The Curse of The Obsession With Single-Issue Politics

M. Bakri Musa
6th April 2015

We Malays are obsessed – and cursed – with the single-issue politics of bangsa, agama dan negara (race, religion and nation). We have paid, and continue to pay, a severe price for this. Our fixation with those three issues detracts us from pursuing other legitimate endeavors, in particular, our social, economic and educational development. Perversely and far more consequential, our collective addiction to bangsa, agama dan negara only polarizes us.

We, leaders and followers alike, have yet to acknowledge much less address this monumental and unnecessary obstacle we impose upon ourselves. The current angst over hudud (religious laws) reflects this far-from-blissful ignorance. With Malays over represented in the various dysfunctional categories (drug abusers, abandoned babies, and broken families), and with our graduates overwhelmingly unemployable, our leaders are consumed with cutting off hands and stoning to death as punishments for thievery and adultery. Meanwhile pervasive corruption and endemic incompetence destroy our society and institutions. Those are the terrible consequences of our misplaced obsession with agama.

If we focus more on earthly issues such as reducing corruption, enhancing our schools and universities, and on improving economic opportunities, then we are more likely to produce a just and equitable society. That would mertabatkan (enhance the status of) our agama, bangsa dan negara on a far more impressive scale.

Make no mistake, if we remain marginalized or if we fail to contribute our share, then it matters little whether Malaysia is an Islamic State or had achieved “developed” status, our agama, bangsa dan negara will be relegated to the cellar of humanity. Our hollering of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy) would then be but a desperate and pathetic manifestation of Kebangsatan Melayu (Malay Poverty).

A Historical Perspective

For the first half of the last century, our fixation was, as to be expected, on nationalism. Our forefathers were consumed with the struggle to be free from the clutches of colonialism, and the right to be independent. With merdeka a reality in 1957, the obsession then shifted from negara to bangsa, from merdeka to bahasa (language). Today with Malay language specifically and customs generally accepted as the national norms, our mania has now shifted to agama.

While our passion for negara and bangsa had a definite and definable endpoint (independence and Malay as the national language respectively), what is the goal with our obsession on agama? ISIS Malaysia? And as for entry into heaven, only Allah knows that.

We have forgotten, or are unaware in the first place, the price we paid for our earlier obsessions. Consider our nationalistic fervor of yore. While we Malays were consumed with treating the colonialists as white devils and fighting them, non-Malays seized every opportunity to work with and learn from them. In our smugness and misplaced sense of superiority we asserted that we had nothing to learn from those colonials and outsiders, blithely ignoring the obvious evidences to the contrary, just like the Japanese before the Meiji Restoration.

As a result when independence came, non-Malays were much more equipped to take full advantage of that fact while we Malays were still consumed with endlessly shouting merdeka and rehashing an established reality. A decade later we found ourselves marginalized while the non-natives were busy taking over opportunities left behind by the British. Then like a wild boar caught in a trap of its own making, we lashed out at everyone and everything, with ugly consequences for all.

It took the brilliance and foresightedness of the late Tun Razak to first of all recognize the underlying pathology and then craft an imaginative and effective remedy.

As for our struggle for independence, let me inject a not-so-obvious observation. Our merdeka came less from the battles of our jingoistic warriors, more from British realization that colonialism was no longer chic. Indeed it became an affront to their sensibilities. I would be less certain of that conviction had our colonizers been the Chinese or Russians. The Tibetans and Chechnyans will attest to that.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the British for another reason. They cultivated sensible leaders amongst us and dealt harshly with the radicals. Consequently we were blessed with post-independent figures like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak while spared the likes of Sukarno and Ho Chi Minh.

Had we been less arrogant culturally and instead learned from the British, we would have been able to give full meaning to our merdeka. There was much that we could have learned from a nation that ushered in the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Age.

Folly of The National Language Obsession

The May 1969 race riot should have taught us the obvious and very necessary lesson that we must prepare our people well so they could make their rightful contributions and not be left behind. It did not. Instead we shifted our obsession, this time to language. Bahasa jiwa banga (Language the soul of a race), we deluded ourselves.

With that we sacrificed generations of precious and scarce Malay minds to the altar of the supremacy of Bahasa. We also squandered what precious little legacy the British had left us, specifically our facility with English. Imagine had we built on that!

Yes, Malay is now the national language, a fact affirmed by all. Less noticed or acknowledged is that while non-Malays are facile with that language they are also well versed in others, in particular English. Not so Malays, with our leaders eagerly egging on our fantasy that knowing only Malay was sufficient.

With English now the de facto language of science, commerce and international dealings, not to mention the language of global consumers especially affluent ones, our Malay-only fluency is a severe handicap. We are lost or ignored abroad, or even in Malaysia within the private sector. Again we are being left out because of our misplaced obsession.

The sad part is that we are only now just recognizing this tragic reality. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyyddin (who is also in charge of education) was stunned to learn that our students fared poorly in international comparisons. He is still stunned for he has yet to come up with a coherent solution.

Our Current Delusion with Religion

Judging from the current obsession with hudud, we have learned nothing from our earlier follies with bangsa dan negara.

Faith is a personal matter. This is especially so with Islam. Our Holy Book says that on the Day of Judgment we would be judged solely by our deeds. We cannot excuse them based on our following the dictates of this great leader or the teachings of that mesmerizing ulama. Islam is also unique in being devoid of a clergy class. There is no pope or priest to mediate between us and Allah, or a prophet who died in order to expiate our sins.

The now vociferous and overbearing ulama class imposing itself upon us is a recent innovation (bida’a) in our faith.

As is evident, this obsession with hudud does not bring Muslims together. Far from it! Hudud also creates an unnecessary chasm between Muslims and non-Muslims. Islam should bring us together.

To Muslims the Koran is the word of Allah, its message for all mankind and till the end of time. That is a matter of faith. While hudud is based on the Koran it is not the Koran. The present understanding of hudud is but the version interpreted by the ancient Bedouins. It is the handiwork of mortals, with all its imperfections. We should not be bound by it but be open to more enlightened readings of the holy book.

We paid dearly for our earlier obsessions with race and nationalism. What would be the price this time for our fixation with religion? Look at the Middle East today. Ponder Nigeria with its Boko Haram. Contemplate being under the brutal ISIS, the messianic Talibans, or the puritanical Saudis.

We have yet to recover from our earlier follies with nationalism and Bahasa, yet we blithely continue making new ones with our current obsession on religion. The mistakes we make this time could well prove irreversible.

Dispense with this public fixation with religion. Instead focus on adil and amanah (justice and integrity), the tenets of our faith. We cannot be Islamic if we are devoid of both. This should be our pursuit, from eminent Malays to not-so-eminent ones, from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

If our leaders do not lead us there, then dispense with them and pursue our own path forward. Unlike the earlier colonial era, this time there is no superior power except for Allah to guide us find and groom enlightened leaders. We are on our own. As per the wisdom of our Koran, Allah will not change our condition unless we do it ourselves.

Bakri Musa’s latest book, Malaysia’s Wasted Decade 2004-2014. The Toxic Triad of Abdullah, Najib, and UMNO Leadership, has just been released. It will be available soon at major online outlets like

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  1. #1 by good coolie on Monday, 6 April 2015 - 11:20 am

    Right! Stand up and speak, Moderates! Don’t be a “silent majority”. If you are silent, you will give encouragement to the extremists.

  2. #2 by winstony on Tuesday, 7 April 2015 - 1:56 pm

    So, what action plan has the author of this article got to “enlighten” the Malays about the “Clear & Present” danger they are facing in this country?

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