Archive for category Bakri Musa
M. Bakri Musa
I enjoy giving talks to Malaysian students. It is invigorating to be with the young; their passion, enthusiasm and idealism do rub off on me.
My hope is that when they become leaders they will hold as role models the likes of Hang Nadim and Hang Jebat, and emulate the giants in our history like Munshi Abdullah and Datuk Onn. I also hope that they will be as innovative as Ungku Aziz and Raja Petra, and like them, not be trapped by the conventional wisdom. Most of all I hope they will be as diligent and resourceful as Badri Muhammad.
In my advice to students, I remind them that their future is in their own hands. No one, not their parents, advisors on campus and the embassy, or sponsors back home, knows what is best for them. I tell these students that those other people may be sincere when offering their advice but they have not traveled the same path you have taken or experienced the challenges you have faced.
Most of all they will not be the ones to bear the consequences of your decision. By all means listen to their counsel, but in the end the decision is yours. About all the others could do after offering their advice would be to also offer you their prayers and best wishes. They should support, not veto your decision. Read the rest of this entry »
M. Bakri Musa
Last and for a very special reason, I will cite another example of a free mind, Dr. Badri bin Muhammad. Badri was special to many, most immediately his wife and fellow Professor of Chemistry Karen Crouse, and their children Susanna, Adam, Diana, Nadira, and grandson Mitchell.
Once on meeting a group of Malaysian graduate students here in America, a few happened to have attended University Putra Malaysia. To my query whether they knew of Badri, one bright student beamed widely, “Yes, he was my wonderful chemistry professor!” and the others quickly joined in the praise. Very effusive and very heartfelt, those students were among Badri’s many legacies.
Badri died recently after a brief illness. He was special to me as we had been dear friends for a long time and shared so many bonds. Our wives knew each other well and so did our children who were of comparable ages. Read the rest of this entry »
M. Bakri Musa
Malay society has no shortage of formal leaders. First we have the hereditary leaders, from the sultan down to his various lowly chieftains including the local datuk lembaga (lord admiral). This pattern of leadership has a long history in our society.
Then came the religious leaders, of more recent vantage, introduced in the 15th Century with the coming of Islam to the Malay world. More recently and fast gaining a pivotal role, are political leaders.
With modern political institutions, especially democratic ones, we should expect a more frequent emergence of fresh leaders. This is not necessarily so. China is far from being a democratic society yet its People Congress gets more infusion of fresh talents with each party’s election. Compare that to the United States Congress, the self-declared exemplar of representative government. You are more likely to get a new member of the old Soviet Politburo than you are to get a new member of US Congress.
UMNO, the premier Malay political organization, is on par with the old Soviet Politburo in nurturing new talent.
Despite modernity, both hereditary and religious leaders still have a strong hold on Malays. Read the rest of this entry »
M. Bakri Musa
16th December 2015
The leadership qualities needed in a society during times of great changes and uncertainties are very different from those required in one that is static. Malaysia today faces many great challenges but is blighted with a leadership more suited for a static feudal society.
Today’s Malaysia is a complex, plural society. The unwary could easily be misled by official figures and general consensus that may apply to or describe one segment of society but may well be the very opposite for the others.
There are at least two Malaysias. One is exclusively Malay, dominated by UMNO and PAS; the other, predominantly but not exclusively non-Malay. The differences between the two extend beyond cultural values, socioeconomic status, and general worldview. The former is feudal, xenophobic, and servile towards authority; the latter is modern, aligned with the global mainstream, and views government more as the problem than the solution.
Thus statements like deteriorating local schools apply only to government ones and attended by the first group. International schools are doing very well. As for Chinese schools, the increasing number of Malay parents enrolling their children there speaks of the quality. Both schools are the preferred choice for the second Malaysia. Read the rest of this entry »
M. Bakri Musa
7th December 2015
Notwithstanding their common aristocratic background, obvious brilliance, and genuine nationalism, plus their overlapping leadership in UMNO, Tun Razak had little in common with Datuk Onn Jaafar. To start with, there was their obvious age and thus generational difference, Onn being about 30 years older. The critical differentiating feature separating the two however was their personalities.
Like Onn, there is as yet no authoritative biography of Tun Razak. There is William Shaw’s, published in 1976, sympathetic bordering on the hagiographical. Razak had many contemporaries, some very erudite, but none had sought to pen an account of this great man. Likewise his sons (he had no daughters) who are all well educated, including one who is a Cambridge graduate, yet none has seen fit to write an account of their great father, apart from the anecdotal recollections in responses to interviews.
The contrasting personalities between Onn and Razak could not be more obvious then when they were campaigning or otherwise engaging the common people. To be sure, both were atypical politicians; neither exhibited the usual politician’s backslapping or feigned familiarity and affability. They both seemed aloof and uncomfortable with crowds. While Onn had the imperious look of an aristocrat who is forced to be with the peasants, Razak had that of a policy wonk embarrassed at being unable to articulate more simply his complex ideas. Both however, had great intellect and more importantly, were remarkably free-minded although expressed in very different ways. Read the rest of this entry »
M. Bakri Musa
30th November 2015
Datuk Onn was a brilliant strategist and farsighted leader. Indeed he was so far ahead that he left his simple village followers behind.
In 1951, just five years after he established and led UMNO, he quit the presidency of his young struggling party and left in a huff. The issue was over admitting non-Malays into UMNO. On the surface this would seem to be a liberal move to engage non-Malays in the political process and to make the party race-blind. Indeed many contemporary commentators are effusive in their praise of the man for his supposed foresight in thinking beyond communal lines and racial identity.
I have a different take; I see his move as the earliest expression of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Hegemony). Onn saw his move as a means to establish Malay control on the political process by co-opting non-Malays, in particular the Chinese, into his Malay party. The reason was obvious. A year or two earlier the Chinese community under the leadership of the staunchly anti-communist Tan Cheng Lock had formed the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). To Onn, it would be much easier to “control” the Chinese politically if they were to be co-opted within UMNO than if they were to have their own separate party. Onn feared that the newly-formed MCA would not only be a formidable power but also be on par with UMNO in the anticipated negotiations for independence. Read the rest of this entry »
M. Bakri Musa
23rd November 2015
[Foreword to Zaid Ibrahim’s latest book, Assalamualaikum. Observations on the Islamization of Malaysia, published by ZI Publications and launched on November 20, 2015 by former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir.]
Muslims believe the Koran to be a guide from God; “for all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time.” That is a matter of faith.
The essence of the Koran is Al-amr bi ‘l-ma’ruf wa ‘n-nahy ani ‘l-munkar. That message is repeated many times in our Holy Book. The approximate translation is, “Command good and forbid evil;” or in my Malay, “Biasakan yang baik, jauhi yang jahat.” Succinct and elegant in both languages as it is in the original classical Arabic!
This central message is often missed in the thick tomes of religious scholars, erudite sermons of bedecked ulamas, and frenzied jingoisms of zealous jihadists. Meanwhile in Malaysia, Islam is reduced to a government bureaucracy manned by control-freaks intent on dictating our lives. Yes, they are all men.
Their mission has little to do with that golden rule. Theirs is an exercise of raw unbridled power, all in the name of Allah of course. Not-too-bright and self-serving politicians are only too willing to ride this Islamic tiger. Once ridden however, it is mighty difficult to dismount, as the Afghanis and Pakistanis are finding out. Read the rest of this entry »
M. Bakri Musa
18th Nov 2015
In an earlier commentary I gave high marks to our leaders for their enlightened ways and sophisticated strategies in the pursuit of our independence. Malaysia could have easily gone in a very different direction following the Japanese defeat. It could have just as quickly been turned into a permanent British Dominion.
The man responsible for sparing the country that terrible fate was Datuk Onn Jaafar. He was a former senior civil servant, a significant and rare achievement for a native. Had he been a Hang Tuah, ever loyal to his sultan and the British, there would be no limit to the height of his personal achievement within the colonial civil service. He could have been the first native Governor-General of the Dominion of Malaya. Read the rest of this entry »
M. Bakri Musa
14th Nov 2015
Why do you stay in prison when the door is wide open?
Jalal ad Din Rumi (1207-73)
The path we chose in pursuing independence represented the best elements of our culture. We followed the right leaders and they in turn adopted the right strategy, one of co-operation and negotiation. That was our nature, to be bertolak ansur (give and take); posturing and confrontation were just not our style.
Our leaders’ timing too was perfect as Britain had grown weary of her colonies. We were also lucky in that we were dealing with the British. Had it been the Chinese, well, consider the fate of the Tibetans and Uighurs. Had it been the Russians, look at Ukraine and Chechnya.
Today revisionist historians belittle the valiant efforts of our fathers of independence. Let me set these latter-day interpreters of events straight. Had we opted for Burhanuddin Al Helmy or Chin Peng, the nation’s history and the fate of our people would be far different today.
In times of crises or profound changes, we have to be extra cautious in whom we choose to lead us, or stated differently, in whom we should follow. It is during such times that we have to exercise our critical faculties and be extra vigilant in choosing our leaders. Malaysia is in such a state today. We have a leader in Najib Razak who is severely-challenged with respect to honesty, integrity, and competency. Profligacy he has in abundance. Read the rest of this entry »
M. Bakri Musa
4th November 2015
It is human nature that when things go well we pay little attention to them; we take them in stride as if they are meant to be, the natural consequences. When we assume such an attitude, we miss some significant learning opportunities. We can learn so much more from our success than we could ever from our failures. For that to happen however, we first must recognize our successes. Contrary to common belief, this can sometimes be no easy task.
One way would be to undertake a mental exercise, to imagine if things had taken a different path. What if Malays had not embraced Islam but fought and rejected it? Likewise, what would be our fate had we enthusiastically embraced the Europeans and adopted their ways? As for our pursuit of independence, imagine had we bowed to the wishes our sultans and their British “advisers” and accepted our fate to be under permanent British domination, as the Malayan Union Treaty would have it? Lastly, assume we had let those rabble rousers be our leaders fighting for our independence, and they took to fighting the British literally and seriously.
In all of these instances there are ready examples of societies and cultures that had indeed chosen precisely those paths that I just outlined, and we can readily see the consequences today of their collective decisions then. Read the rest of this entry »
Oct 28 2015
Malays actively shunned and refused to participate in the various colonial endeavors even those that could potentially benefit us. Instead we undertook a form of passive resistance, utilizing what John C Scott refers to as “weapons of the weak.”
While these everyday forms of passive resistance may not grab headlines, nonetheless they are akin to the cumulative accumulation of the coral reefs. In the aggregate and over time they exert a profound impact. When the ship of state runs aground on such reefs, attention is directed to the shipwreck and not to the aggregations of petty acts that made those treacherous reefs possible.
So was the Malayan Union initiative shipwrecked upon a reef of resentment and resistance that had quietly been building up and concretized over time. Read the rest of this entry »
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. Read the rest of this entry »
M. Bakri Musa
13th October 2015
The third defining moment in Malay culture was the peaceful path we chose towards independence. The Malay world was turned upside down with colonization; it altered the physical as well as social landscape. The latter was even more profound and threatening.
Despite that, and defying the trend of the time, we opted for this peaceful path through negotiations and collaborations in pursuit of our independence.
If one were to stroll along the countryside of pre-colonial Malaysia, there would of course be no paved roads. One would have to literally cut a swath through the thick jungle. The only practical route for travel was by rivers and waterways.
The British built roads and replaced the thick jungle with neat rows of identical, boring but highly productive rubber trees. As for the rivers, once teeming with fish, they were now like kopi susu (cafe au lait) from the contamination of brown sediments from the ubiquitous tin mines. Read the rest of this entry »
M. Bakri Musa
Oct. 6, 2015
The Japanese Occupation briefly interrupted British colonial rule. Japanese troops landed in Kota Baru in the early morning of December 8, 1941, and surrendered some 43 months later. That was only a blink in our history but to those who suffered through that terrible period, it was eternity. As brutal as it was, Malays as a culture and community survived.
There was one significant but not widely noted disruption and humiliation of Malay culture during that period. The Japanese, despite their reverence for their own Sun God Emperor, had little use or respect for Malay sultans. At least the British maintained the facade of respect even though those sultans were essentially colonial puppets.
The colonials saw in the institution of Malay sultans an effective means of indirect rule. The British knew full well the reverence Malays had for our sultans. The British must have learned a thing or two from observing kampong boys herding their kerbaus (water buffaloes). Pierce a ring through the lead buffalo’s nose and then even a toddler could effectively control the herd by pulling on the rope tied to that lead beast’s ring.
That essentially was the British approach to controlling the Malay herd; pierce a ring through their sultan’s nose. The rope may be of silk and the ring of gold, but the underlying dynamics are the same. Read the rest of this entry »
– M. Bakri Musa
The Malaysian Insider
30 September 2015
The British replaced the Iberians and Dutch in Malaysia. Those colonialists carved up the Malay world among themselves, with Malaysia fortunately falling under the British while the larger archipelago going to the Dutch and the Philippines to the Spaniards.
I say “fortunately”, considering the fate of the Indonesians and Filipinos. For whatever reason the British were much more benign, or less malevolent.
Among the consequential differences, while our Indonesian brethren had to fight for their independence, Malaysians opted for the more civilised and considerably less traumatic route of negotiations. Read the rest of this entry »
21st Sept 2015
Over 46 years ago a largely Chinese group of demonstrators celebrating their party’s electoral victory triggered Malaysia’s worst race riot. Last Wednesday, September 16, 2015, an exclusively Malay rally in predominantly Chinese Petaling Street of Kuala Lumpur triggered only the riot police’s water cannons.
What flowed on Petaling Street last Wednesday was clear water, not red blood as in 1969. There was also minimal property damage (except for loss of business) and no loss of life. That is significant; that is progress.
Malaysia has come a long way since 1969, the current shrill race hysteria notwithstanding. However leaders, political and non-political, Malays as well as non-Malays, are still trapped in their time-warped racial mentality of the 1960s. They still view the nation’s race dynamics primarily as Malays versus non-Malays.
That is understandable as the horrific memories of that 1969 race tragedy, as well as the much earlier and more brutal Bintang Tiga reign of terror, had been seared into the collective Malaysian consciousness, permanently warping our national perception.
The challenge today is less the risk of inter-racial conflagration of the 1969 variety, more a Malay civil war similar to what is now happening in the Arab world and what has happened on the Korean Peninsula. Last Wednesday’s red-shirt rally illustrates this point. Read the rest of this entry »
M. Bakri Musa
Sept. 7, 2015
[After last weekend’s mass protest against the nation’s entrenched corrupt and incompetent leadership, I reflect on a moment in our colonial history. If Merdeka has any meaning it is this – our freedom to express our views. We have to remind ourselves and our leaders of this, and often, lest it be forgotten. As we celebrate the nation’s 58th anniversary of independence, I salute those brave Malaysians of Bersih 4. May you succeed! Your courage humbles and inspires me.]
The Europeans entered the Malay world a few centuries after the arrival of Islam. First were the Portuguese in 1509, followed by the Dutch and finally the British.
Unlike those early Muslims, the Europeans came not to trade, at least initially, but as explorers during their Age of Discovery. Only when they saw the abundance of the rich natural resources of the land did they go beyond mere exploring.
With their primordial form of capitalism of the heartless and exploitative variety so well captured in Dickens’ many novels, it did not take long for their greed to manifest itself and be all-consuming. Like all capitalists, they were obsessed with domination, and that quickly expanded beyond mere trading. Colonial aspirations soon followed.
Preoccupied with commerce, those ancient Portuguese were not interested in converting the natives though that was the penchant with old-world Catholics. Yes, there were priests hauled along to bless their mission, if nothing else. Consumed as they were with profits they could not be bothered with the salvation of the heathens. Either that or those Europeans were aware of the fate of the crusaders and knew better than to try and convert the already Muslim natives. Read the rest of this entry »
M. Bakri Musa
The smooth assimilation of Malays into Islam was the result of both “down-up” and “up-down” dynamics. The average Malay peasant in his or her interactions with the ancient Muslim traders saw the value of this new faith. This message then spread laterally among the other villagers and later upwards to the nobility and ultimately the sultans. They too saw the merit of this new religion and that acceptance trickled down to the masses. The result was the quick transformation of Malay society.
Today in the retelling of the arrival of Islam to the Malay world, there is not a dissenting voice. All agree that it was a positive development, for the faith as well as for Malays. We also agree that our culture adapted well to Islam.
Those sentiments have more to do with the human tendency to romanticize the past, especially one perceived as being glorious, rather than a true reflection of the reality. We spare ourselves from looking more critically at our past for fear that we would discover something that could blight that pristine image and sweet memory. Read the rest of this entry »
M. Bakri Musa
The arrival of Islam was “the most momentous event in the history of the Malay archipelago,” to quote Syed Naquib al-Attas. It came not through the point of the sword but peacefully through trade. Islam did not land in a cultural and religious vacuum as Malays were already steeped in Hindu and animist traditions. Nor did the Arabs come to emancipate our ancestors; there was no messianic zeal or even an inclination to engage in their salvation.
Those Muslims came only to trade; there was no intention to dominate or colonize. Their Islamic faith and the prevailing Malay culture interacted through gradual and mutual accommodation. The result was that “the local genius of the people shone through” in the melding of the two, to quote Farish Noor, respected scholar and frequent commentator on Malaysian affairs.
This was vividly illustrated with my matriarchal Adat Perpateh. It coexisted peacefully with traditional male-dominated Islam, demonstrating a brilliant and workable synthesis of the two. Malays did not repudiate our traditional ways to become Muslims, and Islam was not adulterated to accommodate Malay culture. Both were remarkably malleable to and adaptive of each other. Read the rest of this entry »
M. Bakri Musa
The true measure of a culture is how well it prepares its members to sudden changes and challenges, especially when those are unanticipated or imposed from the outside. That different societies react very differently is obvious.
Consider the March 2011 tsunami that demolished the coastal areas of Northern Japan. Thousands were killed and billions worth of properties damaged, with whole villages and families wiped out. Compare the reactions of the Japanese to that tragedy of August 2005 when Katrina hurricane devastated the southern coast of United States.
The differences in reactions could not be more profound. Today only a few years after the tragedy, Northern Japan is almost fully recovered. In Louisiana they are still entangled in massive lawsuits, and the finger pointing has not yet stopped. Both Japan and America are developed societies, so we cannot account the difference to socioeconomic status, only to culture. Read the rest of this entry »