What Has Oxford Done?
M. Bakri Musa and Din Merican
Both are graduates of Oxford, but what a difference between the two! What separates them is that elusive quality: class. One has it; the other does not. When you have class, Oxford will bring out the best in you. When you do not, not even esteemed Oxford can do much for you.
One is a crown prince, a sultan-to-be whose recent wedding warmed the hearts of Malaysians for its elegant simplicity and regal restraint. His eloquent speeches inspire the young and old alike; they enthusiastically embrace his enlightened vision of Malaysia. He appeals to their idealism and decency, and they in turn respond in kind. His understated passion and cool rationality resonate with the citizens. He elevates the tone of our civil discourse. In short, Raja Nazrin is “Yang Teramat Mulia” (“The Most Esteemed”) personified.
The other is a neophyte political operative, with grand pretensions of being the next Prime Minister. For now however, he is till struggling just to have the title (but not the qualities) of a “Yang Berhormat” (“The Honorable”) that goes with being a Member of Parliament. His obscenely ostentatious wedding a few years back dragged on for days, with multiple ceremonies. Its extravagance easily outmatched the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, minus of course the royal elegance. Today he is again indulging in excesses; this time hurling insults at Malaysians and assaulting their sense of decency.
In his speeches to his followers in UMNO Youth, he instigates and brings out their dark side. To him, the Mat Rempits, those midnight marauders of unemployable youths who terrorize our streets, represent the best of our community. He champions them. Like them, his trade in stock is taunting and provoking, with undisguised racist undertone. Lately he resorts to simian references; no surprise as he is surrounded daily by the opportunist monkeys in the jungle that is UMNO. This fraud of a leader coarsens our public debates, dragging them to his barnyard level.
We humbly apologize to Raja Nazrin for this jarring juxtaposition of images. We are comforted by the fact that a Prince Charming beside a toad will never lose his regal bearing. A toad beside a prince however, will make its warts all the more revolting to behold, and its croaking unbearably grating.
While the constant croaking of a toad may be harsh on the ears, the repeated racist rhetoric of a leader, genuine or fake, can have devastating consequences. We would have thought that this would be obvious; we need not remind ourselves of the ghastly tragedy of May 1969.
This wet-behind-the-ears pseudo-leader is oblivious of these dangers. Born years after those horrific days in 1969, he did not live through the calamity that nearly ripped our nation apart. It would be unlikely for him to have learned that part of our history at Oxford. It is also painfully obvious that no senior leaders in his party have taken him aside to apprise this uncouth young man of that blemish in our history. This glaring omission speaks volumes of the caliber of UMNO’s current leadership.
Elusive Quality of Class
While “class” is an elusive quality and thus difficult to define, nonetheless we know it when we see it, to borrow the phrase of an American jurist. We would definitely know it when it is not there, hence the dismissive, “No class!”
Equally revealing is what a particular culture considers to be a class act or whom that society views as “classy.” Rest assured that a “class act” by a mafia don is anything but in a civilized society.
Nelson Mandela has class; his nemesis the buffoon P. W. Botha did not. Many attribute “class” to breeding. If by that they mean genetic endowment, we demur, as that would imply that the attribute is not teachable. It also implies the acceptance of a certain degree of fatalism: either one is lucky to be born with the attribute, or one is not.
If the term “breeding” refers to upbringing, then we are in agreement. This does not mean that those in the upper crust of society would automatically have “class.” We have many uncouth presidents and leaders. Then there was the lowly born Mahatma Gandhi whose class act of non-violence shamed the crusty British establishment.
We would have thought that being the son of a career diplomat would ensure good upbringing. After all the profession of diplomacy itself is the epitome of class, as encapsulated in the expression, “being diplomatic.” We also would have expected some of the father’s classiness to rub off on the son. That it did not forces us to look for other explanations.
The Malay expression Kurang Ajar (or Kurang ‘Jar, K ‘J) is the idiomatic translation of the phrase “No class.” Literally it means, “Not adequately taught,” as by the parents and other elders in the village. Stated another way: uncouth.
In Malay culture however, that phrase means much more: it is the most damning insult. In the words of Usman Awang in his poem Kurang Ajar, it is sebuah perkataan yang paling ditakuti untok bangsa kita yang pemalu) (the most feared phrase by our race.)
That aside, the literal translation is quite meaningful as it points out possible ways of remedying the deficiency. Thus, “Teach your children well!” as the song advises, is one useful way. There is no advantage in being born to a diplomat’s family if your parents have not provided you the necessary tutelage. Or, as is increasingly becoming common among Malaysians, they delegate this important parental responsibility to maids.
Malaysia imports thousands of these maids annually. As only the affluent could afford these “servants,” as they are referred to in Malaysian homes, we are now seeing a generation of the elite that has grown up kurang ajar. Many are jockeying for leadership of the nation. We shudder to think of the social and political implications.
Toxic Combination of Greed and Kurang Ajar
As obnoxious as this kurang ‘jar (K ‘J) young pseudo-leader is, the situation is worse. He is also aggressively ambitious, barely concealing his greed for money and lust for power. He fancies himself an “investment banker,” but his primary indulgence is stripping off valuable assets from government-linked companies. ECM Libra’s (the company he is associated with) well documented plundering of GLCs is a ready example. He also grandly aspires to be Prime Minister by age 40! It is this combination of greed and kurang ajar that is highly toxic.
This K ‘J pseudo-leader’s political career in UMNO is consumed with endless Machiavellian maneuverings in the blind pursuit of his ambition. None of his tricks are original of course; they are primarily the familiar “sucking up to your superiors,” or variations thereof, including the most extreme form: marrying the boss’s daughter.
If perchance the particular leader this K ‘J character is backing suddenly stumbles, he shrewdly shifts his target. His tactics and underlying strategies however, remain the same. After all, innovative imagination is not his forte!
Thus now that Anwar Ibrahim is out of power, this K ‘J character readily heaps scorn upon him. Earlier when he thought that Anwar might dramatically resurrect himself upon his release from prison, this K ‘J was the first to greet Anwar at his home on the pretext of expediting his passport application. Had Anwar remained the Deputy Prime Minister, this K ‘J would probably go after Anwar’s daughter instead!
Meanwhile supplicating supporters of this K ‘J are busy groveling to him; like leader, like followers. One particularly sycophantic subordinate went so far and without any trace of modesty referred to this K ‘J character as UMNO’s Beckham! This sycophant missed the salient fact that Beckham’s talent excites the crowd; K ‘J’s is to incite them.
Along the same vein, a tabloid columnist gushes in quoting an “anonymous” UMNO insider who likens this K ‘J to a young Mahathir. Laughable! Her groveling piece reveals more about herself than her subject: a drooling lapdog ready to lick her master at the snap of the finger.
We are heartened that some are beginning to see through the fraud of this K ’J. Zahar Hashim, head of Petaling Jaya Selatan UMNO, likened this K ‘J to the devil haunting UMNO Youth. Zahar is a retired army officer; meaning he has guts to go with his self-discipline. It would be tough to borak (hoodwink) your way through this former soldier.
The most effective way to teach these K ‘J types a lesson is to land them a tight slap on their face. Many we presume would like to do just that, especially Zahar. While we cannot do so literally, we are metaphorically slapping his face with our piece.
We have unequivocally declared here that Raja Nazrin is a class act, while this other K ‘J character is just that: kurang ‘jar. In so clearly drawing the line, we are also explicitly stating our values of what we consider worthy of praise and emulation versus what we should condemn and discourage.
(Din Merican is a senior research fellow with the Cambodian Institute of Cooperation and Peace. He was recently named an adjunct professor of global business strategy and a board member of the newly formed University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. Din Merican had worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bank Negara Malaysia and Sime Darby.) He can be reached at: email@example.com.