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 Early in the 19th Century Munshi Abdullah also railed against our outdated ways while Pendita Za’aba, a century later, echoed similar sentiments.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