Is ‘Malay cowardice’ really a problem?

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umno leadersRustam Sani wonders if ‘Malay cowardice’ is really a problem as some once-powerful Umno leaders suggest. Former leaders like Mahathir must begin to accept the fact that they themselves have been a part of the
shepherds of the Malay herd and are responsible for – indeed have benefited from – the creation of Malay cowardice through their efforts in enforcing the ethos of homogeneity in the community. 

On 5 September 2007, a racialist Malay NGO, Pertubuhan Profesional Melayu dan Perwaris Bangsa (Prowaris) organised a lecture session (ceramah) for Sanusi Junid (President of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, formerly Secretary-General of Umno, formerly Kedah Menteri Besar, formerly Agriculture Minister and so on and so forth).

The lecture was held in Wisma Sejarah Malaysia at Jalan Tun Razak, Kuala Lumpur. According to Mohd Sayuti Omar, in a report in the weekly Siasah, Sanusi declared in an impassioned and fiery speech: “Present-day Malays are meek and cowardly!”

“When Malays have become cowards, the race would lose all hope. The interests of the race would not be defended. Whereas, what the Malays really need now are really brave people [to defend their interests].”

Interestingly, this was not the first time that the Malays are being accused of cowardice (bacul, or other variants of the word: pengecut, penakut, sudah hilang keberanian, etc) by Malay leaders and politicians themselves – especially by leaders who are no more in power or who have been pushed aside.

For a number of months now, the former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad has repeatedly claimed that Umno today is dead and buried – and all that we have left is an “Umyes”. The reference here is, of course, to the lack of courage that he observes among party members who dare not stand up to the president, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

What Mahathir fails to highlight, however, is the fact that the suppression of diverse and opposing views in the party – indeed in the nation itself – had been put in place by no other than the former premier himself when he was the all-powerful leader of the party. He did this through such sinister devices as the postponement of the annual assembly, disciplinary action and money politics.

Courage lost?

On 10 March 1996, Daim Zainuddin (then the former Finance Minister and former General Treasurer of Umno) published a brief op-ed piece in Mingguan Malaysia with the title “Melayu hilang keberanian” (Malays have lost their courage).

The article generated a lot of responses and reactions from the public, especially from those in the Malay community itself. The articles debating the issue were later compiled into a book (Karim Abdullah (ed.), Melayu Hilang Keberanian: Suatu Polemik, Petaling Jaya: 1998).

With the former Finance Minister, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, too the same sense of shock with  “Malay cowardice” seems to be a constant theme that appears again and again in all the exclusively Malay congresses and lecture sessions that he participates in or that are organised by his followers and admirers.

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Strangely enough, it is only after these once-powerful Malay political leaders have been put into retirement that they began to see all sort of weaknesses within the ongoing system – especially when the weaknesses affect the personal interests of the ex-leaders themselves.

At that juncture, the ex-leaders begin to appear and to sound like the opposition that they once detested and criticised. Words like ‘corruption’, ‘cronyism’, ‘incompetence’ are lifted from the vocabulary of the opposition and given the meaning and life they never had – indeed so rudely suppressed – before.

When these “new voices of opposition” do not appear to get the attention and response from the apathetic public that they had hoped would rise up to create hell for the government in power, they began to feel utterly disappointed and angry – not just with the powers-that-be who ignore them (“elegant silence”) but also with the apathetic public itself.

As the name of the game is “racial politics” of the Umno-BN variety, naturally the sense of anger and disappointment is directed towards one particular racial group, i.e. the Malays. Indeed, at times they call upon the Malays to emulate the political “courage” of the Chinese who would even withdraw their support from the MCA – and give their support to the DAP, for example – whenever the relative situation of the Chinese interest calls for such a drastic action.

Silencing dissent

It is ironic, however, that “Malay cowardice” was never an issue when the Malay leaders alluding to it were still in power. For example, when the issue of Malays “having lost their courage” raised by Daim Zainuddin was discussed and debated by the Malaysian public, Mahathir Mohammad (then the all-powerful Prime Minister of the country) himself rejected the point of view.

According to Mahathir then, the Malays were never more courageous than during the time of his rule (see Utusan Malaysia: 27 April 1996).  Whereas, objectively speaking, Umno was already being manipulated to turn into an Umyes even during Mahathir’s time.

And neither was Sanusi Junid a paragon of democracy and defender of the freedom of speech when he was a Minister or the Kedah Menteri Besar. And even today, according to some students and academics, as President of  IIUM, the university is not exactly a place where dissenting views are tolerated or even encouraged as they should be in an institution of higher learning.

Indeed, it can be said generally that each and every Malay top political leader in power (i.e. the Prime Minister) has made it their “sacred duty”  to silence all Malay dissenting voices (and the dissenting voices of other racial groups too) whose views differ from that of the “recognised” dominant Malay world-view.

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In instances where the dissenting voices tend not to pose such a big challenge to the position of the leader in power, all sorts of repression and “social sanctions” may be applied to whoever is expressing the dissenting views and opinions. But in more challenging situations, aggressive acts of the police and punitive laws (such as the ISA and OSA) may even be applied on the dissenters.

Indeed, recently the government of PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has started to use “live bullets” on street demonstrators (as in the case of the Batu Buruk demonstrations in Trengganu). The incident was further used as an excuse to ban all forms of political rallies in the country.

Shepherds and the sheep

Besides, all the once powerful Malay leaders seem to be suffering from amnesia (“mudah lupa”) after losing power. They do not seem to be aware that whatever they are criticising about the current regime are exactly the continuation or repetition of whatever they themselves had put in place during their own days of power and authority.

To those of us who do not forget that easily, it is evident that Mahathir as PM and Umno President, Daim as Finance Minister and Umno Treasurer, Sanusi as Kedah Menteri Besar and Umno Secretary-General were all not shining examples of leaders who encouraged dissenting voices – and thus discouraged “cowardice” – among their followers.

The cumulative effect of all these attempts to suppress all dissenting voices among the Malays is a social disease that is even more fatal than the “cowardice” that Sanusi has alluded to. It is a phenomenon that must have been the major impediment to the progress and dynamism of modern Malay society. I am referring here to the social disease or pathology of “forced homogeneity” that I believe is prevalent in the Malay community today.

In my view, this pathological state of the Malay society has turned the Malays to be like a herd of sheep that do not only appear to be physically homogeneous to the naked eye, but tend to produce similar sounds among themselves. They can be easily held together (hemmed in) as a herd that would never tolerate any of its members from straying away.

This state of social and cultural pathology does not just affect the Malays these days in terms of politics and realpolitickal manoeuvrings (Umno politics of the NEP orientation). It also manifests itself in other aspects of modern Malay society and culture – such as in the economy and business, in education, in religious beliefs and practices (with its conservative orientation and the lid on discourse and debates [ijtihad] securely closed), and even the mode of attire for the womenfolk.

Within a homogeneous society of this herd-of-sheep type there is no place for individuality or diversity. All individuals who try to be different, or even think differently, would be very quickly brought back into line by the shepherd (gembala) or the leader (pemimpin). Only a horse and a few dogs are needed to carry out this task successfully.

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Whoever in such a society is found to be “different” in terms of his or her personality or other characteristics – including in terms of thought and intellectual dispositions – would be considered a kera sumbang (literally “the odd monkey among the monkeys”!) or, even more seriously, a murtad (a heretic).

To be a bacul (i.e. to be an intellectual and moral coward) appears to be the only quality that would make one’s life tolerable and secure within the comfort zone created by the sheep-like society of modern day Malays.

To my mind, cowardice (either political, moral or intellectual) is not and cannot be an innate cultural characteristic of Malays. The characteristic had been nurtured among modern Malays by the overemphasis given by their leaders to the notion of Malay homogeneity (kesepaduan, perpaduan, etc) as purportedly the only way of ensuring Malay survival within the context of a “hostile” multi-ethnic modern society and nation-state.

Freeing the Malays

This emphasis on homogeneity had been a tool of the Malay ruling classes even before the sway of Umno political power took root. Malay nationalism, for example, was among nationalisms of the new states of Asia and Africa that was among the last to bloom because the people were lulled into believing that the colonial state was in fact ruled by the Malay rulers with “the assistance” of the colonial officers – and nobody was encouraged, indeed allowed, to believe otherwise.

When the dynamic influence of the Islamic reform and modernisation movement reached our shores in the early years of the last century, the handful of early reformers, dubbed the “kaum muda”, were considered to be almost heretics – thus eliminating the possibility of  an intellectually dynamic Islam, characterised by discourse and debates as found in some other Islamic societies, to develop among the Malays.

Any programme for creating a modern and dynamic Malay society must first of all point the way towards freeing Malay society and culture from the shackles of forced social and cultural homogeneity. Indeed, Malay cowardice itself is but a by-product of that homogeneity.

Once-powerful former leaders of the Malays – including Mahathir, Sanusi and Daim – should come out of their amnesia. They must begin to accept the fact that they themselves are (or have been) a part of the shepherds of the Malay herd who are responsible for – indeed have benefited from – the creation of the Malay cowardice through their efforts in enforcing the ethos of homogeneity in the community.

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