By Teh Yik Koon
Many of us might have read books or articles that left lasting impressions in our minds.
One such article that I came across was by Hishamuddin Rais titled “Yang bonsai dan yang dibonsaikan” (Those who bonsai and those who are being bonsaied).
The term bonsai refers to the Japanese art of developing species of miniature trees from big trees of the same species.
In this context, Hishamuddin was analogously referring to the deliberate effort to “reduce” the size of the Malay minds.
Selama 22 tahun dengan pemerintahan kuku besi, Mahathir telah bersekongkol dengan Umno untuk menebar jala dan jaring agar tidak berkemungkinan manusia Melayu dapat memerdeka dan membebaskan fikrah mereka dari hegemoni Umno. Inilah yang dinamakan pembonsaian fikrah Melayu.
(For 22 years, with an iron fist, Mahathir conspired with Umno to contain the Malay minds from engaging in independent thinking and freeing themselves from Umno’s hegemonic domination. This is what [as perceived by Hishamuddin] is termed the act of bonsaing the Malay minds.)
Umno was in power for six decades, including the period when the country was experiencing robust economic growth. Flushed with petro dollars and facilitated by the New Economic Policy, Umno politicians enjoyed unhindered access to wealth and luxury, which they became intoxicated with and found difficult to give up.
In Umno’s heyday, any party event would be like a celebrity fashion show where expensive clothes, jewellery and cars would be flaunted for all to admire. To continue with this kind of lifestyle, Umno had to remain in power forever. Thus, the need to plot and plan to maintain power at all costs.
First, they inculcated in Malay minds a sense of inferiority and insecurity by drumming into them the idea that the Malays were way behind the other races and whatever was left with them would soon be taken away – their wealth, their land, their rights – by the other races, especially the Chinese.
The tone of their messages was scathingly racist, which further deepened among many Malays a sense of insecurity and hatred toward the Chinese. They were further told that Umno was the only platform that could act as their sole saviour.
Many simple, relatively ignorant Malay rural minds were not difficult to dominate. It was the minds of educated Malays in the civil service and academia that needed to be convincingly influenced.
Towards this end, the notorious National Civics Bureau (BTN) was established to “brainwash” Malay intellectuals. Civil servants and academics were compulsorily required to attend the BTN course prior to their being awarded scholarships and sent for further studies.
Not all were successfully indoctrinated. But among those who were, many were promptly recruited to be the nucleus of the deep state within the government.
To these officers, the rules of the game from this point onward were changed. Excellence and meritocracy were no longer the required criteria for career advancement. Instead, they were supplanted with political loyalty and racist nationalism, which many find to be an easy alternative and convenient path to the top.
The bonsaisation of the Malay minds, however, was not complete with just mere propaganda and scaremongering. There was a need to introduce a complementary force that would further prevent them from thinking. Here, religion came to the rescue.
The conflation of religion with racist nationalism galvanised the bonsaisation effort. The Malays were not only expected to believe the propaganda, laced with perverted religious interpretations, they were also required not to question it.
With these two elements in place, the path toward the bonsaisation process of the Malay minds was now clear.
The task of perpetuating the bonsaisation of the Malay minds was entrusted to the Malay academics, many of whom are mostly part of the Umno deep state.
Those who have been following developments in academia would have read complaints that the appointments of vice-chancellors and other key leadership posts in the universities are not based on merit, but based on cronyism or their loyalty towards the ruling party.
These vice-chancellors and senior academic leaders perpetuate Umno’s plot by silencing vocal academics, whom they label as anti-establishment.
These vocal academics, whose sin was in speaking out against the establishment on issues related to mismanagement, lack of effort to raise the already poor academic standard and rampant academic dishonesty, were punitively placed in cold storage. This was where they would be placed until they retire or leave the university.
The treatment given to these academics was used as an example to threaten others to toe the line. This worked very well especially among those who have just started their academic career.
Opportunists among the academics would toe the line and even go on to butter up the university’s senior leadership, hoping for a smooth career path and possible promotion. Most of the time, their efforts would pay off.
As these academic leaders were in the academia directly or indirectly to perpetuate the bonsaiing of minds, quality was never their priority.
Academic dishonesty among academic staff and students appeared to be tolerated and even covered up, resulting in the flourishing of academic wrongdoings committed by a growing number of opportunists.
These opportunists would also come from other ethnic groups who see the benefit of sucking up to those in power.
The situation was further aggravated when half-baked academics – those with the required degree, connection or political affiliation, but without the proper aptitude, skill and intellectual quality – were recruited.
Recent discussions on the mass production of PhD graduates by a certain university and the puffed-up number of first class degree holders, who would be excused from paying their student loans, as announced by the ministry, are indicative of the emphasis on quantity rather than quality – an element with which our standard of education should be measured.
Our education system, due to massive politicisation, is in a deliberately inflicted state of confusion. Education is erroneously conflated with intellectual skill, which is wrong.
To quote famous theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, “Don’t confuse education with intelligence, you can have a PhD and still be an idiot.”
We, unfortunately, are in that state of confusion.
With quality going down the drain, we are presented with droves of pseudo-academics whose intellectual level and knowledge are so challenged that there are no other ways for them to progress in their career except to play politics.
To make matters worse, retired government officials, through their network of connections, were recruited into senior academic positions and given high remuneration on account of their previous pay grade and so-called “professional experience”. This despite their obvious lack of basic necessary academic skills, such as the ability to teach and supervise students, conduct research and writing academic publications.
This is a rather warped justification based on self-serving logic. Every profession has its own career path and a ladder to climb. For example, a professor in military studies cannot be made a general on the strength of his academic knowledge on the subject alone, just as a general cannot be made a professor purely based on his military experience.
With universities being inundated with these people, the bonsaisation process of the Malay minds would easily be facilitated.
More appallingly, the scenario is so paradoxically deceitful. The process of bonsaisation is now being carried out in an environment where the nurturing and the development of the minds should instead take place.
Mediocrity will perpetuate further mediocrity; the bonsaisation process would continue. Those who were bonsaied, in turn, would bonsai others – “Yang bonsai dan yang dibonsaikan.” The numbers are growing.
In the end, the quality of the academia and its products would spiral further down. At some universities, the academics must have been so bonsaied that there was even a need to have a dress code to instruct them on how to dress! This is exactly what is needed to control the Malay minds.
Hishamuddin Rais ended his article with this question; “Apakah berkemungkinan si bonsai mengenali dirinya bonsai? Soalan ini amat seram lagi menyeramkan.” (What is the possibility that the bonsai would recognise himself/herself as a bonsai? This is a very frightening question.)
My take is that the bonsais in the academia would like to continue to be safely entrenched in their comfort zone. Lacking the ability to project themselves internationally and unexposed to the idea of what world class academia is all about, they are engulfed in a deep sense of insecurity.
In an attempt to boost their position and confidence, without an iota of humility, they arrogantly proclaim themselves to be “intelek” (intellectual) and “ilmuwan” (scholar).
This is awesome terminology for those whose minds have been bonsaied, but which has made them laughing stocks among those who are familiar with their antics. Accompanying this declaration is of course the undetachable hollow sycophantic declaration of support to the ruling politician.
The bonsasation of our society, especially among many Malays, must be put to a stop. The bonsais in our midst must be uprooted to prevent further spreading of this malicious state of mind. The chaff must be separated from the grain. Pseudo-academics must be identified and separated from real academics.
Only then we can dream of having quality educational institutions that would develop and nurture the minds of our people.
Teh Yik Koon, an Aliran member, is an academic of 36 years. She is also a committee member of Gerak Akademik