Malaysian Education: Deficiency of Ambience

October 22nd, 2017

Malaysian Education:  Deficiency of Ambience

M. Bakri Musa


One crippling deficiency of Malaysian educational institutions is its ambience, or to be specific, enrollment.

Step into any Malaysian classroom and one is struck by something odd. While Malaysia is a plural society, its classrooms are segregated along race. Worse, this is voluntary. National schools are fast becoming exclusively Malay, non-Malay enrollment rapidly declining. Vernacular schools are almost exclusively non-Malays, though there is recent rapid increase in Malay enrollment at Chinese schools.

The growth is with international schools, in particular English-medium ones, with the demand far outstripping the supply despite the much higher costs. If not for that and rigid quotas, those schools would be inundated with Malaysians. Because of the high costs, enrollment in these schools is skewed along race and socioeconomic lines. Those foreign children at these schools (and their parents) thus have a distorted view of local society.

The growth in international schools reflects citizens’ low confidence in the local system.

What discourages non-Malays to enroll in national schools is the increasing “Islamization” of the curriculum and environment. Islam is taught not as an academic subject but as theology, with heavy emphasis on rituals and catechisms. Even if non- Muslims wanted to learn Islam as a legitimate intellectual pursuit, they would be put off. Granted, many Christian schools in the West too have heavy religious components, as with attending mass, nonetheless their curriculum is much broader and of higher quality. Consequently, many non-Christian parents have no qualms enrolling their children.

If the “Islamization” of national schools does not deter non-Malays, then the quality would, from the teaching and curriculum to the general level of discipline. Bullying, gang activities, and drug abuse are the norms. The physical facilities are shoddy, posing hazards to the students, as with halls and laboratories collapsing soon after being completed. Food poisoning is a regular affliction, reflecting the atrocious standard of hygiene in school canteens. National schools do not inspire confidence.

Concerns about “Islamization” and the deteriorating quality may be the initial reasons for non-Malays to shun national schools, but this being Malaysia, the ugly racial element is not far behind. Today, Malay-medium and Malay control are equated with mediocrity, incompetence, and corruption in schools and universities as well as other institutions. That poisons race relations.

Malaysia is not leveraging her cultural diversity and ethnic plurality to enhance the learning experiences of her students. Myopic Malaysian leaders consider diversity a liability, not an asset. Malaysian schools and universities reinforce the insularity of their students; these institutions, especially religious, entrap not liberate young minds.

            Segregation can be solved in two ways–mandatory and voluntary. The former is cheap and can be effective, but whether sustainable is an open question. What happens when the compulsive element is removed, as ultimately it would have to be? The old segregated pattern would then return, and with a vengeance.

That approach however, has merits. The American military is the most integrated of their institutions, more so than universities or the sports and entertainment industry. The military approaches the problem frontally and coercively. The Joint Chief issued a command that all units be integrated. That was it; everyone had to obey. A southern white boy would just have to adjust to the fact that he had to stop and salute to a Black officer and address him as “Sir!” Disobey, and he would be court-martialed. Simple and effective!

Yugoslavia’s Tito did it that way. There was no ethnic cleansing during his time. There was stability and peace that survived his death, albeit briefly. Sarajevo even hosted the glittering winter Olympics of 1984.

We may flinch at Tito’s authoritarian ways, but there was no questioning their effectiveness. The problem was just that; when he was gone, old prejudices and hatreds returned with a vengeance.

What would have happened had the lid been kept on even tighter? Yugoslavia’s disintegration would have been delayed, and if delayed long enough people might get used to each other. They would have acquired the peace habits and forget their destructive ancient ethnic hatreds.

Lester Pearson, Nobel Peace Laureate and former Canadian Prime Minister, once said that if he could keep Canadians out of war for just one generation, that would immunize them against war. There is great wisdom to that. The contrary observation is even truer; once a nation initiates war, it reduces the threshold for the next one. That is where America is today.

I am no fan of coercive methods to achieve social goals no matter how noble and worthy. However, if they prove successful, I would not condemn them either.

American public schools were once shining examples of social integration, acculturating millions of children of immigrants to the American way. That is less so today.

More relevant to contemporary Malaysia would be the old colonial English schools, credited with producing many enlightened Malaysian leaders. Those schools attracted Malaysians of all races, though for a variety of reasons, fewer Malays.

Some advocate the return of those schools. I agree, up to a point. If we were to resurrect those institutions in their original form without any modification, then we would be no further ahead. We would be trading one set of problems for another.

The biggest deficiency with the old English schools was their inability to attract Malays. Unless that is rectified, these schools would aggravate interracial inequities. One strategy to make these schools attractive to Malays would be to have them in the kampongs and small towns. The need to improve English fluency is also the most acute there.

The other major deficiency was that those old English schools paid little sensitivity to local culture and environment. While I learned much about daffodils in spring in Wordsworth’s Lake District, I was taught nothing about our striking flame-of-the-forest trees or the rich biodiversity of our mangrove swamps.

As for respecting our national language, Malay was not introduced as a subject until I was midway through my secondary school, and that was only because the country had by then gained independence. As for deference to Islam, I was deep in my science labs on Fridays during congregational prayer time.

Malay parents adapted to those deficiencies. Bless them!

Those deficiencies can be corrected; they should not be the excuse for not bringing back English schools. We could make Malay and Islam compulsory subjects, or better yet, teach Islam in English and as an academic subject. These enhancements would not discourage non-Malays from enrolling, thus fulfilling the integrative role of national schools.

Another would be to make integration an explicit objective, and reward those schools that achieve the goal, as with increased funding. The fact that they attract a cross section of Malaysians suggests that they are doing something right. Rewarding them would encourage others to follow suit. Conceivably we could have state-supported Swahili schools if they were to attract a broad spectrum of Malaysians.

At the same time schools with segregated enrollment would lose state support, whether that segregation is based on race, religion, or language. That applies to Tamil as well as Tahfiz schools. That does not mean they cannot exist, only that they would not get taxpayers’ money. The state should not condone much less encourage or support segregation under any guise.


Next:  Deficiency of Content

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

Malaysian Education: Simple Solutions Skipped In Favor Of Expensive Ones

October 17th, 2017
Malaysian Education: Simple Solutions Skipped In Favor of Expensive Ones
M. Bakri Musa
Many Malaysians of my generation still remember the old hydraulic tin mines where by just directing a water hose you could bring down a hillside to recover the trapped ore. Many millionaires were created through those simple hoses.
            Dispensing with imagery and metaphor for now, when I entered Primary I at Tuanku Muhammad School (TMS), Kuala Pilah (KP), in 1950, I was only one of two Malays in the two classes of about 70. When I reached Form V in 1960, my Malay classmates formed the majority in our science class of nearly 40.
            How did that happen?
            Metaphorically speaking, the colonials had many water hoses directed at the mountain blocking Malays of my generation from getting a superior education. Today, when faced with an obstacle, our leaders’ reaction would be to hire expensive consultants, fund pricey feasibility studies, and then burden our grandchildren with massive foreign debts to finance the projects. After all that, the problems still remain, and have only gotten worse.
            Consider the East Coast Railroad Project. The estimated cost per mile exceeds that of that across the Swiss Alps! Compared to the Alps, our Main Range is but a molehill. For that much you could give every citizen of Kelantan and Trengganu a car and a truck, with plenty left over to fund their university education!
            Back to my science class, because of the shortage of Form VI slots, only four of us could get in, two being Malays, and we both became doctors. Of my other Malay classmates, six eventually managed to get their degrees through the circuitous routes of teachers’, technical, and agricultural colleges. One received a PhD from Australia; another, an Ivy League graduate degree.
            Meaning, had there been adequate Form VI slots then, we could have potentially eight instead just two Malay science undergraduates, a quadruple increase! Further, no fewer than an additional eight of my Malay classmates could better my fellow Canadian undergraduates. Meaning, had we then been given the same opportunities as those Canadians, the potential number of Malay science undergraduates from TMS would have zoomed from 2 to 16, an eight-field increase! Multiply the number of TMSs in Malaysia, and we had the potential of hundreds if not thousands of Malay science undergraduates.
            Form VI was the bottleneck, or to swap metaphor, the mountain blocking Malay achievement in science. The solution should have been obvious; have more Form VI slots. Instead, TMS did not have its science Form VI until 1974!
            Meanwhile Malaysia had built four new public universities in addition to the University of Malaya during this time. Each cost many million times more than a Form VI science class. For all the money spent, the results were underwhelming. UKM’s inaugural graduates of 1973 had fewer Malays in science than in my old Form V!
            Most of my school years were during British rule, and except during Form V, all my headmasters were colonials while most of my teachers, non-Malays; many, non-citizens. Yet they increased the number of Malays from two in Primary I to over 27 in my Form V Science.
            In his memoir Out East In The Malay Peninsula, G E D Lewis, one of my earlier headmasters at TMS, related how he applied his novel non-language-dependent Intelligence Test that he had developed for his doctoral dissertation to school kids in the villages around KP. He then invited the top scorers to enroll at TMS.
            Any time a child draws the special attention of anyone, more so an authority figure like a Mat Salleh headmaster, both parents and child would be ecstatic. Lewis had no difficulty convincing the parents or their children.
            Enrolling is one thing; practical realities, another. Even when your village was only a few miles from town, but without a bus service or a bridge across the river, KP might as well be on a different planet.
            Lewis built a hostel for those students, as well as the wardens’ quarters next door. Lewis did not build a surau to entice the students. Instead he built a modern science block, a weather monitoring station, and a botanical garden.
            It helped in no small measure that TMS was not named Holy Trinity School. That would have posed a formidable and unnecessary barrier. Nonetheless one Malay parent did send their two daughters to the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus. Those girls later became the wives of two successive prime ministers. It is the supreme irony that their children, now the nation’s leaders, would have the very opposite mindset of their parents and grandparents with respect to education and religion.
            Lewis and the other colonial headmasters did not just enroll those village kids and then let them sink or swim. They nurtured them in a special class and taught them English exclusively from day one. Modern pedagogy calls that total language immersion, now the rage. Back then it was simply “Special Malay Class.”
            After two years those pupils merged with us at secondary level. By then you could not tell them apart from those of us who had entered at Primary I with respect to their English fluency. Yes, their knuckles were rapped when they were caught speaking Malay in class or hostel, but there was no question their efficacy in learning English.
            Today we still lament the low level of English among Malay students. That is all we do–lament and complain, that is, when we don’t blame the students. Malay leaders and educators in particular exhibit a stunning inability to learn from the successes of the past.
            My colonial headmasters pushed to have Form VI. I would have been in its inaugural class. Alas, the last colonial headmaster was summarily fired because he raised the old Union Jack (together with the national flag) during a school function. That raised the ire of local nationalists. When his local successor took over, advocacy for our Form VI fizzled.
            While national schools have not achieved even its own very modest 60:40 STEM to non-STEM ratio, Penang’s Chung Ling has exceeded that for decades. You would think that there would be a queue to visit that school to see what it is the teachers there were doing right.
            Our leaders did learn something from the British, but not in full, by building residential schools. Those were much more expensive than Special Malay Classes. Unlike Lewis who restricted his hostel only to those kids from remote villages, our residential schools are full of children of Malay professionals and ministers, including prime ministers! Worse, they are proud that their children are being made wards of the state and makan tangung(their meals taken care of) by the government.
            When I entered Malay College in 1961 for my Form VI, it was a quantum leap both in my standard of living as well as learning opportunities. That would not be so for my children and grandchildren today. For them, there would be a significant diminution of both.
            Imagine the enhanced multiplier effect had those residential schools, like the Special Malay Classes of yore, been restricted to poor children or those who would be the first in their family to go to college! Learn from Lewis and his fellow colonials.
            This penchant for expensive and expansive solutions when cheaper and simpler ones would suffice if not more effective extends beyond education. Consider the lack of Malays in commerce. Instead of encouraging and supporting those thousands of enterprising Malay hawkers who are engaged in the most elemental form of capitalism, the government goes all out to harass them and destroy their stalls. Why not provide them with proper facilities, with power, sanitation, piped water, and protection from the elements? You don’t have to go far to learn how that could be done. Cross the causeway.
            Charge a nominal fee or not at all. Today’s hawkers (or their children) could be the creators of the next Genting or Public Bank.
            When Prophet Mohamad set up the first Muslim community in Medinah, the first thing he did was to build marketplaces, not masjids. He did not charge those traders so as to encourage trade and thus social interactions among the residents, between Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Trade is the best social enhancer as well as a wealth creator.
            Pasar Gombak in the few Malay enclaves in Kuala Lumpur took decades just in the planning! Kampung Baru’s Pasar Malam has not improved over a century. Those Malay hawkers set up their stalls where they know the customers would come. The government’s job is to enhance, not destroy those marketing and entrepreneurial instincts. Supporting them would cost minimal but the rewards would be immense. If nothing else it would teach Malays the rudiments of business.
            Instead, the government’s preferred solution is to pour mega billions into a myriad of GLCs despite the spectacular failures like Perwaja and Bank Bumiputra. All we succeed from the billions poured and squandered are pseudo entrepreneurs and ersatz capitalists that have the staying power of fireflies. As demonstrated by the latest fiasco, 1MDB, those GLCs are but thinly disguised conduits for egregious corruption.
            Learn from my colonial headmasters; use many cheap water hoses, not expensive bulldozers to bring down a mountain.
Next:   Malaysian Education:  Deficiency of Ambience
Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Liberation Through Education

October 9th, 2017

Liberation Through Education

M. bakri Musa

Sajak Palsu (Fake Poem)

            Selamat pagi Pak, selamat pagi Bu,

            Ucap anak sekolah dengan sapa’an palsu.

            Lalu merekapun belajar Sejarah palsu dari buku-buku palsu!   (1-3)

Argus R. Sarjono, 1998

My translation:

Fake Poem

Good morning, Sir! Good morning, Ma’am!

Greeted the schoolchildren with fake enthusiasm

Then they pretended to study/Their fantasies as history/And other made-up stories!

The crucial role of education in liberating citizens is encapsulated in the wisdom of the Greek philosopher Epictetus (Discourses):  “Only the educated are free!” Having been born a slave, he knew a thing or two about freedom.

Teachers are liberators! No surprise that I have a high regard for them, quite apart from the fact that both my parents were teachers. Consider that as a physician, the best that I could do is to return my patients to their pre-illness state. With a good teacher, there would be no limit to the achievements of her students.

Munshi Abdullah wrote, “Antara mereka yang berguru dan mereka yang meniru, jauh beza-nya!” (Between those who are taught and those who parrot, is a vast difference!) Those who parrot could only repeat after you; those who are taught, and taught well, pave their own path. Others can then follow in their path.

In his Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) Pramoedya wrote, “Seorang terpelajar harus sudah berbuat adil sejak dalam fikiran apalagi dalam perbuatan.” (An educated person must be just, first in his thoughts and then in his deeds.)

That should be the objective of education, to produce adil (just) citizens and thus leaders. Islamic education strives for an additional goal, to produce citizens who are soleh, roughly translated as being “good” or useful to society.

Not everyone accepts the value of education, or that all systems of education confer the same benefits. In Brunei, they do not believe in educating their people. That would only make them uppity, dissatisfied, and arrogant. They would then rebel, as Azahari did in 1962.

If you have enough petrodollars you can bribe or lull your people into submission, but do not expect greatness from them. Think of what would happen when those petrodollars dry up, as inevitably they would. Sometimes you do not have to wait that long; look at Tunisia today.

There was a time when Malay parents too did not believe in education especially for girls. Educate them and they would leave and then marry someone outside the village. Who would take care of you in your old age? Today, we worry about the lack of male Malay undergraduates. Who says we cannot change culture?

Those benefits of education cited earlier are true with one major caveat. Where indoctrination masquerades as education, then the less formal education you have the better. That is the case in Malaysia, and with Malays to be specific. Malaysian teachers treat their students as dustbins to be filled with dogmas, rather than as knives to be sharpened, borrowing Munshi Abdullah’s metaphor. This is especially true with religious education.

With a bin, all you could possibly get out is what you put in, nothing beyond. With a sharp knife, the possibilities are limitless. To a butcher, a sharp knife brings meat to the table; to the sculptor, an exquisite work of art; and to a surgeon, a tool to cure cancer. To a thug however, it is but a lethal weapon; hence the need to focus on the “just” (adil) as well as “good” (soleh) in matters educational.

Malaysian education suffers from three crippling deficiencies:  environment, content, and philosophy.

Malaysian schools and universities are increasingly segregated along race. That is not a healthy learning or social environment. It is also not good for the future of the nation as that breeds intolerance among the young that would only become worse when they become adults.

Content-wise, Malaysian schools and universities do not equip the young with the necessary tools to enable them to compete and be productive citizens.

Philosophically, we treat young minds as dustbins to be filled with dogmas. That is not the path towards excellence and greatness, for them or Malaysia. The system indoctrinates rather than educate; entraps rather than liberate young minds, producing citizens who are neither adil nor soleh.

In addressing these bewildering problems, Malaysian educators and leaders ignore the simple inexpensive yet effective models of the British colonials preferring instead the showy, expensive, but ineffective solutions.

Next:  Simple Solutions Skipped In Favor of Expensive Ones


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

Emigration As Liberation

September 24th, 2017


Emigration as Liberation

M. Bakri Musa

Many attribute America’s dynamism and openness to its tradition of accepting new immigrants, current Trump-stirred anti-immigrant hysteria notwithstanding. The hitch in that presumption is whether the very process of emigrating–the uprooting of oneself from one’s familiar surroundings to seek an uncertain future elsewhere–contributes to the opening up of one’s mind or whether it is the reverse? That is, only those who are already open-minded would consider immigration. In short, what is cause and what is effect?

This issue is complicated by the dynamics of immigration today being so much different from what they were a century ago. Ease of travel and communication has much to do with the change. Today someone from China immigrating to America does not face the same emotionally-wrenching decision as those “shanghaied” to work on American railroads of a century ago. Today’s immigrants could Skype or Facetime their relatives back in the village upon landing at San Francisco airport. They could also return for visits during the New Year and other holidays. Even those who had been forced to leave their native country, as with the Vietnamese refugees, are now able to return freely to their land of birth.

This age of globalization is also referred to as the Age of Migration because of the unprecedented number of people moving across borders either individually or in groups as refugees.

There is angst in Malaysia today (and elsewhere in the developing world) over the “brain drain,” the emigration of its talented citizens. The mainstream media and blogosphere are filled with stories of individuals having to make supposedly heart-wrenching decisions to leave the country of their birth. Those personal dramas and emotions are contrived, and a bit of a stretch.

The experiences of today’s immigrants are in no way comparable to what their earlier counterparts had to endure. Unlike them, present-day immigrants are able to make many trips home or have face-to-face chats via Web camera, not to mention frequent phone calls. Many still hold on to their old passports and retain their properties in the old country. In short, the emotional trauma of immigration, if there is any, is nowhere on the same scale as what those who came before them had to endure. The experiences of the Vietnamese and Somalians should give comfort to current refugees from places like Syria and Afghanistan.

This is especially true of immigrants under the “brain drain” category. Their relocation is akin to an extended sojourn abroad and an opportunity to earn a better income, as well as to widen their experiences and perspectives. Because today’s émigrés return home many times, those visits home become occasions for them to relate their new experiences. That in turn helps those at home to have similar “foreign” experiences, albeit vicariously. That too can be mind-liberating on both parties.

Again, modern technology comes to the rescue; it softens if not eliminates the trauma of migration.

The virtual reality that digital technology delivers may lack the sensory and physical components but it still delivers the essence. The images of the carnage perpetrated by a suicide bomber in London carried on your cellphone in the comfort and safety of your palm may not have the smell of burnt flesh, nonetheless the sight of blood, maimed bodies, and screaming victims captures the brute reality close enough.

Digital technology is the transforming invention of our times. As such, access to it should be a basic public service, made free or affordable. It should be considered a public good in the same manner as highways, healthcare, and utilities.

Take for instance highways; it would be hard to consider a country developed without cars and roads. At the same time, both are major killers and destroyers of human life, as well as deleterious to the environment, but those are not reasons not to have cars and roads. Likewise, the digital highway; there are recognized dangers, the obvious being fraud, gambling, and pornography. Again, those are not reasons to ban or limit the Internet. Instead the focus should be on educating citizens on the dangers, just as we do with cars and highway users.

I venture that the broad-mindedness and increasing assertiveness of Malaysians in recent years, especially among the young, is attributable to the fact that Malaysia is an open society and its cyber world remains uncensored. That is one of the few enduring legacies of Mahathir despite his second thoughts lately on Internet freedom. Now that we have tasted freedom albeit only in the cyber world, there is no turning back.

Next:  Liberation Through Education


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

Modern Technology as the Great Equalizer and Liberator

September 18th, 2017

Modern Technology as the Great Equalizer and Liberator

M. Bakri Musa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next:  Emigration as Liberation

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

Liberation Through Information

September 4th, 2017

Liberation Through Information

M. Bakri Musa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next:  Modern Technology as Instruments of Liberation

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

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

August 30th, 2017

Make Malaysia Tanah Melayu Again?

Reflections on the Sixtieth Anniversary of Merdeka

M. Bakri Musa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Versus Mental Merdeka (Independence)

August 27th, 2017

 Political Versus Mental Merdeka (Independence)

M. Bakri Musa 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next:  Toppling Our Coconut Shell

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

Solving The Malay Problem: Learning From Others

August 20th, 2017

Solving The Malay Problem:  Learning From Others

MBakri Musa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Political Versus Mental Independence

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

A Different Appraoach To “The Malay Problem”

August 13th, 2017

A Different Approach to “The Malay Problem”

M. Bakri Musa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next:  Learning From Others

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