The Hawker As An Elemental Capiatlist

January 21st, 2018

The Hawker As An Elemental Capitalist

M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

 

Consider the simple enterprise of a roadside hawker selling fried bananas, the most elemental business activity. Every Malay villager feels he is competent to undertake that venture as it requires minimal capital, financial and otherwise.

Yet to succeed at this most basic level of enterprise would still require rudiments of financial, human, and social capital. Meaning, to succeed these would-be hawkers must have some training and familiarization with the business. Yet the government seems to think that giving them cheap loans would be enough. Thus, they are given money and then left floundering when their enterprises fail, as surely they would.

Imagine if those would-be hawkers had been given some elementary training before giving out those loans. To start with, I would give them cooking classes and teach them elementary health and safety practices as well as sound rudimentary business techniques like simple bookkeeping. I would explore with them the effects of the choice of banana, oil, flour and even cooking temperature on the taste and flavor of their final product. There is a definite difference in taste between fried pisang raja (king banana) versus nangka (jackfruit variety), enough to justify a premium price for the former. Similarly, the type of flour used, whether from wheat, rice, or tapioca would also influence the texture and flavor.

There is no limit to enhancing your product line and thus its market value by tinkering with the ingredients and other variables. Consider the version of fried bananas served in fancy Western restaurants–bananas flambé–where the fruit is covered in syrup instead of flour and then drizzled with alcohol and served in flames. It sells for around US$12.00 per serving. You could offer a non-alcoholic substitute for Muslim customers. Imagine the value added to your final product and the consequent enhancement of your revenue with such modifications.

Beyond the preparation and recipe, I would also teach these would-be hawkers personal hygiene and general cleanliness, and the impact these practices would have on their customers. Frame them as a public health issue, and if that does not convince those hawkers, then as a religious imperative or better yet, a marketing tool. Sick customers do not return! I would have these hawkers invest in a clean apron and cap to cover their hair, as well as wear gloves when handling food products, just like the executive chefs at fancy restaurants. Again, those would be good marketing and advertising tools! Look at the hawkers in the Japanese supermarkets in KL as well as in Japan.

Among the crucial elements to the success of any business are inventory control and cash-flow management. Thus, I would teach these would-be hawkers cost-saving strategies like buying nonperishable items in bulk to get volume discounts. That would require some financial outlay, and that would be the right instance to introduce credit loans. An alternative and also more preferable would be for MARA to use its clout to buy those inventories in bulk to achieve greater savings and then pass them on to the vendors.

Going further, we should encourage these hawkers to explore other ways to cut down on costs. They may not be able to supply their own flour or cooking oil and gas, but they may have some idle land in the village where they could plant their own bananas and thus incur considerable savings by not having to buy their primary ingredient. They could even sell the excess to their fellow hawkers, producing another revenue source.

MARA could commission an innovative design of a simple hawker cart on wheels, complete with a roof and separate holding tanks for clean and waste water. Again with MARA’s influence, those carts could be constructed cheaply through the economies of scale.

After implementing these initiatives, MARA should monitor the progress, tweaking the program as necessary and assessing the results. The whole process is an ongoing series of improvements and innovations, as well as learning from experience.

Out of every 100 of these would-be hawkers and budding entrepreneurs you take in for the initial training, perhaps only a fraction of them would have the discipline and motivation to complete it. That would leave only the most hardy and motivated applicants to receive your business loans. Consider the cost of training as investment in human capital. Even then, instead of simply handing these would-be hawkers the cash, I would make the checks out directly to the suppliers for the purchase of inventories and other goods.

These would-be hawkers are not used to having substantial amounts of money at their disposal. Were MARA to simply hand over the cash directly to them, as is the current practice, the first thing they would do is rush to the nearest Chinese store on a buying binge of items not even remotely related to their businesses. Or they would be inundated with relatives each with their own sob stories to justify their getting a portion of the money.

Yet that was exactly the standard practice of MARA, and before that, RIDA. No surprise that those initiatives would fail. When that happened, the officials invariably blamed the poor hawkers. Worse, they would also be condemned as failures and forever caricatured as the alleged weakness of their race and culture.

There are plenty of examples of such blunders, with price tags far exceeding the few thousand dollars loaned to the hawkers. I remember in my old village there was the well-connected politician who was given a lucrative timber concession. As if that bounty was not generous enough, he was also given a hefty loan. The first thing he did was buy a brand-new Mercedes sedan to drive around town. He did not think of buying a truck to carry the logs or a tree harvester. Had he bought a four-wheel-drive Land Rover, it would have made some sense. At least he could then visit his lumber camps, but a luxury car on a jungle road?

In Trengganu there was the project back in the 1970s to supply fishermen with diesel motors and ice makers. Again the same misguided strategy; the officials simply handed the loan money to those poor fishermen. The first thing the engine suppliers in town did was to hike up the price of those engines and then tack on unnecessary service contracts and fees. Had those officials negotiated a package deal with the supplier, they would have secured substantial discounts and then passed them on to the fishermen.

In Kedah there was the gaffe with the mechanization of Malaysia’s “rice bowl.” Again, the government was generous in providing the major landowners credit to buy tractors and combines to make their rice production more efficient. That part of the initiative was sound but as with any mechanization, many unskilled workers were displaced. As there was no mitigating program to take care of them, those workers ended up actively sabotaging the initiative and its principals. The program succeeded only in dividing the community, pitting the peasants against the landowners. The dynamics of that particular social crisis is well chronicled in James C. Scott’s Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.

The situation has not changed today except for the obscenely vast sums of money involved. Most recently there was a mega loan in the hundreds of millions given to a minister’s husband to start a cattle feed-lot operation. The first thing he did was buy a top-end Mercedes and two ultra-luxury multimillion-ringgit condominiums in Singapore. Same dynamics, only the price tags vary. While the minister’s husband may have an Ivy League PhD, his mentality and mindset was no different from the simple village entrepreneurs I cited earlier.

Going back to my pisang goreng hawkers, imagine if only 25 out of the 100 eventually succeeded in having a thriving stall. At first glance that would appear abysmal, a success rate of only one-in-four. However, on the flip side, without the initiative, those 25 would have little chance at gainful employment; with it they are now earning a living and able to feed and clothe their families, quite apart from providing a service to the community.

The benefits do not end there. Out of the hardy 25, a few would be sufficiently bitten by the capitalist bug and be inspired to venture beyond. One would decide that he could employ a few of his idle cousins to work on his banana plantations to supply bananas to the other hawkers. Apart from having another income source, he would also be providing employment for his cousins.

Another who had been frugal and thus acquired some savings may decide to install a shade over his stall and add a few tables so he could also serve coffee and tea , as well as ice cream with his fried bananas, enhancing his product line as it were. Yet another could discover a winning concoction of a special variety of banana, a specific brand of cooking oil, and a particular flour to make a pisang goreng to die for. Building a reputation around his particular product and keeping his recipe secret, he could start a franchise operation, a pisang goreng equivalent of Ramly Burger or Starbucks.

As can be seen the possibilities are endless, even with the humble hawking of pisang goreng. That simple enterprise has all the elements found in the most complex corporations: product (and production), marketing (customers), finance, location, and human resources.

Instead of pursuing such incremental improvements in each area, we keep going for the spectacular–with billion-ringgit GLCs, and repeating the same mistakes with ever-escalating costs. It cannot be that all Malay leaders and policymakers are corrupt. Many are, but eventually you would get a few honest souls or some whose conscience would disturb them enough to blow the whistle and put an end to the nonsense. These Malay leaders cannot all be dumb even though again many are, for eventually there will be a bright soul or two who would learn from the mistakes.

Beyond corruption and incompetence, I suggest that Malays have another and far greater problem. As a community we have a closed mind, trapped into believing that those lapses are not acts of incompetence or corruption but noble deeds. It is this blind loyalty to these incompetent and corrupt leaders that would have us honor them when they should be jailed, booted out, or at least looked upon with contempt.

Next: Membajakan Lallang (Fertilizing the Weeds)

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.

It Takes More Than Just Money

January 7th, 2018

It Takes More Than Just Money

  1. M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

Engaging in trade and commerce involves the setting up of enterprises. They come in many shapes, sizes and types to serve a limitless variety of goals and customers. Starting an enterprise requires capital; not just financial, which is the popular assumption, but also the more important human and social capital.

We are familiar with financial capital–money. Even the most economically illiterate Malay villager knows that you need modal (capital) to start a business. To them modal means money, and only that. In that respect they are no different from their supposedly advanced leaders who are also under the delusion that the key to successful Malay entry into business is only money.

Based on that faulty and superficial thinking, Malay leaders focus on extending easy credit to these aspiring entrepreneurs. What these leaders do not appreciate, because they have never run a business, is that it takes more than just money to start and run a successful enterprise. Often money is the least important component because with a promising idea or product there will be no shortage of those eager to fund your business.

At one time RIDA (Rural Industrial Development Agency), the precursor of today’s MARA, the agency tasked with encouraging Malay involvement in business, operated by disbursing loans to Malays who had some vague notion of starting a “business.” They had no skills or services to offer, but inspired by the rhetoric of our leaders, these Malays dreamed to be rich towkays (Chinese for tycoon) someday. In their imagination, they conveniently forget or choose to ignore the part of that proposition where you also have to work hard, remain frugal, and be patient.

What these Malay leaders and would-be entrepreneurs did not realize was that those rich successful Chinese towkays had earlier spent long years toiling as unskilled laborers while patiently learning their skills as well as being frugal. Those Malay villagers saw only the successful towkays, not the hundreds of unsuccessful ones who squandered their money on opium, gambling, and prostitutes while dreaming of one day to “balik Tongsan” (return to China) with their riches.

Had those potential Malay businessmen also seen the unsuccessful Chinese and Indians, those Malays would have had a more realistic assessment of the difficulties of starting and running a business. Perhaps then that would remind them to be diligent.

My memory of those aspiring Malay entrepreneurs getting RIDA loans was their immediate indulgences. The first thing they did with their borrowed funds was to buy a new car to impress their clients. Never mind that they did not have any clients yet or that their store shelves were still empty as they had yet to buy their first inventory!

It came as no surprise that the government’s early attempts at encouraging Malays to enter the business world failed miserably. There were no attempts to train or equip them with marketable skills. These leaders ignored the most important component–human capital.

Had those MARA officials been wise and more resourceful, they would have instead focused on training these aspiring entrepreneurs to equip them with the necessary skills. Enhance their human capital before offering them financial support.

Earlier I mentioned that during the Japanese Occupation, the authorities focused on training Malays in occupational skills, and then without any financial support from the government many of these individuals managed to start their own enterprises, again demonstrating the primacy of human over financial capital.

Next:  Elemental Capitalism

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.

Integrating The Malaysian Private Sector

January 2nd, 2018

Integrating The Malaysian Private Sector

  1. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

The government is intent on integrating the private sector. As usual it pursues this in its typical arrogant and ignorant manner. Take the requirement that publicly-listed companies have 30 percent Bumiputra participation. That is fine if we let the market pick those lucky Bumiputras. With Ministry of Trade officials picking the winners, it did not take long for that scheme to degenerate into yet another corrupt political patronage system.

A more sensible approach would have been for the government to explicitly use ownership and employee diversity as criteria when awarding public contracts. American companies realize that workplace diversity is its own reward, quite apart from being the right thing to do. American corporations are outbidding their European and Japanese competitors in Africa because many of the US executives there are African-Americans. The same in China, with American companies actively recruiting ethnic Chinese-Americans as executives.

The “mom and pop” retail sector in Malaysia is dominated by Chinese. They usually recruit their own kind, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is to be expected with small enterprises; their owners’ circle of trust is narrow, confined to immediate family and clan members.

This concentration of the “small business” retail sector in Chinese hands is not due to lack of Malay business initiatives, as is widely presumed. Rather it is due more to the natural tendencies of those involved in commerce both large and small to band together and prevent new entrants to protect their existing markets and profits. Left to their own devices, as Adam Smith noted, capitalists would rather collude than compete. There is no need to attribute sinister racial motives even if there were to be any.

If you ask small-time Malay traders and retailers the greatest obstacle they face it would be the inflated costs of their supplies. As with the retail sector, the wholesale market too is controlled by Chinese. Tun Razak was aware of this marketplace reality and the obstacles it posed to the small-time would-be Malay entrepreneurs. His solution was to set up crown corporations, the precursors of today’s Government-linked Corporations (GLCs), to be the wholesalers to Malay retailers. That was the only viable solution then.

Today, a more effective way of breaking the monopoly of this ethnic supply chain and at the same time enjoy the benefits of having an efficient retail sector would be to open it up to more competition by encouraging major foreign companies like Carrefour and Walmart to set up business in Malaysia. Doing so would also spare the government the expenses of these GLCs; instead it would gain tax revenues from these foreign corporations.

Companies like Walmart and Carrefour are enlightened employers. In America, Walmart is a major employer of minorities. Meanwhile in China, Walmart is revolutionizing not only the retail sector but also customers’ behaviors. The irony that a retail chain started by the avowedly anti-communist Sam Walton would find fertile ground in China or that he would prove more successful in changing the ways of the Chinese than Mao could ever hope escapes the Chinese Communist leaders. Score one for capitalism and globalization!

In Malaysia, Carrefour has exemplary recruiting policies; it actively recruits capable Malays for its frontline as well as management positions. Unfortunately, instead of encouraging such multinational retailers with their enlightened personnel policies and exemplary work culture, the government is restricting them. The influence of “money politics,” otherwise known as corruption, among UMNO politicians and these Chinese retailers has a lot to do with that particular state of affair.

As if the problems with wholesalers and suppliers were not big enough for budding Malay entrepreneurs, there is also the matter of credit, the lifeline of any business. Banks and other financial institutions ignore these small customers and those with less-than-stellar credit ratings. They have no alternative but to patronize pawnshops, Ah Longs (Chinese moneylenders frequently associated with the underworld), and chettiars (Indian moneylenders) with their usurious interest rates. They are also exclusively non-Malay operations, right down to the goons they employ to collect the delinquent payments.

A more formidable barrier for Malays with respect to credit is our religious attitude towards interest, which is the flip side of credit. Malays like Muslims elsewhere, and much like medieval Christians, have yet to reconcile the Koranic injunction against ribaa to the critical modern role of credit and the associated cost of financing generally. In the subsequent section on Islam, I will pursue this issue further.

Malaysia’s answer to these basic problems is to intervene through GLC lending companies. A better, cheaper and more effective way would again, like the retail and wholesale markets, be to open the market up to foreign lenders like AIG that specialize in “sub-prime” loans. That would put these chettiars and Ah Longs out of business. Malaysia would be better off without them. AIG also has enlightened personnel policies. Rest assured such companies would employ many Malays, certainly more than the present ethnic moneylenders do. Big companies like AIG are smart enough to recognize the need for frontline Malay employees to attract Malay customers.

AIG’s aggressive pursuit of “sub- prime” borrowers, specifically for home mortgages, and its overexposure in insuring the highly sophisticated but in the end faulty “credit default swap” arrangements among major financial players contributed to the economic crisis of 2007-08.

Put aside that specific insurance component of AIG, its consumer-loan arm provides a useful service. Granted, the interest rates are much higher reflecting the lower credit worthiness of its clients. Nonetheless even with the ‘high’ rates, they are still nowhere near the outrageous amounts charged by the Ah Longs and chettiars. Further, AIG and all the other finance companies are tightly controlled with respect to their collection practices. They cannot for example harass their clients at work. No such restraint exists for the Ah Longs. Their collection goons have been known to chop off the hands of delinquent customers.

While integrating the Malaysian private sector is a necessary and worthy goal, active government interventions through mandates or GLCs are not the only or even the most efficient routes. Malaysian policymakers need to escape their myopic mentality and explore other possibilities. Liberating that sector by allowing more players, including and especially large foreign corporations, would be one excellent route. Another would be to explicitly reward companies with a racially integrated workforce and ownership by preferentially awarding them government contracts.

To reiterate, the lack of Malays in the private sector is a problem, not a mystery. We can only begin to explore for solutions with diligence once we have liberated our minds. As long as we keep them closed, we will continue on the present path that has led us to where we are today. It is worth reminding Malaysians that the country’s most notorious and most expensive scandal involves a GLC–the 1MDB financial fiasco.

Next:  It Takes More Than Just Money

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.

The Futile Search For Unity Sans Economic Ties

January 2nd, 2018
The Futile Search For Unity Sans Economic Ties
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com
Right after Malaysia’s independence in 1957 there was a yearning for the country to be closer with our fellow “Malay” states in the archipelago–Philippines and Indonesia–to form a loose confederation, Maphilindo. Others less ambitious (or more insular) wanted just Malaysia and Indonesia (Malindo), minus the predominantly Catholic Philippines. Despite the seeming commonality of culture, language and religion, Malindo did not even get started. Instead what we had konfrontasi, and a very bloody one, with Indonesia.
            Had those early leaders been more rational and less emotional, they could begin with a more modest and achievable goal, like encouraging trade between the two countries, beginning first with the free flow of goods and services, followed later with the freer flow of people. Had that path been chosen, trade and other relationships between the two countries would have by now greatly expanded. Creatively nurtured, it could have developed into a nucleus of what could be a Southeast Asian version of the European Union.
            Driven purely by impulse and emotions to pursue too ambitious a goal and without knowing the pitfalls, Malindo collapsed as soon as it was conceived. The result was worse than had the idea had not been mooted. The two countries were lucky that the ensuing konfrontasi did not destroy both nations.
            Today the two countries are even further apart. It is much easier for someone in Kelantan to buy Pramoedya’s book from Amazon.com in America than from its publisher in Jakarta. It is also easier to transfer funds from Seremban to Seattle than to Surubaya.
            If the original Maphilindo concept was more emotional than rational, then the subsequent ten-state association, ASEAN, is more ambitious than realistic. Today ASEAN is nothing more than a “talk shop,” with their leaders enthralling each other with their skits and amateur talent shows at their annual gatherings. ASEAN is just too big and diverse without taking into account or even acknowledging the vast differences between them. There is little shared commonality except for geography. The results showed. Malaysia’s intra-ASEAN trade is minimal, except with Singapore.
            We underestimate the value of trade and commerce in generating goodwill. I venture that the supreme merit of capitalism is precisely this, generating goodwill between trading partners. This far outweighs the other benefits, including profits. The world is far safer today with China and America being intertwined economically.
            Consider Malaysia’s perennial race dilemma. Many naively believe that if only Malaysians could speak the same language, share a common culture, or subscribe to the same faith, national unity would be that much more attainable. Current attempts at making Malay culture and language the defining elements of Malaysian life reflect this sentiment. Others fantasize that if only the political parties were not race based, racial integration would be greatly enhanced. Malays still hang on to the forlorn hope that if only we follow the one “pure” and “true” Islam, we would be all united and our problems magically disappear.
            Such delusions are based on flawed and muddled thinking. The Koreans share the same heritage, culture, and language yet that does not stop them from killing each other, given half the chance. The more promising and enduring path to unity is not through culture, language, politics, or even religion but economics, specifically the embrace of trade and free enterprise.
            Capitalism could be the effective and enduring solution to Malaysia’s race problems. It is also the most efficient economic system for producing goods and services, and also to effect substantive social and cultural changes. Once Malaysians view each other and the world not in terms of race or nationality but as potential customers, business partners, and sources of capital, understanding and with that peace and goodwill would follow.
            Trade and commerce are engines of economic growth, and this in turn brings more than just material comforts. As Harvard’s Benjamin M. Friedman noted in his The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, economic growth brings with it greater tolerance of and generosity to the disadvantaged. This insight is worth emphasizing.
            Capitalism does not differentiate between race, national origin, political persuasion, or religious belief. Money is money, whether it comes from your own kind or foreigners. Those Malay villagers would not boycott the hawkers because they were Chinese, but the villagers would if they were being cheated or sold substandard goods.
            One would expect socialism with its egalitarian ideals to bring people together. It failed, in Malaysia and elsewhere, reflecting the gulf between theory and practice. We are all for egalitarianism but not when we are all equally poor. Socialism failed because it could not produce the goods and services. For Malays, we associate socialism with atheistic communism; the communists resorting to terrorism during the Emergency certainly also did not help the socialist cause.
            The New Economic Policy’s primary objective was to usher Malays towards capitalism so we could play an active role in the economy. Beyond that, with Malays becoming more involved in commerce and trading, we would begin to look at fellow Malaysians or others less as immigrants or foreigners but more as potential clients and customers. That would put a very different and positive perspective on race relations. In many ways, we are already seeing this with the noticeable change in the attitude of FELDA farmers towards the Chinese, at least the mainland variety, now that China is the main purchaser of our palm oil.
            On a higher level, Malays used to condemn the colonialists for bringing in hordes of immigrants from China and India to work on the tin mines and rubber estates. Our current race problems are rooted in that colonial policy. Today UMNO-linked ersatz capitalists bring in the Bangladeshis. What future problems await the nation?
            Malay (specifically UMNO) embrace of capitalism is very recent. At one time the term kaum kapitalis (capitalist class/hordes) was unmistakably derogatory, conjuring images of heartless businessmen of Dickens’ era, intent on exploiting the masses in the greedy pursuit of profits. As capitalists then were also colonialists, it was easy to hate them. With Malays now being capitalists themselves, aided substantially by the state, capitalism has a decidedly new aroma, even if it were only the crony or ersatz variety.
            Malays in the other parties are still enamored with socialism. PAS regards capitalism, specifically its acceptance of interests, as “un-Islamic,” conveniently forgetting that our prophet, s.a.w., was an accomplished trader and thus a capitalist at heart.
            Thanks to the Malay embrace of capitalism and free markets, we are no longer passive bystanders in the modern economy. With that, race relations have decidedly improved. Economic crises today no longer have or quickly acquire racial undertones the way they did in the past. Whereas before, whenever there were rumors of shortage of basic staples and the consequent price increase and hoarding, the blame would always fall on those “greedy” Chinese retailers. Today with the increasing number of Malay traders, this is no longer the case. Recent complaints about bus fare increases for example, were directed to the owners of the bus companies who are now mostly Malays.
            Consider that the 1997 economic crisis had minimal racial repercussions despite the fact that many of the high-flying casualties were Malays. Likewise, the pain of the recent reduction in petroleum subsidy cut across race; economic imperatives successfully breaching racial boundaries. Those were all positive developments, at least in terms of race dynamics. It also reaffirms the wisdom of NEP in “eliminating race with economic function.”
 
Next:  Integrating The Private Sector
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

Opening Minds Through Trade and Commerce

December 17th, 2017

Opening Minds Through Trade and Commerce

M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

 

Let there be amongst you traffic and trade by mutual goodwill. —Surah An-Nisaa (The Women) (4:29)

Long before there was the National Language Act, and certainly long before today’s outspoken champions of Malay language were even born, Chinese hawkers and Tamil kacang putih (fried nuts) sellers plying their trade in Malay kampungs knew that to be successful they had to speak the language of their customers. Nobody asked or demanded that they do so but intuitively they learned that they could not make their living if they could not speak Malay.

Those traders went beyond, at least the successful ones. They also learned a little bit about Malay culture, or at least those elements that would impact their trade. For example, they changed their hours of trading during fasting months and would include additional offerings during Hari Raya.

Those hawkers also figured out something else; put beer and bacon on their carts and they would lose their Malay customers overnight. Both may be highly profitable and would add Chinese housewives to the customer base, but that expansion would not make up for the loss of the Malay market.

Those small-time entrepreneurs knew the secret to any successful business:  know and cater to your customers. The best way of doing that is to speak their language and understand their culture. German Chancellor Willy Brandt said it best, “If I’m selling to you, then I speak your language. If you want me to buy from you, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen [then you have to speak German].” The only official language, or the one that counts, is that of your customers. This is also the wisdom of successful taxi drivers.

To digress, Malay language will never amount to much, meaning not many would want to speak or learn it, unless Malays become a major economic force. Then people would want to speak Malay because they want to sell to us. Look at Mandarin today with China’s growing economic might. People are now learning Mandarin in order to tap the huge China market.

Understanding your customers and appreciating their perspective is vital to success, and learning their language is an effective way of achieving both. As Native American Indians would put it, walk in your customers’ moccasins. That wisdom goes further because before you can do that, you first have to remove your own footwear.

If your customers are sufficiently different from you in terms of race, culture, or social class, walking in their moccasins gives you a whole new set of experiences and perspectives. It opens up your mind, and that all begins with your willingness to cast away, however briefly, your old familiar mental moccasins.

It is not surprising that the most cosmopolitan and open-minded communities are sited along trade routes, as with the settlements along the old silk road that binds the people of Asia with the West and the rest of the world. Their trading activities effectively overcome cultural and other prejudices.

Malacca’s strategic location midway on the maritime trade route between east and west made it a thriving center for trade. Through trade, its inhabitants became among the most open, progressive, and cosmopolitan. A more recent and very successful example is China. Through its embrace of capitalism and free trade, China today is more open and much less xenophobic. It laps up everything the outside world has to offer, a far cry from what it was a mere generation or two ago under the austere and socialistic Mao. Consider our chauvinistic Malay FELDA farmers. Today with China buying Malaysian palm oil, those farmers now have a far different view of China. Even UMNO, once stridently anti-communist, now sends observers to the Chinese Communist Party Congress.

Traders have a different view of their customers, especially their best ones. Today, with China being the biggest purchaser of US Treasury notes, American leaders are less inclined to lecture the Chinese on human rights abuses. Prospects for global peace are now enhanced with China and America being major trading partners.

The same dynamics occur across the Strait of Taiwan. If China and Taiwan could build on their current trade and commercial relationships, within a generation the issue of unity would become mute. Consider that the initial European Common Market, now the European Union, was essentially a trade association; it brought together two ancient enemies–the French and Germans–together. Given time EU may achieve the same with the Greeks and Turks, as well as the various factions in the Balkans.

Economist Albert O. Hirschman wrote in his The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph that commercial society made humans “sweet,” courteous, and civilized, viewing one another as potential partners in mutually beneficial market exchanges, rather than as clan members to be helped or clan enemies to be killed.

He quoted the Scottish historian William Robertson, “Commerce tends to wear off those prejudices which maintain distinctions and animosity between nations. It softens and polishes the manners of men.”

Western intellectuals brag–and often–that humanity had its dramatic improvement in its standard of living and unprecedented increase in economic output with the introduction of capitalism in the 18th Century in Western Europe. That statement is no longer true. China in the 1980s and beyond lifted more people out of poverty and did so in a short time (a few decades instead of over a century) as in Western Europe. It would be stretching the definition of capitalism to assert that China’s version, with its heavy state involvement and intervention plus very limited private ownership, is still free enterprise.

 

The only commonality between the capitalism of Western Europe and that with “Chinese characteristics” is that both encourages and are open to trade and commerce.

 

Next:  Futility of Unity Sans Economic Ties

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

December 10th, 2017

 

Personal Freedom – The Foundational Strength of Islam

M.Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

(Based on a talk given at the South Valley Islamic Community, Morgan Hill, California, on the occasion of Mawlid Nabi, December 2, 2017)

(Second of Two Parts)

In his book Muhammad:  Man and Prophet, Saudi writer M. A. Salahi recalled his father’s advice. That is, love for Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., could only be demonstrated by following his teachings, not by singing his praises. Today Mawlid is observed in many places with endless singing of his praises, and only that. As for hadith and sunnah, they are far from being sources of enlightenment but instead become contentious among the faithful. They divide not only Muslims but also between Muslims and non-Muslims.

In this Mawlid I will depart from tradition and will refrain from singing his praises or reciting his hadith. Instead I will highlight Muhammad’s achievements. Those are beyond dispute and should inspire us. I will relate only four, three before he received his prophethood, and one before.

First, he transformed the ancient Bedouins whose identity and loyalty were tied to family, clan, and tribe to one that transcended all those and be based only on the belief in the oneness and supremacy of Allah. Later, others joined in. Today Muslims are the most ethnically and culturally diverse group. Islam can rightly claim to be the first and continues to be the most powerful and successful globalizing force.

Second, he led the Arabs’ through a seismic change in their attitude towards women. Where once women were part of the inheritance, only slightly above the camels and date trees in status, through Islam women were entitled to a share of the inheritance. Not an equal one to be sure, but still a radical change from the status quo and a universe ahead of what was then prevailing elsewhere. With that cultural sea change, the associated dehumanizing of women and such gruesome practices as female infanticide vanished.

Third, he altered the Arabs’ vengeful “an eye for an eye” sense of justice to one that emphasized mercy, forgiveness, and restitution. He steered them away from revenge, and with it the endless cycle of generational clan disputes and tribal warfare. While he eschewed an eye for an eye, Mohammad, s.a.w, (and Islam) was not for turning the other cheek. Instead he and Islam opted for “soft vengeance.” That is, showing a better and more just way than endless destructive revenge.

Those were monumental achievements and the ensuing changes transformational. They all occurred within the memories of his companions.

There were those who viewed Mohammad, s.a.w., as but a mere Messenger, a human fax machine as it were, through whom God sent down His revelations. With that, miracles happened and Islam became a major force. As such we could dispense with hadith and sunnah. Even a cursory reading of history would disabuse one of that romantic and simplistic notion.

Those early Bedouins were tough customers. If Muslims today argue over hadith and sunnah, those early Arabs questioned the very Koran and Mohammad’s prophethood. This culture of questioning, learning, and the associated critical thinking that it nurtured, endured long after Mohammad, s.a.w. Today we look longingly to that long-ago “Golden Age of Islam,” forgetting what it was that made our faith and community flourish. We have replaced the cherished, productive, and pristine values of tajdid (constant renewal and vigorous learning) with taqlid (unquestioning acceptance and blind obedience). We also limited those who could partake in religious discourses. We opted for exclusivity over inclusivity, which in turn breeds intolerance and closed mindedness. Both inhibit learning and progress.

Koranic commands notwithstanding, emulating Muhammad, s.a.w., or achieving even a tiny sliver of his success would be a daunting task.

That brings me to his fourth achievement, although by chronology his first. Before Allah chose him to be His Last Rasul, Mohammad was a trader working on a caravan owned by someone else. If he didn’t deliver, he would earn nothing. He was such a diligent and productive worker that his employer Khatijah found him to be indispensable. That resulted in her proposing marriage to him. To use the language of modern business, she made him an equity partner!

Marrying your boss, (or the son or daughter thereof) is a tried and true path to advancement. Such opportunities are necessarily limited. What is not is to emulate Muhammad’s work ethics, that is, be productive and make yourselves indispensable, or as close to that as possible, to your employer. That is within everyone’s capacity.

I advised my children when they had their first job to remember one thing. If they were being paid one dollar, then they should give at least three dollars’ worth of service in return. The first to cover the pay, the second for overhead–with such soft costs as social security and unemployment insurance as well as hard ones as with providing an office. The third is the employer’s profit. A worker who gives less has not earned his pay. That deficit is haram.

Few of us would be privileged, talented, or courageous enough to venture out to be entrepreneurs like Khadijah and Mohammad. An honest, trustworthy businessman (or woman) will be in the company of prophets, the truthful, and martyrs, goes a familiar hadith. In Islam, the paycheck giver is held in much higher esteem than the paycheck receiver. The biblical wisdom (it is better to give than to receive) is never more apt in Islam than with respect to paychecks. Such an ethos makes sense; it benefits the economy and society–no entrepreneur, no paychecks; no business, no workers. That is the foundational wisdom of that hadith.

Islam’s high regard for entrepreneurs and business owners is not misplaced for another reason. When you have an enterprise to run, you view the world and others differently. They are no longer whites or blacks, natives or pendatangs (foreigners), Muslims or non-Muslims rather your potential clients, customers, and partners. Such a mindset leads to greater harmony. To an ice cream peddler it does not matter whether his dollar comes from a thirsty congressman or an illegal immigrant.

Remaining faithful to the sunnah and seerah is a challenge. Many are thus satisfied with simplistic aping rather than emulating, as with having long beards and acquiring multiple wives.

What is within the capacity of all of us is to emulate Muhammad the trader before he was chosen prophet. That is, be honest, productive, and dependable so as to bring added value to your employer. In Islam, they and other paycheck givers are the blessed ones; they are truly following in the path and are thus worthy emulators of our holy prophet.

More important than for us as individuals to emulate the prophet is for us collectively as a community to aspire for the achievements of those early Muslims. If they could transcend their clan and tribal identities, we too should our race, color, national origin, gender identity, sexual preferences, and other labels we paste onto ourselves and others. We should give full meaning to our core belief that we are all children of Adam.

If those ancient Muslims succeeded in elevating women from being part of the inheritance to acquiring a share of it, we too should aspire to a similar scale of achievement. We should strive to make women have full parity not only in inheritance but also all other spheres. The prophet’s achievements should be our inspiration, not define the limits. How can a father look at his daughter and say that she is worth only half that of her brothers? My sons would never let their sister be thus treated.

We should go beyond and support the emancipation of not only women but also others now oppressed.

Islamic thinking distinguishes between the obligations of the individual (Fardu Ayn) and that of the community (Fardu Kifayyah). That is false dichotomy. If we as individuals are dependable, productive, and treat others with respect, then our community would follow suit. If our society already has excellent social services and efficient garbage collection for example, that does not free us from our obligation to take care of those less fortunate and to clean the environment when we see it being despoiled.

I am proud of our South Valley Islamic Community in this regard. Women are very much full participants in our organization. They are well represented on our governing board, and we have had three women Presidents in our short history. I am also heartened that our Friday prayers are well attended by women.

Our organization through the dynamic leadership of Imam Ilyas is an active participant in the Interfaith Council, as well as working with other faith groups as with St. Joseph’s Lord’s Table in feeding the poor and homeless, and with Cecelia’s Closet in providing warm clothing for the homeless during these cold months. We have a children’s toy drive for the holiday season. Thank you to those who have generously donated.

Those achievements of the early Muslims should inspire us as individuals as well as a community. While it would be presumptuous to think that we as individuals could emulate Allah’s Chosen One, it is within all of us to model ourselves after Mohammad the trader before he was chosen as prophet. That is, by being dependable, trustworthy, and productive; striving to be paycheck givers instead of receivers. If we are the latter, we should work hard to give our employers extra in our work. It is also within our community’s capability to emulate those exemplary early Muslim communities.

That is what Mawlid Nabi means to me as an individual and as a member of the community.

December 3rd, 2017

Beyond Emulating The Prophet, s.a.w.

M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

(Based on a talk given at the South Valley Islamic Community, Morgan Hill, California, on the occasion of Mawlid Nabi, December 2, 2017)

First of Two Parts:

The Koran commands Muslims to emulate Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w. In Surah Al Ahzab (33:21), approximately translated, “You have in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful example for those who hope for God and the Last Day.”

There is no shortage of resources to draw upon to learn about Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., from encyclopedic collections of his hadith and voluminous accounts of his sunnah (his habits, practices, and daily life) to the countless biographies (seerah) and historical accounts.

This treasure trove should be a blessing, a guide for us on how to become better Muslims, and in turn better human beings. It is disappointing to note that the reality is far different. Those sunnah and seerah have become instruments for endless schisms and strives. We argue over their authenticity, interpretations, and yes, even relevance. Far from being sources of enlightenment, sunnah and seerah divide us. Thousands have been killed and maimed over those differences. The Sunnis and Shiites are still killing each other in the Middle East today. Having noted that, it would be trivial for me to draw your attention to the fact that companions of the prophet who are revered in one book of hadith are reviled in another.

Even the observance of Mawlid divides us. Some consider it bida’a (an adulteration of the faith), as with aping the Christians with their Christmas. Yes, in many countries Mawlid is celebrated with the exuberance far exceeding Christmas, with parades and prizes. Disagreements over Mawlid have raged for so long, divided so many, consumed oceans of ink, and caused millions of sore throats.

This controversy, like so many others related to our faith, stems from our inability or refusal to acknowledge a more fundamental issue. That is, we are trapped by words and language, unable or unwilling to appreciate their limitations and constraints especially when translated across eras and cultures.

We translate bida’a as “innovation,” forgetting that today innovation means change for the better, an improvement. We encourage innovation. The word now means the very opposite of what it was during the Christian reformation when it meant challenging the prevailing orthodoxy, as Martin Luther did. You could be excommunicated, or worse, for indulging in innovation.

This failure to be vigilant of the constantly changing meanings of words traps many. Consider hadith and sunnah. To be precise, they are not what the prophet said or did, rather what the historical narrators recalled or remembered about what the prophet said and did. There is a world of difference between the two. Imam Bukharis’ collection of hadith is considered the most sahih; yet he was not even born until over 180 years after the prophet’s death. Ibn Ishaq’s seerah, one of the earliest, was written over a hundred years after the prophet’s death.

Consider the hadith familiar to many, that our faith would be divided into 73 sects, and all but one destined for Hellfire. That means any one sect has only a slightly better than one percent chance (1/73) of being correct. If you were being told that you have that probability of surviving surgery, you would take your chance with a bomoh.

Yet every Muslim believes that his or her sect is the one and only true path to salvation, all others misguided, misled, and hell-bound. Such a mindset leads to a messianic zeal to correct the others “misguided” even to the point of death and destruction in the mistaken belief that it would for their own good! Better to suffer the punishment here on earth than in the Hereafter, these zealots reassured themselves with the smugness and arrogance. For others, that mindset breeds intolerance, exclusiveness, and destructiveness.

If you appreciate statistics and probabilities, you realize that the chance of your sect being misled is 72 out of 73, over 98.6 percent! In life, that’s a practical certainty! Realizing that humbles you, prompting you to learn from others. That nurtures an open mindset that would lead to greater tolerance and generosity towards others different from you. It encourages you to be inclusive lest you would exclude that one righteous group.

We are blessed to live in America where personal freedom is cherished. As such we are free to explore the vast, rich and varied traditions of our faith. Consider that in Malaysia, at its International Islamic University’s library, Shiite kitabs are kept under lock and key. You have to register with the authorities to borrow or browse any! If you preach Shiiism, you would be punished just as severely as if you were advocating communism! And Malaysia is widely acknowledged as a “moderate” Islamic country. Imagine the intolerance elsewhere.

We should use the freedom we have in the West to explore not only the other proverbial 72 sects but also other faiths. Have the humility to acknowledge the high probability that our sect might be among the erroneous 72!

I have learned much from the other traditions; from the Wahhabis, the anchoring stability of rituals and traditions; the Ismailis, the importance of stable leadership and social cohesion; and the Ahmaddiyas, the vital role of education and necessity for accommodation. The Sufis and Salafis have taught me to simplify my life, a necessity in this increasingly complex and bewildering world.

Imam Feisal Rauf is right when he stated in his book, What’s Right With Islam: A New Vision For Muslims and The West, that America is the most Sharia-compliant nation. Many Muslims, obsessed with labels rather than content, miss this point.

On this Mawlid Nabi we gather to honor this Last Rasul of Allah. I prefer that word over celebrate. With the latter, the children would expect gifts! Tonight, only cakes and desserts. I will depart from tradition and not lead a chorus of praises for our prophet, s.a.w. I will spare you my half-baked Arabic quoting hadith and my far-from-acceptable tajweed reciting the Koran that would grate on your ears. Instead I will focus on the achievements of Allah’s Last Prophet. No one, not Sunni or Shiite, Muslim or non-Muslim, and historians or lay people would dispute those achievements.

I will highlight four; three after he received his prophethood, and one, before. First, he ushered the Arabs out of their clannishness and tribalism to a society that transcended those and be based only on the belief in Allah. Second, he initiated a cultural sea-change in the Arabs’ attitude towards women. Third, he altered the Arabs’ vengeful “an eye for an eye” sense of justice to one that emphasized mercy, forgiveness, and restitution.

Last, though by chronology his first, Mohammad, s.a.w., was such a diligent, dependable and trustworthy worker such that his employer Khatijah married him. To use the language of modern business, she made him an equity partner!

In the second part I will elaborate on those achievements and the lessons they hold for us today.

Next:  Second of Two Parts:     Personal Freedom – The Foundation of Islam

The Trap Of Monolingualism

November 26th, 2017

The Trap of Monolingualism

M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

Language is not only a means of communication but also an instrument through which we look at the world. Fluency in a foreign language gives us another instrument to view reality, the equivalent of shining the light from a different angle and giving us a fresh perspective. While we have come a long way from the earlier brash assertion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language controls our thoughts, nonetheless the way we look at reality is conditioned by the habits and attributes of our mother tongue.

When hunting with an Australian aborigine, telling him that there is a kangaroo on the left would not be terribly helpful as he would first have to figure out whether you are referring to his or your left, a critical differentiation. It would be more meaningful and less chance of your being struck by a stray bullet if you were to say that the critter is to the west or east. Those Australian natives are more adept with cardinal signs. Out in the arid barren plains of the continent’s interior, there are few terrestrial landmarks to make meaningful references to left or right.

In their book In Other Words: The Science and Psychology of Second-Language Acquisition, Ellen Bialystok and Kenji Hakuta suggest that the benefits of being bilingual go beyond knowing two languages. As the structures and ideas of languages are different, a child has to think in more complex ways than if he were to know only one language. That increases “meta-linguistic awareness,” a greater sensitivity to language in general and awareness of its meaning and structure.

This heightened sensitivity transfers to other areas, as with the ability to extract core ideas from extraneous information, or to use the language of engineers, enhancing the signal-to-noise ratio. This is a useful and critical analytical skill. When you are bilingual you grasp concepts or core facts quickly; you are not easily distracted by the language or presentation.

Studies with f MRI show that the bilingual brain is also more efficient, at least with respect to translations. Those bilingual from an early age do not go through the mental process of translating, rather they grasp the concept right away and then express it in the other language, skipping the translating step.

Consider those familiar with only the imperial system. When told that it is 20 degrees Centigrade outside, they first have to convert that into Fahrenheit (68F) and only then could surmise that it is pleasant. If they were facile with both systems, they would know right away that 20 degrees Centigrade is quite pleasant, while 35, uncomfortably hot.

It does not matter what the second language is, the key point is to have another instrument to look at reality, another perspective. Malaysia’s plural population affords splendid opportunities to learn another language. Homogenous societies like Japan are handicapped in this respect. English is taught in Japanese schools right from kindergarten, yet the average Japanese student has difficulty communicating in English.

Perversely, Malay language nationalists use Japan as an example for resisting the teaching of English. Japan is an economic and technological powerhouse despite its students not being fluent in English, those language nationalists argue. That is a gross misreading of the Japanese situation. Japanese leaders are very much aware how much of a handicap their students face and are aggressively remedying the situation by recruiting thousands of native English-speaking teachers from abroad, as is China today.

English fluency in itself is no magic bullet. India and the Philippines would shatter that illusion. Not knowing English however, is a major handicap.

The most advantaged in this globalized world are those who are bilingual, with one of the languages being English. American students are now required to learn a second language, in recognition of this reality. Second to that would be those who speak only one language, but that language is English. The least advantaged, or most handicapped, are those who speak only one language, and that language is other than English. That unfortunately is the fate of most Malays. Little wonder that we do not do well in commerce, education, and other endeavors.

In Malaysia, most non-Malays are already bilingual, their native tongue and Malay; many are also trilingual, with English. That gives them significant advantages in the marketplace and elsewhere. With their multiple-language skills they are able to view reality from many perspectives, giving them significant cognitive advantages. I attribute their success to this fact, not to any intrinsic superiority of their race or culture. You are not likely to succeed in Malaysia or anywhere else if all you know is Hokkien or Malayalam.

Malays have the capacity to be fluently bilingual (English and Malay), or even trilingual, with Arabic. Those who are unilingual are handicapping themselves and trapping their minds.

English fluency confers many significant advantages as it is the language of commerce and science. In science with only Malay you would never go beyond the elementary stuff. Then there is the Internet, which is predominantly English. To take full advantage of this digital universe you have to be fluent in English.

As to why English and not say, Chinese, has achieved this status, only Allah knows, as we Muslims would put it. After all, more people speak Mandarin. There are more people learning English in China than in the United Kingdom.

For Malays, there is an extra and important psychological benefit for knowing English. It has long been acknowledged as the language of the elite, the legacy of colonization. Being English-illiterate thus carried a certain stigma, implying that your world does not extend beyond the kampung. When Malays in Malaysia engage in conversations with each other, they do so in English. That sentiment of enhanced social status associated with English fluency is still entrenched today if not even stronger no matter how hard Malay nationalists try to portray it as otherwise. The fact remains; if you are illiterate in English you would be treated as being from the underclass, from the village. If people treat you like that, pretty soon you behave that way. That is the major psychological handicap facing Malays who are English-illiterate.

An oft-cited explanation for Malay backwardness is our lack of self-confidence. Our lack of English fluency contributes to this. Engaging our people in motivational speeches and rah rah rallies, or endlessly proclaiming the superiority of our language and culture would never boost the core confidence of our people. On the other hand, teach them English and make them comfortable and fluent in that language, then watch their confidence grow. This is especially true of the young.

Those who lack self-confidence react in one of two ways. One, they become brashly overconfident to the point of being obnoxious. They know it all. Do not bother them with facts or new insights; their minds are already made up and nothing could shake their confidence. Woe betides anyone unfortunate enough to work with, or especially, under them. Psychologists refer to this non-productive pattern of behavior as reaction formation.

The second way those who lack confidence react is by retreating to their comfort zone underneath the old familiar coconut shell. Regression, in the language of psychologists. They have no interest in anything beyond as they do not understand it and more significantly, they refuse to try. Their oft-cited excuse for retreating would be that that they are busy enough in their own immediate world, there is little need to venture beyond.

I noticed this with young doctors who were graduates of Indonesian universities when I worked in Malaysia in the 1970s. They may be keen on surgery initially but when they found the workload rough because of their limited English proficiency (my seminars and reading lists were in English), they would ask to be released because they were all of a sudden “no longer interested in surgery.” When I tried to arrange special English classes, they felt offended. They saw that as an insult, not assistance. What the Stanford psychologist Claude Steel referred to as self-affirmation threat.

Abroad, when Malays meet a fellow Malay, we converse in Malay. Part of the reason is of course that we long to hear our native tongue spoken. The other is that if you are in America you are obviously fluent in English, so that is no longer a useful differentiating social indicator.

Malay is the national language of Malaysia; all Malaysians must be fluent in it. You cannot consider yourself a true Malaysian otherwise. However, whether non- Malays are fluent in Malay is not my concern; nor is that pertinent to my discussion. My concern is with advancing Malays through liberating their minds. Knowing a second or even a third language is the quickest path towards that end.

Next:  Opening Minds Through Trade and Commerce

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 Science

November 19th, 2017

Liberation Through Science

M.Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

 

The low level of science literacy among Malaysian students, most acute among Malays, is well documented. Science is important for two reasons. The first is obvious; nearly all the advances responsible for our material comfort, improvements in health and life, as well as our comprehension of our physical and social world are due to science. It behooves us to make our future citizens science literate. Before pursuing that, I will dispose of the second reason.

This second reason is less obvious but more compelling. Science presents a unique way of looking at the world and an approach towards problem solving. Hamka once said that Allah gave us two Korans; one He revealed to Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., the other, this wonderful universe. We have a responsibility to study both Korans. With the first, He gave us an exceptional teacher in the person of Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w; with the second, He has equipped us with akal, intellect, an attribute unique only unto humans.

Hamka’s two Korans metaphor is the best reconciliation of faith and reason, of revelation and experimentation.

Using akal or rational thinking is what science is all about. It is based on empirical evidence, not speculation or philosophizing. You observe the world around you, make a tentative hypothesis to explain what you have observed, and then test it through experimentation or its predictive accuracy. In many respects, the scientific mind is like that of a child; always curious and always learning, as well as constantly formulating, testing, and re-formulating its hypothesis of reality.

That at least is the ideal of science. In the real world however, things are not necessarily so neat or elegant. Scientists too are subject to the usual human foibles and narrow-mindedness. In collecting data, scientists are like everyone else, subject to “confirmation bias.” When the data do not support the theory, the usual reaction is to blame the experiment and or experiemnter, especially when he is not from the establishment and the prevailing theory has been postulated by someone eminent and in authority.

In his book The Mismeasure of Man, the late Stephen Jay Gould debunked the 18th Century “science” of craniometry, where by measuring the size and conformation of human skulls one could classify the various races and purportedly make inferences on their intellectual capacity. Gould made the singular point that to embark on such an enquiry one must have a priori belief in the different intellectual capabilities of the various races, and that those differences in turn are related to skull size and conformation; hence the measurements.

Subsequent empirical studies debunked that thesis. That is the beauty of science; the certitudes of today could be the butt of tomorrow’s jokes. As for skull conformations, consider the flat back of the heads of Malays for example. That has more to do with cultural child-rearing practices. We put our babies to sleep on their backs; Europeans on their tummies, with the face turned sideways to avoid being smothered. Incidentally, today’s pediatricians advise mothers to avoid that practice as it is associated with a high incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Score one for traditional Malay culture!

Returning to the first rationale, making citizens science literate and mathematically competent is a practical necessity in today’s world, unless you wish your society to remain backward. The OECD’s Program for International Students Assessment (PISA) shows that a nation’s economic development is correlated with, and in fact due in large part to the scientific and mathematical skills as well as the language and critical thinking ability of its workers. All other criteria, such as the amount of money expended on education, class size, or years in the classroom are irrelevant. By these other criteria Egypt is on par with South Korea, but the economies and social development of the two countries could not be more different. The Koreans have much superior science and mathematical skills. That in turn translates into their superior economic and social developments.

The deficiency with science teaching in Malaysia lies with both approach and content. The subject content is totally unrelated to the pupils’ environment, making it difficult to capture their interest. The loaded national syllabus prevents the teacher from exploring the children’s natural world. A school may be on the beach but the pupils learn nothing about the tides and inter-tidal marine environment throughout their school years; likewise, students living near rivers or deltas would be totally ignorant of their riparian ecology.

For many reasons, primarily financial, experiments–the essence of science–are now mostly demonstrated to but rarely repeated by students. Now in a misuse of computers, those experiments are simulated digitally, teaching students that real life is as predictable as the simplistic software engineers’ algorithm would have it.

Very few schools have programs related to their immediate environment. My old school in Kuala Pilah way back in the 1950s had a weather station that collected data on rainfall, wind, and daily temperatures. Our job was to present the data in a variety of formats, typically graphs and tables. We were able to compare our data with what was written in the textbooks. Likewise, during my primary school I remember doing experiments on seed germination using corn and green peas, being ready examples of mono and di-cotyledons, as well as observing the metamorphosis of banana leaf moths, an ubiquitous insect.

In California, my son’s elementary school science project had the pupils examine owl pellets and from there deduce the birds’ diet. In my grandson’s Grade One class, the children did experiments with oil, water and cork to demonstrate the concept of density and buoyancy. There are literally thousands of such tangible, easily performed experiments to stimulate the students’ interest in science. Those exercises may not be in the syllabus or be tested in the final examinations, but they will sustain the students’ interest, and more importantly, help them absorb the essence of the scientific method.

Next:  The Trap of Mono Lingualism

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

Malaysians And Their National Language

November 19th, 2017

 

Malaysians and Their National Languag

M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

I was lost in the vicinity of the Malaysian Indian Congress-sponsored college (TAFE) in Seremban not too long ago and asked a student for directions.

“I am sorry I don’t speak Malay!” he responded, an air of pride betraying his feigned apology. Thinking he might be a foreigner, I asked where he was from–Sentul!

That reflected another glaring deficiency of Malaysian education. Imagine, a college student, a Malaysian in Malaysia, locally-born and bred yet not being able to speak the national language! Before you unleash your outrage on that poor soul, consider that we have Members of Parliament who cannot speak Malay. It seems absurd that their parties would even dare put them up as candidates in the first place. Worse, why did we vote them in? It would take a great effort on the part of Malaysians not to learn the national language–the language of the street and of the majority in the country and region.

That is a sore point with Malays. We have Malaysians who profess to love their country and endlessly proclaim their pride to be its citizens yet make no effort to learn its national language. That is unacceptable and mocks their patriotic declarations.

This unwillingness of some to speak Malay is a none-too-subtle expression of contempt for the language as well as for Malay culture and ethos. It is this sentiment that poisons race relations. As this is such a highly volatile emotional issue, Malays are understandably less likely to respond rationally in return. Malays are not alone in responding thus. In Germany, there is open and official displeasure for immigrants who do not fully assimilate into the German culture, meaning specifically to be fluent in German. In America, there is increasing resentment of those who do not speak English, and America does not even have an official language! In America only public schools that use English as the medium of instruction could get state funding. You can have Chinese or Spanish schools; just do not expect any state support!

Malay irrationality on this issue of national language comes in many guises. One is the call, heard with increasing boldness and shrillness, to abolish vernacular schools. This comes not only from extremists but also moderates and well-meaning Malaysians concerned with the increasing segregation and polarization of the young. By forcing our children to attend only our national schools, so the rationale goes, we help integrate future citizens. At the very least they will learn our national language. If that were the only issue, there is much merit to that assertion.

Malays should view this issue with an open mind. Our collective pride may be bruised when non-Malays belittle our language or deem it unworthy of their intellectual effort, but so what? Even if all non-Malays were to be fluent in Malay, adopt Malay names and culture, it still would not help Malays. In fact, I argue that would make us look even worse. Consider if non-Malays became so adept at our national language that the best novels in Malay were written by them? That would really show us up! Forcing non-Malays to attend national schools and be fluent in our language will not in any way improve the status of the Malay community. While it would certainly make them better Malaysians, in that they would know the national and fellow Malaysians better, that would not in any way contribute to the betterment of Malays. My focus, as it should be for Malay leaders, is how to better the Malay community. Once we Malays contribute our share to the economic, social, and intellectual development of Malaysia, our influence in would increase in tandem, and with that our language. All other matters such as whether non-Malays be fluent in Malay are irrelevant and distracting.

Let’s put the national language issue in perspective. Most Malaysians can speak Malay. Unless you are exceptionally talented or entrepreneurial, you are not likely to succeed in Malaysia unless you can speak Malay. The language that counts is the language of your customers; in Malaysia 65 percent of your customers are Malays or Malay-speaking. If you include Indonesia, you have a potential market of a quarter billion Malay-speaking customers. You would be plain stupid to ignore that.

There is something odd, and it sticks out like an ugly wart on an otherwise unblemished face, about these Malay language nationalists. The more strident they are, the more likely they are to be English-educated. The shrillest of all, its grand old lady, is the linguist Nik Safiah Karim. She is of my generation, and like me, had an all-English education. She once asserted that no more than five percent of Malays need to know English; the rest could do with knowing only Malay. Left unsaid is that her children and grandchildren should be in that super select group. Such hypocrisy!

Malays should differentiate between two crucial issues. One is the development of Malay language, the other, the betterment of Malays. The two are distinct and separate issues; strategies to help one may not be useful and in fact may hinder the second. I am more concerned with the latter. Once Malays are developed, our language too would in tandem. If our community is bankrupt socially, economically, and intellectually, rest assured our language would go down the drain together with the status of our community. Our language would then be of interest only to anthropologists. Mandarin now commands the world’s attention because of China’s increasing economic might.

Developing the Malay language is less of a challenge. Contrary to the frequent hysterical assertions of the language nationalists, a language spoken by nearly a quarter of a billion people is unlikely to disappear; it simply cannot be ignored. Nor is it likely to be eradicated even if there were to be an official policy suppressing it.

Their loud shrill protests aside, these language nationalists could be mollified with ease. One would be to make proficiency in Malay a requirement before you could get your professional or trade license. Before you are able to practice as a lawyer, doctor, or any profession, you must demonstrate competency in the national language. This makes sense as many of the regulations are written in Malay and substantial portions of your clients speak the language. In America, despite its lack of an official language, you cannot get your license as a professional or tradesman unless you can demonstrate your competency in English. All the qualifying tests are in English.

Another would be to require voters to demonstrate their proficiency in our language. How can you be an informed voter if you cannot understand Malay as the government’s businesses and the political discourses are in that language? As with any law, it should not be made retroactive; meaning, it should apply only to those currently not registered as voters. Existing registered voters would be unaffected.

Malay language nationalists and champions of Memartabatkan Bahasa (Dignify/respect our language) should advocate this instead of rescinding the teaching of science and mathematics in English. The first initiative would make voters more informed about national affairs; the second would only disadvantage our young. Should PERKASA were to advocate the first, it would find many ready supporters.

Recently, the head of the Malaysian Chinese Association and a former cabinet minister expressed his disgust at what he considered to be “an uncivilized” aspect of Islamic culture when a female candidate from the opposition Islamic Party declined to partake in the usual hand-shaking greetings. It is astounding to think that this former minister who was also a physician could be so utterly ignorant of Islamic cultural sensitivities. How did he deal with his Muslim patients?

In California, if physicians were to display such gross ignorance of the cultural sensitivities of their patients, and then be stupid or arrogant enough to display that ignorance, they would risk being disciplined by the Medical Board. At the very least you would be exposing yourself to medical and other liabilities.

At least that TAFE student was smart enough to feign embarrassment; the minister however displayed no hint of contrition even after he ignited a storm of controversy with fellow party leaders of his coalition, specifically UMNO.

Those ugly exceptions aside, Malaysians generally are a tolerant lot. This is the consequence of our multiculturalism. It also grants us significant advantages when we venture abroad. In the West, I can with ease distinguish Malaysian Chinese from their counterparts from Taiwan, Singapore, or Hong Kong. Decades ago Vancouver, Canada, saw an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong just before the handing over of that colony back to China. Today we have Mainland Chinese coming in. It did not take them long to run afoul with the city’s zoning laws when they built their massive homes on tiny city lots, and with their awful gaudy color schemes. What would have been acceptable in Beijing or Hong Kong triggered the wrath of their new Canadian neighbors.

If you have a small mind, you believe the rest of the world likes what you like. Step into any shopping mall in Malaysia and you will be immediately assaulted with the sound of some Taiwanese pop princess intent on bursting your eardrums. Those merchants think everyone else likes what they like. Presumably those are the same idiots who complained aloud about the call of the Azzan!

Next:  Liberation Through Science