Bebalisma in Malaysian society

Aerie Rahman
The Malaysian Insider
October 21, 2013

OCT 21 — The Malaysia that I know of, which has forever been under the Barisan Nasional power structure, is akin to a poorly written play.

Those in power are actors onstage while the rakyat are members of the audience.

Lights out, please!

The play would begin with members of parliament squabbling and haranguing each other. Grandstanding is the game here, gents.

Suddenly, things would come to a halt with the Auditor-General bursting into Parliament. The mood is intense. He subsequently submits his annual report.

Revelations are made that there are surfeits of wastages of taxpayer’s money by the civil service.

These are very grave accusations — well, in any Western liberal democracy, of course. Not so in a country that espouses Mahathirian Asian values.

The opposition makes a hell of a noise. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) wring their hands in despair, citing that they cannot do anything about stupidity. BN members are silent.

The audience feels cheated that the RM50 they paid to watch and be part of the play is, after all, a sham. There is no plot, no climax, and no witty dialogues — only superficial characters.

They sigh, complain and are angry. They demand blood.

You can’t defend the indefensible — well, most of the time, that is. So for those in power, keeping quiet is the best choice. Soon enough, the people will forget and everything will be normal. Give it a few months.

The other option — from a buffet of methods to control the masses — is by manufacturing a sensational situation to distract people from this pertinent issue. The mind, after all, is a fickle object.

The benefactors of this play don’t walk out in protest. They remonstrate and grumble. Yet, the next day, the play is staged to a full house.

A Never Ending Cycle

The situation above repeats itself ad nauseam every year. However, I believe that something can be done to resolve this. The first step is by interrogating the causes of these wastages.

Everybody knows that corruption is endemic in Malaysia. People are conscious of corruption. Corruption is motivated by greed and a person who indulges in it is fully aware of the evil of his actions.

What is more insidious is something that people are not fully aware of. And it is everywhere in Malaysian society. Yes, it is sitting opposite you in the LRT. Yes, it is having a roti canai in the mamak beside you. Heck, it might even be in the same office that you are in while you are reading this essay.

This scourge is bebalisma.

The Permeation of Bebalisma

Syed Hussien Alatas, who pioneered the now limp Gerakan party, authored many books. The most prestigious is The Myth of the Lazy Natives. Lesser known but to my mind equally important are Intellectuals in Developing Societies (IIDS) and A Sociology of Corruption.

Unfortunately for Syed Hussein, his books weren’t as popular as Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s The Malay Dilemma, Khalid Jafri’s 50 Dalil Mengapa Anwar Ibrahim Tidak Boleh Menjadi PM or Shanon Ahmad’s Shit. Don’t believe me? Try searching for IIDS in your local bookstore.

I myself was only able to easily locate the book in London — a poignant reminder as to how our colonial master recognises the intellectual endeavours by one of our own sons more so than our own society.

I pity the chap and empathise with his pain. Being outsold by Khalid Jafri is a bitter drop to swallow. But being sidelined by a society that rejects your overtures for improvement is just heartbreaking.

In IIDS, Syed Hussein throws us a few examples of wastages reported by the Auditor-General — quoting figures as early as in 1956! Wastages are so prevalent that it has become amalgamated with our culture.

These wastages are primarily attributed to the incompetency of members of the civil service.

Bebalisma is not just narrow minded thinking per se. It is this intransigence to open up one’s mind and ignorance of different views compounded with indolence and indifference.

Bebalians are prone to hasty generalisations. Syed Hussein gives an example of those who believe that the Malays are economically backward due to hereditary factors. These bebalians didn’t see that Sumatran Malays thrived economically.

“Bebalisma is authoritarian, non-reflexive and non-experimental… bebalisma doesn’t behave in a rational fashion and is implanted by religious ritual or external force,” writes Syed Hussein.

As you can see, bebalisma isn’t natural stupidity. It’s not inherent. It’s something that is cultivated and regenerated by the social conditions that one is in.

I refuse to believe that someone is inherently bebal. A person is bebal only relative to his function.

For example, I am a bebal when it comes to physics. I can’t explain the Higgs boson. More importantly, I am a bebal because I refuse to educate myself in it. Nonetheless, I probably am not a bebal when it comes to writing opinion pieces….

The same goes for those who are responsible for our precious finances. Wastages only serve to confirm the bebalisma that shrouds our civil service.

People are not aware that they are infected with bebalisma. In fact, they refuse to believe it if they are told so. They reject criticisms and would hide behind barriers — like labelling certain issues as “sensitive”, critics as “traitors” and telling dissenters to migrate to another country.

Bebalisma 2.0

I would like to extend Syed Hussein’s ideas further. I believe that bebalisma is able to perpetuate itself, albeit unconsciously. It is alive and worse, it breeds!

To my mind, bebalisma shouldn’t be analysed in isolation but must be situated within the social conditions that encompasses it.

Malaysia is worryingly a feudalistic society that rewards suck ups and those who are able to play their cards right in climbing the social ladder. This is especially true with the civil service.

Loyalty is given a premium over intellect and ability. This sickening system of patronage promotes unscrupulous individuals who are most probably bebal.

In Malaysia, meritocracy is shunned for one’s racial composition. Quantity is prioritised over quality. Just look at the oversaturated civil service.

People who are able to use emotionally laden buzzwords, be it religious or racial are promoted. There is a need to conform to the official narrative to progress.

Vanity projects — which reminds me of a parvenu’s inferiority complex — is infrastructure intensive and places universal tertiary education at a backseat.

Didn’t Sayyidina Ali himself beautifully say that he would prefer knowledge over wealth anytime? Wealth is a burden where we need to take care of it while knowledge would never fail to look after the self.

Dissenters are vilified. Just look at what happened to AirAsia X CEO Azhar Osman Rani when he chose to speak out against the power structure.

All this serves to reproduce the bebalisma structure debilitating Malaysia.

“Enlightenment Values” is the Solution

Syed Hussein claimed that the solution to bebalisma would be to establish an intellectual class which is able to identify problems and offer solutions. I agree.

Furthermore, I think solutions should be structural since bebalisma is something that is entrenched within the collective consciousness of our society.

The first would be a complete overhaul of our collapsing education system. Instead of rote learning, students need to be cultivated with the ability to think critically. People should not just digest what is told but be capable of excoriating and interrogating the ideas that are fed.

Secondly, enlightenment values must be appreciated and internalised by our society. Freedom of speech, thought and expression must be encouraged.

In the West, writers are venerated for their profundity. In Ireland, writers are not required to pay income taxes. In Prague, a museum is especially dedicated to Kafka. Vaclav Havel was idolised and elected to power.

Sadly in Malaysia, people who challenge the official narrative like the respectable Pak Samad are persecuted.

Thirdly, debates and discussions must be more frequent and encouraged. This is a hallmark of the Western education system. Every opinion is scrutinised and evaluated objectively. In fact, Jokowi the flamboyant and popular Jakarta mayor uses discussions as an effective instrument to achieve sustainable solutions.

Unfortunately in Malaysia, debates are viewed with disdain. One leader claimed that it isn’t part of our political culture.

Najib Razak still refuses to debate Anwar Ibrahim. This is leadership by example, methinks.

Fourthly, it is essential that the civil service be trimmed. The Malaysian way to solve unemployment is by absorbing people into the government. This is poisonous because wages are depressed to accommodate the influx. Hence, those that are meritorious would flock to greener pastures.

Moreover, red tape would be accentuated. In order to justify the existence of additional workers, more procedures need to be invented in order to keep them from twiddling their thumbs.

I agree, more analysis needs to be put in these solutions. And this list is not exhaustive. But it is imperative we confront bebalisma in ourselves to carve a path to enlightenment.

Oh, before I forget. The last and important recommendation would be to read works by Syed Hussein Alatas and pay homage to them.

  1. #1 by Noble House on Tuesday, 22 October 2013 - 4:52 am

    In the land of the blind, the one-eyed cyclops reign supreme.

    We have leaders with exploitative ignorance but lacked the intellectuals to tackle national problem with intellectual justice.

    Bebalisma in Malaysian society, quite obviously, is equalled to: “If A is a success in life, then A equals X plus Y plus Z. Work is X; Y is play; and Z is keeping your mouth shut.”

    • #2 by cemerlang on Tuesday, 22 October 2013 - 6:29 am

      Intelligence as in from usm or um? qualifications okay?

  2. #3 by undertaker888 on Tuesday, 22 October 2013 - 8:12 am

    No I think umno goons made the link between these physics, philosophy and economic formulas.

    Work = Power x time , but
    Knowledge is power and time is money. Substituting these into the first equation, you will get,


    So in short, the more you know, the less money you will get regardless of work. That’s why corruption is endemic and our education standards go down the drain in bolehland.

  3. #4 by sotong on Tuesday, 22 October 2013 - 10:19 am

    These politicians know very well playing politics make easy and enormous money……why work so hard???

    These irresponsible people are playing with the lives and future of ordinary people at all cost to stay in power.

  4. #5 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 23 October 2013 - 7:33 am

    The term ‘bebalisma’ as used by Alatas is itself problematic. It may mean a general attitude of ignorance, indifference and indolence or shunning of work ethic. It also refers to a general mentality of unquestioning of and subservience to authority, a lack of capacity or unwillingness to engage in contextual appraisal and objective analysis and disciplined thinking; a world view and value system heavily influenced by cultural orientations. A feudalistic mindset.

  5. #6 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 23 October 2013 - 7:48 am

    ///Unfortunately in Malaysia, debates are viewed with disdain..One leader claimed that it isn’t part of our political culture./// This is exactly the point. The political elites from day one of independence have got the formula for regime maintenance and perpetuation all worked out. First they exploited the natural reaction against colonialism the shackles of which had just been taken off. They said that western penchant to independent thought debated etc is also a form of bebalisma to keep the indigenous loyal to Colonial regime. They substitute it with a return to feudal mindset – loyalty to leaders group, race and religion as consistent with cultural values of the indigenous before the colonial masters came. There’s no real commitment to the Constitutional principles of civil rights etc – as they are aspects of ‘western captivity’ of our minds. The education system is deliberately geared to exclude the importance of English, a language of colonials. In this way our new colonial masters keep people forever voting for them. The idea is substitute one form of captivity of mind by another, indigenous and based on pre western colonial times. It is an adaptation of what the Brits did, which is more sustainable as it appeals to culture race and religion. It will make the ruling party sustain itself longer than any in the world.

  6. #7 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Wednesday, 23 October 2013 - 8:48 am

    ///Everybody knows that corruption is endemic in Malaysia. People are conscious of corruption. Corruption is motivated by greed and a person who indulges in it is fully aware of the evil of his actions.///

    How wrong!

    Corruption does not exist in malaysia. In malaysia it has been elevated by umno into a right – a ketuanan right which is untouchable and unquestionable. Anyone who does so would be considered anti-melayu (read anti-umno), anti-agung, anti-sultan, anti-islam (jenis umno), anti-negara, ungrateful and unpatriotic and deserves to have his or her personal liberty curtailed (with then ISA and in future, PAC) and citizenship revoked.

    It is that serious. So never ever talk about umno’s ketuanan rights.

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