The Meaning of A Free Mind


Bakri Musa
29th March 2016

The meaning of a free mind can best be illustrated by this story of Mullah Nasaruddin, a fictitious alim known for his effective use of simple and often self-deprecating stories to drive home a point, illuminate a concept, or challenge conventional wisdom.

He had a neighbor who was fond of borrowing items from him and then conveniently forgetting to return them. One day this neighbor came to the mullah to borrow his donkey. Anticipating this, the mullah had locked his animal away in the barn and out of sight. Upon hearing the request, the mullah confidently replied that his donkey had been taken away earlier by his brother. Just as the disappointed neighbor turned away, the donkey brayed. He turned around and remarked, “You said your donkey was gone!”

To which the mullah replied, “Do you believe the braying of a donkey or the words of a mullah?”

If you can accept that at times a donkey can be the bearer of the truth, and a mullah the purveyor of untruth, then you have exhibited a free mind, minda merdeka. There are many reasons why we continue believing the mullah despite the donkey braying in our face, and I will explore some of these subsequently.

Our mission must be the molding of free minds, or to put in Malay, Mengasoh Minda Merdeka. We want Malays to believe the braying donkey even if the mullah were to say otherwise. Mengasoh Minda Merdeka is a nobler and definitely more productive pursuit than the current mindless obsession with Ketuanan Melayu or Agama, Bangsa, Negara. It is also a much more evocative mantra.

Datuk Onn’s free mind enabled him to hear the braying of the donkey, the rakyats’ abhorrence of the Malayan Union Treaty, and wisely ignored the words of his mullah, the sultan. When you hear the donkey bray, do not let the sweet words of the mullah persuade you otherwise, lest you risk being made to look like an ass, or worse.

Malays have been politically free since 1957, but the Malay mind is still entrapped. Time to liberate it, to grant its cherished freedom – Merdeka Minda Melayu! The philosopher Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, better known as HAMKA, described best what a free mind is with this last-but-one stanza of his poem, Nikmat Hidup (Life’s Bounty):

Menahan fikiran aku tak mungkin / Menumpul kalam aku tak kuasa.
Merdeka berfikir gagah perkasa / Berani menyebut yang aku yakin. (57-60)

My approximate translation is:

Censoring ideas is not my deal / Nor putting to rest my writing quill.
Fearless are those who dare to think / And put to words their inner being.

I challenge readers to find among Malay leaders today those who are Merdeka berfikir (free thinking) and gagah perkasa (fearless core). To be free minded is to be courageous to the core; that is what Hamka meant with his stirring line, Merdeka befikir gagah perkasa.

Merdeka berfikir alone, courageous and laudatory as that may be, is not sufficient. You must also have the conviction to articulate your ideas and then share them with others. Otherwise it would be like a tree falling in the forest; with no one hearing it, will it make any sound? More importantly, will it matter? Thus Hamka’s berani menyebut! (Dare to voice).

We can share our thoughts orally, with colleagues and friends over coffee, or more formally as at seminars and congresses. In such instances only those present would hear you, and they in turn would, it is to be hoped, spread the idea. Modern technology such as audio and video recording greatly expands the reach.

The Ayatollah Khomeini triggered the Islamic Revolution from his safe sanctuary in France through audiotape recordings of his sermons. Those tapes were then smuggled into Iran. The digital revolution obviates the need for physical smuggling as those tapes could be digitized and then be made available worldwide in real time. I can listen to Mahathir’s speech at the Save Malaysia People’s Congress last Sunday, March 27, 2016 in the comfort of my living room, and with no risk of being harassed by the police.

Writing extends this reach further through space and time. Writing, in the words of Prameodya Ananta Toer, is “one person speaking to many,” now and forever. Hamka is long gone but his wisdom lives on through his words.

Writing, unlike speaking, imposes a certain discipline. You have to gather, organize, and then present your thoughts in a logical and attractive fashion so as to interest your readers. You do not have a captive audience. Readers could just toss away what they are reading if they think it is rubbish. No such constraints exist with talking. Undisciplined, it readily degenerates into nonproductive “coffee shop talk.” “Cakap kosong je!” (empty talk only!), as the villagers put it.

Back to a free mind, another way to grasp its meaning would be to seek its synonyms and antonyms. An open, liberated or flexible mind would mean the same as a free mind. Its opposite would be a closed or rigid mind. Malays have a saying, katak di bawah tempurung (frog underneath a coconut shell). That is an apt and beautiful metaphorical imagery of a closed mind, the very opposite of a free mind.

A free mind is Allah’s command. Consider his command to Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w, as revealed in Surah Al-Rud (Thunder), “. . . Thy duty is no more than to deliver the message; the reckoning is Ours!” (13:40 – approximate translation). The prophet was to deliver the divine message but not to force it. This is reinforced in Surah Al-Rahf (The Cave, 18-29), “… Let him who will, believe; and whosoever will, let him disbelieve.”

A faith enforced is no faith. That is the essence of those verses. We accept Islam of our own free will, not because it is forced upon us. A free mind is thus a necessary condition to being a believer.

We have an obligation, to ourselves and to our Creator, not to let our minds be enslaved. Nor should we enslave others. The road to serfdom however, to borrow von Hayek’s phrase, is often laid with the best of intentions. We can be easily lulled into following the paved path that leads to our mental enslavement.

We also have an obligation to those mentally enslaved, to help topple their coconut shell. To do so effectively, we first must appreciate and understand the challenges and obstacles they face. Our obligation extends beyond. Not only must we help them topple their coconut shell but we must also support them in adjusting to the new open world. Unprepared, they would find this new world far from exhilarating and rewarding but instead, disorienting and full of problems.

With the old certitudes of life under the shell now gone, we grope for new ones. Unfortunately, there are few except this: Have faith that a free mind will get you through. The corresponding beauty is that once a mind is free it cannot be fettered ever again. A free mind is the best guarantor that a new shell would never encroach upon us again. Our physical freedom can be taken away, often capriciously as in a country like Malaysia, but with a free mind we create our own freedom, as Pramoedya forcefully reminded us.

A nation aspiring for greatness needs citizens and leaders with free minds. We can do without the Pak Turut (“Yes men”) leaders, content with echoing and regurgitating what they have been programmed to say, encapsulated in the hallowed ethos of our civil service, Saya menunggu arahan! (I await directives), or the equally servile Kami menurut perentah! (I follow orders). Their brand of “leadership” is merely to lead us plodding along the well-trodden path. They are incapable of carving new ones; they would persist along the same path even when it is riddled with potholes and ruts or ravaged by floods and landslides. They are also incapable of comprehending that the well-trodden path is often the one that leads to the garbage dump.

Malaysia cannot aspire to Vision 2020, much less greatness, with such leadership. We need leaders willing and capable of paving new paths. In short, leaders with a free mind.

To have such leaders we need citizens with free minds. Free-minded followers have free-minded leaders. Even without such leaders, our free-mindedness would enable us to carve our own path, to believe the braying donkey and not the smooth-talking Mullah. If we were to be successful, then others would follow and improve on our path. Then we would truly be makhlok soleh (exemplary being) and our society, masyarakat soleh (exemplary society).

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

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  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 29 March 2016 - 6:50 pm

    Uuh. I was looking for the part explaining why Malays ” continue to believe the Mullah despite braying donkey” but found none. Fact is the Malays need secularity and liberalism no matter what their Ulamas and leaders says. It’s not a luxury or option. It’s an imperative. Najib’s scandals and Hadi’s PAS complicity proves secularity and liberalism are the only checks against their perversion of money and faith politics.

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