European Intrusions Into The Malay World

September 6th, 2015
European Intrusions Into The Malay World
M. Bakri Musa
[After last weekend’s mass protest against the nation’s entrenched corrupt and incompetent leadership, I reflect on a moment in our colonial history. If Merdeka has any meaning it is this – our freedom to express our views. We have to remind ourselves and our leaders of this, and often, lest it be forgotten. As we celebrate the nation’s 58th anniversary of independence, I salute those brave Malaysians of Bersih 4. May you succeed!  Your courage humbles and inspires me.]
The Europeans entered the Malay world a few centuries after the arrival of Islam. First were the Portuguese in 1509, followed by the Dutch and finally the British.
Unlike those early Muslims, the Europeans came not to trade, at least initially, but as explorers during their Age of Discovery. Only when they saw the abundance of the rich natural resources of the land did they go beyond mere exploring.
     With their primordial form of capitalism of the heartless and exploitative variety so well captured in Dickens’ many novels, it did not take long for their greed to manifest itself and be all-consuming. Like all capitalists, they were obsessed with domination, and that quickly expanded beyond mere trading. Colonial aspirations soon followed.
     Preoccupied with commerce, those ancient Portuguese were not interested in converting the natives though that was the penchant with old-world Catholics. Yes, there were priests hauled along to bless their mission, if nothing else. Consumed as they were with profits they could not be bothered with the salvation of the heathens. Either that or those Europeans were aware of the fate of the crusaders and knew better than to try and convert the already Muslim natives.
     The Portuguese did try, and suffered the consequences. Their brief stay in Malacca was characterized by frequent warfare with the natives there and elsewhere in the region. It spilled over even to faraway China where the Portuguese also received a far-from-warm welcome. The Spaniards had better luck in the Philippines.
     Capitalism was a far more powerful cause and master than spreading their Catholic faith, the crude and bumbling initial attempts by the Portuguese excepted. Those Europeans were not at all interested in the natives except when they interfered with trading. Then they were removed in the most brutal and efficacious way.
     Thus began European colonial rule, initially more as a scheme to increase trade and less at empire building. Colonization was an extension of their capitalistic and  exploitative culture.
     It is in the nature of humans to carry things to extremes, to test the outer limits. So it was with the capitalistic exploitation by the early Europeans. Slavery was very much an integral part of that, limited only much later when it shamed their Christian sensitivity. That dampened their activities somewhat, only to be resurrected under a new guise, the banner of the “White Man’s burden.”  In their fervent belief, Almighty God had imposed upon them the divine mission to salvage the lot of “Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child!” to quote Kipling’ s poetry.
     With their ethnocentric worldview and confident of their own sense of God-given superiority and entitlement, those early Europeans were not in the least interested in learning the ways and cultures of the natives or in any way interacting with them.
     As a consequence, the impact on and reaction from the Malay society to the arrival of the European traders could not be more different than with the earlier Muslim ones. While Malays readily welcomed the Muslim traders and embraced their faith, treating them more as enlighteners, in striking contrast our ancestors had nothing but contempt for the European colonizers. No doubt the feeling was mutual.
     A measure of contempt for those European traders-turned-colonizers, especially the Dutch, can be gauged by such expressions as a “Dutch deal.” Legend has it that an early Dutch trader was bargaining to buy a piece of land from a native. “Only the area covered by this piece of buffalo hide!” the foreigner pleaded.
     The trusting native readily agreed; after all he could do without such a small plot of land. Imagine his horror when the trader began slicing the hide into a long thin strip and then began laying it over the property and claiming everything within it! Not even the most crooked lawyer could have thought of such a sly scheme. In Malay culture such a deed was considered duplicitous if not outright fraudulent and a breach of faith. To the Dutch and perhaps also in a few other cultures, it was a shrewd if not brilliant move.
     If you visit Malacca today you can still see the distinctively red-colored museum and other buildings, remnants of the earlier Dutch settlement. It is said that the red color is due to the permanent stain of the betel nut juice those ancient natives contemptuously spitted on those buildings, a measure of their scorn for the Dutch.
     While those early Dutch traders obviously thought they had the better end of the deal – they did, at least in the short term – in the long-term, well, those red buildings are perpetual reminders of the natives’ contempt for them.
     There are others. The best is reflected in the expression, Bini Belanda (Dutch wife), referring to the long white fluffy bolster found in the bedrooms of Malays, only good to rest your legs on and the occasional cuddle when you are lonely, but not much else! Then there is Orang Belanda (Dutch people), the proboscis monkey with its distinctive large white nose.
     Both Islam and Christianity are known for their proselytizing zeal. The ancient Muslim traders by not focusing on converting Malays but only on being good Muslims in their trading activities and other dealings with the natives ended up being effective propagators of their faith. Meanwhile the Catholic Portuguese and Protestant Dutch, otherwise and elsewhere famed for their equally fanatical zeal at conversions, forceful if necessary, ended up merely being the butt of cruel Malay jokes.
     The credit should not all go to the Muslim traders or the blame entirely on those early European colonizers. The large and as yet unexamined question is why did Malays react warmly to and be so welcoming of the Muslim traders but became downright hostile to the later European traders? Here I attribute the differences in attitudes and behaviors between the Muslim and European traders to account for the varying receptions of the natives.
     Viewed from another perspective, what is it about Malay society which before the coming of Islam was so welcoming of foreign people and ideas while after adopting Islam became so hostile to the Portuguese, Dutch, and other foreigners.
     There is a price – and not a small one – to be paid later for that general hostility to foreigners and foreign ideas when Malaysia fell under a less malevolent colonial power. I will explore that in my analysis of our responses to British intervention in our affairs.
     This antipathy towards foreigners and foreign ideas still persists to this day. This insularity is a major handicap for us in facing up to the challenges of and seizing the opportunities afforded by this era of increasing globalization.
Next: Soft Spot For The British
This essay is based on the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Post-Najib Unity Transition Administration

September 1st, 2015
Post-Najib Unity Transition Administration
M. Bakri Musa
Despite the bravado, Najib Razak’s days as Prime Minister are numbered. Last weekend’s massive Bersih 4 demonstrations are only the latest and most public expressions of citizens’ disgust and contempt for him and his ilk.
     I hope Najib is spared the ignominious fate of many corrupt Third World leaders. The visceral hatred for him not just as a leader but also a person is palpable. The sentiment is worse for his obscenely ostentatious wife. Judging by the extraordinarily tight security around him these days, Najib too is aware of this.
     If Najib were to suffer a Marcos, or worse, a Ngo Dinh Diem, that would plunge Malaysia into an abyss; likewise if Najib were to execute an Assad. Assad is still in power but I shudder to imagine the images of his last days, as surely that would come. I saw enough gory details of Gaddafi’s.
     Regardless of Najib’s fate, prudence calls for Malaysia to be ready for a post-Najib administration. Those arguing for patience have it wrong. Nothing in the constitution precludes the removal of a sitting prime minister between elections. It has been done.
     If Najib’s successor were to be chosen in the manner of recent past, meaning, by UMNO power brokers, that would only ensure another mediocre pick. Najib is worse than Abdullah (who would have thought that possible!); rest assured that Najib’s successor chosen thus would be even worse. This Ahmad Zahid character, Najib’s current deputy, is fast living up (or down) to that low expectation.
     Mahathir has apologized for his role in picking Najib, and Abdullah before that. It is not productive to continue blaming Mahathir; he retired over a decade ago. Malaysia should be able to recover from his blunders by now. At least the man recognizes his error and is trying to rectify it. He succeeded in ridding us of Abdullah; let’s hope he would be too with Najib.
     It is not enough to dump just Najib. His entire cabinet too has to go, plus half a dozen top heads in the permanent establishment. To redress Najib’s legacy of endemic corruption, I propose granting temporary amnesty to corruptors who confess. To discourage future such acts, I propose a permanent body to scrutinize all gifts and public contracts awarded to the top 100 officials. They would also have to declare their assets annually to this body.
     Anything less would condemn Malaysia to “business as usual.” It cannot afford that.
Transition Prime Minister and Unity Cabinet
Najib’s successor should be chosen through consensus by the parties now in Parliament. That would be the only way to get a unity leader. That individual would of course have to be ratified by Parliament. As UMNO has the largest number of representatives, it is only right that the Prime Minister should be a current UMNO MP. His cabinet however, should comprise nominees of all parties.
     The new Prime Minister and his ministers should commit to three stipulations. One, they should not be candidates in the next general elections; two, give up their party positions (if they have any) in the interim; and three, agree to stay out of government for at least a year immediately following their tenure.
     Reduce the cabinet to about a dozen ministers, as with Tunku’s original team back in 1955. The current bloated one is inefficient, designed less to pick the best candidates more to bribe compliant and none too bright supporters. Former Parliamentary Accounts Committee Chairman Nur Juzlan tasked with investigating 1MDB, now a junior minister, is Exhibit A.
     The first stipulation would ensure that ministers focus on their cabinet responsibilities and not be sidelined with jockeying to be candidates in the next election. Without this stricture those new ministers would begin their next political campaign right away, mocking the unity theme of the cabinet.
     The second – decoupling cabinet appointments from party positions – could prove to be a worthy precedent for future administrations. The duties of a minister are onerous enough without the added burden of party obligations. This stipulation would also widen the talent pool beyond career politicians.
     Najib’s current ministers have to go with him. They have either explicitly or implicitly by their silence endorsed Najib’s corrupt ways. They do not deserve to lead the nation. Firing them would impress upon new ministers that while they may serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, their ultimate paymaster and thus clients are the citizens.
     One standout candidate for Prime Minister is Tengku Razaleigh. He commands instant respect at home and abroad. Untainted by the many sordid UMNO scandals, he is also highly regarded by the opposition as well as ordinary citizens. At age 78 we can believe him when he says that he would not stand in the next election, as he informed Najib last week. He is robust physically and mentally. No other candidate comes close to Razaleigh.
      If reluctant leaders make the best ones, then the Tengku is the embodiment of that principle. With his accomplishments he does not need yet another accolade, especially now that the prime minister’s post has been soiled.
Fire Key Leaders in the Permanent Establishment
One least-noted but very revealing aspect to the present 1MDB scandal is the less-than-admirable to downright despicable performances of many heads in the permanent establishment.
     Bank Negara Governor, hitherto distinguished by her sterling professional reputation, was reduced to saying that her duties were done with the handing in of her report on 1MDB to the Attorney General. She was not in the least interested on whether her findings would be acted upon, using the Jamaican excuse, “It’s not my job, mon!”
     She felt no compulsion to protect the integrity of her institution. She also failed in her obligation to the public, her ultimate paymaster.
     It gets worse. Chief Secretary Ali Hamsa, the top civil servant, announced the retroactive retirement of Attorney-General Gani Patail while he (Gani) was in the final stages of investigating Najib’s scandal. Not to be outdone, Hamsa’s new appointee as AG, Apandi Ali, announced even before being sworn in that Najib was cleared of any wrongdoing!
     If you want to bodek (suck up) at least do so in a credible way so as to spare yourself and your master needless embarrassment. In case the point is missed, Apandi, a retired judge, was a former state UMNO treasurer. A political hack, essentially.
     Meanwhile the number one and two at the Anti Corruption Commission (MACC) chose to be on elective medical leave in the midst of the crisis. To top that, Inspector-General of the Police (IGP) Khalid Bakar made himself the subject of international ridicule when his request to Interpol for the arrest of the Sarawak Report editor was rebuffed. In an unusual departure, Interpol asserted that its Red Alert is meant to nab terrorists and dangerous criminals. The smack to the IGP’s face was heard around the world.
     The IGP tried to keep that rebuff secret. The first blunder was bad enough, but a second one so soon! Sheer incompetence and lack of professionalism personified.
     At a minimum Chief Secretary Ali Hamsa, IGP Khalid Bakar, MACC Chief Abu Kassim, and new Attorney-General Apandi Ali should be fired. They should be prosecuted for obstruction of justice with respect to the 1MDB investigation.
     There are many capable Malaysians who could replace those four, and others. However, with citizens now so deeply polarized, it is unlikely that any local replacement could command the confidence and respect of the populace. Thus the new administration should initiate a global search to get the best talent without regard to nationality.
     An important task for these new appointees would be to groom their local successors, to impress upon them the importance of protecting and enhancing the integrity of their institutions. They should not be handmaidens to their political superiors. This is especially critical now as our public institutions, even religious ones, are hopelessly corrupt and politicized.
     Consider that Najib was embarrassed enough to withdraw his previously arranged address to an international conference on anti-corruption. The urbane and sophisticated audience would laugh him off. Not so at local mosques. There he was in his long white jubbah a la the Grand Ayatollah, Najib leading a congregational prayer with the compliant local media in full force with cameras on hand. Next the man would go for umrah and announced that he had a vision that the RM2 billion “donation” was rezeki, and the donor a descendant of the Prophet!
Samuel Johnson had it off; religion, not patriotism, is the last refuge of scoundrels, at least Malay-Muslim ones.
Amnesty for Corruptors and Asset Declaration
Corruption is now endemic in Malaysia; it is the norm at all levels. The only reason Najib’s RM 2 billion “donation” raised a raucous was the sheer colossal amount (even in today’s devalued ringgit) and the utter brazenness of the man.
     It is hard to gauge the extent of or aggregate loss from corruption. Its corrosive consequences are of course beyond quantification, from collapsed buildings endangering their occupants to watered-down academic standards depriving the young their rightful opportunities.
     One suggestion would be to grant amnesty to encourage corruptors to come forward. That would give some insight as to the extent of the blight as well as its infinite variations. There is no limit to human ingenuity in disguising corruption, from friendly “wagers” at golf games to the funding of Hajj pilgrimages. Nothing is sacred to the corrupt.
     Amnesty would also create a prisoner’s dilemma between the corrupting parties that could potentially be exploited. If one side confesses and the other does not, you now have the evidence to prosecute the other party.
     To reduce future opportunities for corruption, there should be a permanent body to scrutinize all gifts and contracts given to the top 100 public officials and their immediate families. This 100 would include the sultans and governors, cabinet and chief ministers, top civil servants and heads of major statutory bodies, as well as Federal Court judges. They would also have to declare their assets annually to this body.
     There are many excellent models of such bodies out there; there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
     Meanwhile Bersih 4 and other protests against Najib must continue until the man is out. However, dumping only Najib without the other needed changes would only condemn Malaysia to business as usual. The nation can ill afford that.

Lessons From Our Encounter With Islam

August 23rd, 2015

The Lessons From Our Encounter With Islam

M. Bakri Musa

The smooth assimilation of Malays into Islam was the result of both “down-up” and “up-down” dynamics. The average Malay peasant in his or her interactions with the ancient Muslim traders saw the value of this new faith. This message then spread laterally among the other villagers and later upwards to the nobility and ultimately the sultans. They too saw the merit of this new religion and that acceptance trickled down to the masses. The result was the quick transformation of Malay society.

Today in the retelling of the arrival of Islam to the Malay world, there is not a dissenting voice. All agree that it was a positive development, for the faith as well as for Malays. We also agree that our culture adapted well to Islam.

     Those sentiments have more to do with the human tendency to romanticize the past, especially one perceived as being glorious, rather than a true reflection of the reality. We spare ourselves from looking more critically at our past for fear that we would discover something that could blight that pristine image and sweet memory.

     Yet in all human endeavors nothing is pure white or all black. The noblest deeds often have a sliver of tarnish if we were meticulous and fearless in our scrutiny. At the other extreme, even in the horror and depravity of a Siberian prison camp one could still discern sparks of compassion and humanity, as Dostoyevsky noted in his House of the Dead.

     So it was with the coming of Islam to the Malay world. Those early Muslims came not to proselytize, though that was a well-established tradition with the faith, rather to trade. In that respect those Arab and Indian Muslim traders were no different from the subsequent European explorers who came for our spices.


However, the natives were so enamored with the way those Muslim traders conducted themselves – with honor, piety and honesty – that soon their ways rubbed off on our ancestors and they too became Muslims. They, as a culture and community, were free minded enough to recognize a better way and did not hesitate to incorporate it as part of their own.

     Our ancestors were enthusiastic converts. They willingly absorbed this new faith based on its evident merit, and did so with an open mind. They accepted its teachings with complete trust.

     They could not however, claim to be diligent learners. If they were, they would have discovered a much bigger and richer dimension to Islam beyond the spiritual and metaphysical. After all this great faith had emancipated the ancient Bedouins and caused them to give up the more gruesome aspects of their culture like female infanticide and the utterly destructive “eye for an eye” sense of justice.

     Our forefathers would have also discovered the rich and varied intellectual traditions of this great faith, from the rationalist Mutazilites to the mystical Sufis. Islam, far from being a rigid and uncompromising faith, is malleable and adaptive, which explained its remarkable vibrancy and tolerance as demonstrated in such disparate places as South Asia and Iberian Europe.

     Those Arabs and Indians came to the Malay world in search of trade.  Spreading their faith was secondary, if at all, and only in so far as it would facilitate their trading. The primary pursuit of all traders was their customers’ satisfaction, not salvation. Traders want their customers to return.  Whether they would end up in heaven or hell is of little interest to those traders.

     Our ancestors missed this important but subtle point. They were so obsessed with their fate in the Hereafter that they missed learning the equally important but worldly trading activities of those earlier Arabs and Indians. Our forefathers forgot or failed to discern the elementary Islamic principle that our religious and worldly obligations were (still are) related if not the same. Earning a living, as with trading, and serving the needs of your fellow human beings, also a function of trading, are but part and parcel of ibadah (worshiping).


Serve your fellow man and you serve God, exhorted our Prophet Mohammad (May Allah be pleased with him). That’s what trading does. The prophet was himself a trader; he explicitly permitted and indeed encouraged trading even during the Hajj to reinforce the point that earning a living and worshiping Allah are but two sides of the same coin. Both are far from being incompatible.

     Thus while our ancestors learned much about Islam as a theology, they failed to acquire the skills of trading from those Muslim traders. Then consider the books that were translated. They were heavy on legends and the spiritual aspects of Islam but precious few on trade, financing, and the setting up of enterprises. Even on the theological aspects of Islam, our ancestors restricted themselves to learning only a very narrow interpretation of a particular fiqh (school of thought).


Our ancestors were not at all curious of the vast richness of the intellectual heritage of Islam. Had they been, our ancestors would have learned that those ancient Muslim luminaries beginning with Al Kindi and on to Ibn Khaldun a few centuries later also wrote on such worldly topics as astronomy, physics, medicine and sociology. To them, knowledge was all encompassing, with no artificial differentiation between the spiritual and secular, or worldly and “other-worldly.”


Our sultans too were not diligent learners. Otherwise they would have discovered that the Caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty, for example, had their Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) where they gathered the leading scholars and learn from them. Instead, our sultans of yore (and even today) were content to be in the company of their gundek (concubines).

     Malay society did benefit in one significant area. As Syed Naguib al-Attas noted, “… [T]he most important single cultural phenomenon directly caused by the influence of Islamic culture … was the spread and development of Malay language as a vehicle not only for epic, romantic and historical literature, but even more so for philosophical discourse.” This was one of the paramount factors that displaced the hegemony of Java in the region, Al Attas concluded.


With the adoption of the Arabic jawi script, Malay culture transited from the oral to the written tradition. Whenever that happens to a society or culture, it is a significant advancement. We are indebted to those ancient Muslims for that precious gift.

     This unwillingness of our ancestors to learn about Islam beyond the theological carried a heavy price. We did not benefit as greatly as we should have from this encounter with Islam.


Had our ancestors been more encompassing in exploring the vastness of the intellectual and other traditions of the Arabs and of Islam, as those folks in Iberia did, and studied the varied richness of this new faith, its tradition of hosting a wide spectrum of opinions and its great scholars, we could have triggered our own renaissance, our own Nusantara (Malay Archipelago) Andalusia as it were, in the fine tradition of the Iberians.


We could have then, like those ancient Arabs who learned prodigiously from the Greeks, do likewise with the Arabs. Those early Arabs (unlike their modern counterparts) had no hesitation in translating Greek works and learning from Greek philosophers, even avowedly atheistic ones.

     Instead our ancestors were content with being ardent but passive followers rather than engaged and active contributors. Had they done more of the latter, there would be no limits to the height of our achievement while at the same time enriching this great faith. Instead they were satisfied with being merely takers and followers; they did not contribute to nor enrich the faith.

     Medieval Europe discovered Islam through Andalusia only a few centuries before the faith landed in the Malay world. Unlike Malays who were interested only in the spiritual aspects of the faith and perhaps some accompanying philosophy and literature, the Europeans were interested in everything the ancient Iberian Muslims had to offer, especially their sciences and mathematics. And those early Muslims had much to offer in those areas.

     The subsequent European Renaissance and the continent’s exit from its medieval culture owed much to the contributions of those early Muslims. Yes, the Europeans also translated the Koran and the various religious treatises of ancient Muslim scholars, but unlike those in the sciences, mathematics and philosophy, they were done less for learning but more for demonstrating the “superiority” of Christianity and to “protect” the flock from an alien faith. Thus the ensuing translations were clearly jaundiced, presumably to spare the Europeans from yet another reformation.

     Imagine the intellectual emancipation of Malay society had our ancestors been more diligent in learning from those ancient Arabs the full breadth of the intellectual endeavors of Islam beyond merely the religious, and translated the great mathematical and scientific texts of the ancient Arabs as those Middle Ages Europeans did!  Our society could have gone on to make our own unique contributions and trigger our own Nusantara Renaissance.

     Even to this day while we have an abundance of Malay translations of religious texts and Arabic legends, no one has yet seen fit to translate such seminal tomes as Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimmah (An Introduction [to the study of History]), Ibn Rashid’s Kulliyat (Generalities [of medicine]), or al-Khwarizmi’s treatise on Algebra.

While Middle Age Europe eagerly learned from Andalusia, the Europeans did not become Muslims. Only a few centuries later, Malays became Muslim through their encounter with those Muslim traders but we did not learn much from them.  This irony, as yet unexamined, baffles me.

     It is this myopic take on Islam that prevents Malays from fully benefiting from this great faith. Like monkeys, we are content only with imitating, and then only the superficialities of the faith and the trappings of Arab culture while missing the core or essence. That was true then and it is still true today.

Next: European Intrusion Into The Malay World


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

The Arrival of Islam as a Momentous Event in Malay Culture

August 16th, 2015

The Arrival of Islam as a Momentous Event in Malay Culture

M. Bakri Musa

The arrival of Islam was “the most momentous event in the history of the Malay archipelago,” to quote Syed Naquib al-Attas. It came not through the point of the sword but peacefully through trade. Islam did not land in a cultural and religious vacuum as Malays were already steeped in Hindu and animist traditions. Nor did the Arabs come to emancipate our ancestors; there was no messianic zeal or even an inclination to engage in their salvation.
Those Muslims came only to trade; there was no intention to dominate or colonize. Their Islamic faith and the prevailing Malay culture interacted through gradual and mutual accommodation. The result was that “the local genius of the people shone through” in the melding of the two, to quote Farish Noor, respected scholar and frequent commentator on Malaysian affairs.
This was vividly illustrated with my matriarchal Adat Perpateh. It coexisted peacefully with traditional male-dominated Islam, demonstrating a brilliant and workable synthesis of the two. Malays did not repudiate our traditional ways to become Muslims, and Islam was not adulterated to accommodate Malay culture. Both were remarkably malleable to and adaptive of each other.

     This accommodative attitude is best captured by the Minangkabau wisdom, Adat menurun, syarak mendaki (‘custom descended, religion ascended’), in reference to the belief that the Minangkabau descended from the highlands, the heartland of the culture, to meet Islam as it ascended from the coast. Both Islam and Malay were elevated as a consequence of the melding.

Expressions like Adat basandi syarak, syarak basandi kitabullah (Customs based on shari’a; shari’a on Koran), and the more practical, Syarak mengato, adat memakai (Sharia prescribes, adat subscribes) attest to this grand accommodation. The sociologist Taufik Abdullah expressed it best, “The genius of Minangkabau is to synthesize contradictions harmoniously.” There were certainly contradictions real as well as imagined between Islam and traditional Malay culture, but our ancestors took them in stride and with composure.
It is said that a Minangkabau baby is fed white rice and red chili early so it could learn at a very young age to tolerate opposites. Later we would go beyond mere tolerating to actually relishing contradictions. Thus as adults we could not do without our rice and sambal (chili paste).
Of course all these happened several centuries ago, long before the advent of “purist” Islamists. Today these purists would condemn any accommodation of the faith as bida’a (adulteration). Little wonder that Malays of that religious persuasion are today busy rewriting history to obliterate our legitimate pre-Islamic existence. They would like us to believe that prior to the arrival of Islam, Malays were cultureless and devoid of any spiritual values, and that our history began only with the arrival of Islam.

     Thus instead of learning and benefiting from the wisdom and ingenuity of our ancestors in synthesizing contradictions harmoniously, these later-day Islamists are obsessed with “purifying” and “cleansing” our faith of what they deem to be “un-Islamic” and “primitive” elements.

     These purists obviously have not learned anything from our recent history. They should remember that the last time this “cleansing” effort took place it triggered the Padri War from 1821-37 in West Sumatra. That conflict succeeded only in further tightening of Dutch colonial rule.

     Today there is little risk that the Malay world would ever be colonized again, our leaders’ fear of neo-colonization notwithstanding. Colonialism is no longer cool, except in such odd places like Chechnya and Tibet. However there is a fate far worse than being colonized, and that is being left behind by a rapidly modernizing world.

     This preoccupation with Islamic “cleansing” distracts Malays, especially the idealistic younger set looking for a cause and meaning to their life, from making their rightful contributions to society. It is far too easy for their religious zeal to degenerate into something sinister, as with futile “jihads” against phantom enemies of Islam.

     A notorious and tragic example was the “Bali bomber,” Dr. Azahari Husin. Smart enough to be the top student at Malay College, Kuala Kangsar, he was later selected to pursue his engineering degree in Australia and subsequently, doctoral work in Britain.

     By all accounts he was a competent academic and an inspiring teacher. He could have made a significant contribution by training future engineers, quite apart from being a much-needed role model especially for young Malays. Somewhere along the line he acquired a zeal for “purifying” the faith. Instead of making a meaningful contribution, he ended up leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. A needless tragedy, for him, his family, and society!

     At the community level, this increased emphasis in religion has resulted in, among other things, our national schools taking on all the trappings of a religious institution. As a result non-Muslims are abandoning the system in droves making these schools all the more insular. Malays too are abandoning the system but for the very opposite reason – these schools are deemed not religious enough! As a consequence religious schools now mushroom all over the country.

     Unlike religious schools in America, those in Malaysia are heavy into religion, paying lip service to such important but deemed “secular subjects” as science and mathematics. Then we wonder why local companies cannot get enough qualified Malay applicants.

     This emphasis on religion has resulted in the massive expansion of the bureaucracy associated with Islam just to employ these otherwise unemployable Malay graduates. This further encourages Malays to enroll in religious schools, feeding this non-productive cycle. Today thousands of Malay talents are diverted not in producing something for the economy but in the destructive pursuit of keeping citizens along the “straight and narrow path,” as these zealots see it.

     If this were to continue, we could expect a modern version of the Padri War, with the Malay community in conflict with each other and be left behind. This time there would be no outside force coming to mediate or rescue us; we would be left destroying each other while the world bypassed us.


The need for Malays and Muslims today is not to further divide us by heaping useless labels as liberal or conservative Muslims, or needlessly dividing us into tudung-clad versus the well-coiffured. As so eloquently stated in the Koran, true piety lies not in turning your face to the east or west (as in praying) rather one who spends his substance on his kin, the orphans, the needy, and the wayfarer.


In order to do that we first must have the substance, that is, be productive. This obsession with the external manifestations of our faith distracts us from being so and thus contributing to the betterment of our society.


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

Next: The Lessons From Our Encounter With Islam

The True Measure of a Culture

August 9th, 2015
The True Measure Of A Culture
M. Bakri Musa

The true measure of a culture is how well it prepares its members to sudden changes and challenges, especially when those are unanticipated or imposed from the outside. That different societies react very differently is obvious.

Consider the March 2011 tsunami that demolished the coastal areas of Northern Japan. Thousands were killed and billions worth of properties damaged, with whole villages and families wiped out. Compare the reactions of the Japanese to that tragedy of August 2005 when Katrina hurricane devastated the southern coast of United States.

The differences in reactions could not be more profound. Today only a few years after the tragedy, Northern Japan is almost fully recovered. In Louisiana they are still entangled in massive lawsuits, and the finger pointing has not yet stopped. Both Japan and America are developed societies, so we cannot account the difference to socioeconomic status, only to culture.

Then there was the Southeast Asian tsunami of Christmas 2004 that devastated western Sumatra and elsewhere. In terms of human toll, that tragedy was a universe beyond Katrina.

International relief workers involved in both tragedies observed how remarkably quickly those Indonesians resumed their “normal” routine. When hundreds of thousands of your countrymen had perished and whole towns and villages vanished, swept into the deep blue Indian Ocean, normalcy is hard to fathom. “Normal” is not quite the appropriate term. Nonetheless only a few months after the tragedy, school children were resuming their classes and singing their national anthem as they gathered underneath the shade of the lone surviving angsana tree.

You would expect that to happen in America, a nation with vastly greater resources and much superior manpower and administrative machinery at its disposal, not Indonesia. Yes, America’s industrial might was able to produce hundreds of portable homes and classrooms on short order, alas they were left sitting on empty lots to this day. The displaced residents are still unable to return home.

Again, only culture can explain the difference in the two reactions.

The Southeast Asian tsunami was also instrumental in ending the generations-long Aceh civil war. The iconic image of the tsunami devastation was the lone mosque that stood serenely in a sea of destruction. The sophisticated would attribute the catastrophe to shifts in ancient tectonic plates in the deep ocean floor, but to the science-illiterate Indonesians it was Allah sending them a powerful message. The Aceh civil war ended soon after.

That is the supreme value of a culture; to help us react in positive ways to events that are beyond our control. That is the only true measure of a culture.

Today in discussions on the “Malay problem,” specifically the lack of economic development, much is made of the supposed deficiencies of our culture. To me that is not a valid measure of the value of a culture. America is the most economically and socially developed society on Earth, yet it could not handle the Katrina tragedy. We have to stop blaming culture as the explanation for everything especially when we are having glaring deficits elsewhere, as with our corrupt and incompetent leaders.

Besides, there are just too many and obvious examples to debunk such a simplistic “explanation” as culture. Consider the Koreans. Those in North Korea share the same culture (including religion and language) as their brethren in the South. Today those two societies and countries could not be more different not only socio-economically and but also in mindset and many other ways.

Incidentally, the Koreans would serve as a ready example to debunk those who would resort to blaming our “genes” or biology to explain our backwardness, the pet “explanation” offered by the likes of Mahathir.

Then there is the current fascination and exaltation of Confucian ethics and system of values to “explain” the rapid rise of East Asia, first with Japan and later South Korea. What is conveniently forgotten is that this same culture was responsible for the monumental tragedies on the Chinese mainland during much of the 20th Century, and the militaristic rise of Japan and the consequent catastrophe inflicted on much of Asia during World War II.

So quit blaming culture to “explain” Malay backwardness. As a mental exercise, imagine if Malay leaders (specifically those in UMNO as they have been in charge for over half a century) are not corrupt, and all the funds and resources that they have hogged unto themselves had been spent on improving our lot as with building better schools and having properly trained teachers and professors, we would be much better off today. We would also be spared those sordid financial scandals, from the Bank Bumiputra debacle of yore to the current 1MDB mess.

            Consider the opportunity cost of the current RM2 billion “donation” to Prime Minister Najib Razak. Had he spent that money to endow a university in honor of his late father in the fashion of the industrialist James Buchanan Duke (Duke University), imagine the good that would do to Malaysia. For one, the Razak name would forever be held in high esteem for not only being an exemplary leader of the country but also for producing a son with such farsightedness and philanthropy.  For another, Najib would have been spared the current humiliation of just another corrupt Third World leader who could be bought with a mere billion or two in devalued Malaysian ringgit.
            At another level, if only Malaysian leaders had been a wee bit competent in addition to being honest, there would be no limit to the nation’s achievements.
            This week, Najib and his wife were guests at Singapore’s 50th anniversary. When Tun Razak and the senior Lee were Prime Ministers of their respective nations, the ringgit and Singapore dollar were on par in value. Today with their sons in charge, the ringgit has fallen to a third of the Singapore dollar, and continues to fall.
             The devaluation of the ringgit is at least quantifiable, not so the devaluation of the nation’s maruah( respect).
            Getting honest and competent leaders has nothing to do with culture. Nor are you born corrupt or incompetent; rather you become one.

There is yet another reason to be weary of those who resort to blaming culture to “explain” everything about a society. Strip off the sophistry and the underlying racism is exposed in all its ugliness.

In the following few chapters I will recap the three defining moments in Malay culture: the arrival of Islam upon our shores, the subsequent series of European intrusions into our world, and the path we had chosen towards independence. I will examine how our culture had prepared us for those tumultuous changes. As is apparent we are still here, and that says something about the value and endurance of our culture. In the final analysis that is what counts; all else are but footnotes.

There are critical and valuable lessons to be learned from those transformational experiences that are applicable to our current challenges.

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

Next Excerpt:  Arrival of Islam as a Momentous Event in Malay Culture

Labi Gone, Next Labu

August 2nd, 2015

Labi Gone, Next Labu!

M. Bakri Musa

Remember Labu and Labi, the two bumbling idiots in P. Ramlee’s 1962 comedy movie of the same title?

Today we have a political version of that duo. With the latest cabinet reshuffle, Labi is gone. Next should be Labu, aka Najib Razak. The leadership of Malaysia is too important to be entrusted to these jokers.

In a twist of irony, this latest exercise eases the process. By firing his deputy, Najib has set an important precedent – decoupling cabinet positions from party leadership. It has been the tradition, and only that as it is unsupported by the constitution, that leaders of the ruling party should also lead the country.

By having someone other than the party’s deputy leader be the Deputy Prime Minister, that sets the stage whereby the Prime Minister too could be someone other than the party’s President. That is the only silver lining to this latest reshuffle. That excepted, Najib’s new cabinet remains a yawner. The elusive “wow” factor still eludes him.

In picking his new ministers Najib is taken in by the glint of pebbles, confusing that for the sparkle of diamonds, or in kampong expression, pasir berkilau disangkakan intan. No surprise there as Najib himself is a pebble. He values loyalty over smarts, pebbles over diamonds. Expect Malaysia to be continually grinded down.

One new minister gushed that she knew of her appointment through the radio! Obviously Najib had not vetted her. Even a housewife is more careful in picking her kangkung.

The new appointees were so eager that they were oblivious of the darkening clouds hovering over their leader, desperate as they are for personal advancement. May they be struck by the same lightning and be drenched in the downpour. Spare Malaysia their personal ethics and pebble-stone quality.

By “promoting” four members of the parliamentary committee investigating 1MDB, Najib tried to sidetrack and emasculate that committee. I would have thought that completing a crucial national investigation would be the committee’s highest priority and patriotic mission, as its chairman had earlier professed and promised. As I said, these characters are pebbles, not diamonds.

If Najib thinks that he would stymie the investigation, he is mistaken. Already the deputy chairman has vowed to continue. Now the committee has more opposition members, including its vice-chairman. Najib may rue his “brilliance!”
Muhyiddin No Hero

Muhyiddin’s protestation over 1MDB was neither forceful nor strategic in content, setting, or timing, despite the hullabaloo it triggered. His mild and belated attempt at being a Hang Jebat after over six years as a compliant sidekick a la Hang Tuah was awkward. It was, to borrow his phrase, “lebih daripada meluat” (beyond nauseating).

Beyond nauseating because it was self-serving. Consider the content. “I told him [Najib] to let go of his post in 1MDB, but he didn’t want to listen!” protested poor Muhyiddin. Imagine had he said, “I could not get an unequivocal denial from the Prime Minister! On the contrary he admitted to having that account!”

In Muhyiddin’s retelling, he is “the first minister to take a stand on 1MDB.” He bragged about being vocal in cabinet and UMNO Supreme Council meetings. Then he complained that he and his cabinet and Supreme Council members had been kept in the dark.

You cannot have it both ways. A cabinet as well as Supreme Council colleague rebuked Muhyiddin, noting that he had chaired some of those meetings.

The setting too was inappropriate. Muhyiddin should have picked a more influential audience as in a formal press conference preferably with foreign correspondents present, not his party’s divisional meeting. He could have then answered the inevitable questions.

As for the timing, imagine if Muhyiddin had also submitted his resignation. His stock would have soared. By letting himself to be sacked, Muhyiddin’s subsequent ranting was seen more as the whining of an ex-wife about her former husband. Worse, it made Najib look strong. Now that took some doing!

Muhyiddin did better in his later press conference. Although it was somewhat chaotic, nonetheless he exuded great confidence, a portrait not of a man who had been fired rather one who had had a great burden lifted off his broad shoulders. One wonders what is that great burden!

He would have appeared more in command had he dispensed with the prop of his wife beside him and the throngs of hangers-on behind. You do not have to major in theater to appreciate these subtleties of effective stage presentation.

Going by Muhyiddin’s account, it was Najib who was weak. Muhyiddin had to prod Najib as he could not utter the words to fire Muhyiddin to his face. Najib merely nodded. There was no “you are fired” Donald Trump-style. If Najib could not handle his deputy one-on-one, I wonder how he would fare with world leaders.

Muhyiddin should have given his press conference first instead of that speech at the divisional meeting. The latter was more a sly maneuver to “suck up” to Mahathir.

Mahathir was instrumental in Najib and Abdullah becoming Prime Ministers. Muhyiddin was trying to ingratiate himself to Mahathir in the hope of becoming his third dud pick.

Malaysians should not let that happen. Yes, Mahathir successfully undid his first mistake and is now desperate to undo his second, with no sign of success in sight. If Mahathir again prevails, Malaysians should be grateful but not let him have this third pick. Malaysia has had enough of his mistakes.

Muhyiddin is no hero. This is the Minister of Education who claimed that our schools and universities are the best. He could not be more wrong if he thinks the current outpouring of support he gets in the social media is an endorsement of his performance. Those are more expressions of citizens’ disgust with Najib, a variation of the enemy-of-your-enemy-is-my-friend dynamics.
Getting Labu Out

With Labi out, getting rid of Labu should now be easier. With 1MDB short of cash, bribing and influencing potential rebellious politicians would be that much more difficult. Nonetheless there are still other tools of persuasion, as Najib demonstrated with his latest cabinet reshuffle.

Those too, like cash, are finite. There are just not enough cabinet slots or lucrative GLC directorships to accommodate all UMNO MPs and the many more avaricious local warlords, not counting those MPs from Barisan’s other component parties. Those from Sarawak and Sabah are “fixed deposits” only if their “inducements” keep flowing.

Muhyiddin is from Johore, where UMNO began. Without inducements it would be difficult for him to keep his supporters there and elsewhere in tow. He is also no Tenkgu Razaleigh or Anwar Ibrahim. The chance of another Semangat 46 or Keadilan emerging to challenge UMNO and Najib is slim.

Muhyiddin’s firing, cabinet reshuffle, “promotions” of parliamentary investigating committee members, “retirement” of Attorney-General Gani Patail, and the spectacular arrests of supposed “leakers” are all deliberate distractions. There would be no “leakers” had no crime been committed. They are arresting the good guys while the bad ones are running free.

The central question remains. Did Najib Razak siphon funds into his personal account?

Having failed in their attempts at denials, Najib’s pebble boys and girls are desperate for novel spins, the latest being “political donations” and “trust accounts.” I shudder to think that foreigners are buying our elections. What would these pebble-brains think of next? Najib had a royal flush in Vegas?

Ignore these new distractions. The greatest challenge remains to get the truth on 1MDB out and the culprits brought to justice. That should be the duty and priority, ahead of personal interests and loyalty to individuals or party.

Najib’s Nixon Moment

July 26th, 2015

Najib’s Nixon Moment

M. Bakri Musa
The Special Task Force and Parliamentary Committee investigating 1MDB (Najib Administration’s business entity) are missing the crux of the matter. They are distracted by and consumed with extraneous and irrelevant issues, either through incompetence or on purpose, as being directed to do so.

The consequence is that what was initially a problem of corporate cash-flow squeeze has now degenerated into a full-blown scandal engulfing not only Najib’s leadership but also the national governance. The only redeeming feature is that for once a national crisis does not parallel the country’s volatile racial divide, despite attempts by many to make it so.

Torrent of ink has been expended on that tattooed Swiss national now in a Thai jail, the suspension of The Edge, the threatened lawsuit against the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), and the blocking of the Sarawak Report website. These are but distracting sideshows. Even veteran and hard-nosed observers and commentators are taken in by these distractions.

The central and very simple issue is this: Did Prime Minister Najib divert funds from 1MDB to his private account as alleged by WSJ and others?

The issue is simple because it requires only a brief “Yes” or “No” response. If the answer is “Yes,” then all else pales in comparison.

If the answer is “No,” then we could proceed to such secondary issues as how much debt 1MDB has incurred, the extent of the government’s exposure, and whether the company could service its loans or even generate any revenue, as well as the related question of who leaked confidential bank and other sensitive financial information.

Thus all, whether pro or anti Najib, should be asking him to answer that simple central question whether public funds were diverted to Najib’s account. That is the Malaysian Nixonian equivalent of “What did the president know and when did he know it?” of the infamous Watergate scandal of the 1970s.

Queries that do not confront this central issue serve only to distract matters. Likewise the commentaries; they succeed only in exposing the biases and political leanings of their writers. We all can be spared of that, as well as the obvious sucking-up gestures by Najib’s flatterers.

If Najib chooses to remain silent, then the parliamentary committee and special task force must focus their investigations to answering that basic question. They do not need the cooperation of the Monetary Authority of Singapore to do that. Nor do they have to travel to Thailand and interview that tattooed character, or subpoena that moon-faced chubby fellow who is so taken in with Paris Hilton.

Arresting low-level employees like the company dispatcher would only divert resources and distract the staff. Instead there should be laser-like focus on ascertaining the central truth. All other matters as who leaked the incriminating information are secondary.

This allegation of illegal diversion of public funds is made not by some kucing kurap anti-government blogger or a disgruntled UMNO operative deprived of his lucrative government contracts but by WSJ. The only way to rebut the damning allegation is to show that the documents laid out were false by producing your own evidence to the contrary.

Alternatively, sue the publication. When the Financial Times alleged impropriety on the part of Tengku Razaleigh regarding the Bank Bumiputra fiasco of yore, he sued. And won; the rare occasion when that influential publication was humbled!

If Najib were to sue WSJ, the ensuing depositions would uncover the truth. Lawsuits however, are expensive and protracted. All these hullabaloos would go away and confidence restored fast if Najib were to answer with a simple “No” to the central question, and if his answer were indeed the truth and could be substantiated as such. Then he can sue WSJ and everyone else.

Tengku Razaleigh called upon those Malaysians who know the truth on this matter to come forward. There are only a few who are so privileged. They owe it to their fellow citizens to do so. As he so wisely put it, “Not telling the truth is not an option.”

Malaysia however should not be held hostage to their honesty and integrity, or lack of either. We all must do our part to make sure that the truth be exposed.

I am heartened by the reactions of our corporate leaders. Nazir Razak and Tony Fernandes, both widely admired and highly accomplished, have condemned the suspension of The Edge. They have done more; they praised the paper!

I applaud Nazir for another reason. What he did was another not-so-subtle rebuke to his oldest brother. He did it earlier as when he and his other brothers (minus Najib of course) reminded everyone that their father died leaving only a modest estate. In our culture, Nazir’s action took great courage. He did it in the finest Jebat tradition of fidelity to principle and country, over kin and leaders.

We need others to do likewise. The Bar Council has taken an exemplary lead; likewise the Raja Muda of Johore and a former Mufti of Perlis. When exposing a crime is treated as a crime, the former Mufti reminded us, then we are ruled by criminals. The young prince upbraided politicians who are more loyal to their party than their fellow citizens.

This 1MDB scandal threatens to not only bring down Najib but also damage Malaysia’s credibility, much like Nixon’s Watergate was to him and to America. It took the courage of Nixon’s closest allies in his own Republican Party to convince him to do the honorable thing. As a result, America was spared an unnecessary crisis, and a generous nation later forgave Nixon. With that, his monumental legacies, as with his engagement with China, remain intact.

Najib does not have any positive legacy despite his over six years as Prime Minister, longer than Nixon was as President. Nonetheless Najib could still save his skin if he were to do the honorable thing – tell the truth.

If he does not, then it is up to those closest to him to do the honorable thing – tell him the truth. The chance of that happening however, is remote as UMNO is bereft of courageous individuals who could see beyond their party (and its lucrative patronage) and tell it straight to Najib’s face.

Deputy Prime Minister Muhyyiddin’s belated protest is too little, too late. It is also self-serving. Now if he were to resign in protest, that would mean something. Meanwhile as a member of Najib’s cabinet, he and the other ministers are collectively responsible and should be held jointly accountable.

The only person who could force Najib would be Barisan’s Sarawak leaders, in particular Chief Minister Adenan Satem. His support is critical to Najib. Thus far Adenan is satisfied with squeezing the maximum out of Najib in his hour of crisis to benefit Sarawak. In the long term however, Adenan should remember that Sarawak, like the rest of the country, would progress only if the central government is competent and honest. An inept, corrupt and distracted central government would be detrimental to all, Sarawak included.

It is time for Najib to do or made to do a Nixon. If Najib were to do it voluntarily then he could control the timing and to some extent, subsequent developments. Specifically he could choose his successor. Nothing in the constitution mandates that his current Deputy be the one.

If he were to pick Tengku Razaleigh, a man of proven leadership and impeccable integrity, not only would that meet widespread approval including within Parliament, he would have secured for himself a significant legacy. He would also better his nemesis, Tun Mahathir, in one respect. The Tun chose two duds as his successors and in the process wasted a precious decade for Malaysia.

Najib’s personal fate does not interest me. He could suffer a Marcos for all I care, but if Malaysia were to degenerate into another Philippines because of Najib, then those who remain silent or don’t take a stand now must bear some responsibility. How would they answer their grandchildren’s lament?

May God bless those many brave and righteous Malaysians who have done and continue to do their part, and at great risks. I salute them! We must remain focused on the central issue: Did Najib embezzle those funds?

Thoughts At The End of Ramadan – On Being A Muslim

July 19th, 2015

Thoughts At The End of Ramadan – On Being A Muslim
M. Bakri Musa


A Muslim is one who subscribes to the five pillars of our faith – attests to the oneness of Allah and Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., as His Last Messenger (shahadah); prays five times a day; fasts during Ramadan; gives zakat; and conditions permitting, undertakes the Hajj.
Significant for its absence is any explicit reference to the Koran, the complete and final guide from God “for all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time.”

The essence of the Koran is Al-amr bi ‘l-ma’ruf wa ‘n-nahy ani ‘l-munkar. It is referred to many times in the text. The approximate translation is, “Command good and forbid evil;” or in Malay, “Biasakan yang baik, jauhi yang jahat.” Succinct and elegant in both languages as it is in the original classical Arabic!

As this central message is not one of the five pillars of our faith, no surprise then that it is frequently missed by the masses. It is also often lost in the thick tomes of religious scholars, erudite sermons of bedecked ulamas, and frenzied jingoisms of zealous jihadists.

Enlightened scholars of yore had suggested that the Koran’s essence be the sixth pillar, after and presumably below Hajj. That did not gain traction.

As my Imam Ilyas reminded us in his Eid khutbah last Friday, those five pillars of Islam demand the least from us. They are the easiest undertakings. Shahadah could be executed in a single breath even for those unfamiliar with the Arabic tongue, while the daily prayers consume a few minutes longer. For those who consider the month-long Ramadan a challenge, consider that millions do without their meals every day, and with no end in sight. As for zakat and Hajj, both have finite and quantifiable costs.

The greatest challenge for Muslims then is not those five imperatives rather to “command good and forbid evil.” That would demand the most from us. As such, it should be priority number one. For even if you were to diligently perform all those five traditional duties, but if you do not do good and refrain from evil, then all would be for naught.

There is no point in donating zakat if your wealth is acquired through corruption. Whatever religious “brownie points” you would garner from that seemingly generous gesture could not begin to compensate for the loss to the family whose child had died because the money meant for the local hospital had been siphoned into your pocket. Likewise, you mock the sanctity of the Hajj if on returning you resume condemning your fellow believers even before the cough from your desert-induced irritated throat had not yet cleared up.

A saying attributed to our prophet has it that a prostitute was admitted to Heaven because she once saved a dog dying of thirst by bringing it a bowl of water. Performing the rituals of the five pillars would not be a regular routine for someone like her. Yet an All-Forgiving and Generous Allah rewarded her for that single good deed.

If that simple act of kindness is so esteemed, imagine how much more generous Allah would be to a veterinarian! Yet many were outraged when Muslim veterinary students were handling their ‘patient’ pigs and dogs.

Philosophers through the ages, Muslims and non-Muslims, atheists and believers, have pondered the meaning of good and evil. Believers have also wrestled with the added issues of God’s will and individual responsibility.

Al-Asha’ari posed this theological dilemma. Imagine a child and an adult in Heaven. The child asked God why the man was given that privilege. The reply was that he had done much good in his lifetime. (Note again the emphasis on doing good!) The child then asked why God had taken him so soon thus preventing him from doing good later in his life. To which the reply was that God knew that the child would become a sinner and thus spared him the terrible fate. Thereupon cries arose from those condemned, “Oh Lord! Why didn’t you take us before we became sinners?”

While such ponderings make for vigorous class discussions, at the practical level the issue of good versus evil is clear and not at all complicated. Killing, stealing and cheating are all evil; improving the lot of your people, making sure that they have potable water, adequate shelter, good schools and competent healthcare, is good. Putting public funds into your bank account is evil. No equivocation there. Yet many go through contortions to make evil appear good. That in itself is evil.

Jonathan A C Brown in his book Misquoting Muhammad relates an episode when the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar was asked by the country’s powerful ruler about passages in the Koran and hadith to make his rule “Islamic.” Bring justice and prosperity to your people, the Grand Mufti replied, and I will find the appropriate verses to sanctify your policies as Islamic.

Yes, bring justice, improve citizens’ lot, obey the rule of law and respect citizens’ rights, those are the proven paths to an Islamic state; not grandiose mosques, bloated religious departments, or Azzan blasting on your radios.

As to whether going against a leader who is corrupt and abuses his power is good or evil, ponder the last line of Caliph Abu Bakar’s immortal inaugural speech. “Obey me so long as I obey Allah and His Messenger. And if I do not, then I have no right to your obedience.” (Approximate translation.)

Do good not only to others but also equally important, to ourselves. That means nurturing and being generous to ourselves, while distancing from those who would harm and abuse us.

“Others” refers both to the living as well as physical world around us. We can readily comprehend about being good to our fellow humans or other living creatures, but less appreciated is that we must also be good to our physical world. We are but trustees (vice-regents) of this universe, says the Koran.

Illegal logging is evil not only because it is stealing from the people but also because the activity degrades the environment, causing erosion, silting of rivers, and consequent flooding. You may accrue untold riches from illegal logging and be generous in your zakat but those do not compensate for the miseries you caused fishermen whose fishing grounds are destroyed or families made homeless from the resultant floods.

I prefer my own Malay translation of the golden rule. Its rhythmic alliteration aside, it is soft and subtle yet no less powerful, in tune with our culture. Biasakan yang baik, or make doing good your habit or norm. Meaning, not because you are commanded to do so, rather it’s in your nature or character.

Likewise with jauhi yang jahat, or distancing ourselves from evil. We may not always be able to forbid evil, or doing so would impose considerable risks, but we all can move away from evil.

Biasakan yang baik; jauhi yang jahat is truly a message for all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time. Joyous Hari Raya is an appropriate occasion to be reminded of this.

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

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

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