Excerpt #4: The Curse of Our Obsession With Politics

M. Bakri Musa

Malays hold an almost exclusive grip on the political process and leadership. Through demographic dynamics Malays could rule the country without support from any other community, and still do justice to the principle of representative governance and other niceties of democracy.

That we do not is a tribute to our sense of fairness and justice, reflecting the values of our culture. It also shows that we have not been infected with the destructive virus of tribalism, an affliction that grips even the most sophisticated. This point deserves repeating as it is not widely acknowledged much less appreciated.

Contrary to the delusions of many Malays, this near exclusive grip on political power is not all blessing or an advantage. It would be if handled competently, but current Malay leaders across the political spectrum are far from being adroit or sophisticated. This political power is thus more bane than blessing. It distracts us from other important and equally worthy pursuits, especially economic.

Worse, with politics now all-consuming, it corrupts all our other endeavors. Our academics are but politicians with glorified professorial titles; our singers and writers are known less for their talent and creativity, more for their endless praises for our leaders.

Because of their long unchallenged grip on power, our leaders are infected with the megalomania virus. They are immune to criticisms; worse, they delude themselves into believing that they can do no wrong. They deceive themselves into thinking that they could readily transfer their political “skills” to other spheres. They cannot; the skills required to ascend the party hierarchy are very different from those needed to run a ministry, helm a major corporation, or lead an academic institution. It is the rare individual who could make a smooth and successful transition.

More pernicious is that these leaders are increasingly appealing to and catering for the most extreme elements in their party. They had to, to win party elections. When these politicians become leaders of the country those old bad habits remain; instead of becoming statesmen they remain unrepentant politicians only too willing to resort to political expedience.

This of course is not unique to Malaysia. The American Congress is held hostage by its minority members with extreme views. America can afford such shenanigans as it is already cruising at high altitude. Malaysia is still trying to ascend; if it does not accelerate it will stall and crash.

Malays are in perpetual mortal fear of losing their grip on political power. Thus we view the increasingly diverse political views among us as dangerous and detrimental to our future. Our cultural view of “good” citizenship would have us be like sheep, blindly following the command of our leaders. To our leaders, diverse political views dilute our voting power.

The closed minds of both Malay leaders and followers cannot comprehend that political diversity (as with all diversities) is an asset and a blessing. Only through examining multiple views would we find one that would suit us best. Diversity is Allah’s grand design.

Thankfully, this is changing. A dramatic and refreshing demonstration of this was the recent (July 9, 2011) BERSIH 2.0 demonstrations. Malay leaders in UMNO including Prime Minister Najib spared no effort in demonizing BERSIH’s very visible non-Malay organizers as “unpatriotic” or even “anti-Malay.” The government went beyond and declared the organization illegal. Those who dared wear attires in the movement’s trademark color – yellow – risked being arrested. Shockingly, many were.

It was reprehensible that a week or two before, the Imams in their usual canned sermons issued by the religious department declared the planned public rally haram, thus unnecessarily injecting a divisive religious element to what was essentially a civic matter. Despite all that, thousands of Malays defied their government, imams, and the party that had long presumed to speak on their behalf to take part in the rally. Clearly those Malay demonstrators were no longer trapped by tribalism; they had escaped the clutches of chauvinism. Bless them!

That was a significant milestone. Leaders who ignore this seismic change do so at their peril. For aspiring Malay leaders, it is now no longer sufficient to display their nationalistic zeal or ethnic instincts. They have to articulate the issues that matter most to the Malay masses: fairness, honesty, and justice, in elections and everywhere else. I would also add competence. Those are also the concerns of all Malaysians.

Yes, there was a time when Malay leaders could garner support by justifying that the victims of their corruption, injustices and inequality were non-Malays. Those days are now long gone, get used to that! Not that there was any consolation that their victims were not our kind, for we too could be next. And today we are.

The comforting corollary to my observation on BERSIH 2.0 is that those capable non-Malay leaders could be assured of Malay support if they were to address the central issues facing the masses.

Another encouraging consequence to Malay political diversity and maturity is that we now choose leaders according to our political persuasions and their personal qualities like competence and integrity, instead purely on racial sentiment. There was a time when we would accept even scoundrels as leaders as long as they are Malays. The rationale then was that they may be scoundrels but at least they were our scoundrels! Those days too are now thankfully gone.

Thus while my book focuses only on Malays, it has pertinence to non-Malays, especially those aspiring to lead Malaysia.

This essay is adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013

Next week: Excerpt #5: Three Defining Moments in Malay Culture

  1. #1 by Noble House on Thursday, 11 June 2015 - 3:35 am

    I still believe that decency, tolerance and free speech are worth fighting for. But the awful truth is that we are all vulnerable, and afraid, and more ignorant than we’d like to be.

    How well will Islam stands on its own if you do away with the blasphemy laws and apostasy punishment?

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