Lessons From The Past

M. Bakri Musa
October 20 2016

The coming of Islam, European colonization, and the pursuit of independence – these were transformational events in our culture that resulted in the toppling of the Malay collective coconut shell. In all three instances our culture had served us well in guiding us through uncharted waters.

Yet, and this seems perverse, in our current tribulations we are far too inclined to blame our culture. I suggest that instead of forever berating and blaming the presumed inadequacies of our culture, it would be far more meaningful and productive if we were to analyze and learn how our culture had dealt with the major events of the past, and apply those insights to our current challenges.

If I were to grade the performance of our culture to the three transformational events in our history, I would give an exemplary A-plus for the path we chose towards independence, an A-minus for our reception to the coming of Islam, and a respectable B for our performance during colonization.

As for that brief period of Japanese Occupation, the fact that we survived was blessing enough. Indeed we did better; we maintained our honor and integrity. Contrary to the fears expressed by the likes of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew who wondered out loud whether during a time of famine his Malay neighbors would spare him their last grains of rice, rest assured that Malays willingly shared what little we had even with our once oppressors, as Jean Paget experienced in “A Town Like Alice.”

A grading exercise is only meaningful if accompanied by some useful comments. I gave a perfect score for our pursuit of independence because it was done right in every respect. We chose the right leaders and they chose the right strategy; it was also the right timing. Our approach was pragmatic, and that proved productive.

The path we chose reflected the best elements of our culture. It emphasized fairness and generosity, and we put both to good use by working together with the other communities to achieve our goal. We kept our eye on the ultimate prize, and we were willing to make the necessary compromises in order to reach our final destination. We did not consider the give and take of negotiations as a sign of weakness, rather of strength. Timbang menimbang, as we say, of being fair and balanced.

With such a mindset we were able to work readily with non-Malays towards independence. We did not consider the exercise of collaboration as expedience, a sign of weakness, or the price we had to pay but as a positive endeavor towards a common goal. Had we been consumed with the “purity” of our goals and had been unwilling to compromise, we would still be a British colony today and be left even further behind.

That said, the path we chose towards independence was far from smooth. There were tough negotiations and last minute snags not only between Malays and non-Malays as represented within the Alliance, but also among Malays, specifically between UMNO (which at that time represented the overwhelming majority of Malays) and the sultans. Ultimately commonsense prevailed, and with a united front within Alliance and with the sultans, the negotiations with the British were successful.

There were other equally passionate nationalistic leaders. With no disrespect to them, none measured up to Tunku, Tun Razak, and his team in Alliance. Had we hitched our fate on Burhanuddin Al Helmy, another giant of a leader, we would be like Indonesia today; with Malay girls desperate to find work as maids in neighboring countries. I do not question Burhanuddin’s anti-colonialist credentials but his avowed goal was union with Indonesia.

Had we latched on to Ahmad Boestaman, he would have embraced Chin Peng in a grand gesture of socialistic reconciliation, a strategy so loved by those who think that problems could be solved by simply forgetting or ignoring differences. Sukarno did that with Aidit, leader of the Indonesian Communist Party, and was nearly done in, as was Indonesia.

Chin Peng was also for independence, but his goal was to realize the aspiration of a Greater China as revealed in some ancient maps found in the musty tombs of long-gone emperors. Chin Peng and Burhanuddin were alike in their thinking and strategies; the former, communism and China; the latter, Islam and Indonesia.

Tunku too tried this reconciliation route, but after meeting Chin Peng at the Baling Peace Talks in December 1955, quickly gave that idea up. Tunku remembered well the basic rule to any negotiation: stick to your principles. He intuitively recognized Chin Peng for what he was and wisely decided that it would not be prudent to share a blanket with a cobra.

Our culture’s response to the coming of Islam was exemplary in many ways. We saw its innate beauty and evident verity, and embraced the faith enthusiastically. Yet in so doing we did not dismiss or abandon our then existing ways and identity. Our exuberant acceptance of this new faith did not preclude us from continuing our traditional practices and adat (customs). The genius of our ancestors was to creatively harmonize the two, not picking and choosing what we like from each and discarding what we deemed unsuitable, rather the artful fusion of both. We did not become less of a Muslim or Malay in so doing but better human beings and our society the better for it.

The closest modern equivalent to our exuberant embrace of Islam would be the current Chinese accommodation to capitalism and globalization. Just as our ancestors created their own “Islam with Malay characteristics” as it were, separate from those of the Arab, Persian or Indian variety, likewise today’s China enthusiastically embraces capitalism albeit “with Chinese characteristics,” a unique brand identifiably different from the American, British or Scandinavian strain. It is capitalism nonetheless and has brought unimaginable benefits to the Chinese, just as Islam did to Malays.

I did not grant top marks to our ancestors’ embracing Islam because in their eagerness they failed to grasp fully its vast universe beyond the spiritual and theological. They did not fully appreciate the tremendous non-religious contributions of the Arabs to the arts and sciences through Islam. Consequently there were no Malay translations of texts beyond the religious and hikayat (legends). Nor did our ancestors emulate the highly successful trading practices of those early Arabs.

Our ancestors also failed to appreciate the full breath and diversity of Islamic theological thoughts, or of Islam’s tolerance to dissenting viewpoints, at least in its early years. Our culture’s failure in that arena would handicap us in our subsequent dealings with the inevitable differences in interpretations within our faith. We impute evil motives on those with whom we disagree; we are too eager to label as apostates those who disagree with us.

We became so enamored with those Arab traders and so eager to emulate them that we closed ourselves to other equally valid interpretations and practices of Islam. We let ourselves be colonized mentally in that we would view any other version of Islam as being bida’a, an adulteration of the faith.

Our embrace of the Arabs could not be more different than our reaction to the Europeans. Our culture was right in recognizing colonization’s inherent evil nature. No human group has a right to subjugate others under any pretext, be it noblesse oblige or the presumption of a supposed “white man’s burden.”

We should fight evil (and colonization was that) but in doing so we should also recognize our own weaknesses. If we realize that our enemy is overwhelming and that there can be no meaningful or possible way for us to prevail, then we should be prepared to make the necessary accommodations to that harsh reality. There is no need to sacrifice our people needlessly. Life is precious; adapt and live for another day.

The powers of the colonialists were indeed awesome, and we would be nothing but easy prey had we aggressively resisted. In such instances our first priority should be to ensure our collective survival. With time we could learn from our adversaries and only then perhaps could we build a credible force to challenge them.

As per the wisdom of our Koran, when we see evil we must use our hands to combat it, meaning, do so physically. Failing that we should use our tongue, that is, voice our disapproval. When even that is not feasible, then we should disapprove of it in our hearts, though that is the path least favored by Allah. Stated differently, we should not senselessly sacrifice our precious lives to a lost cause and that there is infinite human capacity to adjust while remaining true to our faith. We saw that in Stalin’s Soviet Union and elsewhere.

British colonialism was a formidable force and we could not possibly prevail. We could not challenge it with our hands; we were no match for their guns and cannons. We could voice our disapproval, but their prisons too had infinite capacity. Thus we were left to disapproving it only in our hearts, and we did.

When it became clear that we were vastly outmatched by colonialism, our people responded in the only way they could. They resorted to using the “weapons of the weak,” borrowing James C. Scott’s words.

Next: Our Schizophrenic Response to British Colonialism

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

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