Longing For A Free Mind (Part 10 of 14)

By M. Bakri Musa

Free Minds, Free Individuals

In the remote possibility that you may not readily identify with these giants in our history and legends, let me cite examples of ordinary individuals just like you are now who dared think independently, that is, have a free mind.

There was a student sent abroad to pursue his masters in engineering. Through smarts and diligence, he was soon admitted directly to the doctoral program. He did not bother to tell his administrative supervisor back home for he anticipated the negative response. His scholarship however, was only for two years, not enough time for a doctoral pursuit. That however, did not deter him. At the end of the second year he wrote his supervisor back home for an extension, citing a “slight snag” in his studies. He filled his pleading letter with sob stories of the challenges with English and mathematics.

His supervisor, familiar with such plights especially among Malay students, readily extended the scholarship for another year, together with a stern warning to “study harder.” At the end of the third year the student still needed a few more months. So he ignored the ensuing stream of warning letters from home so he could focus on his dissertation. He completed it just in time to receive that final letter from Malaysia suspending his scholarship!

When he returned with an impressive PhD instead of a mere Masters, far from congratulating him, his supervisor chastised him! “Pandai memandai!” Trying to be too smart! That supervisor complained about having to find another candidate to fill that lecturer’s post at the polytechnic that was slated for this student. Meanwhile this newly minted PhD readily found a university position, and thus avoided defaulting on his scholarship.

To make a long story longer, he was invited to present his paper at a prestigious conference in America. True to form, his new Vice-Chancellor refused to grant him leave, much less fund the trip. It was someone else’s turn to go abroad, was the reason given. Resourceful as ever, he found a corporate sponsor and traveled on his vacation time.

That young academic is an example of a free mind who dared to forge his own path, Hamkas’ berani berfikir gagah perkasa.

Then there was the student who graduated from a top university. He had no difficulty securing a job in America. However, there was the problem of his scholarship bonds. So at the interview back home, he purposely bombed it. His interviewer was heard muttering how unimpressed he was with American universities, and regretted not being able to offer the young a man a position. The young man, released of his obligation, could hardly wait to fly back to America.

For contrast, consider another student. He too graduated from an elite university, with a PhD no less. I asked him what his plans were, and his answer surprised me. He was waiting for what his Vice-Chancellor back home had in mind for him. I suggested that he undertake post-doctoral work to broaden his research expertise, or work in America to get some valuable experience. Indeed he was offered a lucrative position, enough to pay off his scholarship bonds if need be. However, being an obedient student (Kami menunggu arahan!), he patiently waited for instructions from home.

A few years later I visited him in Malaysia; he was unhappy with his lot. His Vice-Chancellor found him keras kepala (hardheaded). That is another of those dismissive terms for a free mind. Too bad that he was not keras kepala when he was in America when he had the opportunity to carve his own future!

This fellow reminded me of another student, described by his teachers as the sharpest mind ever to step foot at Malay College. As expected, he excelled abroad and was offered to pursue doctoral studies by his university. However, his supervisor back home convinced him of a better alternate plan. So he returned. To cut a short story shorter, his highest achievement was being director of matriculation program at a local university. A bright promise unfulfilled. Alas, his was not an isolated case; I could fill a book with many more such sad stories.

The first two students are examples of courageous individuals who dared think for themselves and ignore the commands of their mullahs. They are worthy of your emulation. As for the last two, I hope you will avoid their fate.

I have given numerous talks to Malaysians students over the years and have enjoyed them all. It is invigorating to be with young people. Your passions, enthusiasms and idealisms do rub off on me. This session is no exception, and I thank you for that.

Some of the students I met in the past today hold important leadership positions. I hope a similar bright future awaits you. As you become leaders I pray that you will hold as role models the likes of Hang Nadim and Hang Jebat. Emulate the giants in our history, the Munshi Abdullahs and Datuk Onns. I hope that you will be as innovative as Ungku Aziz, and like him, not be trapped by the conventional wisdom.

What I do not wish upon you is that you become another Hang Tuah. Nor should you emulate the sultan of Johor who ceded away Temasek, or his brother rulers who signed away our country with that Malayan Union treaty.

As you contemplate your future, remember that it is in your hands. No one, not your parents, advisor at the embassy, or sponsor back home knows what is best for you. They have not traveled the path you have taken, nor do they know the challenges you have faced and will face. Most of all they will not be the ones who will bear the consequences of the decisions they make for you. You will carry that yourself, alone. By all means listen to their counsel, but in the end the decision is yours, and you will bear the consequences. What they should offer are their blessings and best wishes, and to support your decision, not veto it.

I claim no originality to this piece of advice. This was what my late father gave me. I have found it very useful, hence my sharing it with you. I too join in wishing you well. May you have calm seas ahead and fair winds behind you! If you do encounter the inevitable swells, have your surfboard ready and ride the waves. If you should have gusty gales, then turn on your wind generator.

That is what a free mind does; turns adversities into opportunities. Suharto imprisoned Prameodya Ananta Toer, but only his body. His mind was free, free to craft his world-acclaimed Buru tetralogy. As he said in an interview, “I create freedom for myself.” I hope you do too!

I began my talk by invoking the stirring poetry of Hamka where he extolled:

Merdeka berfikir gagah perkasa
Berani menyebut yang aku yakin.

It is appropriate that I close with a stanza from our great poet, Usman Awang:


Jangan takut melanggar pantang
Jika pantang menghalang kemajuan;
Jangan segan menentang larangan
Jika yakin kepada kebenaran;
Jangan malu mengucapkan keyakinan
Jika percaya kepada keadilan.

My translation:

Fearlessly breach the fortress
If it blocks your progress!
If need be, be brusque
In pursuit of the truth.
Stick to your conviction
Let justice be your declaration.

Kemajuan (progress), kebenaran (truth) and keadilan (justice); a free mind will hold those in high esteem and vigilantly guard against those who would erode or corrode those pristine values.

Finally, do remember that 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.

I have spoken literally thousands of words today. Exploiting the wisdom that a picture is worth a thousand words, I will leave you as a summary of my talk these two images: the mullah with his neighbor and the donkey, and the frog underneath the coconut shell.

Thank you! You have been a wonderful audience and I look forward to your questions.

Q&A: Change, Corruption, and Talent Recruitment

[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]

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