Where intellectuals have failed in changing the Malay mindset

I recently attended a forum featuring high-profile Malay academics and intellectuals at UKM. The forum was about how to change the Malay mindset in the new Malaysia. It was attended by an all-Malay audience, as far as I could tell without looking at the registration book. It was organised by Atma or Institut Alam dan Tamadun Melayu, an important institute at UKM which seeks to document and develop many branches of knowledge within the Malay civilisation. As I understand, it also includes non-Malay sources that have their origin within the geographical, temporal and political boundaries of the Malay world.

At first, I was excited about getting a glimpse of the world of Malay intellectuals at a university purported to be the centre of excellence in the Malay language, research and discourse. But after two hours of listening to deliberations centred on Islamic issues, administrative concerns of the university leadership and a blame-game on politicians, I left feeling rather disappointed and extremely worried.

I came specifically to hear about four important things which I thought would change the discourse on new Malay values and responsibilities in nation-building, but my concerns were either dismissed or not addressed.

My first concern was the definition of “failure” in Malay society. Because the discourse was about changing the Malay mindset, I assumed the race had failed in some things. The panellists did mention “kegagalan Melayu” but stopped short of explaining what these failures were.

In order to progress, we must know where and what we have failed at. I recommend that future Malay discourses organised by such important institutions as Atma list clearly the failures of the Malay elite in providing the appropriate narrative, attitude and value system for a democratic and multiracial Malaysia.

The Malay intellectuals should also consider stating aloud the failures of the Malay leadership in politics, civil administration, education, economics and religious tolerance.

When Anwar Ibrahim was stripped of his Malay decency and his dignity of citizenry, the Malay intellectuals were silent. When Jamal Yunos and the Red Shirts hooligans shouted obscenities at other races, again, they were completely quiet. When some Malay leaders now facing corruption charges robbed the country blind, they were still silent. They sat demurely on the sidelines, even when Ibrahim Ali threatened to burn the Bible.

What does all this silence mean? Does it mean the Malay intellectuals are afraid of authority? Does it mean they consider these events which violated constitutional rights, religious tolerance and basic human decency too trivial for professors and prestigious research universities to deliberate on? Or worse, do they actually “agree” with many of the extremist acts in this country under the banner of Islamic and Malay supremacy?

If the Malay intellectuals do not acknowledge these failures of the Malay institutions, administration and religious authorities, what hope is there of changing the less educated or even the well-educated rakyat? I hope the Malay intellectuals are not in denial mode.

My second concern was the issue of racial, religious and historical inclusiveness. Throughout the whole two hours plus of discourse, the Malay intellectuals went round and round about Islam and political governance. The entire discourse was devoid of any discussion of learning habits, behaviours or values of other cultures.

It should have included a serious discussion of what perpetrated and inflamed the narrative of “Malays are good and others in Malaysia or the world are bad”. It should also have dealt with the hatred of Malays of parties such as DAP.

My own writings have been ignored, ridiculed and objected to, just because I used to be a DAP member. People can attest to the fact that while I was a member, my writings always dealt academically with the issue at hand. I never engaged in what is construed as propaganda in writing or speaking. I even wrote against Penang’s P Ramasamy on the Rayani Air issue.

Why doesn’t Atma invite Liew Chin Tong, Lim Guan Eng, Zairil Khir Johari and Dr Ariffin or Aziz Bari to a free-for-all dialogue at UKM or UiTM? Discussions on new Malay values, thoughts and narrative constructs should take into account the best practices, values and thoughts of the different minority groups in Malaysia. If not, then I would say that the Malay discourse is not comprehensive, inclusive or open.

The Malay intellectuals must also engage with civil society and discover for themselves the real issues and problems within specific social groups. I don’t understand how Malays more than 2,000 years ago wrote in Sanskrit, probably with Palava letters and words, and discussed various social and spiritual issues within the Hindu-Buddhist framework, yet now identify only Islam within a framework that I deem shallow, narrow and restrictive.

Intelligence, like the development of words, needs exposure to many forms of thought, actions and beliefs. Classic Malay literary works such as Hang Tuah were told in a language that claimed its origins from more than 10 different civilisations. How restricted the Malay people have become.

My third concern was about academic and media engagement. In the forum, I raised the issue of academics needing to take the social, religious and political narratives away from politicians like Tajuddin Abdul Rahman or worse, Jamal Yunos, and reclaim them under the rationality and morality of Malay-Islam. One of the panellists, who is from the same public university I was at prior to my retirement in 2015, dismissed my concerns by implying that the media panders only to their readership.

I had to put up with this kind of dismissive attitude from three other professors from the same university two decades ago. I remember asking the deputy vice-chancellor about writing in the media to educate the people, and the person rubbished it by saying the Malays only like to listen to stories about hantus and puaka.

On another occasion, I engaged in a heated debate about media writing as one of the important promotion criteria in academia. The professor concerned wanted to take that criteria out because he thought that the writings were worthless as they are read by simple folk and not evaluated by serious academics. Another time, another professor, also from the same university, dismissed my ideas about writing books and media articles to educate the public. He said some disciplines, like architecture, may be easier to explain and understand, but not physics or the hard sciences.

To my mind, all these academics must have no knowledge of people like Michio Kaku, Stephen Hawking and Mario Salvadori who wrote many books on physics and engineering in order to educate the public. Some even write children’s books. These academics know that the more the public can appreciate their concerns, the more grants and funding they are likely to obtain from philanthropists and billionaires like Robert Kuok.

Professors of public universities, to my mind, are used to royal treatment at ministries and from policymakers from whom all of their funding comes. They simply do not care what Tok Mat, Ah Lek and Muthusamy who sell goreng pisang, chicken rice and putu mayam think about what is important for the nation’s growth. These academics fail to understand the sacred responsibility of democracy where the people get to elect their representatives to make changes in policies. What if Tok Mat, Ah Lek and Muthusamy got elected to Parliament? How would they respond to the many social, religious, economic and sustainability concerns of this nation? Impossible? I have heard enough nonsense from Umno MPs to accept the idea that any one of these lay people can be elected into public office because the simplistic narrative of race, religion and money politics controls the floor. If the Malay intellectuals do not claim centre stage in reforming the narrative of social, economic and environmental sustainability, then the narrative will be hijacked by the likes of Isa Samad or worse, Saiful Bukhari. Perhaps the public university professors would then accept Saiful as our ninth prime minister!

Finally, I was hoping that the discourse might touch on the issue of the Malay vs non-Malay narrative, the Islam vs non-Islam narrative and a changed perspective of history. How long are Malays going to be fed with the same bland narrative that Malaysia is Tanah Melayu and Malays have special privileges? The special privileges should be on a needs-based framework, not a racial one anymore.

Then there is the embarrassing narrative of the Malays being better than other cultures because of Islam and some unique feature of that particular race. I think every race would have a similar narrative and if its members don’t get over that self-delusion, that race will not go very far in global competitiveness and self-development.

The most dangerous of all narratives is the idea that Islam is for the Malays and that others of different faiths are “enemies” never to be trusted. I find this narrative very strong in PAS and Umno, and among Islamic officials and even Muslim NGOs. If the Malay intellectuals do not deal with changing these three narratives, our race relations will deteriorate further than what Prof Dr Syamsul says: that Malaysians are in a state of “stable tension”.

The Malay intellectuals also have to rewrite historical perspectives to produce one which blames equally every race in a tragedy such as May 13 and shares all the accolades in success stories such as independence in 1957. History is simply a jumble of facts that can be constructed to produce a narrative which can help us in the present. Since there is no such thing as an “absolute history” where everything about the past is “truthfully” understood, we can and should create a much fairer story to tell our children.

I would like to go on record to applaud Atma for its effort to reignite the fire of rethinking the Malay mindset. My one and only advice is, please be inclusive in the framework and social variables. Without such inclusiveness, the Malays, destined to lead this country, can only be the leaders of a privileged few.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.