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Self-denial and asceticism are not Islamic ideals nor are protruding stomachs, building
garish mansions and wearing excessive jewellery. Islam encourages the accumulation
of wealth with a conscience. Indeed, Prophet Mohammad was a trader before becoming
Allah's messenger. His first wife Khadijah, a widow, a good many years older than
him, was a wealthy woman blessed with property and many camels.
A Jewish businessman acquaintance from Philadelphia told me: "Abdullah, do you
want to know why I work so hard to make money? Because no where in the world, and
here in particular (he means United States), is poverty esteemed.
"My grandmother, mother, mother-in-law, my wife and daughters keep reminding
me every minute I am awake that an indigence, while it is not a religious flaw, brings
no glory to the family.
"It is incumbent upon us all Jews - reformed or otherwise - that wealth is a
prerequisite for a good and flourishing spiritual life. Only wealth which commands
influence and power will protect us."
That was exactly what my village Koran teacher, Haji Ahmad Haji Yusuf told me more
than half a century ago, repeated by the modern Ustaz Haji Ghazali, who taught me
agama (religion) at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) in the fifties.
Ghazali was a modern, practical and knowledgeable Muslim who taught agama
to generations of Malay collegians in the Thirties, Forties, Fifties and Sixties.
Ghazali had warned us that the real danger was too much materialism: Islam did not
(does not) want people to esteem another being for his fortune to the point of overestimating
his true worth.
If one is not easily overwhelmed or blinkered, I suppose there is nothing wrong not
to resist the seduction of wealth making.
I try with great humility to live as well as I can, to preside over a happy family,
to live and travel in some luxury and elegance. And if I were rich, I will live and
travel in sumptuous luxury, in Learjets and fast yatchs. For Malaysia, I must always
try to appear elegant but for myself I will always have humility.
As my close friends will vouch I have always done whatever I have wanted to do. I
did what I did on behalf of the havenots. As the fortunate among the flock, they
would not have expected anything less from me!
I will also build a township with a university, at least a college; provide scholarships
and fellowships, a good medical centre, a mosque and a beautiful burial ground! And
I will always remember this advice given to me by my Chinese and Jewish friends:
Cash and movable goods such as jewellery are the ringgit of survival. With dollars,
pounds sterling, yen and the Swiss Franc, even the ringgit, one will always manage
- no matter how severe the situation - to survive.
With any currency - naturally the dollar is preferred - one can live at the edge
of extinction, without the ringgit, the baht (I mean enough of either), you would
fall over the edge.
The Malays were poor when they lived in the rural areas, in kampungs. Their
earnings began to rise sharply only after 20 years of the New Economic Policy,
and only after they had been urbanised.
As Tun Razak always told me: "Kita mesti bandarisasikan orang Melayu, baru
mereka maju dan moden ..." (We should urbanise the Malays only then they
will achieve progress and become modern).
Razak always believed that Malay migration to the towns, which he did much to encourage
after the 1969 race riots, would change Malay attitude, and also usher in new jobs,
skills and professions. He was, of course, right. Just look at the former kampung
boys and girls with their cellular phones!
At independence there were only about 20% Malays who lived in towns and in some towns
such as Kuala Lumpur, Seremban, Ipoh, Penang, Bentong, Kampar, Kluang Malacca and
Kajang the percentages were even less. After 20 years of social re-engineering I
gather about half of the population in the federal capital is now bumiputra.
If one studied the history of the Chinese or Jewish diaspora one would have learned
one good lesson: the value of owning takeable assets and transportable expertise
are all-important during crises and wars.
I like to address this to the bumiputra in particular and to others in general, that
the ringgit or any currency for that matter is too often meant not only for the good
life but life itself.
The fast track to riches, stress my Chinese and Jewish friends, is to become entrepreneurs
not prime ministers, ambassadors or journalists.
We all know it. Islam declares it but its followers eschew the injunction while non-Muslims
scrupulously follow it.
Dato' Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia's Special Envoy to the United Nations
(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Sun )