M. Bakri Musa
4th November 2015
It is human nature that when things go well we pay little attention to them; we take them in stride as if they are meant to be, the natural consequences. When we assume such an attitude, we miss some significant learning opportunities. We can learn so much more from our success than we could ever from our failures. For that to happen however, we first must recognize our successes. Contrary to common belief, this can sometimes be no easy task.
One way would be to undertake a mental exercise, to imagine if things had taken a different path. What if Malays had not embraced Islam but fought and rejected it? Likewise, what would be our fate had we enthusiastically embraced the Europeans and adopted their ways? As for our pursuit of independence, imagine had we bowed to the wishes our sultans and their British “advisers” and accepted our fate to be under permanent British domination, as the Malayan Union Treaty would have it? Lastly, assume we had let those rabble rousers be our leaders fighting for our independence, and they took to fighting the British literally and seriously.
In all of these instances there are ready examples of societies and cultures that had indeed chosen precisely those paths that I just outlined, and we can readily see the consequences today of their collective decisions then.
Our brethren on the island of Bali were not enthusiastic about Islam; they decided to stick to their ancient animist and Hindu beliefs. That would be the fate of the greater Malay society had we not embraced Islam. I have tremendous respect for the Balinese; their pacifist ways appeal to me. However, I would not have the same qualms about my lovely island with its pristine beaches turned into a cheap replica of Waikiki or Australia’s Gold Coast, and my people reduced to performing exotic dances for tourists.
On a more practical level, had we not embraced Islam our culture would still be trapped in the oral tradition and we would not have any written literature. We would definitely be the poorer for that.
At the next juncture, imagine had we fully embraced the colonials. Again, there are ready examples; the Filipinos embraced the Spaniards, becoming devout Catholics in the process. Malays today would never wish to trade places with our Filipino brothers. That is not to say there is anything wrong with them, just that we do not wish to be like them. The Filipinos may have embraced the Spanish ways but the Spaniards have not reciprocated in any manner. I doubt whether Filipinos get preferential treatment to work in Spain or in any of the former Spanish colonies. Indeed except for their shared faith, there is little else that the Filipinos have in common with the Spaniards.
At least the Filipinos were lucky; they could have easily suffered the fate of the Mayans; their civilization completely destroyed with the arrival of the Spaniards.
More recently, imagine if Datuk Onn had not galvanized us to oppose the Malayan Union. We have ready examples of that too. Australia and New Zealand are both British dominions; look at their native populations, the Aborigines and Maoris respectively.
Closer to home are Christmas and Keeling Islands. Both are only a few hundred miles south of Sumatra but through the quirks of colonial history, they belong to Australia, many thousand miles away to the south. Both islands have substantial Malay populations, including a few former sultans and their families. See how well the Australians treat them and how those Malays fare.
In our resistance against the Malayan Union Treaty we held fast to our values. We did not derhaka (rebel) against our sultans although we had plenty of reasons for doing so as they had literally sold our country to the British. Instead we co-opted the finest values of our culture – our loyalty to our sultans – to rescind that treaty.
As for the path towards independence, imagine had we thrown our lot with Chin Peng and followed the violent path he pursued. We would still today be mourning fresh victims of our “war of independence” and freedom would still elude us.
The arrival of Islam and European intrusions were both external events imposed upon us. We did not initiate them; we merely responded. Yet our culture had equipped us well in both circumstances. The path we chose for independence was of our own making; we acquitted ourselves exceptionally well there.
Any change especially when initiated by events beyond our control can potentially be threatening to the existing order. With Islam, our leaders and rakyats as well as our culture reacted positively and creatively, and we were the better for it. With colonization, we reacted negatively as rightly we should to any evil. However, having recognized its vastly superior power we were divided in our subsequent responses. While our leaders made the necessary accommodations and in the end fully absorbed the ways and values of the colonials, they impressed upon their followers to resist or at the very least not participate. It is this hypocrisy on the part of our leaders and the divergence in their responses as compared to the rakyats that made our collective experience with colonialism so much more negative than it ought to have been. As a result our society unnecessarily suffered the ugly consequences.
With the pursuit of independence, we relied on our traditional cultural values to guide us and in so doing we acquitted ourselves very well.
The central lesson, as demonstrated by our response to Islam and in the pursuit of independence, is that there must be commonality of goals and aspirations between leaders and followers. This commonality can only be achieved through genuine two-way communications, from up to down and down towards up. That is the key strategy we should adopt as we go forward in dealing with today’s challenges.
Another key element, again demonstrated in our own approach towards independence, is that we must choose our leaders wisely with the hope that they in turn would choose the right strategy and pick the right team as well as the right timing.
Our reactions to those events of the past did not occur by themselves; there were equally pivotal personalities that guided us. They were remarkably free-minded, ready to accept the challenges facing them and lead the rest of the community. Their examples should inspire us.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.