking up the values of their companies came out like bandits, quite apart from earning the enduring gratitude of Malay elite. That in turn smoothed the way for these Chinese businessmen to do even more lucrative businesses with their new masters.

The few arrogant holdouts came to regret their decisions. The owners of the Foh Hup Bus Company that plied the busy and highly lucrative Seremban-Kuala Lumpur route did not wish to share their pot of honey. They also smugly believed that Malays were not suitable business partners. With the completion of the new highway between the two cities and the license for that route awarded to a Malay enterprise, Foh Hup’s market collapsed. The company got to keep its jar of honey alright, but the bees were taken away.

Despite that jumpstart, today Malays are back to square one. Bus companies throughout the peninsula may be in Malay hands, but the system is broken down, mechanically and financially.

Malay underdevelopment is not just relative (as compared to other groups and nations) but also absolute. Meaning, as compared to a generation ago, we are today making even slower progress if not actually regressing. The examples cited here may not mean much in the greater scheme of things but they are emblematic of our overall inadequacies and underdevelopment. Our backwardness is worse when compared to the First World, and widening. That is hidden as our leaders continually compare us to the likes of Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea. It is also hidden because of the vibrant contributions from non-Malays. Malays are deluded into thinking that those achievements were ours too.

I am not revealing anything new much less profound here. The only difference is that I offer a different approach in analyzing and solving these problems.

Our leaders are heavy into sloganeering, with such strident calls as revolusi mental, glokal Melayu, and Ketuanan Melayu, that is, when they are not busy blaming our culture and our innate nature, as well as our lack of unity and our ‘straying” from our faith. My approach would first require us to have an open mind so we could view our problems from different perspectives and not be trapped by our current preconceptions. The solutions would then be much easier to find.

Next:  A Different Approach

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.



The Continuing Failure of Malaysian Leadership and Institutions

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

The Continuing Failure of Malaysian Leadership and Institutions

  1. M. Bakri Musa


If Malaysian civil servants and politicians could not agree on solutions to basic problems, imagine the conflicts that would be triggered by disagreements over substantive matters.

The conflict that was the consequence of the 1997 economic crisis pitted then Prime Minister Mahathir and his Deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. It ripped apart the nation, or to be more specific, Malays. That fissure is still deep and irreversible; Malays have yet to come to terms with it. Today we have the 1MDB mess. Only the players have changed; the underlying dynamics–unenlightened and unsophisticated Malay leaders–remain the same.

This lack of political wisdom and sophistication among Malay leaders (those in UMNO and PAS, to be specific–remember, UMNO is Malay, and Malay, UMNO–as well as the overwhelmingly Malay civil service) gets worse as we go down or laterally, as with our hereditary and religious leaders. The banality of the latter is exemplified by their current obsession with naming out-of-wedlock babies. You would think they would deliberate instead on how to prevent unwanted births and the care for those innocent babies with the dignity and love that they deserve.

As for Malay sultans, consider the roles of Perak’s and Selangor’s during the political crises following the electoral tsunami of the 2008 general elections.

In Perak, the then Sultan proved unable to escape his feudal mentality. He treated the “People’s Representatives” in the state assembly as his handmaidens, to do his bidding. No surprise then that the political crisis there degenerated in short order. Instead of being part of the solution, the sultan became enmeshed in the problem.

That Perak crisis demonstrated another key point. It is often assumed that if only we have qualified and experienced people in charge, then no matter how battered or inadequate our institutions are, those individuals would rise to the challenge. In Perak, we had a sultan who by any measure was the most qualified and experienced, having served as the nation’s top judge and later, King. Yet his critical decision following the 2008 election, which demanded the most judicious of judgment, proved unwise and primitive. That is putting it in the mildest and most polite terms.

The protagonists there were Barisan Nasional’s Zamry Kadir, a Temple University PhD, and Pakatan’s Nizar Jamaluddin, an engineer fluent in multiple languages. With the defeat of the incumbent Barisan, Pakatan’s Nizar took over as Chief Minister. It was short lived. Through shady machinations, Barisan persuaded a few Pakatan representatives to switch, triggering a political tussle culminating in a constitutional crisis. All that could have been avoided by calling for a formal assembly vote of no confidence.

Instead, the Sultan decided which party had the Assembly’s confidence. From there it was but a short steep slide to seeing the Pakatan speaker of the Assembly being manhandled and dragged out, with chairs thrown all round. The sultan’s representative was reduced to cooling his heels in an adjoining room, unable to address the Assembly because of the mayhem.

Equally pathetic and despicable were the behaviors of the permanent establishment; they too were ensnared in the mess through their partisan performances. Those civil servants should have acted as a conciliatory buffer.

The judiciary too, failed. The ensuing lawsuit did not merit an expedited hearing and thus meandered through the judicial process. By contrast, the lawsuit triggered by the 2000 American presidential elections over the Florida ballots ended at the Supreme Court for a definitive decision in a matter of days, not months.

The credentials of the key players in the Perak mess were all impressive. In performance however, they were no different from street thugs. Their diplomas looked impressive only when hung on walls.

The latest failure of leadership, demonstrated to national and international shame, was that of Zeti Aziz, former Governor of Bank Negara. A few years earlier Global Finance named her as one of the top central bankers. Rather premature as it turned out. During the pivotal 1MDB crisis, she remained silent. She later used the excuse that she did not have the power beyond imposing fines! She bragged that she imposed the highest fine to date. That may well be. However, in view of the size of the loot, which was in the billions, a few millions in fine is but peanuts. She would have done a far greater public service had she spoken out and exposed the corruption.

Contrast her performance to her legendary predecessor Ismail Ali, the Bank’s first native Governor. A Queen’s scholar and Cambridge graduate, it would be unthinkable for any minister to even consider undertaking any financial shenanigans during his time. Zeti’s qualification is no less impressive, an Ivy League PhD. As can be seen, superior education does not always equal courage or integrity.

A mark of a mature democracy, or any system, is the smooth and predictable transfer of power. Perak was a spectacular failure, an unnerving preview for Malaysia.

The transition in Selangor was no better, with the ugly spectacle of the destruction of official documents and the vandalizing of office equipment by the outgoing UMNO Chief Minister, one local-trained former government dentist, and his staff. That revolting display was made even more obscene when compared to the smooth transition in Penang, also the consequence of the 2008 elections. The transfer of power there was from the Chinese-based Gerakan, a Barisan affiliate, to the also predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party. It was a model of civility, with the two leaders shaking hands. What a contrast to Selangor with the shift from UMNO to the also predominantly Malay Keadilan! No class, again reflecting the sorry caliber of the Malay political leaders.

This has not always been the case. I remember the 1950s and 60s when opposition leaders, Malays and non-Malays, would attend social functions hosted by then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. There were pictures of PAS leaders in their modern suits and ties at ronggeng (dance) parties at the Residency, and no one would raise a howl. Those PAS leaders did not feel that the revelry on the social occasion contaminated their piety.

Today I yearn to see such displays of decorum and civility among our leaders. I have seen DAP leader Lim Kit Siang at Mahathir’s Hari Raya “Open House,” but I have yet to see Nik Aziz give a sermon in a masjid full of UMNO members, or Abdullah Badawi, a self-proclaimed alim, in a mosque in Kelantan.

As for the civil service, in the 1950s and 60s it still had the aroma of prestige, a leftover from colonial rule. That however was more fantasy than reality. The inadequacies of the civil service then so well documented by Milton Esman are still evident today, only far worse. The civil service is now insular, inbred and most of all, highly corrupt and woefully incompetent. Far from being an essential instrument for the development of Malaysia, it is but an encrusted barnacle impeding the nation’s progress.

Revisiting the earlier Perak debacle, the then Crown Prince Raja Nazrin recently lamented on the quality of advice the sultan (his father) received from senior officials. Dispensing with whether this was but a crude and shameless attempt at shifting blame, two things are worth noting. One, it took the prince this long to acknowledge those inadequacies, and two, his father (the sultan) obviously restricted his sources of counsel! And this sultan was the nation’s former chief judge. 

Next:  Malay Underdevelopment Beyond Politics and the Civil Service

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Malay Political Sophistry, Not Sophistication

Monday, July 24th, 2017


Malay Political Sophistry, Not Sophistication

M. Bakri Musa 

The Malay community’s underdevelopment is not confined to only one or two areas, for example, the often cited and very obvious spheres of economics and education. On the contrary Malay underdevelopment is widespread, to include especially our understanding of our faith Islam. I do not mean to shock by my assertion. Rather this state of affair is obvious except to those who refuse to acknowledge it. The Islam that is being practiced by Malays today has been reduced to the mindless repetition of its rituals. As Islam is central to Malay life, I will address this particular issue in depth later (Part Seven).

Malays are proud of our dominance in politics. That however is purely the consequence of demography, not political skills, maturity, or sophistication. Our politics resembles more of the Third World authoritarian variety rather of mature democracies. Malay political skills despite our over representation in that sphere are still primitive. As a result, we are unable to leverage our considerable political clout derived from our demographic dominance effectively to solve our problems.

Instead, the contrary is what is occurring. Our political dominance aggravates our problems. As a community we are obsessed only with achieving political power and not on how to effectively leverage it to benefit our people. Further, politics and political power detract us from other equally vital spheres. We have perverted the political process for our personal gains and in the process making corruption an integral part of our politics and governance. We have legitimized politics as the route to untold riches through our acceptance of cronyism, corruption and nepotism among its players.

The other sphere where Malays could claim dominance is the civil service. Again, this is not achieved through merit rather through legislative fiat, the imposition of strict quotas and constitutional provisions. As such we cannot be proud of our achievement; it is not legitimate. As a consequence, the civil service is far from being exemplary or a source of pride. It is the but the butt of endless jokes and embarrassments. The civil service is on par with our political institutions in being corrupt, incompetent and ineffective.

The fragility and incompetence of both the civil service and political institutions are readily exposed in their inability to handle seemingly routine and minor conflicts. Because of this ineptness and frank naiveté, trivial administrative problems are let to fester until they explode. At the local level, minor conflicts over stray dogs for example would quickly escalate, threatening our fragile social stability by pitting members of one community against another.

What should be a simple public health and safety matter (preventing dog bites and subsequent risk of rabies, a major problem in China and India, and now fast becoming one in many parts of Malaysia) is allowed to degenerate through administrative and political incompetence into a potentially acrimonious communal conflict between Malays, who generally consider dogs as dirty and haram while to Chinese they are favorite family pets.

In American cities there are ordinances requiring those walking their dogs to carry plastic bags to pick up their droppings. Failure to have those bags or pick up the dog’s waste would result in severe fines. Dogs must also be on a leash, and stray dogs will be captured. If they are not claimed within a few weeks they are “put to sleep.” Owners of certain breeds (like pit bulls) also have to carry liability insurances. These are sensible rules to serve the public good. Yet we are unable to establish them without getting entangled in silly and dangerous public arguments about race.

At the national level, consider the annual exercise of awarding scholarships to Sijil Persekutuan Malaysia (SPM) candidates. This is not a matriculating examination; those students still have to undertake two more years of schooling before they could qualify for university entrance. Meaning, SPM is only slightly above middle school qualification. Yet invariably around June of each year there would be a national outcry over the distribution of scholarships based on this examination. We are not here dealing with graduate fellowships or post-doctoral grants!

Again, like the municipal dog ordinance (or lack of), this scholarship problem could be readily solved through simple transparent administrative rules. For example, instead of using SPM scores which are poor predictors of academic success anyway, why not wait till these students are actually accepted to top universities and only then award them the scholarships. Publish the list of acceptable universities where these scholarships would be tenable and then if there are too many students for the funds available, have a sliding scale so those who are well off get less money. Such a simple and sensible solution, yet it escapes these Malay politicians and civil servants, again reflecting their incompetence and lack of imagination in solving the nation’s problems 

Next:  Failure of Institutions And Personnel

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

The Many Bedeviling Malay Hantus

Monday, July 17th, 2017

The Many Bedeviling Malay Hantus

M. Bakri Musa


The central and controlling figure in many Malay myths is the hantu (ghost, devil, or evil spirit). Hantu is powerful and mysterious, beyond the realm of rational explanation. What, whom, or when the hantu wants, it gets. When Malay parents want to frighten or thus control their young they invoke the fear of hantu, as with hantu senja (twilight) to scare us from playing outside after dark, or hantu laut (sea), from venturing out to sea. The mere mention of hantu would be enough to bring the most recalcitrant son back into the fold.

Malay political leaders too have learned that silly little trick from our parents. Unable and unwilling to comprehend and thus come up with solutions to our community’s problems, they resorted to invoking these various hantus to instill fear and thus effect control on their followers, just as surely as our parents did when we were toddlers.

First there was the old standby, the hantu of colonialism. All our problems then were related to the machinations of those heartless, terrible foreign devils. Those colonials were also white, the very color of our devils! Colonialism is now long gone, and with it the fear of its hantu. Our problems should then also be gone. Hardly! Those hantus are resilient creatures, readily morphing into new forms. Enter the hantu of neo-colonialism.

As in all hantu stories, the rational mind could readily see through the holes in the plot, but we suspend our rational thinking. Consider the hantu of colonialism. Yes, it was evil, but if you were to ask the Chinese in Hong Kong about their “suffering” through a century of British colonial hantu, they would thank their lucky stars. At least they were spared the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution and other mass hysteria that regularly gripped their kin on the mainland. Even if you were to pose the same question today, those Hong Kong Chinese would much prefer their old hantu of colonialism to the variant now haunting them from Beijing.

After over half a century of independence, the hantu of colonialism (and its variant, of neocolonialism) has lost its spell among Malays. We are no longer gripped with fear whenever it is invoked. Our leaders now have to invent new ones, again illustrating their and our ignorance.

Enter hantu pendatang (of immigrants). Never mind that those pendatangs have been with us for generations, it is only now that their hantu is being mobilized. This hantu pendatang holds its greatest grip on those ultra-Malays within UMNO as well as outside, as with PERKASA (the acronym for a Malay ultra-right wing group). Just in case hantu pendatang does not scare us enough, we have also invoked hantu globalisasi (globalization). It too is bent on doing Malays in, if we can believe our leaders.

There is much that we do not know why Malays remain marginalized in our own country despite it now being under our own leadership. To me this ignorance is a problem, not a mystery. We need to study and analyze it, and venture beyond mere pontificating and posturing. We must also be diligent in assessing the magnitude of our problem as well as be ruthless in evaluating the effectiveness of our interventions.

We must also appreciate that these problems are not unique unto us. Others too have experienced and are experiencing them. Some are more successful in overcoming theirs, others less so. We must thus have the humility and willingness to learn from others; from the former on what to do and the latter, on what not to.

The necessary ingredients for this exercise are first of all humility. We must have the humility to acknowledge our ignorance. That is not only a prerequisite to but would also ease our learning. Beyond that we have then curiosity and the urge to explore new and all avenues, fearless of where those might lead us. We must also be smart so we could craft novel and effective solutions while not repeating the same mistakes. Most of all, we must have a free mind so we could approach our problems with an open mind. Mindless chanting of verses from holy texts would not do it, nor would endless hollering of slogans attributed to our ancient mythic heroes.

Next:  Political Sophistry, Not Sophistication

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.