The Halus (Subtle) Way Datuk Onn Aborted the Malayan Union

November 17th, 2015
The Halus (Subtle) Way Datuk Onn Aborted the Malayan Union
M. Bakri Musa
In an earlier commentary I gave high marks to our leaders for their enlightened ways and sophisticated strategies in the pursuit of our independence. Malaysia could have easily gone in a very different direction following the Japanese defeat. It could have just as quickly been turned into a permanent British Dominion.
     The man responsible for sparing the country that terrible fate was Datuk Onn Jaafar. He was a former senior civil servant, a significant and rare achievement for a native. Had he been a Hang Tuah, ever loyal to his sultan and the British, there would be no limit to the height of his personal achievement within the colonial civil service. He could have been the first native Governor-General of the Dominion of Malaya.
Instead, in the tradition of Jebat, Onn saw the grave injustice perpetrated upon Malays by the colonialists in cahoots with our sultans. They had sold out our country, repeating what their brother Sultan of Johor did with Singapore 127 years earlier.
     The pathetic aspect to the Malayan Union Treaty, like the earlier ceding of Singapore to the British, was how easy it was to make those Malay sultans capitulate. Sir Harold MacMichael, the British point man, needed only a few months to secure the agreement. There was not even a whimper of protest from the sultans.
     Some, like the Johor Sultan, enthusiastically signed the treaty within a day or two, and were proud of that fact! The few who had flashes of courage quickly backed down under threat of being replaced or prosecuted for presumed collaboration with the Japanese during the war.
     It turned out that those Malay sultans – Allah’s representatives on earth – also menurut arahan (follow direction), as per the mantra of the civil service, not from Allah but from Sir Harold.
     Thanks to Datuk Onn, the Union treaty was rescinded. He took on the mighty British and prevailed, with no help from his sultans. Onn did it without being biadap (treasonous) to the sultans or resorting to armed insurrections.
     It is ironic that Onn would be instrumental in this endeavor. Earlier the Sultan of Johor had banished Onn for daring to criticize him. If Onn had been consumed with settling old scores and at the same time endear himself to the British, he would have let the treaty be, and those Malay sultans would today be reduced to the status of the Sultan of Sulu.
     Onn’s accomplishment was even more remarkable considering that by the time he mounted the challenge, Malayan Union was already a fait accompli. The sultans had already signed the treaty, ceding all their authorities to the British. Essentially Malayan Union made what was hitherto “indirect” British rule into a direct one, with no pretense to the contrary.
     The open but peaceful opposition to the Malayan Union (and also indirectly, the Malay sultans) was truly a transformational cultural phenomenon. It was a genuine mass movement made even more remarkable considering the speed with which it was planned, organized and executed. Consider that up until a few months before the event there was not a single national Malay organization; there were plenty of little ones each with its own parochial agenda. Onn changed all that with UMNO.
     The other remarkable aspect was that up until that time it was the accepted wisdom that Malays were an apathetic lot, not in the least interested in politics; hence the British overreaching attempt at railroading the treaty. Onn changed that too. Today, Malays are obsessed with politics to the detriment of everything else. Who says we cannot change Malays? Onn did it successfully, and in a matter of years, not decades or generations.
     Before Datuk Onn, the Malay nationalist movement was slow to develop because of our separate political identities in the various states. Some of the “Federated” states felt that they were better off with British “protection.” The “un-Federated” states meanwhile felt very proud of their “independence,” even though that was more illusory than real.
     Even among the “un-Federated” states there were significant variations. Johor’s sultan was an unabashed Anglophile; his Kelantan counterpart was notorious for his insularity. Their subjects in turn followed the patterns set by their sultans.
     Even as late as the 1950s and 60s Malays still lacked a sense of common national identity, with Kelantan Malays considering themselves separate from those in Johore. Even government jobs and quarters were restricted to “anak Johore” (the children of Johore) or “anak Selangor.”
     Thanks to Onn, the formation of UMNO was the first time Malays began to have a sense of national consciousness, at least politically. It would be a few more decades before that sentiment would truly be felt by the masses, and then spread beyond politics.
     One undisputed but not widely acknowledged fact to the successful opposition against the Malayan Union was that Malay sultans were of no help. They were in fact very much part of the problem with their earlier capitulation through British flattery. The pathetic part was that the sultans’ price for their agreement was so ridiculously cheap: a modest stipend and the knightship of some ancient English order. Regardless whether it was the sultans’ collective stupidity or British perfidy, the result was the same.
     The surprise was that there was minimal republican or anti-sultan sentiment expressed during all those mass protests against the Malayan Union despite the obvious sellouts by the rulers. On the contrary, the Malay masses reacted in exactly the reverse and counter-intuitive fashion; they expressed their unreserved affection and loyalty to their sultans.
     This display was no more dramatically demonstrated than on that one day in Kota Baru, Kelantan, where all the sultans were gathered for the formal installation of the first British Governor-General. The rakyats packed the palace grounds such that the sultans could not leave to attend the ceremony.
    On the surface it was a show of massive public loyalty; on the subtle side, it was nothing more than the mass kidnapping of the sultans by their subjects. The Malay masses had in effect “CB’ed” (confined to barracks) their sultans.
     I doubt whether those sultans received the subtle message that day. That would require some degree of subtlety, intelligence and sophistication for which they had not demonstrated thus far. The British on the other hand heard the message loud and clear, and the Malayan Union treaty was rescinded.
     Had it not been for the rakyats intervening, Malay sultans today would have been all titles and tanjak (ceremonial headgear symbolizing the sultan’s power) but little else.
     So when former Prime Minister Mahathir lamented that he could not change Malays, and by implication we cannot be changed, I bring forth this dramatic example of our remarkable transformation in response to the Malayan Union threat.
     An enterprising soul, Fahmi Reza, has collected all the file pictures and cartoons of the anti-Malayan Union protests into his award-winning documentary, “Sepuloh Tahum Sebulum Merdeka” (“Ten Years Before Merdeka”). It is truly inspiring to see those Malays, young and old, male and female, in sarongs and in suits marching calmly and peacefully in the streets. Their only uniting feature was the defiance and resolve that shone bright on their faces.
     Fahmi Reza has done a remarkable public service in producing this documentary. To his credit, he has also made it freely available on the ‘Net.
     Much has been written about the aborted Malayan Union, both from the perspective of the natives as well as the colonials. I have yet however, to see anyone portray those mass rallies against the treaty as expressions of our rebellion against the sultans. That was a measure of Onn’s subtlety and sophistication.
    Onn was attuned to the halus ways of our culture and used that to bring out the best in us. He united us towards a shared and noble objective –  to kill off the existential threat posed by the Malayan Union Treaty.
     In contrast, today Malaysia is cursed with a leader who revels in the crass aspects of Malay culture, in particular our propensity to berlagak (conspicuous consumption).  Najib’s jetting around in his luxurious jets and his wife’s Bollywood gaudy tastes are expressions of this ugly and destructive trait. His underlings only too willingly ape him with gusto; monkey see,monkey do. Onn united the rakyats; Najib polarizes Malays, as well as Malaysians.
     Onn’s legacy is a free Malaysia; Najib’s will be a Malaysia that is corrupt, divided, and mired in debt.

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

Behold The Liberated Minds of Our hang Jebats and Hang Nadims

November 9th, 2015

Behold The Liberated Minds of Our Hang Jebats and Hang Nadirs!

M. Bakri Musa

Why do you stay in prison when the door is wide open?
Jalal ad Din Rumi (1207-73)


The path we chose in pursuing independence represented the best elements of our culture. We followed the right leaders and they in turn adopted the right strategy, one of co-operation and negotiation. That was our nature, to be bertolak ansur (give and take); posturing and confrontation were just not our style.
Our leaders’ timing too was perfect as Britain had grown weary of her colonies. We were also lucky in that we were dealing with the British. Had it been the Chinese, well, consider the fate of the Tibetans and Uighurs. Had it been the Russians, look at Ukraine and Chechnya.


Today revisionist historians belittle the valiant efforts of our fathers of independence. Let me set these latter-day interpreters of events straight. Had we opted for Burhanuddin Al Helmy or Chin Peng, the nation’s history and the fate of our people would be far different today.


In times of crises or profound changes, we have to be extra cautious in whom we choose to lead us, or stated differently, in whom we should follow. It is during such times that we have to exercise our critical faculties and be extra vigilant in choosing our leaders. Malaysia is in such a state today. We have a leader in Najib Razak who is severely-challenged with respect to honesty, integrity, and competency. Profligacy he has in abundance.
Those enlightened leaders who guided us peacefully to independence should inspire us. As for our earlier heroes who shepherded us to Islam, there is little written about them as our culture had just transited into the written word. In lieu of that I have highlighted the heroes from our legends. One is Hang Tuah, a figure high in the palace hierarchy; the other, an ordinary citizen, Hang Nadim. They may or may not be based on historical characters but they nonetheless serve a useful purpose to remind us of the power of a free mind.
In Sulalatus Salatin (Malay Annals) there is the story of Temasek (old Singapore) being regularly plagued by schools of flying fish. Hundreds fell victim to this scourge, impaled by the fish’s sharp snouts. All efforts at combating this piscine intrusion proved unsuccessful. Then a young boy suggested to the sultan to plant a row of bananas along the shoreline. That way, Hang Nadim told the sultan, when the flying fish darted onshore, their snouts would be impaled on the plants’ soft stems.
The scheme worked wonderfully well, and the pleased sultan decided to honor the clever young man. The sultan’s advisors however, had second thoughts. If that youth could dream up such a brilliant scheme at a very young age, they convinced the sultan, what else would he think of later as an adult? Sensing a future threat, the sultan had Hang Nadim beheaded. Imagine!
That young man certainly had a free mind. He could, to borrow a cliché, think outside the box. He was also not at all shy in telling his sultan on what to do. In a deeply feudal society as Malay society was then (still is), that took great courage.
That boy however, paid dearly for his courage and free-mindedness. Tragic as that was for him and his family, the far greater tragedy was borne by society. Executing the young man not only deprived that society of its bright star but also sent a clear message that it did not pay–in fact downright dangerous–to be innovative and original. Such a society could never aspire to greatness. That was a steep price to pay, just to protect the exalted positions of the sultan’s selfish and shortsighted advisors.
If you kill off your bright talents, a generation or two later you will have a society of dumbbells. When the Mongols invaded the Muslim heartland, the first thing they did was to kill off the intellectuals and luminaries. That was the most effective and efficacious way to decapitate that society and culture.


Hang Nadim’s treatment reminded me of the ancient Mayan practice of sacrificing their beautiful virgins to their Gods. A few generations later, all the newborns in that society were ugly, as the beautiful potential mothers had been killed.
The legend of Hang Nadim reflects more on society than on him. Every society is blessed with its share of Hang Nadims. What it does with the blessings would in large measure determine its fate.
Consider the European aristocracies’ practice of taking in gifted citizens under its patronage. The Romanov Dynasty nurtured the best Russian artists, composers and writers. Granted, the arts were often used as political instruments and artists were continually divided between devotion to their craft and to their royal patrons, but at least those creative citizens received royal support and recognition.
Imagine if the sultan had taken Hang Nadim under his patronage. He would blossom, exploring other bright ideas and expanding on his banana plantation scheme. There could be a flourishing fresh-fruit industry as well as a fish-processing plant. The fish waste would be excellent fertilizer for the rice fields. Imagine, three industries spawned and the attendant jobs for the sultan’s subjects, quite apart from ensuring their safety, just from one bright idea!
If the sultan had gone beyond and married the young man to one of the princesses, that would ensure future members of the royal family would have something between their ears,  We would then be more likely to get sultans who could choose smarter advisers and make wiser decisions.


The far greater reward would not be on the young man or the future average intelligence of the royal family but on society. Other bright young men and women would now be inspired to pursue their own creative and innovative ideas in the hope of getting similar royal recognition. Pretty soon the royal court would be full of these bright kids and the sultan would have the best advice. Both he and his kingdom would prosper.


Today many lament Najib’s dysfunctional leadership. Conveniently forgotten is that the mistake on Najib was made a generation earlier. Who was responsible in UMNO and in the country to have let this flawed character rise up so high?
Bukhari al-Jauhari’s seminal Taj-us Salatin (Crown Jewel of Sultans) outlined the rules governing the relationship between the ruled and their rulers. Both are answerable to a higher authority. Consequently the ruler is to govern in a just manner in accordance to divine dictates. Bukhari went beyond; it is the duty of rulers to have just, pious, honest, and knowledgeable advisors in carrying out the functions of governance.
The king must “selalu rindukan sahabat akan orang yang bererpengetahuan … ” (constantly yearn for the friendship of those most knowledgeable).
Rulers cannot simply lament the poor advice they get or the inadequacies of their advisors, as Raja Nazrin of Perak tried recently in an address to a university community. Rulers must take responsibility; they cannot simply blame their advisors. They must go beyond and diligently seek counsel from those who are competent and honest. Failure to do so would be a dereliction of royal duties, at which point citizens would no longer owe any loyalty to the ruler.
Two points about Taj-us Salatin; first, it was written in early 17th Century when Malay society was steeped in its feudal ways. It took great courage and a free mind to write such a treatise. Unfortunately we do not know much about this heroic writer, except through his works.
The second is that the volume predated Hobbes’ Leviathan, another opus on the same subject, by over half a century. So far reaching were Bukhari’s ideas that earlier colonials concluded that Taj-us Salatin could not possibly be an original but mere translation, possibly from some Middle Eastern sources, as no native could possibly possess the intellectual wherewithal to undertake such serious philosophical work. To claim it as otherwise would defy the colonials’ narrative of the “dumb lazy” natives. The colonials scoured the Middle East looking for the original. They are still looking. Those colonial minds had been closed long before they landed on Malay soil.
Shifting from political philosophy to classical literature, in Hikayat Hang Tuah we have the two protagonists. One, Hang Tuah, is the hero and eponymous legend. Even the name is auspicious–Tuah, the blessed one. In contrast, his nemesis Hang Jebat rhymes with yang jahat, the sinister one.
The legend begins with the pair in childhood, together with another three, bonding as brothers. Later they became hulubalangs (knights) for the sultan, in the manner of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, minus the equality implied by the round table. Hang Tuah, being numero uno, took his loyalty to the sultan to extremes, even lying on his behalf to deceive a young princess. Soon however, palace intrigue took over and Tuah was charged with treason and sentenced to death.
The sultan replaced Tuah with Jebat. On discovering the grave injustice perpetrated on his dear friend, Jebat relentlessly pursued the guilty parties. Threatened by Jebat’s aggressive crusade, the sultan summoned his chief minister for help. He suggested the sultan recall Hang Tuah whom the minister had secretly protected. Tuah, ever loyal to his sultan despite the earlier death sentence, returned.
The climax had the two childhood buddies battling it out in a duel, with Tuah killing Jebat.
The conventional wisdom has Tuah the hero (as suggested by the title), ready to defend the sultan, right or wrong. The free-minded contemporary thinker Kassim Ahmad, partial to the antihero sentiments of his youth, concluded otherwise. Far from being the hero, Tuah is the archetypical palace sycophant willing to kill his dear friend in order to regain the sultan’s favor, even that of an unjust sultan. Jebat is the genuine hero who sacrificed his life to right a gross injustice. Tuah is loyal to the person of the sultan, Jebat to the principle of justice.
Today Malaysia is again blighted with a leader who exceeds the Melaka sultan of yore in his many deficiencies. Like that sultan, Najib extols sycophancy over competency among his ministers. And again like Melaka of yore, we are cursed with a glut of Hang Tuahs ever willing to humor Najib. What we desperately need are our Hang Jebats and Hang Nadims.


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

November 3rd, 2015

Pondering Our Fate – Imagining Otherwise

M. Bakri Musa

It is human nature that when things go well we pay little attention to them; we take them in stride as if they are meant to be, the natural consequence. When we assume such an attitude, we miss some significant learning opportunities. We can learn so much more from our success than we could ever from our failures. For that to happen however, we first have to recognize our successes. This can sometimes be no easy task.

One way would be to undertake a mental exercise, to imagine if things had taken a different path. What if Malays had not embraced Islam but fought and rejected it? Likewise, what would be our fate had we enthusiastically embraced the Europeans and adopted their ways? As for our pursuit of independence, imagine had we bowed to the wishes our sultans and their British “advisers” and accepted our fate to be under permanent British domination, as the Malayan Union Treaty would have it? Lastly, assume we had let those rabble rousers be our leaders fighting for our independence, and they took to fighting the British literally and seriously.

In all of these instances there are ready examples of societies and cultures that had indeed chosen precisely those paths that I just outlined, and we can readily see the consequences today of their collective decisions then.

Our brethren on the island of Bali were not enthusiastic about Islam; they decided to stick to their ancient animist and Hindu beliefs. That would be the fate of the greater Malay society had we not embraced Islam. I have tremendous respect for the Balinese; their pacifist ways appeal to me. However, I would not have the same qualms about my lovely island with its pristine beaches turned into a cheap replica of Waikiki or Australia’s Gold Coast, and my people reduced to performing exotic dances for tourists.
On a more practical level, had we not embraced Islam our culture would still be trapped in the oral tradition and we would not have any written literature. We would definitely be the poorer for that.

At the next juncture, imagine had we fully embraced the colonials. Again, there are ready examples; the Filipinos embraced the Spaniards, becoming devout Catholics in the process. Malays today would never wish to trade places with our Filipino brothers. That is not to say there is anything wrong with them, just that we do not wish to be like them. The Filipinos may have embraced the Spanish ways but the Spaniards have not reciprocated. I doubt whether Filipinos get preferential treatment to work in Spain or in any of the former Spanish colonies. Indeed except for their shared faith, there is little else that the Filipinos have in common with the Spaniards.

At least the Filipinos were lucky; they could have easily suffered the fate of the Mayans; their civilization was completely destroyed with the arrival of the Spaniards.

More recently, imagine if Datuk Onn had not galvanized us to oppose the Malayan Union. We have ready examples of that too. Australia and New Zealand are both British dominions; look at their native populations, the Aborigines and Maoris respectively.

Closer to home are Christmas and Keeling Islands. Both are only a few hundred miles south of Sumatra but through the quirks of colonial history, they belong to Australia, many thousand miles away to the south. Both islands have substantial Malay populations, including a few former sultans and their families. See how well the Australians treat them and how those Malays fare.

In our resistance against the Malayan Union Treaty we held fast to our values. We did not derhaka (rebel) against our sultans although we had plenty of reasons for doing so as they had literally sold our country to the British. Instead we co-opted the finest values of our culture – our loyalty to our sultans – to rescind that treaty.

     As for the path towards independence, imagine had we thrown our lot with Chin Peng and followed the violent path he pursued. We would still today be mourning fresh victims of our “war of independence” and freedom would still elude us.

     The arrival of Islam and European intrusions were both external events imposed upon us. We did not initiate them; we merely responded. Yet our culture had equipped us well in both circumstances. The path we chose for independence was of our own making; we acquitted ourselves exceptionally well there.

     Any change especially when initiated by events beyond our control can potentially be threatening to the existing order. With Islam, our leaders and rakyats as well as our culture reacted positively and creatively, and we were the better for it. With colonization, we reacted negatively as rightly we should to any evil. However, having recognized its vastly superior power we were divided in our subsequent responses. While our leaders made the necessary accommodations and in the end fully absorbed the values of the colonials, they impressed upon their followers to resist or at the very least not participate. It is this hypocrisy on the part of our leaders and the divergence in their responses as compared to the rakyats that made our collective experience with colonialism so much more negative than it ought to have been. As a result our society unnecessarily suffered the ugly consequences.

     With the pursuit of independence, we relied on our traditional cultural values to guide us and in so doing we acquitted ourselves very well.

    The central lesson, as demonstrated by our response to Islam and in the pursuit of independence, is that there must be commonality of goals and aspirations between leaders and followers. This commonality can only be achieved through genuine two-way communications, from up to down and down towards up. That is the key strategy we should adopt as we go forward in dealing with today’s challenges.

     Another key element, again demonstrated in our own approach towards independence, is that we must choose our leaders wisely with the hope that they in turn would choose the right strategy and pick the right team as well as the right timing.

     Our reactions to those events of the past did not occur by themselves; there were equally pivotal personalities that guided us. They were remarkably free-minded, ready to accept the challenges facing them and lead the rest of the community. Their examples should inspire us.

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

Malay Schizophrenic Response to British Colonialism

October 27th, 2015
Malay Schizophrenic Response to British Colonialism
M. Bakri Musa
Malays actively shunned and refused to participate in the various colonial endeavors even those that could potentially benefit us. Instead we undertook a form of passive resistance, utilizing what John C Scott refers to as “weapons of the weak.”
     While these everyday forms of passive resistance may not grab headlines, nonetheless they are akin to the cumulative accumulation of the coral reefs. In the aggregate and over time they exert a profound impact. When the ship of state runs aground on such reefs, attention is directed to the shipwreck and not to the aggregations of petty acts that made those treacherous reefs possible.
     So was the Malayan Union initiative shipwrecked upon a reef of resentment and resistance that had quietly been building up and concretized over time.
     Of course the weapon of the weak had its price. As those brave little acts of defiance did not fit the colonials’ narrative of us as being “nature’s gentlemen,” they had to invent new ones. Thus was born the myth of the lazy native that later became the colonialists’ convenient justification for bringing in those indentured laborers.
     Those tribulations notwithstanding, we should realize that even in the most evil system there are slivers of good and of individuals with goodwill within it. In our rightful condemnation of colonization we must also be aware of the good colonization had brought to our society, whether those were intentional or merely unintended consequences.
     Then there were those enlightened colonial officers who were sympathetic to our cause. There was for example, R J Wilkinson who was instrumental in setting up Malay College in 1905, and Richard Winstedt, the Sultan Idris Training College in 1922.
     The British also outlawed some of the more odious aspects of our culture, like slavery and indentured labor (orang hamba). They also brought in modern education and the rubber industry. Yes, they also burdened our land with a race problem that we are still grappling with.
Seeing that we could not possibly prevail if we were to frontally confront the colonials, nonetheless we could have through our leaders arranged a workable accommodation instead of shunning the colonials entirely. Then they would not have to import those cheap foreign labors. More importantly, the colonials then would not have to concoct those ugly myths about us.
     With our leaders’ encouragement we could have participated in those colonial ventures and learned something from them, much like Munshi Abdullah did. Likewise, had we not projected wholly evil motives on the part of the colonials we could have encouraged our children to attend the much superior English schools. Had we done so, our community would not have been left so far behind come time of independence.
     After all, our leaders (including and especially the sultans) readily corroborated with the colonials. They unabashedly absorbed the ways of the English and lapped up any scrap of British title bestowed upon them. The sultans and aristocrats did not hesitate in sending their children to English schools, even their daughters to those “convents.”
     Our leaders should have likewise encouraged the rakyats to do the same and not have double standards – one for them and another for the rest. Our leaders were hypocrites in being shameless anglophiles while condemning the colonials in front of the rakyats.
     This was in stark contrast with the way we dealt with the coming of Islam. Both leaders and rakyats were honest with each other; we were all on the same wavelength, each supporting the other in their collective and united response to this new force.
     Another reason I did not give top marks to our encounter with colonization was this. We failed to differentiate the significant differences between the various colonizers. They may all be Europeans, but there were vast differences between the Dutch and Portuguese on one hand, and the British on the other. For the Dutch, look what they did to Indonesia; for the Portuguese, Angola and East Timor.
     As far as colonials go, the British were slightly on the benign side; their Anglo Saxon ethics and sense of fairness are worthy of our emulation. Besides, being the nation that ushered in the Industrial Revolution they had something to teach the world, and that included Malays.
     Had we embraced the technological modernization that the British had to offer just as enthusiastically as we did the spiritual values of Islam, we could have had the best of both worlds; the British for our material and worldly needs; Islam our spiritual and “other worldly” yearnings.
     That we did not embrace the modernization brought in by the British reflected our own insecurity with Islam. We feared that the infidel colonials would “contaminate” our Islamic values. By not partaking in the educational and other opportunities afforded by the British (scarce as they were), we put ourselves at a significant disadvantage vis a vis the other communities in Malaysia that harbored no such reservations.
Imagine had we enthusiastically utilized the British influence to enhance our literature and language, or learn trading skills from the nation of shopkeepers. Our national language would by now be fully developed and we would be accomplished entrepreneurs. Instead, we were obsessed with maintaining the “purity” of our language to the extent of avoiding obvious words like “radio” preferring instead our very own native and “pure” tetuang udara (lit. pouring out air), no matter how awkward that sounded.
Ironically, Malay language expanded exponentially only after independence when we, without reservations adopted wholesale English words even when there were perfectly adequate Malay ones!
As for trading skills, we missed out on the Arabs and again with the English. No wonder today we have only the pseudo variety of entrepreneurs in our midst.
Next: Imagining Otherwise
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Lessons From The Past

October 19th, 2015
Lessons From The Past
M. Bakri Musa
The coming of Islam, European colonization, and the pursuit of independence – these were transformational events in our culture that resulted in the toppling of the Malay collective coconut shell. In all three instances our culture had served us well in guiding us through uncharted waters.
     Yet, and this seems perverse, in our current tribulations we are far too inclined to blame our culture. I suggest that instead of forever berating and blaming the presumed inadequacies of our culture, it would be far more meaningful and productive if we were to analyze and learn how our culture had dealt with the major events of the past, and apply those insights to our current challenges.
     If I were to grade the performance of our culture to the three transformational events in our history, I would give an exemplary A-plus for the path we chose towards independence, an A-minus for our reception to the coming of Islam, and a respectable B for our performance during colonization.
     As for that brief period of Japanese Occupation, the fact that we survived was blessing enough. Indeed we did better; we maintained our honor and integrity. Contrary to the fears expressed by the likes of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew who wondered out loud whether during a time of famine his Malay neighbors would spare him their last grains of rice, rest assured that Malays willingly shared what little we had even with our once oppressors, as Jean Paget experienced in “A Town Like Alice.”
     A grading exercise is only meaningful if accompanied by some useful comments. I gave a perfect score for our pursuit of independence because it was done right in every respect. We chose the right leaders and they chose the right strategy; it was also the right timing. Our approach was pragmatic, and that proved productive.
     The path we chose reflected the best elements of our culture. It emphasized fairness and generosity, and we put both to good use by working together with the other communities to achieve our goal. We kept our eye on the ultimate prize, and we were willing to make the necessary compromises in order to reach our final destination. We did not consider the give and take of negotiations as a sign of weakness, rather of strength. Timbang menimbang, as we say, of being fair and balanced.
     With such a mindset we were able to work readily with non-Malays towards independence. We did not consider the exercise of collaboration as expedience, a sign of weakness, or the price we had to pay but as a positive endeavor towards a common goal. Had we been consumed with the “purity” of our goals and had been unwilling to compromise, we would still be a British colony today and be left even further behind.
     That said, the path we chose towards independence was far from smooth. There were tough negotiations and last minute snags not only between Malays and non-Malays as represented within the Alliance, but also among Malays, specifically between UMNO (which at that time represented the overwhelming majority of Malays) and the sultans. Ultimately commonsense prevailed, and with a united front within Alliance and with the sultans, the negotiations with the British were successful.
     There were other equally passionate nationalistic leaders. With no disrespect to them, none measured up to Tunku, Tun Razak, and his team in Alliance. Had we hitched our fate on Burhanuddin Al Helmy, another giant of a leader, we would be like Indonesia today; with Malay girls desperate to find work as maids in neighboring countries. I do not question Burhanuddin’s anti-colonialist credentials but his avowed goal was union with Indonesia.
     Had we latched on to Ahmad Boestaman, he would have embraced Chin Peng in a grand gesture of socialistic reconciliation, a strategy so loved by those who think that problems could be solved by simply forgetting or ignoring differences. Sukarno did that with Aidit, leader of the Indonesian Communist Party, and was nearly done in, as was Indonesia.
Chin Peng was also for independence, but his goal was to realize the aspiration of a Greater China as revealed in some ancient maps found in the musty tombs of long-gone emperors. Chin Peng and Burhanuddin were alike in their thinking and strategies; the former, communism and China; the latter, Islam and Indonesia.
     Tunku too tried this reconciliation route, but after meeting Chin Peng at the Baling Peace Talks in December 1955, quickly gave that idea up. Tunku remembered well the basic rule to any negotiation: stick to your principles. He intuitively recognized Chin Peng for what he was and wisely decided that it would not be prudent to share a blanket with a cobra.
     Our culture’s response to the coming of Islam was exemplary in many ways. We saw its innate beauty and evident verity, and embraced the faith enthusiastically. Yet in so doing we did not dismiss or abandon our then existing ways and identity. Our exuberant acceptance of this new faith did not preclude us from continuing our traditional practices and adat (customs). The genius of our ancestors was to creatively harmonize the two, not picking and choosing what we like from each and discarding what we deemed unsuitable, rather the artful fusion of both. We did not become less of a Muslim or Malay in so doing but better human beings and our society the better for it.
     The closest modern equivalent to our exuberant embrace of Islam would be the current Chinese accommodation to capitalism and globalization. Just as our ancestors created their own “Islam with Malay characteristics” as it were, separate from those of the Arab, Persian or Indian variety, likewise today’s China enthusiastically embraces capitalism albeit “with Chinese characteristics,” a unique brand identifiably different from the American, British or Scandinavian strain. It is capitalism nonetheless and has brought unimaginable benefits to the Chinese, just as Islam did to Malays.
     I did not grant top marks to our ancestors’ embracing Islam because in their eagerness they failed to grasp fully its vast universe beyond the spiritual and theological. They did not fully appreciate the tremendous non-religious contributions of the Arabs to the arts and sciences through Islam. Consequently there were no Malay translations of texts beyond the religious and hikayat (legends). Nor did our ancestors emulate the highly successful trading practices of those early Arabs.
     Our ancestors also failed to appreciate the full breath and diversity of Islamic theological thoughts, or of Islam’s tolerance to dissenting viewpoints, at least in its early years. Our culture’s failure in that arena would handicap us in our subsequent dealings with the inevitable differences in interpretations within our faith. We impute evil motives on those with whom we disagree; we are too eager to label as apostates those who disagree with us.
We became so enamored with those Arab traders and so eager to emulate them that we closed ourselves to other equally valid interpretations and practices of Islam. We let ourselves be colonized mentally in that we would view any other version of Islam as being bida’a, an adulteration of the faith.
     Our embrace of the Arabs could not be more different than our reaction to the Europeans. Our culture was right in recognizing colonization’s inherent evil nature. No human group has a right to subjugate others under any pretext, be it noblesse oblige or the presumption of a supposed “white man’s burden.”
     We should fight evil (and colonization was that) but in doing so we should also recognize our own weaknesses. If we realize that our enemy is overwhelming and that there can be no meaningful or possible way for us to prevail, then we should be prepared to make the necessary accommodations to that harsh reality. There is no need to sacrifice our people needlessly. Life is precious; adapt and live for another day.
     The powers of the colonialists were indeed awesome, and we would be nothing but easy prey had we aggressively resisted. In such instances our first priority should be to ensure our collective survival. With time we could learn from our adversaries and only then perhaps could we build a credible force to challenge them.
     As per the wisdom of our Koran, when we see evil we must use our hands to combat it, meaning, do so physically. Failing that we should use our tongue, that is, voice our disapproval. When even that is not feasible, then we should disapprove of it in our hearts, though that is the path least favored by Allah. Stated differently, we should not senselessly sacrifice our precious lives to a lost cause and that there is infinite human capacity to adjust while remaining true to our faith. We saw that in Stalin’s Soviet Union and elsewhere.
     British colonialism was a formidable force and we could not possibly prevail. We could not challenge it with our hands; we were no match for their guns and cannons. We could voice our disapproval, but their prisons too had infinite capacity. Thus we were left to disapproving it only in our hearts, and we did.
     When it became clear that we were vastly outmatched by colonialism, our people responded in the only way they could. They resorted to using the “weapons of the weak,” borrowing James C. Scott’s words.
Next: Our Schizophrenic Response to British Colonialism
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

The Peaceful Path We Chose Towards Independence

October 12th, 2015


The Peaceful Path We Chose Towards Independence
M. Bakri Musa
The third defining moment in Malay culture was the peaceful path we chose towards independence. The Malay world was turned upside down with colonization; it altered the physical as well as social landscape. The latter was even more profound and threatening.
     Despite that, and defying the trend of the time, we opted for this peaceful path through negotiations and collaborations in pursuit of our independence.
     If one were to stroll along the countryside of pre-colonial Malaysia, there would of course be no paved roads. One would have to literally cut a swath through the thick jungle. The only practical route for travel was by rivers and waterways.
     The British built roads and replaced the thick jungle with neat rows of identical, boring but highly productive rubber trees. As for the rivers, once teeming with fish, they were now like kopi susu (cafe au lait) from the contamination of brown sediments from the ubiquitous tin mines.
     Those earlier mines were of the cheap, primitive and labor-intensive hydraulic variety. Water under high pressure was blasted onto the hillside to get to the heavier tin ore underneath the surface. The thin but rich topsoil would be washed away, polluting streams and rivers.
     The rubber estates on the other hand presented a serene scene. However, behind that cool green scenery, the rubber industry too was (and still is) highly polluting. If you happen to be anywhere near a rubber factory where those sheets are being dried, if the offensive stench does not get you then the acrid smoke certainly will. Processing the seemingly pure white latex is also extremely toxic, requiring corrosive formic acid and vast quantities of water that then also pollute the streams and water tables.
     To colonial economists, that pollution is merely an externality; remediation efforts would only reduce profits. Besides, the victims were Malay villagers anyway. For them however, the streams that previously provided much-needed proteins through their fish were now barren. Worse, with the silting came frequent devastating floods.
     The degradations of the environment offended not just the esthetics but also physical senses. Yet what really affected Malay sensibilities were the equally dramatic, fast moving, and very unsettling changes to the social landscape. Malays felt an existential threat by the presence of the massive hordes of foreigners brought in to work the tin mines and rubber estates.
     This monumental change to the social landscape would have remained hidden and subtle had it not been for the tumultous changes in the mining industry. Those primitive, labor-intensive hydraulic mines soon gave way to the efficient, mechanized, floating dredges. Suddenly thousands of coolies were no longer needed and forced to leave the mines. They settled on Malay lands.
     Soon hitherto Malay towns like Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur changed character in dramatic ways. Instead of Azzan you would hear gongs; instead of the fragrance of the lady-of-the-night flowers we had the eye-searing smoke from burning joss sticks.
     With English schools being built in towns and non-Malays eagerly enrolling their children, no doubt influenced by the successes of the Queen’s Chinese, it did not take long for non-Malays to control the modern sectors of Malaysian life, especially the economy.
     It was this social change that Malays found threatening and motivated our leaders to seek independence as soon as possible so our destiny would be under our control. This nationalistic zeal was further emboldened when we saw the ease with which the British were routed during World War II.
     Malaysia’s peak struggle for independence was fortuitously timed with the period of worldwide de-colonization. The shame of colonization finally struck the conscience of the Western world, mocking their very concept of being civilized. Colonization betrayed the hollowness of their supposedly humanitarian Christian principles.
     That realization alone was not enough for the British to give up their resource-rich colony. The country now was no longer exclusively Malay; it had a substantial immigrant population. The British had just gone through the harrowing experience with the Indian independence and the ensuing horrific human tragedies. The stain and stench of that epic human-made catastrophe was still heavy on British hands. They were not about to let that happen again to any of their other colonies.
     Fortunately Malay leaders at the time, at least the more thoughtful and enlightened ones, were aware of the British dilemma. The only way the country could achieve independence was to convince the colonials that those non-Malays would not be massacred once the civilizing presence of the British was gone, and that Malays could live side by side with non-Malays, or at least tolerate their presence. In short, our leaders assured the British that the Indian horror would not be repeated on the Malay Peninsula.
     Wise Malay leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak sought formal workable relationships with like-minded leaders from the Chinese and Indian communities. The Tunku and Tun Razak sought those leaders who were not among the recent immigrants who tended to be chauvinistic and thus unacceptable to Malays. Rather they chose those who had been in Malaysia for generations and were in tune with Malay sensitivities – the Straits Chinese and old established Indian leaders. Thus was born the Alliance Party, comprising the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), and Malayan Indian Congress (MIC).
     Alliance’s resounding success in the first general elections of 1955 in which its only manifesto was the country’s independence convinced the British that this group of leaders would not turn the country into a miniature Indian nightmare.
    To be sure, they were not the first to aspire leading Malaysia towards independence. For Malays, there were the traditional village leaders who scored high on the nationalism zeal but were pathetically inept in their strategic thinking. They were also woefully ignorant in the art of modern statecraft.
     If those were not already significant weaknesses, they were also ignorant of British ways. How could they when they had never left their kampong or could hardly speak English? The key to winning a war is to know your adversary, as Lao Tze put it in his The Art of War. Those village Malay leaders were severely handicapped in that regard.
     Their other weakness, and a very significant one, was that while they were committed to getting rid of colonial rule, their goal was not the country’s independence but its subsequent union with neighboring Indonesia in a grand Melayu Raya (Malay Union). Knowing how dysfunctional that young republic was (still is, half a century later) that strategy did not strike a chord even with Malays. Had Indonesia been successful, things would have been different.
     Similarly there were leaders in the Chinese community agitating for Malaysia’s independence. Like the Malay nationalists, those leaders, principally in the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), were not interested in the country’s independence but its incorporation in a Greater China, as supposedly claimed in some moldy documents of ancient Emperors. As for leaders of the Indian community, they were consumed with affairs in the subcontinent.
     In the end, the path chosen by Alliance leaders proved successful. Their overwhelming electoral victory was a powerful but not the only factor to their success in gaining independence. Those leaders also knew the ways of the English and exploited that insight. Instead of relying exclusively on the goodwill of colonial bureaucrats, those leaders also cultivated Members of Parliament, especially those from the Labor Party who were sympathetic to the Malaysian cause.
     The other Malay nationalists were kampong-bred and not savvy enough to negotiate the tricky path towards independence. As for Chin Peng, leader of the MCP, while he was familiar with the ways of the British having fought with them against the Japanese and proven himself sufficiently worthy of a British royal award, the OBE, nevertheless Britain was not about to let one of her richest colonies be turned over to a communist even if the Labor Party had been in power.
     The Alliance prevailed because of its leaders’ political suaveness and familiarity with the British. Those leaders’ commitment to capitalism and democracy, as well as their proven track record of working across racial lines, convinced the British that Malaysia would be in good hands. Those colonialists were right.
     Today with the waning popularity of Barisan Nasional, successor to the old Alliance, revisionist historians would like us to believe that it was all those leftist rabble rousers and terrorists who should get the credit for the nation’s independence.
     I do not intend to demean or dismiss the huge contributions of such towering nationalists on the left as Ahmad Boestaman and on the right as Dr. Burhanuddin Al Helmy by my remarks. They were among the first to dare imagine a world of freedom, to ignite the passion for merdeka. More importantly, they kept that fire burning.
     Consider Datuk Onn; he more than anyone else was responsible for galvanizing the Malay masses. It was he who frontally took on the British and his own sultan in aborting the Malayan Union Treaty that would have made Malaysia a permanent British dominion.
     In the end as with everything else, it is the result that counts. UMNO leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Razak Hussein in their wisdom sought the cooperation of the other communities, and using their political skills and personal talents captured the ultimate prize. If both were alive today, I am certain that they would generously share the credit with the other nationalists. I just wish that their successors in the current UMNO would be just a wee bit charitable and not hog all the glory.
Next: Lessons From The Past
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Deepening Malay Polarization More Dangerous Than Inter-Racial Divisions

September 20th, 2015
Deepening Malay Polarization More Dangerous Than Inter-Racial Divisions
  1. Bakri Musa
Over 46 years ago a largely Chinese group of demonstrators celebrating their party’s electoral victory triggered Malaysia’s worst race riot. Last Wednesday, September 16, 2015, an exclusively Malay rally in predominantly Chinese Petaling Street of Kuala Lumpur triggered only the riot police’s water cannons.
            What flowed on Petaling Street last Wednesday was clear water, not red blood as in 1969. There was also minimal property damage (except for loss of business) and no loss of life. That is significant; that is progress.
            Malaysia has come a long way since 1969, the current shrill race hysteria notwithstanding. However leaders, political and non-political, Malays as well as non-Malays, are still trapped in their time-warped racial mentality of the 1960s. They still view the nation’s race dynamics primarily as Malays versus non-Malays.
            That is understandable as the horrific memories of that 1969 race tragedy, as well as the much earlier and more brutal Bintang Tiga reign of terror, had been seared into the collective Malaysian consciousness, permanently warping our national perception.
            The challenge today is less the risk of inter-racial conflagration of the 1969 variety, more a Malay civil war similar to what is now happening in the Arab world and what has happened on the Korean Peninsula. Last Wednesday’s red-shirt rally illustrates this point.
            While the earlier and visibly non-Malay Bersih 4.0 demonstrations had considerable Malay support, including from such luminaries as Tun Mahathir and National Laureate Datuk Samad Said, the exclusively Malay red-shirted Himpunan Rakyat Bersatu drew condemnations from many Malays, leaders and otherwise.
            The head of the Malay NGO Group of 25, Noor Farida, contemptuously dismissed the red shirts as “rent-a-mob crowd.” As a former diplomat I would have expected her to be, well, a bit diplomatic and try to heal the division, not add to it.
            The fact that these supposedly enlightened Malay leaders saw fit to condemn and not try to at least understand the aspirations and frustrations of those red-shirted protestors underscores my contention.
            Make no mistake. Ethnic and racial conflicts are still a tragic reality today in much of the world, even in the enlightened West. Witness the reaction in Western Europe to the current flood of non-European refugees. Only a few months ago America went through another of its all-too-frequent wrenching race riots in Ferguson, Missouri, a century and a half following Reconstruction and over half a century after the adoption of the Civil Rights Act.
            In the Middle East, the Jews and Arabs are still at it. Nonetheless and to put things in perspective, more Arabs have been killed in modern times by fellow Arabs than by Jews, or the Jews and the West combined.
            That observation underscores the lethality of intra-racial conflicts. The present undercurrent of Malay xenophobia however, blinds us to this new emerging and far more dangerous reality.
            This peril is amplified and abetted by the glaring deficit in our community today of a buffering body or mediating mechanism to bridge and heal the divisions within us. While our traditional ethics and culture had served us well in the past, our pseudo or culup modernity has destroyed those pristine values.
            Consider that when the British imposed the Malayan Union Treaty with the acquiescence of our sultans, Malays (except for our sultans of course) were united in opposing it. Our grandparents expressed their disagreement and displeasure with our sultans in our traditional halus (subtle) ways – by demonstrating our loyalty publicly. That mass display prevented our sultans from attending the inauguration of what would have been the first British Governor of Malaya. The protest was so subtle that our sultans missed the message. Bless the British, they did not.
            Back then we were blessed with “towering personalities” like Datuk Onn. His courage led him to defy his own sultan in the tradition of Hang Jebat, to the point that he (Onn) was once labeled a derhaka (traitor) and banished to Singapore.
            Today we are bereft of such smart, strong and honest leaders. Instead we are cursed with an abundance of the pseudo-towering variety. Like Hang Tuah of yore, they are corrupt, incompetent, and obsessed with sucking up to their superiors, the sultans as well as sultan wannabes. These leaders do not bring us closer; they would rather divide us so as to maintain their positions.
            Najib personifies this type of leadership.
            One expects our commonality of Islam to bind us. Far from it! Islam and its institutions in Malaysia have failed miserably on this front. Instead of bringing us together, Islam divides us, mocking our Koran and the teachings of our Prophet.
            Our muftis could not even agree as to what is halal and haram. Our government-issued ulamas could not say enough kind words on UMNO leaders, even blessing their corrupt deeds, all in the name of Islam! Meanwhile those aligned with PAS would have us believe that not voting for PAS would doom us to eternal hellfire.
            In many villagers there are separate mosques for PAS and UMNO followers. Even funerals and marriages have been boycotted in the name of Islam.
            This religious fissure goes deep. The intolerance of a hijab-clad Muslimah for her tudung-free sisters goes beyond attire.
            There are other equally dangerous fissures. There are those who consider English fluency an asset and strive hard to acquire that for themselves and their children. Others view that as denigrating our national language and culture, an act of treason no less. Again, that reflects the profound differences in our worldview.
            These fault lines are fast converging. Given their proper alignment and timing, they could all explode simultaneously, with catastrophic consequences to all, Malays as well as non-Malays.
            I am less concerned with the differences between non-Malay yellow-shirters and Malay red shirts, rather between yellow-shirted and red-shirted Malays. The latter division is becoming increasingly irreconcilable and more dangerous. Yet they share some common elements beyond race and faith. Both recognize and value the rights of citizens to demonstrate publicly and or otherwise petition their grievances to the government.
            Yes, both have a lot to learn about public demonstrations. They are not alone. Even the University of California is still grappling with the issue of where to draw the line between freedom of speech and intolerance.
            Barisan, specifically UMNO, must appreciate and address the concerns of Bersih if it hopes to win the next election and then govern without much harassment. Likewise Pakatan, specifically DAP, must not dismiss the apprehensions and frustrations of the Himpunan Group. Those red-shirted Malays may be crude in expressing their frustrations nonetheless their concerns are legitimate.
            The shrill offensive cries of Tanah Melayu and Balek Tongsan are but emotional outbursts of those who feel marginalized and helpless. Their emotions preclude them from seeing beyond. If all the pendatangs were to leave and Malaysia to become exclusively Tanah Melayu, who would fix those Mat Rempits’ motorcycles, defend them in courts, or sell them smart phones at affordable prices?
            Bersih and Himpunan need to appreciate each other’s positions, and then help solve or at least ameliorate those differences. To Himpunan, Bersih’s criticisms of the UMNO government are seen as belittling Malay leadership specifically and the Malay race generally. To Bersih, if only the government and UMNO leaders were to be a wee bit more competent and a whole lot less corrupt, the plight of Malays generally and those red-shirters in particular would be much better.
            It does not take much effort to appreciate the other side’s point of view. I was impressed with the recent incident at Bayan Lepas when a redshirt leader came to disrupt a Berseh 4 gathering. The quick and counterintuitive thinking of the organizer had that individual address the gathering. Thus instead of confrontation, there was communication. That is the sort of gestures that need to be done and encouraged.
            For Malays, we first need to build bridges, not dig trenches within our own community. As for the offensive cries of pendatang and Balek Tongsan, Zunar’s latest cartoon encapsulates my point well, and with lots of humor. It depicts a Mat Rempit begging an Ah Peck to fix his (Mat’s) motorcycle.
            Intra-Malay fissure is not just a Malay problem. Malaysia cannot be stable if its largest racial entity is fractured.

Same Reality, Different Perceptions

September 13th, 2015

Same Reality, Different Perceptions
Najib’s RM 2.6B – Generous Donation or Grand Corruption?
M. Bakri Musa

In the 1950s the Americans were alarmed with the leftist-leaning and shrill anti-Western rhetoric of Indonesia’s Sukarno. To neutralize him, they concocted a scheme to blackmail the man by portraying him as other than a true nationalist.

So on one of his many visits to America the CIA secretly set-up Sukarno to be in the company of high-priced hookers, and then clandestinely filmed him in his frolics. Sukarno must have felt that he was already in heaven with some of his 72 “virgins!”

The plan was to screen snippets of the tape in the movie houses of Jakarta. Surely in pious Muslim Indonesia such scenes would enrage the audiences such that they would take to the streets demanding Sukarno’s downfall.

Thus far everything went according to the well-rehearsed script, one that would be repeated in different places and with different players.

Imagine the horror of the local CIA station agent when the audiences instead roared their approval of their President!

“Yeah! Itu jantan kita!” (That’s our stud!) they roared as Sukarno, like the bunny, powered by the Eveready battery, kept going and going (or coming and coming)! “It’s about time one of us gets to screw them, they did that to us for years!”

The Indonesians could not conceal their pride in their leader’s virility, perhaps fantasizing a part of themselves in him.

My long preamble here is to put forth a simple proposition. While the reality may be the same, the perceptions may be radically different. The world and many Malaysians may view Najib’s RM2.6 billion “donation” as corruption on a grand scale, but to red-shirted Malays and their UMNO Putra patrons, it is but a measure of an Arab’s high regard for their man.

Pardon my comparing Najib with Sukarno. Najib is no Sukarno in leadership talent or oratorical skills; he is in priapic proclivities.

It is not coincidental that Najib’s spinmeisters would have the donation come from the Middle East, the land of the Prophet. To Muslim Malays, the Arabs and their desert are blessed. In Saudi Arabia even the flies on your food are halal. As for the ensuing diarrhea, well, that’s Allah testing you.

This truism – differing perceptions of the same reality – extends in nature. A rotting carcass is revolting and haram but to vultures, a heavenly gift. Does the fastidious diner have moral superiority over the scavenger vulture?

Dispensing with the relativism, let’s examine Najib’s bonanza from a practical and more consequential perspective. Najib claims that the money was reward for his “exemplary” leadership, and to ensure that it be continued. More directly stated, it was to fund his re-election.

Thus one fact or precedent is now established. Malaysian leaders and elections can be bought, or at least influenced by foreign money and individuals. That is significant, and pivotal. Today, a generous Arab; tomorrow, the CIA! Next could be China or Singapore. Before long, a non-Arab Middle Eastern state! With the ringgit fast becoming worthless, topping the RM2.6 billion should be easy.

Besides, money is not the only means of influence peddling. The Americans and Singaporeans in particular are more sophisticated. They are not crude, careless, or stupid like the Arabs as to write a massive check or drop off a bundle of cash.

Consider that many children of Third World leaders end up at top American universities despite not having super SAT scores. Similarly many Third World leaders are invited as visiting fellows and professors. They lap up the accolades! If those refined tricks fail, there is the White House visit or a presidential golf game.

Likewise with Singapore; Malaysians covet invitations to address institutions there, a reflection of its influence. The Republic today is far different from the early days of Lee Kuan Yew when its leaders took every opportunity to snipe across the causeway. Today Singaporeans are active partners in the development of the southern corridor. They choose their partners prudently however, preferring for example, the Johore royal family. The same shrewd calculation applies as to whom they invite to address them.

China too is learning fast. The Chinese are now partnering with the Johore royal household to develop some swamps at the tip of the peninsula. With the sultan on your side, there won’t be too many intrusive questions.

It’s worth reminding that not too long ago the same royal family sold off the entire island of Singapore. With this propensity to sell, what else would they dispose of next?

Yet another perspective to Najib’s bonanza is to analyze its opportunity cost. Granted we do not know how or where he spent the money; Najib is still trying to spin that one out. Nonetheless even a devalued RM2.6 billion could buy you both Australia’s Anna Creek and the Texas King Ranch (world’s and America’s largest respectively), with plenty left over. And if you run both outfits in other than the manner of Sharizat family’s National Cattle Feedlot, there would be plenty of jobs and halal meat for generations of Malaysians and others.

Back to nature’s vultures, beyond gluttony they do provide a useful service, as with cleaning up the environment and preventing the spread of diseases. They deserve our respect. Najib and his vultures on the other hand pollute our social environment and corrode the integrity of our institutions through their corrupt deeds. They deserve our contempt.

Apart from the lucky few around Najib who benefit directly from him, what purpose would there be for the others to view his loot as reward for his performance instead of an act of grand corruption?

I can understand (though condemn) Najib’s ministers and UMNO warlords for being his ardent cheerleaders. They could not otherwise afford those luxuries; these characters have no marketable skills or professional accomplishments. Their flair for “sucking up” is appreciated only by insecure and untalented superiors. To these unabashed supplicants, even Najib’s crumbs are worth scrambling for. Absent that they would be back to their old kampong mode.

Those whom I feel most sorry for are the young red-shirted pemudas (youths) and pink-frocked puteris. Surely their maruah (reputation) is worth much more than just the few hundred ringgit for their free trips to the capital city, plus their complimentary colorful attires and perhaps a sarong pelekat or two.

I would support them if they were to demand their share of the booty. Not as direct handouts as that would quickly end up in the hands of those retailers at Low Yat Plaza but to create enduring programs to train them as plumbers, mechanics, and electricians, or to improve our schools and universities.

They could then benefit from those initiatives and do something meaningful with their lives, quite apart from contributing to society and having a bright future. That would be a legacy worth bequeathing to their children and grandchildren. Those values and sense of self-worth are worth cultivating. Itu maruah Melayu tulin! (That’s respect to a genuine Malay.)

Maruah shapes our perception of reality. Our maruah says that when we receive money or favors for which we are not entitled to or have not worked for, that is corruption, not donation. Those who claim otherwise have no maruah.

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.