Storm in a tea cup: Intellectuals speak out

Developing Just Leadership

Farish A. Noor

Dhu al-Qa'dah 12, 1416 1996-04-01

South-East Asia

by Farish A. Noor (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 25, No. 2, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1416)

Some Malays are not so easily impressed with the claim that the Malays have finally ascended the ladder of success. Critics have been arguing for a reorientation of methods and goals. Such criticisms have been coming from all corners, and its most recent proponent is someone who one might regard as being the most unlikely of trouble-shooters, Dr Mahathir’s old adviser himself, Tun Daim Zainuddin, the former finance minister of Malaysia.

A corporate figure who had links with the Government, Daim is widely known and regarded as one of the most eminent and enigmatic figures that have emerged in Malaysia during the Mahathir era. His most recent contribution has caused a stir in the country, when he criticised the lack of intellectual and moral will and courage of the Malay-Muslim intelligentsia.

Daim criticised the ineffectiveness and inability of the Malay intellectuals to offer credible and incisive criticism and commentary on contemporary developments in the country. In particular he noted the lack of criticism of the conduct of the country’s most powerful political party the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), which is the main Malay-Muslim political force in the nation. He noted that ‘.. just because UMNO is regarded as Malay, it is assumed by them [Malay intellectuals] that whatever UMNO does is correct. This is surely an erroneous view. We, as humans, are surely not immune from error’. Yet the possible errors of UMNO and its leaders is something which the Malay intelligentsia themselves have failed to comment upon. The question of whether the keen intellectual spirit of the Malays has been diluted altogether by wealth and easy living struck a raw nerve with some of the Malay academics and literati, and the debate has been heating up ever since.

Inspired perhaps by this initial blow, some Malay academics and commentators were quick to respond. Daim himself is a corporate figure, and he is protected by virtue of his immense authority, influence, connections and not least of all his wealth, they insisted. Other intellectuals do not enjoy the comfort of Daim’s secure lifestyle and for a young academic stuck with comparatively low pay in one of the less prominent universities or research institutes, a badly-worded critique can spell the end of a brief and impoverished career.

Other factors that might explain the comparative obedience of the Malay intellectuals include the growth of the privatised economy, which has infiltrated practically every sphere of Malaysian life and has brought with it the culture of profit maximisation and self-interest. The old colonial restrictions on freedom of speech, publication and political activities also remain as obstacles to open debate: an anachronism for a country which constantly emphasises its break from colonial rule and practices. Whatever the reasons may be, the original comment of Daim has certainly proven to be of infinite mileage as it draws more and more pundits and speculators within its discursive orbit.

If Malaysia’s intellectuals seem to be floundering with no single definitive agenda at hand, it is because the rate and trajectory of development in Malaysia is such that any clearly defined political or ideological project invariably becomes complicated by other needs and agendas as well.

But if the ideological commitment of the pre-independence nationalists has gone missing, where has it gone, and what has replaced it? The answer lies in the social and political infrastructure that the post-colonial elites have built up in the country: massive developmental projects that bolster the country’s standing in the economic charts, but often leave aside the `academic’ question of the development of the country’s identity. Massive and expensive development projects with huge capital investment often gaining priority over other ‘marginal’ issues such as national identity, language, culture, even the status of the Arabic (Jawi) script as the earlier Malay script itself.

Malaysia’s intelligentsia, being a small minority community that has become even more marginalised with the specialisation of their field and the privatisation of their domain (the Universities), have likewise been caught up in this dilemma. If many of them have failed to comment on the deleterious effects of the Malaysian rat- race to development, it is largely because most of them have been swept by the tide of events as well, and are likewise now plugged into the hi-tech world of trading shares in between their lectures at universities and brainstorming sessions of the think-tanks.

A cursory overview of the Malaysian situation thus reminds one of Ibn Khaldun’s observation regarding the causes behind the rise and fall of nations and kingdoms: Nations that emerge from the struggle for Independence then have to struggle against themselves, lest they become weakened by their internalised inferiority complexes or their own newfound opulence and freedom. Malaysia’s intellectual elites, as noted by Daim and his contemporaries, seem to be going through the middle phase of this tragic cycle. The fiery energy of the pre-independence elites, who often were prepared to argue their case even when their lives were under threat, are now being eclipsed by the new generation of ‘Melayu Baru elites’ who seem more inclined to preach to the masses through their handphones while in the middle of their lunch in plush new five-star hotels.

The prognosis need not be so bleak and pessimistic, though. Even Ibn Khaldun noted that a nation at its acme may remain so for decades, if not centuries. What is required, however, is the commitment to keep its vibrant energy alive and unfettered. A political arena which remains open and encourages healthy debate and constructive criticism to flourish is one of the preconditions Ibn Khaldun prescribed.

Ibn Khaldun was himself a man of his word, and his advice was often accepted grudgingly, as a bitter antidote. He came close to losing his head, literally, on many an occasion, but perhaps that is the price that one has to pay if one has to speak out the truth. As Daim has argued, the Malays in Malaysia have yet to acknowledge the malaise of their newly-prosperous country. A few of her intellectuals may have to stick their necks out a little further to make the powers that be stand up and listen, even if it means ‘losing their heads’ and staining their designer ties in the process.

Courtesy: Impact International, London

Muslimedia - April 1996-August 1996

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