Malay excellence – a transcending legacy

The Malays Par ExcellenceWarts And All; An Introspection
Authors: Ismail Noor and Muhammad Azaham
Pub. Pelanduk Publications (M) Sdn Bhd, Selangor
Paperback xvii + 166 pp

Having lived for four years in predominantly ethnic Malay areas of Malaysia, I came to this book, I must admit, with some well-formed opinions about them as a people. Two years teaching Malay children in Kelantan, Malaysia’s idiosyncratic north-eastern state followed by two years teaching in Perlis over the mountains have given me a pretty close view of their community.

Kelantan, of course, is known for its religious fervor and the Kelantanese, who do not merit a separate mention in this book surprisingly, for their barely concealed hostility to outsiders, even other Malays. Having seen this first-hand and having had west coast Malays complain to me of a certain Kelantanese tendency to keep them at arm’s length, I have to confess to a certain reluctance to believe in Malay unity as a transcending force.

Nonetheless, it is important to see how others view themselves. Ismail Noor and Muhammad Azaham have set out a Malay view of their own people and a Malay view of history and, although one might beg to differ on certain points, is an affirmative statement of self-belief. This is no re-hash of Dr. Mahathir’s The Malay Dilemma, which was both a scathing look at Malay faults and a call to action on their behalf, but an honest look at what makes them tick.

It has often been the case that the Malays, most of whom are easy-going, self-deprecating people (Mahathir a major exception), have been overlooked and the authors blast the British for just this in their treatment of the people. The colonial British did have a condescending attitude towards them for which they paid rather dearly.

Failure to recruit sufficient Malays into the forces pre-WW2 was a crucial factor in the rapid collapse of the colony when the Japanese attacked in 1941-42. That the Malays were indeed good fighting men, contrary to British opinion, was proved in spades by the heroic stand of the Malay Regiment at Kent Ridge in Singapore, a stand made all the finer by the fact that many others deserted the front.

If one wants to take exception to anything said here it must be with the assertion that the New Economic Policy, initiated in the wake of the 1969 inter-ethnic riots that rocked Malaysia to its very foundations, is “bold and dynamic”. There may have been a serious need for affirmative action to lever the Malays up economically but it is fair to wonder aloud whether the NEP is past its expiry date. Having witnessed first-hand the featherbedding of Malay students in the secondary school system, I cannot help but feel that certain aspects of it are deeply unfair to the other ethnic groups including other ‘bumiputera’ such as the Dayaks.

Ismail and Muhammad do make a courageous assessment, nonetheless, of some of the faults of the Malaysian education system. “Several situations of imperfect and relatively unwholesome years in primary and secondary education become compounded by the problem of time-constrained social maladjustment at university level,” they say. A bold assertion.

The authors have provided a catalog towards the back of the book of distinguished Malays, many of whom are unfamiliar to me. Indeed many Malays have distinguished themselves in various fields, not least UN military service, where their traits of collective loyalty serve them well, but I was disappointed to note the absence from the list of scholars of the historian of the Malays, Syed Hussein Ali, an important voice of dissent in Malaysia.

This is a worthy attempt, however, to put a people’s point of view.

(pub. The Jakarta Post 28th January 2001)

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