The Meaning Of A Free Mind

March 28th, 2016

The Meaning of A Free Mind

  1. Bakri Musa


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My approximate translation is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GLCs The Problem, Not The Solution

March 21st, 2016


GLCs The Problem, Not The Solution

  1. M.Bakri Musa



Last of Six Parts


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Islamic Institutions Have Failed The Ummah

March 14th, 2016


Islamic Institutions Have Failed The Ummah

Fifth of Six Parts

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


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


This glaring deficit is obvious to all but Islamic educators.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

The Imprisoned Malay Mind The Greatest Obstacle

March 8th, 2016


The Imprisoned Malay Mind The Biggest Obstacle

M. Bakri Musa


Fourth of Six Parts


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Sounds familiar?


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


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


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


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


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


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


Next: Fifth of Six Parts:  Leveraging Islamic Financial Instruments


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

Four Factors The Determine The Fate of a Society

February 29th, 2016

Four Factors That Determine the Fate of a Society

  1. Bakri Musa


Third of Six Parts


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

February 22nd, 2016

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

Second of Six Parts

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

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

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

Lessons From Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endless, Meaningless Debates on “The Malay Problem”

February 15th, 2016

Endless, Meaningless Debates on “The Malay Problem”

M. Bakri Musa


First of Six Parts


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Unsolicited Advice to Young Malaysians

February 2nd, 2016

Unsolicited Advice to Young Malaysians
M. Bakri Musa

I enjoy giving talks to Malaysian students. It is invigorating to be with the young; their passion, enthusiasm and idealism do rub off on me.

My hope is that when they become leaders they will hold as role models the likes of Hang Nadim and Hang Jebat, and emulate the giants in our history like Munshi Abdullah and Datuk Onn. I also hope that they will be as innovative as Ungku Aziz and Raja Petra, and like them, not be trapped by the conventional wisdom. Most of all I hope they will be as diligent and resourceful as Badri Muhammad.

In my advice to students, I remind them that their future is in their own hands. No one, not their parents, advisors on campus and the embassy, or sponsors back home, knows what is best for them. I tell these students that those other people may be sincere when offering their advice but they have not traveled the same path you have taken or experienced the challenges you have faced.

Most of all they will not be the ones to bear the consequences of your decision. By all means listen to their counsel, but in the end the decision is yours. About all the others could do after offering their advice would be to also offer you their prayers and best wishes. They should support, not veto your decision.

I claim no originality to that piece of advice. This was what my late father passed on to me. I have found it useful, hence my sharing it. We all wish our young to have calm seas ahead and fair winds behind. However if they do encounter the inevitable squalls, they should be ready to trim their sails and batten their hatches. As for the swells, they should have their surfboards ready to ride the waves and take in the exhilaration!

That is what a free mind does; turns adversities into opportunities. Suharto imprisoned Prameodya Ananta Toer, but only his body. His mind was free, free to craft his world-acclaimed Buru tetralogy. He created his own freedom. That is what we should all aspire to.

Likewise when Hamka was imprisoned, also by that goon Suharto, he wrote his multivolume and authoritative Tafsir Al Azhar, a commentary, not a translation of the Holy Koran. In his later years Hamka would muse that had he not been imprisoned he would probably have not written that Tafseer as he would be too busy giving lectures and khutbas!

As a coda I quote our great poet Usman Awang; he said it best in the last-but-one verse of his poem, Melayu (Malay), on the essence of a free mind.


Jangan takut melanggar pantang
Jika pantang menghalang kemajuan;
Jangan segan menentang larangan
Jika yakin kepada kebenaran;
Jangan malu mengucapkan keyakinan
Jika percaya kepada keadilan.

My translation:


Fearlessly breach the fortress
If it blocks your progress!
If needed, be brusque
In pursuit of the truth.
Be unashamed of your conviction
Let justice be your declaration.

There are so many larangans (obstacles) in the life of a Malaysian today. We must menentang (oppose) them if we yakin kepada kebenaran and percaya kepada keadilan (have faith in the truth and believe in justice).

Kemajuan (progress), kebenaran (truth) and keadilan (justice); a free mind will hold those in high esteem and vigilantly guard against those who would erode or corrode those pristine values.

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications. The revised second edition was released on January 30th, 2016.

My Tribute to Badri bin Muhammad, PhD

January 25th, 2016

My Tribute to Badri bin Muhammad, PhD
M. Bakri Musa

Last and for a very special reason, I will cite another example of a free mind, Dr. Badri bin Muhammad. Badri was special to many, most immediately his wife and fellow Professor of Chemistry Karen Crouse, and their children Susanna, Adam, Diana, Nadira, and grandson Mitchell.

Once on meeting a group of Malaysian graduate students here in America, a few happened to have attended University Putra Malaysia. To my query whether they knew of Badri, one bright student beamed widely, “Yes, he was my wonderful chemistry professor!” and the others quickly joined in the praise. Very effusive and very heartfelt, those students were among Badri’s many legacies.

Badri died recently after a brief illness. He was special to me as we had been dear friends for a long time and shared so many bonds. Our wives knew each other well and so did our children who were of comparable ages.

Both of us came from rural Malaysia; he from Ulu Kelantan; I, Ulu Muar, Negri Sembilan. Like me, Badri went to Malay College for his Sixth Form but our years there did not overlap; he came right after I left. We met a few years later in Canada when he spent a summer as an undergraduate doing research at the University of Alberta where I was a medical student. We met by chance on campus, and typically Malaysian, he moved that very evening into the apartment I shared with a fellow medical student from Sarawak, Thaddeus Demong.

It also did not take Badri very long to take over our kitchen after tasting our version of Malaysian cuisine, and our nutrition improved considerably thereafter. I remember well his Canadian variation of our sambal, with an extra generous helping of onions and vinegar!

Later that summer we met a group of young Malaysian nurses attending a course on campus. They were taking the same classes as the Canadian degree student nurses, but because those Malaysians had only Form Five qualifications, they could not be formally registered as undergraduates. Also typically Malaysian, those nurses took that restriction in stride.

Not Badri, however. He encouraged the nurses to enroll in a summer course to qualify for formal university admission, with Badri volunteering to coach them especially in the sciences, in return for their cooking us dinners. Badri had earlier served as a temporary science teacher in Malaysia.

The girls took his advice and worked hard all summer, driven by Badri’s firm but kind tutelage. As expected with good teaching, all five passed their “departmentals” and were allowed to formally register as undergraduates that fall. Thus instead of getting merely a “certificate of completion,” those nurses became the first Malaysians to have a degree in nursing. One of them, Nik Safiah Ismail, would later become dean of nursing at UKM and a UN consultant.

That was Badri; he saw opportunities where others would passively accept constraints as the normal order of things.

Universiti Putra Malaysia was Badri’s academic home; he was a true scientist, passionate about his research. While others were consumed with lobbying for senior administrative positions, Badri was busy guiding his doctoral students and pursuing his passion – research.

For many years he stayed on campus; it was always a joy to visit him and his family there. The UPM campus is one of the most scenic, set in a lush valley away and protected from the urban hustle and bustle not too far away. My blood pressure would drop noticeably whenever I visited them. I always enjoyed those visits; strangely we did not bitch about Malaysia, instead we were busy sharing our experiences in our respective fields and comparing the differences between “bench” versus clinical research.

Badri was the first person I confided in when I decided to leave Malaysia. Like a true friend he was not at all shy in letting me know of his severe disappointment. But also like a true friend, he was supportive of my decision.

At that time the Badris had a daughter and son, both of comparable ages to my daughter and older son. In the first few years after I left, the Badris would frequently visit my parents in Seremban. Those visits meant a lot to my parents, and Badri and Karen knew that, as they allowed my parents to enjoy their grandchildren (my children) Melindah and Zachary albeit vicariously through Sue and Adam.

Badri demonstrated best the halus (soft or subtle) ways of our people, and that being halus does not preclude one from being determined and tenacious. You have to have those qualities to be a good researcher. Badri published his first research paper while still an undergraduate, a rare accomplishment.

When Badri and Karen visited my wife and me in Canada on their way back to Malaysia after receiving his PhD from Dalhousie, I showed him a Malaysian article profiling a young student who had just been awarded a scholarship to Australia to pursue his doctorate in chemistry. The article touted him to be the “first Malay PhD in chemistry” when he would graduate. Badri simply smiled on seeing that piece!

Realizing that he was probably the first Malay PhD in Chemistry, I complimented him and told him that he had beaten the legendary star of Malay College only a few years our senior, the one dubbed “the sharpest mind ever to step foot at Malay College.” Badri was genuinely embarrassed by the comparison. “I didn’t do too well at Malay College,” he demurred.

“Not too well” in Badri-speak meant that he was not the top student. The class that Badri joined at Malay College was among the brightest; it was the first batch of the pure science stream. I remember supervising many of their evening “prep” hours. The class had a reputation for intimidating their supervising prefects; they in turn would groan when assigned. As I was the most junior and had the least clout with my fellow prefects, that chore fell on me disproportionately. It was fortuitous, for I thoroughly enjoyed being with those bright young students. Among his classmates was one Ariffin Aton who would later obtain his PhD in Chemical Engineering and would head SIRIM.

Obviously Badri was smart; he would not have been awarded a Colombo Plan scholarship otherwise or been recommended by his teachers.

Badri too was a man of many firsts, but as with his “first Malay PhD in chemistry” bit, they were all unheralded, and that suited him just fine. That was his style – unassuming. When appointed to senior administrative positions, for example being dean, to Badri that simply meant time away from his lab and students. He was one of the few academics who returned smoothly to his laboratory following a detour in administration.

He was the Foundation Fellow of both the Islamic as well as the Malaysian Academies of Science. Once he gave me a reprint of his latest paper. I had my undergraduate degree in chemistry so I was not lost with the content, but what impressed me was that the paper appeared in a leading international journal.

“You wouldn’t believe the hassles I got over that one,” he volunteered after I complimented him. It turned out that the university was none too pleased with his publishing the paper in English and in an international instead of a local journal!

I am always mindful whenever I write critical commentaries on our education system of individuals like Badri, educators and professionals who gave all they have to their institutions and students despite the huge obstacles and other “hassle factors” they faced daily in their work. The nation would be better off if only those in authority would relent just a wee bit and let individuals like Badri do what they do best.

The most revealing display of Badri’s halus ways and free-mindedness was his ability to sway his recalcitrant supervisors back home into letting him stay in Canada to pursue his PhD after getting his undergraduate degree. Then as now, the policy was that students had to return first and then wait their turn patiently before being sent abroad again.

Badri had other ideas; he was already offered a grant from the Canadians to pursue his doctoral work, all he had to do was get that special dispensation from home. I remember discussing at length with him on the best strategy to pursue in convincing the folks back home into letting him stay.

After much deliberation and with great anxiety, he decided to pursue a reverse psychology approach. It helped that the civil servants back in Malaysia who would be making the pivotal decision were just like Badri, so he could easily put himself in their shoes and understand their psychological vulnerabilities.

So in the most polite and deferential tone Badri wrote a long pleading letter in traditional Malay, together with the obligatory elaborate and profuse salutations expressing his heavy heart and sense of serba salah (dilemma) at having to write that letter, but had to do so merely as a favor requested by his professor. It was his professor’s wish that he (Badri) should continue with graduate work directly into the doctoral program. However, he (Badri) wished to return home as he was homesick and was missing his family and Malay food, especially his favorite budu (fish paste).

When as expected he did not receive a reply, he wrote back again, this time gently reminding his Malaysian supervisor that his professor wanted an answer from him (Badri) soon. This time Badri helpfully added that his professor had heard that Malaysia would soon be opening a second university and would need qualified candidates to staff it. And his professor wanted to contribute to this endeavor by training Badri.

The reply came finally, a few months later when already deeply engaged in his graduate work. “Tuan di arahkan melanjutkan … ” (“You are directed to pursue further studies…”) Badri was ecstatic. He had outwitted those civil service guys back home.

A few years later I met another Malaysian; he too was a scholarship student but was then residing abroad. I asked him how he did it, thinking it might be a variation of Badri’s move. He replied that he simply absconded; he did not bother to return or in any way communicate with the folks back home. What about his scholarship bond? It seemed that the authorities in Malaysia had lost his file!

I thought Badri was smart, but this character was shrewd. On second thought though, I think Badri would not contemplate simply skipping out. That would not be the Badri I knew.

When you have a free mind as Badri had, it would be easy for you to put yourself in your adversaries’ moccasins, as the natives here would put it, and thus figure out their thinking. Once you can do that, you are already one step ahead. That was my lesson from Badri.

My long story on him, apart from being my way of paying tribute to a long dear friend, is to demonstrate precisely this point about a free mind. The other is that when you have a free mind, you can easily focus on your objectives and not be distracted by the current fads. Badri was a scientist right from the very beginning; he had a passion for it, and he remained a true “bench scientist” right to the end. May Allah bless his soul!

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

Free Minds, Free Individuals

January 18th, 2016

Free Minds, Free Individuals
M. Bakri Musa

The achievements of such individuals as Ungku Aziz and Raja Petra, as well as the giants in our history as Tun Razak, Datuk Onn and Munshi Abdullah, should inspire us to pursue liberating our minds.

However, should their fame and outstanding accomplishments have the opposite effect, as in making us feel small and thus dissuading us from emulating them, let me cite examples of seemingly ordinary individuals who may not have grabbed the headlines but nonetheless demonstrated free minds in solving their unique problems.

Because of their seemingly ordinary lives, we are more likely to identify with them. There is however, nothing ordinary about their accomplishments or their approaches to problem solving.

There was a student sent abroad to pursue his masters in engineering. Through smarts and diligence, he was soon admitted directly to the doctoral program. He did not bother to tell his supervisor back home for he anticipated a negative response.

His scholarship however, was only for two years, not enough time for a doctoral pursuit. That did not deter him. At the end of the second year he wrote his supervisor back home for an extension, citing a “slight snag” in his studies. He filled his pleading letter with sob stories of the challenges with English and mathematics.

His supervisor back home, familiar with such plights among Malay students, readily extended the scholarship for another year, together with a stern warning to “study harder.” At the end of the third year the student still needed a few more months. So he ignored the ensuing stream of warning letters and instead focused on his dissertation. He completed it just in time to receive that final letter from Malaysia suspending his scholarship.

When he returned with an impressive PhD instead of a mere Masters, far from congratulating him, his supervisor chastised him! “Pandai memandai!” Trying to be too smart! That supervisor complained about having to find another candidate to fill the lecturer post at the local polytechnic that was slated for this student. Meanwhile the newly minted PhD readily found a university position, and thus avoided defaulting on his scholarship bonds.

To make a long story even longer, he was invited to present his paper, based on his doctoral research, at a prestigious conference in America. True to form, his Vice-Chancellor refused to grant him leave, much less fund the trip. The reasoning was that he was far too fresh a recruit to be granted such a privilege. Resourceful as ever, he found a corporate sponsor and traveled on his vacation time.

That young academic is an example of a free mind that dared forge his own path.

Then there was the student who graduated from a top American university. He had of course no difficulty securing a job in America. However, there was the problem of his scholarship bonds.

So at the interview back home, he purposely bombed it. His interviewers were heard muttering how unimpressed they were with American universities and regretted not being able to offer the young man a position. Released of his obligation, the young man could hardly wait to fly back to America.

As the young man would later relate to me, he was not about to pin his future on a man who could not distinguish between Stamford College and Stanford University, regardless of how esteemed his local titles and reputation.

For contrast, consider our third student. He too graduated from an elite American university, with a PhD no less. I asked him what his plans were, and his answer surprised me. He was waiting for instructions from his Vice-Chancellor back home.

I suggested that he pursue post-doctoral work to broaden his research expertise, or work in America to get some valuable experience. Indeed he was offered a lucrative position, enough to pay off his scholarship bonds if need be. However, being an obedient student (Kami menurut arahan!), he patiently waited for instructions from home.

A few years later I visited him in Malaysia; he was unhappy with his lot. His Vice-Chancellor found him keras kepala (hardheaded). That is another of those dismissive terms for a free-minded individual. Too bad that he was not keras kepala when he was in America when he had the opportunity to carve his own future!

This fellow reminded me of another student, described by his teachers as “the sharpest mind ever to set foot at Malay College.” As expected, he excelled abroad and was offered the opportunity to pursue doctoral studies by his university. However, his supervisor back home convinced him of a better plan. So he returned.

To cut a short story shorter, his highest achievement was being director of a matriculation program at a local university. He never did get his doctorate; a bright promise unfulfilled. Alas, his was not an isolated case; I could fill a book with many such sad stories.

The first two students are examples of courageous individuals who dared think for themselves and ignored the commands of their superiors. They are worthy of our emulation. As for the last two, I hope we all avoid their fate not so much for our own selfish reasons but for the sake of our country.

Consider the legendary P. Ramlee. Every Malaysian can hum a few of his songs; his rich voice warms our hearts and his melodies dance in our memories.

He sought to impart his considerable skills and share his vast experience with the music students at MARA Institute of Technology. However, the dean of that institution would have none of it as Ramlee did not have any formal academic qualifications.

Imagine the loss to those young students and in turn our society, all because of the closed-mindedness of that dean. As can be seen, the curse of a trapped mind extends far beyond its bearer.

The worst part was that the dean did not feel at all embarrassed in relating this incident many years later in an article in the mainstream media on the anniversary of P. Ramlee’s death.

That is the tragedy of such a mind; it does not even realize that it is being imprisoned. This dean sports an impressive academic qualification (impressive at least to his administrators), but the “higher education” he acquired did not liberate his mind. It is still trapped, not by steel bars but by a few obscure lines in the university’s rule book.

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