Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #21

By M. Bakri Musa

Chapter 3: Lessons From The Past

The Reformers’ Charter Oath of Five Articles

Just three months after being restored, the reformers, through the emperor, made a historic proclamation called The Charter Oath of Five Articles. It promised:

  1. Public discussion of all matters;

  2. The participation of all classes, high and low, in the administration of the state;

  3. Freedom of all persons to pursue their own calling;

  4. Abandoning the evil customs of the past and to rely on the just laws of Nature;

  5. Seek knowledge from throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.

Seen in the context of a feudal society, the declaration was truly radical. Calling for the participation of all classes in the administration of the state and not just the nobility and warrior class was distinctly revolutionary. Similarly, the freedom to choose one’s own calling or career represented a quantum leap forward in thinking in a society where previously what you did or who you were was dictated by your class or birth. The last two elements of the charter reflected the recognition by the young imperial advisors that the ways of the old were clearly wanting and that they had a lot to learn from the outside world. Merely shutting themselves off from foreign influence was not the answer. Instead the Japanese had to learn from the advanced societies of the time: the West.

The old mantra of revering the emperor and expelling the barbarians was replaced by more pragmatic and decidedly constructive slogans, such as wakon yosai (Japanese spirit, Western learning).

The Japanese took to learning from the West with a vengeance. Initially, as would be expected of a nation that had been humiliated, the Japanese were intent and content with merely aping the ways of the foreigners. Thus they began sporting coat tails and European-style sideburns. The latter must have been a particularly difficult for the non-hirsute Japanese! A minister even divorced his wife formally, Western style, instead of merely tolerating her and taking on concubines. That would have been, well, so Japanese! The Japanese even converted their calendar to the Western Gregorian one.

Amidst such banalities and trivialities however, the Japanese did commit themselves to learning the more enduring values of Western civilization. English classes were held everywhere and Western books were widely translated into Japanese. Japanese masses were now exposed to the great philosophers and thinkers of the West.

To dramatically symbolize its new beginning and a break from the past, the Meiji administration moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the new regime was its committed and disciplined search for models outside of Japan that would be applicable in rebuilding its own institutions.

This commitment to Western learning was publicly demonstrated when the government dispatched a “learning mission” to the capitals of the modern world. The mission, composed of ministers and senior administrators, circled the globe visiting advanced countries, learning and making comparative studies of the various governments, systems of education, industrial development, and economic models. Japanese embassies were specifically instructed to observe the systems and institutions in their host countries that were worthy of being emulated, and to scout for talent to be recruited to teach the Japanese. Leading American educators were invited to help modernize the schools and universities. The Japanese were fully cognizant of their backward status, and they were intent on modernizing. They were committed to learning the best from the West.

The Japanese made the profound yet simple discovery that learning and interacting with foreigners did not in any way compromise their own culture or independence. More significantly, they realized that the advancement and superiority of the West was of recent onset and that Japan was not that far behind after all. And that with hard work and eagerness to learn, they were confident they could catch up.

That such a learning mission was created in the first place was remarkable. It conveyed the Japanese total commitment to learning from others. Imagine senior administrators and ministers leaving en mass for months on end, with Japan essentially under caretakers’ hands or absentee government. In many countries there would have been a coup d’etat. But those ministers and administrators returned with renewed vigor and utter confidence in their nation’s ability not only to learn the best but also to catch up and eventually join the ranks of developed nations. This Japan did very successfully, and like the West, Japan too went on to become a colonizing power, much to the chagrin of her neighbors, especially China and Korea.

Within a generation Japan was transformed from a xenophobic closed society, steeped in its feudal ways, into a modern egalitarian state, and at the same time restoring its traditional imperial emperor. Truly remarkable! With that transformation, Japan went on to become a major power, able to conquer militarily most of Asia in World War II, and to economically dominate most of the world in the later half of the 20th century.

In any revolution, and the Meiji Restoration was one, there would inevitably be winners and losers. In this instance, the nation as a whole emerged the winner. Within the society however, there were definite casualties.

Clearly the warlords and assorted nobilities lost; they became irrelevant with the centralization of administration in Tokyo. The egalitarian policies benefited the masses. The removal of the ban on intermarriages between the different classes was symbolic of this new attitude towards equality. Farmers too came out ahead as they were now no longer tenants but able to own the land they tilled; a significant step forward towards private property ownership.

When Emperor Mutsuhito died in July 1912, he was given the name of the momentous period he had overseen, the Age of Enlightened Rule: the Meiji Emperor. Japan and its people had indeed undergone a historic transformation, all within one generation.

Why did the young imperial advisors use the emperor and not do it themselves? They knew that the ideas they were contemplating and the changes they were embarking upon were truly radical. These changes would be more readily acceptable to the masses when presented wrapped within the cloak of their traditions. Thus they shrewdly used the emperor as a convenient vehicle.

A generation later at the end of World War II, General Douglas McArthur wisely used the institution of the emperor to successfully institute yet another radical change upon Japanese society. He effectively democratized Japan under the banner of the emperor.

To take home the Japanese lesson, I have little sympathy with modern-day Malay “reformers” who are intent on imposing changes on our society without heeding our underlying cultural traditions. Such calls as Melayu Baru (New Malay) and Reformasi would have Malays be ripped off the anchoring stability of our traditions and heritage. Such attempts at reform are bound to fail.

We must use the elements of our culture to effect changes. As an example, Malays are deeply attached to Islam and to the sultans. That being the case we should reform the institutions of Islam and royalty first, and through them effect changes on the greater society. We can begin by having enlightened and progressive ulama lecture to our students and in our mosques. We should have more reasoned and cerebral sermons instead of the usual fire and brimstone variety. If we can reform our ulama not to be obsessed with the hereafter and instead focus on the present life first, then we may be able to persuade the masses.

We do this by changing the way in which they are being trained. Exposed them to modern ideas! It is too late to change those already set in their ways but we can do something with the next generation of ulama. Likewise if we can reform our sultans and princes, making sure that they are well educated and exposed to progressive ideas, then they would become valued role models.

What impressed me about the radical changes in early Mecca during the time of our prophet, in medieval Europe during the reformation, and in Japan during the Meiji Restoration, was the exemplary leadership of those who were in the forefront of making those changes. The reforms began with them, and then filtered down. To effect comparable reforms in contemporary Malaysia, its leaders (political, hereditary, and religious) must first change their ways. Reforms must begin with them, and then through personal examples, filtered down to the masses.

While this chapter focused on examples from the past, the next will examine more contemporary societies, to reemphasize my theme of how to effect changes and reform.

Next: Chapter 4: Modern Model States

  1. #1 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Thursday, 1 July 2010 - 2:48 pm

    “PETRONAS, alleged dubious practices”

    BN has to answer to all of Dr Tan K. K.’s allegations about the closeted and shady deals.

    Malaysianinsider reports: Petronas profits fall, ….RAKYAT’s question: who are the options-holders milking PETRONAS?

    Why should RAKYAT even need to pay taxes and GST if billions are being whisked into UMNO crony’s pockets!!

  2. #2 by Bigjoe on Thursday, 1 July 2010 - 2:57 pm

    Reform Islam in Malaysia first before political reform? That is like training workforce before undertaking corporate restructuring. No freaking way. All reform must work within a given basis. You can’t say lets change the basis and then restructure.

    In the first place, Islam in this country has been perverted from it original form. Originally the Malays are practical practionners of the religion not deeply ideological. The race between UMNO and PAS peverted it. Tunku and Onn Bin Jaffar insist on a secular constitution because they knew it to be a pandora’s box.

    Looking to Islam for answer on reform makes absolutely no sense because there is no real answer by any religion for modern politicisation.

    The answer lies in the modern religion – money and materialism – like it or not that is the new religion of Malays. While they identify with Malays right, they don’t talk of their right versus the UMNOputras. Sell them the idea that the money those UMNOputras waste and have belong to them and sooner or later, they will get rid of them.

  3. #3 by joehancl on Thursday, 1 July 2010 - 5:03 pm

    Hiya che Bakri ini Malaysia TAK boleh. Semua dalam govt. nak power tanpa responsibilty. Jepun samurai kalah, sendiri hara kiri. Tahu hara kiri, mati lah.

  4. #4 by monsterball on Thursday, 1 July 2010 - 9:11 pm

    Lessons from the past that Malaysians are interested at the moment…are being made suckers by UMNO B government.

  5. #5 by House Victim on Friday, 2 July 2010 - 11:22 am

    “We must use the elements of our culture to effect changes. As an example, Malays are deeply attached to Islam and to the sultans. ”
    1. Islam is from Arabic world. When and how it became Malaysian culture?
    What has sultans done to make Malays attached to them?

    2. The attachment of Malays to Sultans under the Constitutions are those Natives of Malaysia to whom the Sultans have to for them Fairness during the course of Development of Malaysia after the transfer of Colonial Malay into Independent Malaysia. Have any Sultan been fighting for the Aboriginal rights of those Natives when their land was taken away by the State? Are natives been even up to the average Malaysian in having their welfares being looked after? Had any sultan uttered given any response to the Walk of the People in 2007?

    3. The basis culture of Malay are they are nature lovers with blessing and grateful to the Natural resources they had experienced. But, who had taken the resources without much return!! How many of them have land of their own to enjoy the Nature?

    Malaysia cannot produce enough rice and vegetable even with the blessing of land and nature!!


    5. Sending people off for learning “Foreign” had been practiced since the colonial time under much of the Government expenses. What had happened?

    6. Islam should mean for peace and harmonic among those in the Nature. The Islam in Malaysia has been much politicize instead of leaving them to the peace of mind for those who wants to practice for their perfection in spirit.

    When Malaysia is composing of at least 3 different races with much much more religions, any reform should leave them in peace and at the will of the People and not be restricted by any law, unless something contradict to the peace and harmonic of the society.

    7. When the World (the Globe) is talking about Human Rights, how can Malaysia be globalized starting with Islam and Sultans?

    8. The Reform of Japan has changed Japan from the Era of Classes into almost no Classes (some sort of Human Rights) but maintaining the Respect of Seniority and the King )as symbol of Royalty). In between the King and the People are mutual respect. The basic culture of Japan, in many way resembling Confucianism of the Chinese to respect the Senior, care for the Junior and those handicapped for the Harmonic of the Society. They are taught at least to feel shame when they failed to keep their words or fulfill their duties. This is how they start to keep the family, society as well as the country so as to go into harmony and prosperity.

    9. Had any Malaysian Politician in History been applying the peace and harmony of Islam to bring all races under the same Sun or Moon?

    10. Has any sultan realized their duty under the constitution instead of just asking for privileges?

    11. Should a Modern Sultan say HE IS THE LAW? and so to gain attachment from the People?

  6. #6 by House Victim on Sunday, 4 July 2010 - 1:55 am

    During the era of MHT, most, if not all, government department has gone to be certified under ISO. They have the knowledge to be CAT. How many Department is practicing?


    Any reform have to start from the mindset with discipline and the enforcement of Law if they do not follow even their own Rules and Regulations.

    When PCB, AG/KUP/Police can ignore their Duties but just keep silent about Lawyer assaulting client in his office, in front of his family members – wife, son and daughter, staffs, clients and neighbors, the important part of the Government system already operating without Law. An empty skeleton without mind and soul.
    When 4 Judges refused to compile this notorious lawyer to explain why he did not attend court and take instructions from his clients or, to direct the lawyer to file his application for discharge as Defendants’ lawyers when he announced that he will not act any more. These “honorable” Lordships had already shattered the Judiciary system of this country into dust and dirts.

    When Chief Judge and Chief Judge refused to act but allowing the case to be termed as “settled” when Defendants were not called to court and lawyer for the Defendant has yet to file application of discharge, Miscarriage of Justice with all the misappropriation of “administration” power is there, The “Roof” of a civilized world with Pillars of Laws, Execution and Monitoring has collapsed.

    WE ARE IN THE JUNGLE for “Reform”!! “Civilized” not just with clothing on!!

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