Liberation Through Science

November 19th, 2017

Liberation Through Science

M.Bakri Musa


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

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

Malaysian Education: Deficiency Of Content

October 29th, 2017


Malaysian Education:  Deficiency of Content

M. Bakri Musa

The glaring deficiencies of the Malaysian curriculum and system are its rigidity and narrow focus. That is true at every level. Pupils are assigned to the science, arts or vocational stream in Year Ten, based solely on their national test scores, with zero input from teachers, parents, or students.

For Malay students, the streaming begins much earlier, at the end of Year Six. The brighter ones, again judged by a standardized national test, are selected to attend academically-oriented residential schools. Again, there is zero input from the teachers or consideration of external factors. The son of a professor attending a well-regarded primary school near campus who scored at the 98th percentile would be selected ahead of the son of a poor farmer attending an ill-equipped kampong school who scored “only” at the 95th percentile. A misguided and narrow understanding of meritocracy.

This division is rigid and like the earlier streaming, based solely on test results. There is no crossover permitted later regardless of circumstance.

This early streaming means that an Arts undergraduate would have science literacy the equivalent of an American Grade 11 at best; similarly, a science student with respect to literature or history.

This myopic thinking has to be rectified. A good start would be to make science, mathematics, and English (as well as Malay of course) mandatory at all school years regardless of whether you are in the arts, science, or vocational stream. The level and intensity would have to be adjusted. Mathematics for the vocational steam could be “consumer math,” for the arts students, algebra, while for those in science, calculus. Similar adjustments would have to be made for English and literature.

Universities should adopt the American broad-based liberal education with its focus on critical thinking. Despite that, as Allan Bloom concluded in his dense but best- selling book, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, today’s version with its de- emphasis on “The Great Books” succeeded only in the closing of American minds. Bloom lamented the moving away from the “Great Books” tradition and the ensuing cultural and moral relativism.

American universities may have abandoned what cynics refer to as the works of long-dead white men, but those institutions have enhanced their core curriculum by adding foreign language as well as science and mathematics. It makes for a truly liberal and broad-based education, well suited for the modern era.

Today’s liberal education, in particular the learning of a foreign language and time spent studying abroad, is much superior to the earlier one with its almost exclusive emphasis on the classics. Learning another language and experiencing a different culture are among the most effective ways of opening up minds.

I appreciate classic books but today you cannot consider yourself properly educated and able to comprehend the world around you if you do not understand the difference between an atom and a molecule, or gene from chromosome. Likewise, your thinking and analysis cannot be rigorous unless you can appreciate the difference between simple gains versus geometric or exponential ones.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa surveyed 2,300 undergraduates from 24 American institutions for their book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2010). Despite America’s commitment to liberal education, the survey substantiated and amplified Bloom’s earlier bleak assessment. A huge 45 percent of these students did not demonstrate significant improvement in learning at the end of two years (with 36 percent at the end of four) in such areas as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills. Imagine what the results would be for Malaysian undergraduates!

Malaysians privileged to have been educated abroad, specifically in America, have the best advantage. They benefit from the great tradition of modern liberal education, learning a foreign language (English), and living in a different culture. Those are significant advantages over their compatriots educated at home. Perhaps that explains why Malaysian students in America have the initiative, and courage I might add, to organize seminars like the Stanford Malaysia Forum, Northeast Malaysia Forum, and the Alif Ba Ta conference.

Those remaining in Malaysia should also consider themselves lucky, but on another front. With the major traditions of Asia represented in the country, they do not have to leave to experience other cultures. Few however, appreciate much less take advantage of this unique opportunity. For many, our diversity is a liability, the cause of never-ending conflict. It would take a major shift in mindset to consider this diversity an asset.

In Kuala Lumpur at Kampong Baru, we have the essence of traditional Malay culture, albeit intruded by pseudo-modernity and blighted urbanity. A few blocks away, Petaling Street is the heart of Chinatown. Venture further and we are at Sentul, literally Little India. Far from taking advantage of these splendid opportunities, we erect unnecessary barriers.

Next:  Criticisms of American Liberal 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

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!”