Saya Pun Melayu! Me Too!

by M. Bakri Musa

Book Review: Saya Pun Melayu (I Am Also A Malay)
Foreword by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, 2009. 312 pages. RM 35.00

The Annual UMNO General Assembly is also the season for the release of new books on local politics written in Malay. It must be a profitable venue and time, for the number of new titles keeps growing each year.

Foreigners may mistake this to reflect a healthy intellectual discourse, or at least a vigorous political debate. The reality however, is far different. With such titillating titles as “50 Dalil Mengapa XYZ Tidak Layak …” (Fifty Reason s Why XYZ Is Unfit For … ) and the promiscuous use of “half-past six English,” this “genre” poisons the political atmosphere, quite apart from degrading our national language.

As for content, these books are nothing more than warong kopi (coffee shop) gossips transcribed. Observers and political scientists hoping to gain an insight on Malaysian politics would do well to avoid these books. And they have. These books will never be cited in reputable publications or quoted by respected commentators.

Enter Zaid Ibrahim’s Saya Pun Melayu (I Am Also A Malay). It too was released to coincide with the recent UMNO General Assembly. There the similarity ends. This gem of a diamond sparkles with insights and wisdom. Like a diamond, this book too has innumerable multifaceted sharp edges that cut through rock-headed politicians. I would be insulting Zaid if I were to compare his thoughtful and well written book to the thrash that littered the hallways of Dewan Merdeka, where the recent Assembly took place.

Greater Impact Than The Malay Dilemma

A more appropriate comparison would be Mahathir’s The Malay Dilemma, written some 40 years ago and also at a time when UMNO and Malays were going through a critical crisis. This book will have an even greater impact than The Malay Dilemma.

Like Mahathir’s, the first run of this book quickly sold out, but unlike Mahathir’s, this book has not been banned. This is not due to any greater enlightenment on the part of the authorities today, rather a tribute to Zaid’s skillful and subtle approach. Whereas Mahathir is frontal and polemical, meant more to shock if not insult readers, Zaid, ever the accomplished corporate lawyer, takes a softer and polite approach. In contrast to Mahathir’s anger and indignant rhetoric, Zaid is more sorrowful and disappointment over UMNO’s current malaise. Zaid persuades us with his rational arguments; Mahathir barrages us with his accusations. Mahathir caters to our baser emotions and sense of victimization; Zaid to our intellect and pristine values of our culture.

Our culture goes for Zaid’s halus ways, of subtleties and obliqueness. Thus he is devastatingly effective, as for example in upbraiding his former cabinet colleagues who are lawyers. Rais Yatim, Syed Hamid Albar, Hishammuddin Hussein, and Azalina Othman, among others, are chastised for failing to live up to their professional ethics and obligations as shown by their disrespect for the due process of law and basic human rights. In Malay, Zaid’s polite criticisms are very damning. It would be difficult to maintain this tone with this style had the book been written in English. The translator should ponder this point.

The book is in three parts. The first is the author’s reflection on and prescription for our nation’s current predicaments. Zaid tackles such “hot” issues as Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony), the rule of law, and the role of the monarchy in a democracy. It also includes his very brief tenure as Abdullah Badawi’s Law Minister.

The second is a brief memoir of sorts where he traced his humble origin in a village deep in Ulu Kelantan to become a highly successful corporate attorney who created the nation’s largest law firm. It also includes his tenure in UMNO politics and his current philanthropic works, where he has been recognized by Forbes magazines as Asia’s Inaugural Heroes of Philanthropy. The last part contains short profiles of Malaysians he admires (which includes former Chief Justice Salleh Abbas), his hopes on the future of Malays, and the current state of Malay, specifically UMNO, politics.

UMNO No Longer Represents Malays

One could be readily excused in assuming that those rent-seeking, keris-brandishing, and race-taunting types that infest UMNO represent the best if not the essence of the Malay race. Or that the angry menacing Mat Rempits, the jungle version of Hell’s Angels so eagerly being embraced by UMNO Youth, are the future of Malays.

Zaid’s ideas and approaches are the antithesis of UMNO’s. In deliberately choosing the simple title, Zaid is emphasizing that his is also a legitimate if not the prevailing viewpoint. To me, Zaid represents more of the essence of Malayness while those corrupt pseudo modernized UMNO types just happen to be Malays. They are the ones who soil our culture and give it a bad odor.

Zaid writes teasingly that he has already set a record of sorts by being the shortest serving cabinet minister! Here is another observation also worthy of the record books. He is the only minister whose reputation is enhanced on leaving office! Not to belittle Zaid’s own fine personal qualities and considerable achievements, that says a lot on the caliber of people leading Malaysia today!

Zaid takes to task UMNO leaders for presuming to speak on behalf of all Malays. It is clear now that they do not. In the chapter “Masa Depan Melayu” (The Future of Malays) in Part III, Zaid suggests that Malays must be outward looking, willing to learn from others, and not be obsessed with empty slogans like Ketuanan Melayu. The road to Ketuanan Melayu, he writes, is not by shouting your lungs out at every gathering, rather through diligence, hard work, and most of all, superior education.

Zaid relates his experience as a university student leader on a three-month trip to America visiting the top campuses (“Memburu Cita Cita, (Pursuing You Dreams) Chapter 8 Part II). This was in the 1970s, the height of the anti-Vietnam protests. He was struck that even though America was at war its government was still tolerant of dissent.

Decades later as Abdullah’s Law Minister, he was appalled when the government he was a part of detained dissenters like Raja Petra and Teresa Kok under the ISA. Not surprisingly, Zaid’s departure from the cabinet soon followed.

I have met many Malaysians who have lived for many years in America and yet miss this important aspect of American exceptionalism. Their America is the shopping malls, porno shops, and blighted downtowns.

Zaid’s ideas and observations resonate with me, as well as many Malaysians. Hear is the voice of a successful Malay professional and a member of the political elite. That he now quits UMNO is a loss for it but a gain for Malaysia. Another blessing is that he is now free to pursue his philanthropic works as well as his involvement in NGOs. And being an effective critic of the government!

To me the most valuable part of the book is his brief memoir (Part II). Zaid clearly subscribes early to the values he writes about. His divorced father took him away from the village to live with him in Kota Baru where he could attend an English school (Sultan Ismail College). When he reached secondary level he felt the urge to leave, to see the greater world beyond.

He chose English College in Johor Baru, at the very opposite end of the peninsula. The school however accepts new students only if their families were transferred there. So he wrote to the principal stating that indeed he had a “family” (his distant cousin) transferred to the Army base there. His father willingly signed the letter for him and supported his decision.

Unlike in Kota Baru where his classmates were almost exclusively Malays, down there he had an environment more reflective of Malaysia. From there he went on to Sekolah Tun Razak in Ipoh for his Form Six, where he excelled in debates, and then to UiTM for his law studies.

Except for about seven months in London at one of the Inns to qualify for the Bar, and the earlier trip to America, Zaid spent his formative years in Malaysia. It is remarkable that he could have such an open and receptive attitude. We have many who spent years at the best British universities only to return quickly to their old kampong mentality upon coming home.

Zaid has what the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck refers to as a “growth mindset,” in contrast to a “fixed mindset.” Those with the growth mindset believe that their fate is dependent on how adaptive they are in seizing opportunities, and on their ability to grow and gain from their experiences. They do not believe that their fate is dependent on what nature had bestowed upon them, the benevolence of some remote emperor, or what had been written in the book of life. The “fixed mindset” view their talent and ability as fixed, and that their lot in life is ultimately tied to their innate nature, especially their intelligence and ‘giftedness.’

Zaid is always learning from others and improving on what they had done. He writes of his early experience articling in a prestigious law firm where he was offered a position. That was definitely a career coup, a young lawyer’s dream. What soured it were the whisperings among his colleagues that he was offered simply because the firm wanted to increase its Malay representation. After much soul searching, Zaid declined the offer. That must have shocked those senior partners. Another “dumb” Malay refusing to seize opportunities, they must have thought!

Zaid too must have questioned himself a thousand times in the years following that tough decision, especially when he had difficulty trying to borrow from MARA (a measly RM25,000.00) to start his own firm. In the end, he created ZICO, a law firm that easily bested the one where he articled. Not only is it the largest, it is also one of the few that could handle the complex needs of multinational corporations, and the first to venture abroad.

That is where a growth mindset could lead you.

Going back to MARA, an institution I am a never a fan of, Zaid relates an incident visiting his alma mater soon after being appointed Law Minister. He wanted to spend a few minutes to give the students a “pep talk.” On the appointed day, he was surprised by the overflowing crowd. Then as is typical, the Vice Chancellor, one Ibrahim Abu Shah (a “Dato’ Seri Prof. Dr.” no less!) hogged all the allotted time, pouring embarrassingly effusive praises on Zaid. He was left with a scant few minutes!

A few months later, after Zaid resigned as a minister and gave his talk at the Asean Law Forum where he challenged the wisdom of Ketuanan Melayu, that same Ibrahim called Zaid a traitor to our race! As Zaid says, our intellectuals are also now speaking like politicians. Zaid may not realize this; they do so because they are essentially politicians who happen to wear academic robes. Scholars and intellectuals they are not.

I wish all Malaysians would read this book. Our policy makers would benefit more from reading this instead of the World Bank’s dense treatises on rural poverty. The tribulations of his childhood that Zaid so well described are still very much the reality today for a vast number of young Malays. Zaid was fortunate in that his father saw the value of a good education. Many parents are trapped between needing their children to work to lessen the family’s burden and going to school. If our government were to adopt programs like Mexico’s Progresa where parents are being paid for keeping their children in school, then we would help those parents make the right decision that would benefit them and the nation in the long term.

If UMNO members and leaders were to read this volume they might just be disabused of their delusion of Ketuanan Melayu and ethnocentric mindset. On the other hand they might not like it when they realize their own stupidities. For young Malays, Zaid is an aspiration, of what is within their grasp if only they could see through the fraud of Ketuanan Melayu that is being perpetrated upon them. For non-Malays, this book might just erase some of their negative stereotypes of Malays they harbor.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book not only because of the remarkable personal story but also for the style of writing. Malays writers writing in Malay (and often also in English) tend to use non-declarative sentences. Thus instead of saying, “I like vanilla ice cream!” they would write, “On matters of ice cream taste, I like vanilla!” The latter takes nearly twice as many words, and the reader also has to shift gears. Very irritating!

This book is a valuable contribution to the political discourse, and it comes at a time when it is badly needed. Rest assured that this book will be talked about for years.

  1. #1 by boh-liao on Monday, 20 April 2009 - 9:54 am

    Thank you for the essay.
    Certainly ZI is a person with self-confidence and the right values in order to be a person of “growth mindset”.
    If only more Malaysians, regardless of race and religion, are like him, Malaysia would truly be a bright and progressive nation.

    On the other hand, we can forget the likes of UiTM VC who did the Malays no favor and ruined them with blinkered tribal concepts.

  2. #2 by All For The Road on Monday, 20 April 2009 - 10:36 am

    Zaid Ibrahim, suffice it to say, is a true son of Malaysia! His ideas and observations are reflective of a full-blooded Bangsa Malaysia! Our country needs such true Malaysians to say the least!

  3. #3 by limaho on Monday, 20 April 2009 - 12:09 pm

    I’m waiting for the English edition. On my next visit to Malaysia I will be looking for it. Seems like an interesting book. I was also a product of Sultan Ismail College and I think I can relate to his early years growing up in Kelantan.

  4. #4 by taiking on Monday, 20 April 2009 - 12:09 pm

    So you fellas think zaid is great! The fact of the matter is there are more of him in Malaysia. The truth of the matter is like zaid and the rest of us, everyone would be suppressed and oppressed and then robbed by this umno government.

  5. #5 by frankyapp on Monday, 20 April 2009 - 1:15 pm

    Well guys you think Zaid is great,so am I.But it’s a pity that he still has not decided to take a leading role in local politic.I have not read his book but based on what M Bakri Musa ‘s descriptions,Zaid is indeed a growth mindset guy and we rakyat need him to lead us to make our country great once again.Zaid has lay out his thought and plan for a better malay race and other malaysians as well in his book ” I am also a malay “. Just excellent thought and not put into action is indeed a great pity and a waste of good fortune for the rakyat .Hence I hope Zaid will soon made up his mind to enter local politic,play a leading role and join all those good guys to make our nation shines brightly once again.

  6. #6 by Taxidriver on Monday, 20 April 2009 - 1:24 pm

    Zaid Ibrahim is a truely a man of high principle as is evidenced by his resignation as Law Minister. Very few Malaysians are prepared to do what Zaid did; to stand up for truths and justice even at a time when he knew all odds were against him.

    If Dr. M had just only half the ‘growth’ mindset and less of his well recognised ‘mixed’ mindset as opposed to Zaid’s ‘fixed’ mindset when he assumed office in 1981 until 2003, Malaysia would be a developed nation by now-on par with Singapore, if not better.

    Present leaders in the ruling party, particularly UMNO should read Zaid’s book with their minds open. They have to discard their ‘racist’ mindset in order to bring Malaysia to greater heights.

    That Zaid IS ALSO A MALAY is not important to the non-Malays like me. But the very fact that he is Malay and not advocating ‘Ketuan Melayu’ have earned our utmost respect. ( respect is to be earned and not forced upon somebody )

    Zaid is a true Malaysian. Zaid is a hero to all Malaysians.

  7. #7 by Taxidriver on Monday, 20 April 2009 - 1:30 pm

    Correction: 2nd para, 3rd line. The word ‘Zaid’s’ is to be delected. Sorry for the error.

  8. #8 by owlz on Monday, 20 April 2009 - 1:50 pm

    We are brothers.

  9. #9 by No-Money-Politics on Monday, 20 April 2009 - 2:15 pm

    Uncle Lim,

    Thank you for this enlightening article. After all the negative nonsense we have been subjected to by UMNO, here is a glimmer of hope for Malaysia. Perhaps in my lifetime, we can get rid of those yahoos whose only interest is fill their coffers.

  10. #10 by monsterball on Monday, 20 April 2009 - 3:21 pm

    Life is short and time is valuable.
    Why read all those trash?
    Public to have good up-dated general knowledge of political events….have so many other matters to read.
    However….PR guys need to be like LKS…read all and have sharp mind and years.
    Based on one book….”50 reasons why Anwar cannot be PM”…Mahathir could jail Anwar 6 years…later proven to be unfair and unjust.
    Immigration records mysteriously lost….witness vanished..on the case of a murdered Mongolian lady .not just murdered….but blown to pieces by C4 explosive….a controlled war item under the authority of the Min of Defence which Najib held… proven so close to Najib…linking him to the murder and the RM500 million commission on the Russian….submarine deal ..he ordered when he was Minister of court case.
    So much solid proofs…yet Najib is never charged in court.
    Just look at Mahathir accusing others for being corrupted…as if he is as clean and pure as an angel.
    So who cares about reading political books written by UMNO buggers…but books like “May 13th” by Dr.Kua…….must read.

  11. #11 by OrangRojak on Monday, 20 April 2009 - 4:03 pm

    Everybody has a point of view monsterball. Some of Dr Kua’s sources are available to download for free from the UK’s National Archives, online since the book was published. Before you promote one book over another, you might wish to check the Cabinet Meeting Conclusions of Thursday 15th May 1969, and wonder how the paragraph marked ‘Malaysia’ in the margin might be coerced into supporting Dr Kua’s conclusions in a 2nd edition, as Google suggests a reference is missing from the 1st.

    If Bakri Musa is right about one thing, it is that there is remarkable diversity of quality in books written about serious subjects.

  12. #12 by ablastine on Monday, 20 April 2009 - 4:09 pm

    Zaid is too great and talented a man just to be doing philantrophy. The country needs him and his type badly. He needs to return to mainstream politics and be placed in position of power.

  13. #13 by cemerlang on Tuesday, 21 April 2009 - 12:05 am

    God gives everyone freedom. If God can give everyone freedom, who is a human being that he should try to be better than God Himself ? God seldom screams down from the sky and orders us around like slaves. Most of the times, He lets us be. He is very patient with us. Therefore people who always mention God should stop and think that if God can let you be and can let you get away with the bad things temporarily, who are we to tie up another fellow man ? We are all human beings no matter how we call ourselves by our different race.

  14. #14 by sotong on Tuesday, 21 April 2009 - 5:54 am

    Unfortunately, very few Malays are like ZI……the political environment discourage them to be different.

    Most worked for the government and its related entities…..afraid to come out of their comfort zone to face reality and global challenges to realise their full potential and make significant contribution to the society.

  15. #15 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 21 April 2009 - 8:47 am

    When Tun Ismail said the Malays would remove the NEP once its time, he had in mind the likes of Zaid Ibrahim but it was always the contention Zaid was the exception, not the norm. Its why he was successful, its why he will fail in his second career.

  16. #16 by sotong on Tuesday, 21 April 2009 - 9:13 am

    The fact that more Malays are highly educated does not mean they have changed……many are poltically active and would prefer a political career than a professional career.

    There is a better and healthier balance of careers in other races…..which is good for their community.

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