Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #83

By M. Bakri Musa
Chapter 10: Freedom, Justice, and the Law

No person is perfect enough to be entrusted with the liberty and dignity of others.
—Mahmoud Mohamed Taha (1909-1985)
Sudanese Reformist, executed by his country’s military rulers.

I was visiting Malaysia after being away for many years. It was right after the race riot of 1969. The streets were still deserted, and I was driving with my father when we came upon a stop sign at an intersection. I duly stopped, looked around, and finding no oncoming traffic, proceeded.

My father asked why I stopped, and I responded that there was a stop sign. Startled by the unexpected question, I looked back to find him in a pensive mood, his face tilted, and his eyes looking far into the distance. After a long pause, he matter-of-factly murmured, “That is why the West is so advanced. People there obey the law even when no one is watching!”

Intuitively he had concluded that since my stopping at the stop sign was so natural, it must have been conditioned by my years of living abroad. He remembered only too well my driving habits at home a decade earlier!

While I was studying abroad, my father always encouraged me to venture beyond the campus and be involved in and observant of the community at large. Canada, he wisely observed, must be very advanced to be able to offer scholarships to foreigners, and he advised me to use the opportunity to learn everything about the country, and not just come home with a degree. Thus my summers were spent working at such places as a dairy farm and a summer resort, working and interacting with ordinary Canadians. I would write home frequently about my observations.

I described how efficient the modern dairy farms were, and of cows with humongous udders pouring out literally gallons of milk daily. Once I related how the farmer had unhesitatingly discarded a bucket of fresh milk, as he did not know whether it had been contaminated. That potentially spoilt milk, he noted, would be mixed with others, and thousands of customers would be sick. Besides, the reputation of his outfit could not be compromised or ruined for the sake of a few dollars worth of milk.

On another occasion, after a bus trip, I wrote of my wonderment at Canadian bus drivers; how professional and proud they were about their jobs. Indeed they were dressed like pilots, with their crisp light blue long-sleeved shirts neatly tucked inside their dark blue pants, complete with a bow tie and a captain’s cap. That bus driver had taken us through the neighborhood where he lived and proudly showed us, the tourists, his home. It was a neat, modest track bungalow in a clean pleasant suburb. I could not help but compare him with his Malaysian counterparts who for the most part had their shirts flying loosely untucked, with untied shoes or slippers, and generally looking disheveled.

Through such regular commentaries my father knew firsthand about life in Canada. He had the right impression that the West was indeed advanced and wondered why or how it got that way while countries like Malaysia were still struggling.

My father was on to something profound when he observed that obeying the law when no one is watching is a key ingredient to the West’s success. To many observers, a respect for the rule of law is a prerequisite for progress. A modern society is ruled by law, and not by men. Progress cannot take place when there is callous disregard for the law.

This respect for the law must be shown not only by ordinary citizens but also more importantly, the leaders. For when leaders abuse their privileges and flout the law, then there is little hope for the country. This abuse can come in many forms, from outright disregard of the law to more subtle forms as in selective prosecution and uneven applications of the law. When leaders and the elite do not respect the law, it sends a clear message to the masses to do likewise.

Similarly all laws must be respected, even the seemingly minor ones. The contemporary American political scientist James Q. Wilson first made the astute observation that when we ignore violations of minor laws, this would later encourage the breach of more serious ones. Law enforcement agencies are now familiar with the “broken window syndrome,” that is, when we ignore minor vandalisms like broken windows, we encourage others to commit even greater crimes, until the whole building is completely wrecked or burnt down by arson. New York police successfully reduced the rate of major crimes by first cracking down on such seemingly innocuous ones as loitering, jay walking, and littering. When ordinary citizens see that such minor laws are being strictly enforced, they rightly assume that other more serious infractions would also be vigorously pursued.

Going back to my father, I should have given him an update on my driving habits now that I have lived in California for a while. Californians are among the worst drivers. They consider a stop sign only a suggestion; and a yellow traffic light a signal to step on the gas!

Apart from respect for the law, another feature of the West is the premium it places on individual and personal liberty. Americans do not appreciate this freedom as it is taken for granted. They are sensitized only when that freedom is threatened or breached. Notice the current uproar over the president’s proposal to detain potential terrorists without due process in response to the 9/11 tragedies. Americans become very much aware of their cherished freedom when they are abroad.

Once on a flight to Malaysia I came upon an article in a regional publication that was supportive of Malaysia but contained some mild but valid criticisms of the leadership. I related that article to my Malaysian friend, and he too was interested to read it. I rushed to the nearest bookstore to get a copy of the magazine. (Having been away from Malaysia for a long time I have not developed the habit of swiping the airline’s copy!) Imagine my horror when I could not find the article; the pages had been neatly excised! Some bureaucrats in the censors’ office had the audacity to decide what I can and cannot read. How insulting! I felt violated.

This blatant disregard for the rights and dignity of the individual is pervasive in the Third World. These poor societies fail to appreciate that in the final analysis it is individuals who effect changes, and thus progress. Western societies are more progressive because they place a premium on the individual. Eastern societies generally submerge the individual to the needs of the larger society. They emphasize society’s goals and stability over that of the individual, as encapsulated by the Japanese saying: the nail that sticks out gets hammered. At least that is the perceived wisdom.

I challenge that. Consider what the Sudanese reformist Ustaz Mahmoud Taha wrote in 1963, “Every individual is, authentically, an end in himself. He is not means to any other end. He – even if he is an imbecile – is a “God” in the making and must be given the full opportunity to develop as such. Liberty is the prerequisite need. Man must be free from all dehumanizing influences – poverty, ignorance, and fear.”

Fifteen years earlier, the United Nations, using far less elegant prose, said essentially the same thing in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In its preamble the document reaffirms the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all humans as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace. The document’s first article could easily have been taken from the Koran when it declares that all human beings are born free, with equal dignity and rights, and are endowed with reason and conscience.

Many outside the West would challenge the universality of this UN Declaration, especially its statement reaffirming the primacy of the individual. But as the Islamic scholar the late Fazlur Rahman wrote, “Whether ultimately it is the individual that is significant and society merely the necessary instrument for his creation or vice versa is academic, for individual and society appear to be correlates. There is no such thing as a societiless individual.”

Next: Society and Individuals

  1. #1 by trublumsian on Monday, 26 September 2011 - 11:58 am

    bakri musa you live in the bay area don’t you? go sit at a stop sign and keep a record. people who don’t stop are an anomaly. or are you in socal? l.a. drivers are lunatics, while malaysian drivers make them all look like pantsies.

  2. #2 by k1980 on Monday, 26 September 2011 - 12:43 pm

    Malaysia in the Era of the macc

    Let us assume you are arrested trying to steal/extort US$300,000 (RM930,000) from someone. In all probability, you will be handcuffed, interrogated and charged in court in no time.

    If you are in the private sector or a professional, you will be suspended from your job or even face termination if the terms of the contract spell out clearly that association with criminal activities are grounds for termination.

    But if you are an MACC officer, you will be transferred to administrative duties. Basically collect your pay and “hentak kaki”.

    According to the brass at MACC, the case against the three allegedly rogue senior MACC officers is being investigated without fear or favour.

    It is obvious that the chaps at MACC have a different view of what constitutes without fear or favour.

    The three MACC officers who robbed a money changer of US$300,000 have been transferred to the commission’s administrative division.

    Yes, the same guys who did not offer Teoh Beng Hock food or drink for hours and who were very aggressive in questioning him a suspect really must believe Malaysians are easily duped.

  3. #3 by tsng on Monday, 26 September 2011 - 12:54 pm

    When I was studying in Canada, one of the many social behaviour that made an impression on me is the distribution of newspaper. Everyone would just put a quarter into a box and then pick up their copy of the Toronto Sun. That should be the model of society that Malaysia should emulate.

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Monday, 26 September 2011 - 1:36 pm

    Dr Bakri Musa’s exhortation that “all laws must be respected, even the seemingly minor ones” (when no one watching) must proceed on the premise that its just rational & humane laws or else how to respect and observe? On what is the just rational & humane laws – what is its foundation?- that’s the rub where different world views cash, some believing individual is more important whilst others society’s.

    Western societies (generally) place premium on happiness of individual and by extension his liberty. The argument is individual versus society. However society is not just faceless members of a monolithic block. Ala Adam Smith they (Westerners) believe that the pursuit of happiness-and freedom of individual- will result in collective happiness and liberty of society. Part of recognition of individual rights is a sense or recognition of fairplay to others. (We can’t develop when we jump queue here whether on the roads or getting access to economic opportunities).

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Monday, 26 September 2011 - 1:38 pm

    Western laws based on civil liberties abridged and curtailed only to extent one’s actions cause harm to others causing their loss of liberties. Otherwise an individual is free to pursue his own crank ideas, lifestyle etc which others are expected to tolerate. Its only when a different idea and lifestyle is tolerated in an individual, that there is creativity for a society to change and move on. (Imagine Copernicus & like-minded friends were persecuted for contradicting conventional wisdom that the sun revolved round the earth. The other advantage of tolerating acceptable levels of deviance (especially that which expression relate to basics/impertatives of human nature) is that it mimimises hypocrisy. Otherwise hypocrites will proliferate and try to compensate for their pain of not expressing their hearts desire by dictating to others what they themselves do within closed doors and behind high walls. Also the emphasis on society being more important than individual facilitates rise of authoritarian & dictatorial elites/govt because its so much easier to control & justify control of the populace amd suppress dissent based on this yardstick of priority.

  6. #6 by Jeffrey on Monday, 26 September 2011 - 1:40 pm

    #3 – different world views cLash (not cash)

  7. #7 by boh-liao on Monday, 26 September 2011 - 2:17 pm

    Better stay back in M’sia where there r ppl who bot expensive houses and then sold them 2 U cheaply below d cost price 1, say 6.5 million house sold @ 3.5 million, syiok1

  8. #8 by sheriff singh on Monday, 26 September 2011 - 2:30 pm

    Oh come on, you were right first time. Really. Think about it.

  9. #9 by DAP man on Monday, 26 September 2011 - 3:38 pm

    If this article were to be in BM there will be a deluge of criticisms against you. I would dread mentioning the unmentionables that these bigots will use against you and your upbringing.
    Never mind.
    California drivers are still better than Malaysians. I had noticed when I was there, that the bad drivers were in fact Asians American.
    The Americans (the whites) were more civil on the roads and if I may add their love for animals.
    The bus drivers in Japan, Australia and New Zealand were similarly attired.
    In fact, in Sydney, the driver, greeted us “Good Morning” when we boarded the bus and “Have a nice day” when we disembarked at the Koala Park.
    This will never happen in Malaysia in a 100 years!!

  10. #10 by Loh on Monday, 26 September 2011 - 4:15 pm

    An article in DAXUE ( a work by Zengzi, Confusiou’s student) states:

    “There is no evil to which the mean man, dwelling retired, will not proceed, but when he sees a superior man, he instantly tries to disguise himself, concealing his evil, and displaying what is good. The other beholds him, as if he saw his heart and reins;–of what use is his disguise? This is an instance of the saying–‘ What truly is within will be manifested without. Therefore the superior man must be watchful over himself when he is alone” –(Translated by CCJH)

    The question to ask is why M. Bakri Musa stopped at the traffic light? Was it because he was afraid that policemen were hiding and they might rush out to get him. Was he trying to prove that he was abiding the law, when it was obvious that the light served no purpose then?

    To be watchful over oneself when he is alone is to do the right thing, not because he is required to account to the law. The powers-that-be must be watchful over himself since the AG would not dare to pull him up to face the law. But the trouble is the powers-that-be in Malaysia over the past three decades realized that whatever they did were done as if they were alone, and they accounted to nobody. That is why accountability is the key question to governance when people are not watchful over themselves when they were alone. Indeed that act of stopping at traffic light when nobody was seen to be watching was an effort to be accountable. It is far from the teaching by Daxue which was written over 2,000 years ago.

  11. #11 by a g on Monday, 26 September 2011 - 5:58 pm

    There are many factors contributing to a person behaving in a particular way–and not in another way–in a particular society. Here are some of them–

    1) Consciously wanting to abide by laws, even when there is no imminent, formal punishment for not abiding ( e.g no policemen around, as suggested by Bakri Musa in his Canadian example )– is one. This particular example could well be the results of education–from family, school, or religion, or ‘教’(pronounced as ‘jiao’ e.g teaching in Confucianism). People do it because it is ‘right’. There may be psychological–punishments or rewards– at play at the conscious and/or subconscious level, or in their belief system, though.

    2) Consciously abiding by laws in order to avoid punishments e.g in the New York City example mentioned by Bakri Musa. This type of social behavior was also widely believed to be the main reason why Singapore was able to stay clean and orderly during its formative years. Other factors may also be at play now.

    3) Habits/Culture is another one–when everybody is behaving in such a manner for a certain period of time, you too follow it, without asking why, or even asking whether it’s required by laws or religion or moral teaching to do such a thing. You start doing it and when that behavior persists for a while, it sinks into the subconscious and becomes your second nature. And when it becomes everybody’s second nature, it becomes a culture. One example would be the habit/culture of many westerners, and some eastern people who have been influenced by Westerners, to hold the door open for a while for the people right behind them to enter or exit.

    4) Peer pressure/influence is another factor. E.g. recent riots in London. You saw your friends or neighbours looting the shops which were on fire with the doors wide open, your brains stopped thinking and your bodies just mimicked the people around you. (Of course, the persons who started it all are not included in this category.)

    There must be other factors too. Human beings are such complex animals.

  12. #12 by waterfrontcoolie on Monday, 26 September 2011 - 11:49 pm

    Talking about respecting law and order, just stop by the cross-road junction with traffic lights: just watch those who break the rule! Invariably you can profile them. The issue is why do people simply beat the rules while endangering themselves and other innocent road users? Some time ago, there was this boy who simply rode across e red traffic light, the on-going driver horned at him, he became angry! and showed the car-driver the international sign with both hands, in the process he smacked into a divider. People thought, I was being cold hearted, it wasn’t that bad, though bleeding from the skin wound. Those around all refused to help to take him to the hospital. Well I thought he deserved that for remembrance!
    So we need to ask as to why people simply break the rules; tyo me there are 3 reasons; one becasue of the presumption that one can pay his way! Two, the rule breakers have somebody related to, in the enforcement units. Three, you can see that many ah-long type characters obviously know the local police better than you or me!Abusio suggests

  13. #13 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 27 September 2011 - 4:05 am

    Aiyo yo, MBM has been away too long, man, no know d dynamics of society here
    2 b POWERFUL here means 1 is ABOVE d law, can do what 1 wants, power n syiok mah
    Come 2 a road junction, where got stop 1, expect other drivers 2 stop n hormat

    Look, unlike dumb bosses in Japan n d West, bosses here leave offices earlier 2 enjoy golf, wine, dine, n women (not sure how 2 do aaah, ask d por no boss of a party 2 coach U lah)
    Here anything CAN 1, no bosses ever need 2 resign based on accountability n integrity
    No understand Y dat bank fella resigned over a mere US$2.3 billion rogue trading loss
    Here in 1M’sia, rogue n corrupt politicians proudly show off their wealth, OK 1 what

    Lost in elections, no problemo, can still b ministers what through back door mah
    Who cares abt 礼义廉耻智仁勇孝悌忠恕恭宽信敏惠温良俭让诚敬慈刚毅直克己中庸爱和平教
    Definitely not d 1 with no hood but who wants 2 play play with praying mantis

  14. #14 by monsterball on Tuesday, 27 September 2011 - 7:27 pm

    No one can compare Malaysia with any democratic country.
    Malaysia was a sick country created by Mahathir..,for 22 years and on going by Najib…making Malaysians real cunning and sly foxes…greedy for money through anyway they can get it….without working.
    The point is….are we still sick people?

  15. #15 by negarawan on Tuesday, 27 September 2011 - 8:43 pm

    Affirmative action should be based on meritocracy where the “right bumiputra should be promoted,” said Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. “If they succeed, the non-bumiputra will not begrudge them.


    Najip Razak, are you trying to fool non-bumis? As long as there’s affirmative action, there is no meritocracy. Again you’re just playing with cosmetics on UMNO corrupt and unjust policies. Down with UMNO!

  16. #16 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 28 September 2011 - 10:05 am

    If there is MERITOCRACY in dis TRULY DEMOCRATIC country, where all men are born equal regardless of race n religion, d incompetent NR will definitely NOT B d PM1

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