Archive for September, 2007

Deal With The Rot, Not The Tape

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

If Chief Justice Ahmad Feiruz has any sense of personal honor and professional integrity left, he should resign immediately.  If Prime Minister Abdullah has even the slightest responsibility for leadership and moral duty to the citizens, he should not extend the Chief Justice’s contract due to expire this October.  If the Malaysian Bar Council has any credible principle of societal obligation and self-policing ethics of a profession, it would disbar the lawyer making that phone call shown in the infamous video clip exposed by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Alas, judging from past performances, expect none of these.  That is the unfortunate reality of Malaysia today.  What remains then would be for the King to withhold consent for extending Feiruz’s contract, thereby precipitating an unnecessary and distracting constitutional crisis the nation could ill bear.

The Bar Council had an Emergency Meeting on the issue, but instead of initiating the necessary disciplinary proceedings on the involved lawyer (which would definitely be within its power) it decided instead to march at Putrajaya and hand a petition to the Prime Minister demanding for a Royal Commission.  Next those lawyers would be demonstrating on the streets.  So Third World, a la Pakistan!  I would have thought that those smart lawyers would have concocted some novel legal theory on which to sue the government into action.

Meanwhile Abdullah Badawi was “disappointed,” not at the explosive contents of the video but the fact that it was released.  Wake up, Mr. Prime Minister!  The rot is the Malaysian judiciary, not the taping.  If Abdullah does perk up from his slumber, he would probably order the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim!

Chief Justice Feiruz, taking a leaf from the Prime Minister’s notorious “elegant silence,” issued a terse, “No comment!”  It was neither elegant nor silent; instead it was ugly and spoke volumes.

Motive for Taping

The quality of the recording is such that it is unlikely to be a fake.  With today’s forensic capabilities, it would be foolish for anyone to even attempt doctoring the tape.  The lawyer concerned was speaking on his cell phone, meaning, there will be the inerasable digital trail.  My monthly cell phone bill details my outgoing and incoming calls.  Because of the quality, the video could not have been shot surreptitiously as with a cell phone a la the earlier “nude ear squat” episode.  Besides, such a device was probably unavailable back in 2002.

The intriguing question then is why the taping was made in the first place.  Dispensing with the most common and obvious reason – stupidity – I posit a few.

One is that basic human emotion:  vanity.  The bragging rights of accumulating the next million after you have already acquired a few declines very rapidly.  You need some other trophies, like an embellished royal title or additional wives (for Muslims).  If you already have those, or cannot acquire them, then the next intoxicating fantasy is to be kingmaker, or fancying yourself as one.

For a lawyer to be able to brag that you could “handle” senior judges must be the ultimate high.  It also considerably enhances your ability as rainmaker.  Years later in your old age, your skeptical grandchildren might attribute your boasts to nothing more than the rambling of a senile mind, unless of course you have the video to prove it!

Closely related to vanity is arrogance.  Humility is when you could manipulate the nation’s judiciary and have the quiet satisfaction; arrogance is when you flaunt it. This lawyer Lingam was certainly flaunting it!

Alternatively, I do not put it below this shyster to put on this monologue with an imagined targeted senior judge at the other end, a la Lat’s old cartoon, and then purposely “leaked” the tape out.  It would certainly be a headline grabber.  As for a motive, rogues are known to do this to each other when they have a falling out.  There is one quick way to check this:  examine the tape to determine when it was manufactured.

The last possibility is that this could be an insider’s job, perhaps an employee’s scheme to get even with his or her boss just in case he would get nasty in future.  Knowing how law firms’ employees are treated in Malaysia, this is a real possibility.

Judicial Commission No Remedy to The Rot

After much delay and amidst speculations, Abdullah finally appointed, apparently at the Rulers’ insistence, Justice Hamid Mohamed as President of the Court of Appeal, and Justice Alauddin Sherif as Chief Justice of Malaya.  The two are highly regarded for their integrity as well as for being apolitical and independent minded.  No wonder they were not Abdullah’s initial choice!

Abdullah also appointed a private lawyer Zaki Azmi directly to the Appeals Court.  He was on UMNO’s “Money Politics” disciplinary board.  Lately he was known more for dumping his young Thai bride (his second, third, fourth?) and then asking her to burn their wedding certificate that was issued in Southern Thailand.  Such personal integrity!  The surprise is that the Council of Rulers consented to the appointment.

Perhaps Zaki Azmi was Abdulalh’s ideal choice for a future Chief Justice.  In which case, Zaki would accurately reflect Abdullah’s character.

The rot in the judiciary predates Abdullah.  However, he had the opportunity to reverse the trend or at least stem the decline with these new appointments, but as with the massive electoral mandate he received in 2004, he squandered it.

Many are advocating for an independent Judicial Commission to deal with judges’ appointments and promotions.  I disagree.  Judges and the judiciary generally must be accountable to the public.  While I would not have judges be elected, as in some jurisdictions in America, the current system with judges appointed by the Prime Minister and consented to by the Council of Rulers is a good substitute.  There is no point wasting time and effort tinkering with the current system.

What is needed instead is for the Prime Minister to be wise in his appointments and to open the field as wide as possible.  In America, federal judges are nominated by the President and then consented to by the Senate, after a public confirmation hearing.  If the president were stupid enough to nominate someone equally stupid, the Senate would not hesitate to deny the confirmation, after the appropriate public humiliation of the hearings.  Additionally, the Bar Associations, legal scholars, and editorial boards would never shy from voicing their opinions.

The Prime Minister cannot abdicate his responsibility in selecting judges.  If Abdullah needs guidance (he obviously does!), I suggest that he reads Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs.  If he finds the volumes too thick and tedious, I can help Abdullah by referring him to the relevant few pages.

Elsewhere I commented on the intellectual and experiential insularity of Malaysian judges.  They are almost exclusively drawn from the civil service, with minimal or no outside experience in academia, private sector, or elsewhere.  They follow directives only too well.

I was stunned that Chief Justice Feiruz, when confronted with the evidence that he had promoted judges who had been delinquent with their written judgments, would write to the Prime Minister instead of handling the issue himself.  Presumably Feiruz was awaiting arahan (directive) from the Prime Minister.  So much for his appreciation and understanding of the concept of separation of powers!

That more than anything reflects the caliber of Feiruz.  Don’t get me started on the quality of his legal writings and commentaries!

In the end it does not matter what system you have if those responsible for selecting our judges do not do the job responsibly.  The rot in our judiciary is not with the system but with the personnel.  The system has produced such judicial luminaries as Tun Suffian and Raja Azlan Shah.  It could do it again.

Malaysia’s Muslim Union?

Friday, September 28th, 2007

Malaysia’s Muslim Union?

Malaysia Does Not Need Another Sectarian Organisation!

By Farish A. Noor

Sectarianism, be it on the grounds of race, culture, language or religion, can only be divisive in the long run. The sad litany of human history shows that religion can and has been used as a dividing factor that has torn many a society apart, and this is true of all religions and belief systems worldwide. One only needs to look at the process of Balkanisation that took place in Eastern Europe to see how Religion has been instrumentalised and manipulated by sectarian politicians to amplify the centrifugal forces of a plural society like Bosnia’s, and how that eventually led to all-out civil conflict along religion and cultural lines.

            Politicians of course are fully aware of the divisive potential of sectarian politics, so why do they constantly fall back on such parochial and primordial sentiments such as racial, cultural and religious loyalty to serve their own limited ends? Weighing the costs of such moves may point us to the simple conclusion that sectarian politicians seldom care about the unity and well-being of the nation as a whole, particularly when that nation happens to be a complex and plural one in the first place. More often than not, the demagogues and chauvinists among us would be more inclined to keep to their own narrow corners and seek solace and support from their own respective communities.

            These observations should hardly come as news to Malaysia-watchers in particular, for we all know by now that Malaysia’s convoluted 50-year history has been one dominated and almost entirely determined by the logic of racial compartmentalism and communitarianism. Every single leader who has climbed up the greasy pole of power in the country has done so by playing the race – and now increasingly, religion – card close to his chest. It should therefore come as even less of a surprise that there is now talk of forming a Malaysian Muslim Workers’ Union (PPIM) in the country, as if Malaysian society was not divided enough already.

            Over the past two years the country has witnessed the emergence of around a dozen now religion-based NGOs and civil society organizations, most of them appealing to Malaysian Muslims in particular. While there used to be universalist, inclusive organizations that brought together Malaysians of various racial and professional background like factory workers, laborers, lawyers, businesspeople, professionals, etc., we now see the emergence of organizations that cater to the interests of Muslims primarily and exclusively. The PPIM is just the latest nail in the coffin of Malaysia’s failed attempts towards pluralism and multiculturalism, and should it come to pass then it would mean that yet another neutral public space in the public domain has been lost. Why was there ever a need for the PPIM in the first place, when surely the Malaysian Trade Unions organization (MTUC) was there to unite all the workers of Malaysia under a common universal basis of shared collective class interests?

            Two factors need to be taken into consideration here:  The first is the fact that since the late 1960s Malaysian society has witnessed the instrumentalization of religion – and in particular Islam – by right-wing communitarian politicians and activists who sought to mobilize Muslims as a bloc vote and political constituency. It began with sectarian organizations like ABIM and other Muslim students groups on campus that sought to introduce their brand of ‘Islamization from below’, and whatever radical impact they could have had – by rejecting Western economic-political-military hegemony across the world, for instance – was compromised by their own limited sectarian and exclusive worldview that was equally hegemonic in its ambitions. In time the potential of such groups was compromised as their leaders and members were co-opted by the ruling elite; the co-optation of ABIM’s leader Anwar Ibrahim by the then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad being a case in point.

            Secondly it should be stated frankly that all this talk of ‘protecting’ the seemingly unique interests of the Malay-Muslims in Malaysia is little more than fluff and nonsense, for the real agenda all along has been the furthering of the right-wing agenda of Malay-Muslim supremacy above all else. Malaysia’s Islamization process pushed by Mahathir and Anwar in the 1980s and 1990s led to the further entrenchment of Malay-Muslim political and class interests; and benefited the ruling BN-led government and its clients most of all, further adding to the dominance of Malay-Muslims in the civil service, army and police; and further embedded Islam at the center of Malaysian politics. It was not the universal values of Islam that were served here, but rather the agenda of Malay-Muslim supremacy otherwise known as ‘Ketuanan Melayu’.

            The net result of the current moves to create a parallel Muslim workers movement in Malaysia can therefore only split Malaysian society even further along religious communitarian lines and therefore help to ensure the dominance of the communitarian parties and elites currently running the country. How are the workers of Malaysia – who ought to be united along the basis of class solidarity and common class action – to be served by the creation of such a body that will split their numbers by half at least? Are we to believe that the poverty and exploitation of Muslim workers in Malaysia is qualitatively different to that of his or her non-Muslim comrade? The mind boggles… What will be next? A Malaysian Muslim stamp collectors’ organization?

            Consequently the Muslim workers of Malaysia must realize that these attempts to create parallel movements that cater to their own limited exclusive interests will do a disservice to them in the long run. For their own sake, and for the sake of the workers struggle in Malaysia, they need to remember that their loyalty and camaraderie has to lie with their fellow workers and comrades in the workers movement of Malaysia as a whole, regardless of racial, cultural or religious differences.


Dr. Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #24

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

Chapter 5:  Consequences of progress and Prosperity (Cont’d)

Personal Price for Progress


“How are you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” goes the old song. For the previously illiterate, their world is irrevocably changed once they have been taught to read and write. There is no turning back. It is as if the coconut shell has been lifted off, the world opens up and everything looks different.

Progress means change, although not all changes lead to progress. Change means leaving the comfort of the status quo, and that can be distressing. It means leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar, the comfortable for something that is not certain. Even if it would be for the better, it would still be the unknown and the unfamiliar.

Once they have been taught to think critically and be independent, you cannot control them anymore. To some, that is liberating; to others, frightening and threatening.

We educate our young and send them to excellent schools and universities to get a world-class education. That is good and what we all aspire for our children. Most will then follow the expected path:  come home, serve the country, marry the boy or girl next door, and their parents will have the grandchildren nearby to indulge. A few may stay abroad, marry a foreigner, and have a totally different worldview. Expecting them to come back to the old village and pay due homage to the local lord would be too much.

Gender equality is great and the right thing to do; we should give women equal opportunities so they could fully express their potential. There are however, unavoidable correlates: delayed marriages or none at all. When they do get married, they have fewer children or settle far away. Greater social and physical mobility is part and parcel of progress.

Many of the changes may not be inevitable or may represent only temporary trends. In America, there is a reversal of urbanization; many are forsaking the big cities for smaller towns or life in the country. Advances in ICT enable writers, programmers and other professionals to work from their homes. This trend of “beyond the sidewalk” is not temporary but is definite and growing, like the phenomenon of fertility transition.

Anticipating these changes would enable us to make the necessary preparations to mitigate their negative impact. I do not expect my children to live nearby or to take care of me in my old age. They have their own careers and young families to care for, thus I must plan for my own old age arrangements. Society too must be prepared for such changes as with Scandinavia with its public childcare centers and America with its retirement homes and communities. These dislocating changes should not be the excuse for us not to partake in progress, rather the challenge to come up with novel solutions.


Moral Consequences of Growth

The Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman in his book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, posits that there are positive moral consequences to economic growth, quite apart from the enhanced material benefits. Economic growth helps us clarify what is right and wrong, and steers us towards the right path.15

This may surprise many. We equate economic activities especially the capitalistic variety with being materialistic, a thinly disguised euphemism for immoral. Thus we hear such silly arguments in the Third World about being materially poor but spiritually (and morally) rich. Friedman’s argument is that such a dichotomy is patently false.

He comes to this conclusion from studying past and present societies during periods when they had economic growth as well as difficulties. As a timely caution, he studied primarily Western societies since the Age of Enlightenment. Nonetheless his insights have universal relevance.

It should not be surprising that the landmark American Civil Rights legislations took place at a time of economic prosperity. It is at such times that citizens are more tolerant, more charitable, and more respecting of diversity and those different from themselves.

Friedman also observes the opposite. The rise of anti-immigrant sentiments in America, beginning with the anti-Irish and anti-Catholics in the late 19th century to the later anti-Jewish, anti-Blacks and currently anti-Hispanic, while not exactly coinciding with economic cycles, nonetheless were related to the general populace’s perception of their declining well being. The recent rise in “nativist” sentiments popularized by the likes of the Republican Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan is attributable to the general perception that America is on the economic decline caused by foreign competition and outsourcing of jobs offshore.

This also coincides with the increasing income inequality of Americans. The year 2004 marks the fifth consecutive time that the wage of average Americans has not kept up annually with inflation. This is not just a statistical abstraction; many Americans have difficulties making ends meet despite the economy expanding briskly for the past five years.

Friedman’s point is that there must not be just economic growth but one where the benefits would accrue broadly and not simply piled on those already at the top. It is only when a wide section of the populace moves forward, perceive that they are doing so, and most importantly, confident that they will continue to move forward, would the positive moral consequences be most pronounced.

It is not the level of income that is important, rather the progress. The positive consequences are seen even if the country were to begin from a very low level. This is relevant to developing countries. They do not have to wait until their income levels match those of the First World to experience the positive moral consequences of growth.

America, despite its current affluence, risks regressing in its moral values if the bulk of its population perceive themselves as sliding backwards. Developing countries risk descending into perpetual instability if it does not grow economically.

A dramatic demonstration is to compare Ghana and Thailand. In the 1950s and 60s, Thailand was very much like Ghana today, mired in political instability with one military coup after another, matching the regularity and devastation of the monsoons. Ghana was relatively rich and stable, supported by its strong economy based on cocoa and minerals. Unfortunately with time, its leader Nkrumah held on to power way past his due date, and the country deteriorated with his increasing incompetence and corruption.

Today Thailand, like many Asian nations, is enjoying economic growth. It is successfully transiting to the next stage of development based on trade and manufacturing, and away from agriculture and commodities. It has been a long time since Thailand suffered a military coup. Even its recent political crisis over the elections was settled without the intervention of the military, a significant milestone.*  Meanwhile Ghana’s economy has been on the skids for decades. With the price for its commodities plummeting, its economy declining, no wonder it is suffering through one coup after another. Economic stagnation placed Ghana and others like it in a perpetual “coup trap.”

It is estimated that a doubling of per capita income would reduce the probability of a successful military coup by between 40–70 percent. Another good reason for emphasizing economic growth!

Friedman’s insight is encapsulated in the Malay wisdom, Kemiskinan mendukuti kefukuran (Poverty invites impiety). A visit to poverty-stricken Indonesia will quickly remind us of this brutal reality. There is little tolerance or charity there, the poor citizens are desperately clawing their way to survive.

In the 1960s, Malaysia experienced sustained albeit unimpressive economic growth. That growth however was uneven, with the bulk of the population 1 deprived of the prosperity. When this economic inequality also paralleled racial and cultural divisions, or what the Oxford economist Frances Stewart calls horizontal inequities, it made for an explosive mix.16

With progress now much more evident, and more importantly enjoyed by the bulk of the populace, there is greater tolerance. Malays are now better able to put up with and ignore the inflammatory racial utterances and provocations from the likes of Lim Kit Siang. The impressive economic growth of the past few decades is responsible for this remarkable turn of attitude. If only the PAS-dominated states of Kelantan, Trengganu and Kedah were to enjoy economic growth comparable to the rest of the country, then those Malays too would not be easily taunted by the tribal theatrics of a Karpal Singh or Lim Kit Siang.

The horizontal inequality of the past is today replaced by the equally dangerous vertical inequities especially among Malays.17 Again, this is reflected in the deepening polarization of Malays.

Economic growth creates its own set of conflicts. In the 1980s, there were ugly demonstrations and diplomatic sniping over America’s growing trade deficits with Japan. Today we see the same scene repeated with China. In Malaysia, there are now loud rumblings among Malays over the NEP, which was once universally accepted.

Despite the impressive economic growth of the past two decades, there are still pockets of intolerance in Malaysia. It is not surprising the most intolerant Malays reside in the poor states of Kelantan, Kedah, and Trenggannu. Even among the intellectuals, we see this pattern. The most chauvinistic Malay intellectuals are found at University Kebangsaan and International Islamic University. These two campuses emphasize disciplines that have limited value in the marketplace (the liberal arts, especially Malay Studies and Islamic Studies). Those intellectuals are being rudely reminded daily of this reality. Malay professors in the science oriented Universiti Putra and Universiti Teknoloji have skills that are highly valued by the market. They have a decidedly different worldview. If they cannot stand the oppressive academic atmosphere, they can always opt for the more lucrative private sector. This luxury is denied their liberal arts colleagues of the other campuses.

For a racially and culturally diverse nation like Malaysia, economic growth serves more than just to bring prosperity to the citizens. It engenders greater tolerance, charity, and respect for the differences amongst the citizens. Economic growth is therefore an imperative.

In Part Two, I will examine in greater depth the essential building blocks—the four elements of my Diamond of Development—as they pertain to Malaysia.


*  Unfortunately as this manuscript was headed for the publisher, Thailand had a military coup on September 20, 2006. Fortunately, it was a peaceful, with no one killed. Although the Thai economy had recovered from its 1997 meltdown, nonetheless significant regional and other inequities persist. Friedman’s thesis still holds.

Next: Part II:  Basic Building Blocks and Chapter 6:  Great Nation, Great Leaders



Distilling the Essence of Islam

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007

Exchanges With Din Merican

Dear Bakri:

I had the pleasure of chatting with Imam Feisal Rauf at the Blog House in Bukit Damansara last Sunday (September 9, 2007) after he led our Maghrib prayers.  The occasion was the special interfaith Doa Selamat prayers seeking Allah’s Blessings for Tun Mahathir’s speedy recovery from his second bypass operation on Tuesday September 4th.  As you know, The Tun had his first on January of 1989.

Apart from being the former Prime Minister and an outstanding leader, Tun Mahathir was also my mentor and hero.  Thus the multi-faith congregational prayers Imam Feisal led had a special significance for me.

            The Imam’s greater effort is in trying to bridge the divide between the West and Islam.  I thoroughly enjoyed his recent book and understood his theme:  the commonality of our faiths with their universal message of love, charity, and goodwill.

Until I met him, I did not know that he had studied at a local school in Kuala Lumpur.  That explained his impeccable Malay and special affection for Malaysia!

            I was also delighted to learn that he is the son of the distinguished and yet very humble Egyptian scholar-teacher, the late Tan Sri Professor Dr. Muhammad Rauf of Al-Azhar University, Cairo.  I must say that Imam Feisal also inherited his father’s handsome features!

The late Professor – I knew him as Dr. Rauf – was my professor at the University of Malaya when I did Islamic Studies in my first year (1960).  He (Al-Fatihah) taught Islamic History, the Quran, and the Hadith.  He had a huge influence on my thinking about and my attitude towards our religion.  Prior to that, my exposure to our Holy Book, like you I presume, was through the lessons taught by my simple kampong ustaz.

            Hence the special bonding I felt for Imam Feisal, as reflected in my affectionate hug after the Maghrib prayer that Sunday.  I had to hold back my tears.  I felt deep within my heart that he reminded me very much of my earlier special Professor of Islam.  Yet it did not occur to me to ask him whether he knew Professor Rauf!  Imam Feisal’s manner of speaking, appearance, and views on Islam were very much of my enlightened intellectual Professor Rauf, Imam Feisal’s father.

            I am happy to have met the Imam and to know that he inherited much of his father’s legacy.  Dr. Rauf was the first teacher who said to me that there is no compulsion in Islam.  He was always composed, rational, and very analytical in his discourses on Islam, the Quran and The Prophet, pbuh.

I still have Yusof Ali’s Translation of the Quran, which I acquired on his recommendation 47 years ago, as well as Professor Hitti’s History of the Arabs.  Both are very old and tattered volumes now.

            I saw Professor Rauf some years ago when he was the Rector of the International Islamic University.  I was very touched and honored that after so many years he still remembered me as “you are that student who came knocking at my office door” to seek clarifications on certain verses of the Quran which he had quoted during his lectures.  Once he cleared my doubts, he eased my mind.  He made me appreciate our religion and its theological and philosophical underpinnings.

            Strange as it may seem to some people, our teachers and professors do have a profound influence on our lives.  I am reminded of Surah Al-Luqman (Surah 31), which was first introduced to me by the Late Professor.  Luqman the Wise, for whom the Surah is named, counseled his son, among other things, to keep up his prayers, command what is right and forbid what is wrong, and to bear anything that happens to you steadfastly.  The late Professor Dr. Rauf was an Al-Luqman to me.  What a small world for me over 40 years later to meet his son, Imam Feisal.

Imam Feisal and I met almost by chance.  What brought us together at Blog House that Sunday was our genuine concern for the health and well being of Tun Mahathir whom we both admire for his many achievements as Prime Minister and a Muslim Leader par excellence.

Salam and Selamat Berpuasa,


*            *            *            *            *

My reply:

Dear Din:

Unlike you, I have not as yet had the privilege of meeting Imam Feisal.  I have viewed his lectures and interviews on television, and read a few of his books, including his latest, What’s Right With Islam:  A New Vision for Muslims and the West and What’s Right with Islam: is What’s Right with America.  The most memorable phrase I take from both books is that America is “the most Sharia-compliant” state today.  Food for thought for those ardent advocates of an Islamic state!

            Muslim leaders like Imam Feisal and the Aga Khan (who was also in Malaysia recently to officiate the famed architectural prize in his name) provide a much-needed counterpoint to the likes of the deluded Osama bin Ladin and the ever-growling Ayatollah.

Imam Feisal and the Aga Khan capture best for me the central Quranic message:  Command good and forbid evil.  From that central theme flow other subsidiary ones, like treating others as you wish to be treated.  That in essence is Allah’s message to all His prophets, and thus the major themes of all faiths.  If only our leaders – religious and secular – could emphasize this commonality instead of being obsessed with our differences!

That interfaith Doa Selamat prayer for the Tun is a superb example of this endeavor of using religion to bring people together and not to divide them.  I tip my songkok to Marina Mahathir for initiating this.  It gave an opportunity for all Malaysians to express their love and prayers for the Tun, besides bringing us together.  Marina is experienced at arranging these ecumenical gatherings when she headed the AIDS Council.

Of course there will always be the bigots who fear that such mixing of religions would “adulterate” our faith.

Such small mindedness is not confined to the uninformed or uneducated.  In 1998 when Hari Raya and Chinese New Year coincided, the government wisely seized upon the rare and unique opportunity to remind Malaysians of the virtues of generosity and tolerance by capitalizing on the dual joyous occasions.  Petronas came out with an imaginative and a memorably uplifting advertising jingle.

However at the Hari Raya prayers I attended at a mosque on the campus of University Islam, I heard very little of that spirit expressed in the sermon.  Instead, the Imam venomously lashed out at those who dared elevate non-Islamic festivities to the exalted status of Hari Raya, a direct assault on the government’s noble intention.

Long soporific sermons have their sleepy effect on me rather quickly, but the ferocious intensity of the Imam’s fulminating tirade kept me awake.  Words like “heathens,” “blasphemy,” and “sacrilege” were liberally sprinkled in his sermon, irreverently incongruous in a place of worship and at a traditionally forgiving season.

I am pleased that The Star will be publishing a regular column by Imam Feisal during this Ramadan.  The works of Muslim leaders like Imam Feisal and the Aga Khan capture best for me the meaning of dakwa (teaching) and zakat (charity).  Imam Feisal with his Cordoba Initiative and the Aga Khan with his string of universities and health centers give us a more enlightened meaning of the two important concepts in Islam.

I have another observation on Imam Feisal.  Unlike his father, the Imam is a product of America’s modern liberal education, having graduated in physics from Columbia, an Ivy League university.  Like the other religious leader I admire, Asghar Ali Engineer, Imam Feisal’s background in the physical science and his quantitative skills give precision to his thought.  In physics and engineering, you cannot simply agak agak (guesswork) or the bridge you designed would collapse.

Imam Feisal illustrates my point, elaborated in my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, of the need to revamp our religious stream.  Our future ulamas and religious scholars must be exposed to the widest field of study before embarking on their religious career.

Sallam and Selamat Berpuasa,


Rakyat Itu Raja (Citizens Are King!)

Friday, September 21st, 2007

By Farish A. Noor

It has, for reasons best known to some, become rather trendy to talk about the restoration of power to the King these days.  Looking around the troubled landscape of Malaysia at the moment, one does understand how and why the frustration of many could have led them to the conclusion that some higher form of intervention is badly needed at the moment.  After all, four years on after the victory of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition parties at the last polls it would appear as if none of the reform measures promised by the current administration have borne fruit:  None of the major corruption cases have been resolved in court; reported incidents of abuse by the police have only increased; there is still talk of racial and religious communitarianism in our midst; and the fanciful ego-trips of some politicians have compelled them to reach for the keris again and again in public.

            By all accounts, it would appear as if the country has regressed over the years and we seem even closer towards sliding into the deeper morass of religious and racial sectarian politics.  As if the divide-and-rule rhetoric of the race-based BN parties was not enough, now we are told that there will be a Muslim workers movement to rival the MTUC, which can only serve to divide the workers of Malaysia along religious sectarian lines even further.  This can only add to the weakening of the workers movement in Malaysia, to the benefit of the established powers-that-be whose own divisive sectarian politics have brought us to where we are today.

            So indeed some kind of intervention is timely and badly needed, but from where, and who should be the actors and agents of change here?

            One can point to legal and constitutional guidelines about the powers and responsibilities of the rulers of Malaysia.  One can also highlight the fact that the Agong is technically the head of state and head of the armed forces.  But to fall back on such a position in times of crisis would be akin to handing the country over to the UN when Malaysia’s problems are really its own doing, and those who are really responsible for turning things around happen to be us, the Malaysians themselves.

            Our concern over the recent appeals for some form of royal intervention stems from an informed cynicism about the role of the royalty worldwide, and the knowledge that the differences in the respective subject-positions assumed by royals and citizens are bound to differ.  It is true that there can be times when instrumental coalitions can be formed for the sake of a singular political goal; but how long can such coalitions be maintained when the class differentials and interests of the two groups can only collide in the long run?

            As a counter-factual example to illustrate this point, it would pay to take a short trip back to the history of our neighboring country, Thailand.

            Some of us may recall that Thailand experienced its first democratic revolution in 1973, when the student forces of the country, working with the urban workers movement and middle-class, toppled the colonels’ regime that had been installed and backed by the United States of America. (Thailand was at the time a front-line state in the war against Communism, and thus a key strategic ally to the USA.  It was during this time that US intervention in Thailand was at its peak, which led to a corresponding increase of student activism directed against the military government and its American backers.)

            The King of Thailand played a crucial role in the 1973 revolution:  Just when the conservative elements of the Thai elite and army were about to crush the student movement, the King opened the gates of his palace and allowed the students to seek refuge there.  Protected by the King, the student revolution managed to gain strength and finally led to the election of democratic leaders like Seni Pramoj and Kukrit Pramoj.  For a period of three years Thailand experimented with its democratic reform process which led to serious attempts to control the army and police as well as a public anti-corruption campaign.

            However, by 1976 it became clear that the democratic revolution was not about to stop with the reform of the army and police, and would ultimately lead to the democratic reform of the whole political and economic system.  It was then that the Thai business and political elite turned tails, and began to work with the more conservative elements of the Buddhist sangha.  The King of Thailand was in turn persuaded to abandon the student movement, as he was warned that most of the democratic activists and reformers were Left-leaning unionists and communist sympathizers who would ultimately reduce the powers of the King as well.

            Thus in 1976 the King turned a blind eye when a vicious and barbaric counter-coup was launched by the army, police, Buddhist conservatives and right-wing middle-class; leading to the storming of the campuses of Chulalongkorn and Thammasat universities and the massacre of students there.  There were even reports of student leaders being executed and having their heads chopped off and mounted on the gates of the universities by right-wing thugs.  Where was the benevolent King of Thailand then, whom many had applauded as the hero and savior of democracy in 1973?

            If there is a lesson to be found in all this, it is that a democratic reform process can only begin from below, and never above.  Kings and Monarchs do not good democrats make, for they are the first who need to be taught the value of citizenship and civic responsibility.  Furthermore any democratic reform must take into account the will of the demos – the people themselves – and give voice to the masses and not the elite.

            And so it is with this painful lesson in mind that we take the recent calls for royal intervention with a bucketful of salt.  Facing a government as inept, incompetent and clueless as we have at the moment is a task in itself; but it need not be made even more difficult by replacing one regime with another.  In the end, the only maxim we ought to adhere to today is the clarion call of the 1940s, when Malaysians cried out:  Raja itu Rakyat, Rakyat itu Raja!” (The King is a citizen, and the citizens are King!)


Dr. Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #23

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

Chapter 5:  Consequences of progress and Prosperity (Cont’d

Economic Growth and Social Equity

A much-decried consequence of economic growth is the attendant unequal distribution of wealth. We all differ in our abilities, aspirations, and priorities. While we all should be treated equally and be given equal opportunities, there is no reason why we should expect equal results. Those who produce more or better should reap their proper rewards. There is nothing unjust about that, indeed it would be the height of injustice were it to be otherwise. The Quran emphasizes justice, not equality; it frowns on poverty, not inequality. With the differences in our abilities, there will inevitably be corresponding differences in our achievements. The Quran admonishes us not to covet those who have more than us.

Nor would we be just if we were to treat everyone equally. The American jurist Felix Frankfurter once wrote, “It is a wise man who once said that there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.”9 As parents we do this intuitively with our children; we give more to those who need the most.

Accepting that there would be inevitable differences in our achievements does not imply that we should ignore such differences. When carefully analyzed, such jarring anomalies and inequalities are often the consequences of gross injustices through outright oppression and discrimination. Economists now recognize that such inequalities especially when extreme can be destabilizing and adversely impact growth.10

There would be no visible inequality if everyone were poor and starving. As society develops, there would be a transient increase in inequality, the so-called Kuznet inverted U curve.11 With greater prosperity, such inequalities tend to narrow. Some dispute this observation and point to the United States where despite increasing prosperity, the disparity in wealth between the top and bottom 20 percent of the population has widened. This disparity is even more dramatic if we compare those in the 99th percentile to those in the 20th.12 Surprisingly, inequality in America even though it roughly parallels ethnic and cultural lines does not elicit much outrage. This is because while inequality has increased, poverty has decreased, especially absolute poverty.

If you are mired in abject poverty you can understandably resent others with wealth, especially when that wealth is ostentatiously displayed. When you are not trapped in poverty but merely not well off, you may not be as envious of those who have great wealth. Your concerns then would be on how you could accumulate such good fortune and join the select crowd.

America has another positive trait that mitigates class resentment. By and large wealth in America is acquired through individual talent and achievement. The role of inheritance is reduced considerably through heavy inheritance and gift taxes. Unlike in feudal societies, heritage has a minimal role. The likes of Bill Gates and Tiger Woods acquire their fabulous wealth directly through their talent and accomplishments. Hence no one begrudges them. One may rightly argue whether such talent as in sports, entertainment, and software should be so outlandishly rewarded, but that is the voluntary judgment of society. This is quite different from the way much of the wealth is accumulated in the Third World, Malaysia included. There wealth is often not the result of talent or enterprise, rather of corruption and rent-seeking behaviors. It is no surprise that such wealth elicits much disgust.

Loss of Community Identity

Many fear that with progress and globalization, smaller communities risk losing their culture and language, and with that, their identity. They fear the overwhelming influence of the dominant cultures, in particular, Western culture. Today the artifacts and icons of Western culture are everywhere, from the slums of Soweto to the kasbah of Casablanca. Already, thousands of minor languages and cultures have been irretrievably lost.13

As with the physical problems associated with progress, this threatened loss of minority cultures, languages, and identities can best be solved not by retreating but by embracing progress and globalization. The successful societies and cultures are those that have accommodated to the dominant cultures and languages. The current social experiment in Papua New Guinea is instructive.14

This small South Pacific nation has over 5,000 distinct languages and cultures. The thick impenetrable jungles, steep rugged mountains, and swift wide rivers ensured the isolation of these disparate tribes, hence their distinctive cultures and separate languages through the ages. That is, until now. With trade, the Internet, and other modern communications, these tribes have come in increasing contact with each other and the outside world. With that, the ever-dominant Western culture and English language threaten to overwhelm their own rich heritage and language.

In 1993, their wise leaders adopted a novel approach. They reformed the education system whereby for the first three years the children would learn their own language. There are literally thousands of such languages. After the third year, they would continue with their own language but only as one subject, with the language of instruction now switched to English. In this way the children would learn early not only their own language but also English.

Teaching and learning their own language would ensure the survival of their language and culture; teaching and learning English would ensure their economic security. If those children were fluent only in their own language (which has limited value in the marketplace), they would quickly become marginalized economically. If they were not successful economically, their language would surely die with them. Their fluency in English would ensure their economic survivable in the larger world. Once that is assured, their language and culture would follow suit.

We see a similar phenomenon with the Irish. There was a time when being Irish and underclass were synonymous. No wonder they had an inferiority complex and did not wish to learn their own ancient language—Gaelic. Today, befitting their greatly improved economic status, the Irish are showing renewed interest in Gaelic. It is now chic to converse in it, and aspiring politicians liberally sprinkle their speeches in Gaelic.

Modern ICT could be harnessed to preserve the cultures of smaller societies and tribes. Through the Internet they could project their culture onto the wider world. Nepalese craftsmen could market their arts and crafts directly to buyers in London and New York through the Internet. They could also keep in close contact with their kin who have migrated to the cities or abroad, allowing them to maintain their heritage and culture.

There is a lesson here for Malaysia, not only for Malays but also the smaller tribes like the Ibans and Bidayuhs. Malays in particular feel threatened by the overwhelming presence of English language and Western culture. Having once been colonized, this fear of neocolonialism is not unreasonable. When the government suggested the wider use of English to enhance the employability of young Malays, language nationalists went ballistic.

Malaysia should learn from Papua New Guinea in solving this cultural and language dilemma. Ensure that young Malays and Malaysians are fluently bilingual in Malay and English. This added language skill would enhance their employability and economic success. Once they are no longer economically marginalized, they would more likely be proud of and willingly project their language and heritage.

Canada had its own unique bilingual and bicultural dilemma. There was a time in the 1950s when for a French-Canadian to learn English was seen as an act of national and cultural betrayal, and for an English-Canadian to learn French, appeasement to the French-Canadians! Today, many Canadians are fluently bilingual and comfortable in both cultures. They realize that is a significant asset in this era of globalization.

If all Malays were fluent in English and Malay, then there would not be any necessity for Malays to converse in English. The differentiating social value of knowing English is lost. Many Malays speak English even among themselves to show off the fact that they have attended a foreign university. It is widely known that local graduates can hardly speak a word of English. To differentiate yourself in the marketplace, you speak English.

The solution to the language dilemma of Malays is to encourage the widespread teaching and use of English, in addition to that of Malay. This may sound counterintuitive, but judging from what is happening in Canada, Ireland, and Papua New Guinea, this is definitely the wisest strategy.

            Next:  Personal Price for Progress

The Unmaking of Malaysia

Tuesday, September 18th, 2007

An Insider’s Reminiscences of UMNO, Razak, and Mahathir


Ahmad Mustapha Hassan

[Published by Strategic Information & Research Development Centre

August 1, 2007

RM68 / Hardcover / 282 pages ISBN: 978-983-3782-24-6

RM38 / Softcover / 282 pages ISBN: 978-983-3782-25-3


From making to the unmaking of Malaysia is a memoir with a thesis. I have an axe to grind and I grind it up front, in public, right here in this book.

My story is mainly about two men, Tun Haji Abdul Razak Hussein (Tun Razak) and Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad (Tun Mahathir). Both men had occupied the highest political post in the country, and both have received the highest honour that this country can bestow. However, the first set about making a modern and united Malaysia; the second, unmaking it. I served both men at the ringside of government and the public as their press secretary.

My work experience started soon after Malaysia achieved independence in 1957, and extended to the period when the current Prime Minster took office in 2003. I have therefore seen and experienced various episodes, beginning from the administration of the first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra (hereinafter referred to as Tunku). I was deeply involved in the administration of the second Prime Minister, Tun Haji Abdul Razak bin Hussein (Tun Razak), followed by that of the third Prime Minister, Tun Hussein Onn (Tun Hussein), and then the fourth, Tun Mahathir. Finally, I was involved in the first year of the administration of the fifth (and current) Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (Abdullah Badawi).

In the course of my career, as a civil servant in the State of Kedah from 1960 to 1965, as political activist in UMNO from 1964 to 1988, as the General Manager of Bernama, Malaysia’s national news agency, and also as Chairman of an international news grouping, I managed to experience and see a varied pattern of development that has taken place in the country.

While in power, each leader had a certain agenda for the country. This depended on the dream and vision of each. Tunku, popularly known as the Father of Independence and also as “Bapa Malaysia,” wanted to be recognised as the happiest Prime Minister in the world. Tun Razak wanted to eradicate poverty and promote unity through economic advancement of the poor of all communities. Tun Hussein, who took over upon Tun Razak’s death, was unable to find his direction. Tun Mahathir, who succeeded Tun Hussein, was a man in a hurry. He was impatient and refused to be guided by anyone. He broke away from the pattern set by the previous leaders. The current Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, had to embark on a mending mission as he inherited a country with a lopsided social and economic structure. He opted to go back to Tun Razak’s original vision of eradicating poverty first.

Now, I had the opportunity to be closely and personally involved in two administrations of the country; that of Tun Razak, and later on, of Tun Mahathir. Both were different in style and substance of their policies. They provided contrasts and contradictions. I have drawn various conclusions about the two administrations.

My experiences working in the State of Kedah at assorted positions in various rural areas, and also as a civil servant guided by the various rules and regulations and trained by my superiors in the science and art of being an efficient and good civil administrator, helped me to focus on the correct direction that this new country should proceed on.

My stint in politics since my school days and later with active participation in UMNO Youth movement also helped me in shaping my conclusions.

In writing this book, I draw essentially on the memories of my life in rural Kedah and of the times of my youth and my working career. I had no recourse to files and administrative records, or to the services of an array of research assistants. My old friends, colleagues, and acquaintances did help to refresh my memory through our conversations and recollections. I have also referred to a few published works that are listed as references in this book.

As I said, I essentially depended on my memories in recording my experiences in this book. I can remember events that left indelible marks in my recollection of events. In this respect, the human brain works in strange and extraordinary ways. Events that have occurred many years ago are often etched out very clearly as if they had happened only yesterday.

The brain is a veritable storehouse of images, feelings, impressions, and human interactions which are intertwined with the pattern of a person’s life.

Thus for me, my memory has been my file, diary and archive. It was impossible to forget some of the unique experiences that I had encountered while doing my job as a civil servant, a political activist, and an influential player in an international news group. Furthermore, I write these memoirs as a very concerned individual who cares for the nation.

I am sure there are many among my colleagues who had undergone other kinds of exposure; however, it is regrettable that almost nobody has come out with any veritable accounts of their observations.

It is not the habit of Malaysians especially Malays to record their life experiences in the form of accounts to be read and understood by current and future generations. It is a pity that many of these valuable records are only in oral form, or are hidden and buried.

The very first Malay to record the happenings that he encountered while making his various journeys in the land of the Malays during the early part of the eighteenth century was Abdullah bin Abdul Kader Munshi. Popularly known as Abdullah Munshi, he was a teacher and a writer during the early colonial days and worked for the British in Malacca.

Abdullah Munshi related the conditions of the Malay rakyat then, and also how the royal regime in power had not guided their subjects towards progress and development. In this respect therefore, he was the first civil servant to have recorded his experiences. His reminiscences about life in the Malacca Sultanate during the early eighteenth century occupy an important position in the early history of this country.

As far as I know, very few people have embarked on writing their personal observations of events and happenings while still being active in service and carrying out their work. A few British expatriate civil servants did record their work encounters. The locals did not do so, and it would have been a very telling story if they had recorded the events and accounts through their own eyes as well as their feelings with regard to what they had seen and felt. Such accounts by the locals would have been a meaningful contribution to the history of this country, as recounted by people who occupied ringside positions in the seats of power.

Only in recent years have a few personalities written about their ordeals while being detained under the Internal Security Act. Kassim Ahmad, Syed Hussein Ali and Said Zahari are among these few.

It is important to note that there were many Malaysian personalities that were involved in the struggle for Malaysian independence, but only a few did record their struggles. Tunku was a prolific writer who did relate his various encounters in the collection of his writings, particularly through his widely-read column in The Star newspaper. Aziz Ishak, the Minister of Agriculture who was sacked by Tunku, also exposed his side of the story. However, many other right-wing personalities in UMNO have not detailed out their struggles specifically in book form.

It is only more recently that the Malay left wing leaders like Rashid Maidin, Mustapha Hussein, Abdullah C.D. and Shamsiah Fakeh have come out with their own accounts of their roles in the fight for independence.

This contrasts very strongly with the political culture of the West. Among the Americans, for example, political personalities often put down on paper their innermost thoughts and life experiences, either at the apex of their careers or soon after they have retired.

In this regard, very often after a U.S. President has retired, the publishing world and readers in general wait avidly for the publication of his memoirs. Bill Clinton had his book out in no time, very soon after he relinquished the post. His wife too came out with her own version of life as the former First Lady.

Singapore’s Minister Mentor and first Prime Minster Lee Kuan Yew came out with his side of the story on what happened to Malaysia and Singapore when both countries separated. This founding father of independent Singapore came out with The Singapore Story, and will soon be writing a second book.

The reluctance of Malaysians to have their memoirs published may be traced to a number of reasons. One is that Malaysians are generally reluctant to be totally frank about their views and feelings on various issues and personalities, particularly where they feel that their views can be offensive to the sensibilities of personalities concerned or their kin.

Some would fall back on the excuse that they were too busy while working that they did not record their encounters and feelings. Thus, they do not have enough materials to fall back on.

But the main possibility is that, there has not been any tradition in publishing one’s thoughts, feelings and experiences among Malaysians. As I said earlier, most of the early writings about Malaya and Malaysia have emanated from the pens of expatriate civil servants. Naturally the stories are coloured with opinionated views.

I did talk to some of my former colleagues and also the pioneering politicians about relating their stories. It was always the question of no time and nothing to write about. And also the element of shyness as to how the response will be concerning their books also hampered their sense of responsibility in detailing out their work records and views.

I put down my thoughts and impressions on paper as I want to show how the Malaysian identity had evolved since independence. This is through the eyes of a committed civil servant, a political activist, a manager of a national news agency, and a concerned individual.

I have also been encouraged to write these memoirs by a few of my friends who believe that I have a valid story to tell, not only because my experiences have been so varied, but also because I can bring a fresh perspective to events and happenings that are of national importance.

I would like to record my thanks and appreciation to my daughter Natasha, who had been responsible for producing hard copies since the first draft, and to my son Muhaimi who had pointed out that certain parts needed extra inputs. I would also like to thank my other daughter Minh Ha, who has persistently urged me to pen down the experiences and feelings that I encountered while holding the various posts during my career.

Roslan Kassim of Pegasus Travel had been generous to partly fund the project, and there are a few others who in one way or another had been of help to me in producing this book.

I am also indebted to Dr. Bakri Musa who gave invaluable advice as to how I should approach the themes in this book. He also helped me to reorganise and restructure the contents.

I wish all readers of this book a pleasant and fruitful reading experience.

Ahmad Mustapha Hassan

Taman Tun Dr. Ismail

Kuala Lumpur

September 2006

Ahmad Mustapha started his career as a civil servant in Kedah after graduating from the University of Malaya (Singapore) in 1960.

He was a very active student leader who headed the University Socialist Club as President from 1958 to 1959. He was also Treasurer of the University Muslim Society and editor of Pelajar the organ of the Pan Malaya Malay Students Federation (GPMS).

He was a student activist, a civil servant, a political activist, a diplomat at one stage when he was made First Secretary at the Malaysian Embassy in the Hague, Netherlands, and General Manager of Bernama, the national news agency. He later joined the corporate sector.

He was also involved in charity work and became Chairman of Riding for the Disabled. He was a sports enthusiast and played polo and squash. He was also involved in sports management and was President of the Squash Racquets Association of the Federal Territory and Vice-President of the Equestrian Association of Malaysia.

He still enjoys a good 7 km jog most days of the week and has taken up writing and analysis as an active pastime.

Ahmad Mustapha Hassan

Posted with permission of the author.

A Gemstone Among Pebbles

Sunday, September 16th, 2007

(First posted on’s Seeing It My Way column on August 30, 2007)

Book Review:  Zaid Ibrahim’s In Good Faith, Zaid Ibrahim Publications, Kuala Lumpur, 2007, 364 pages;  Softcover, RM 30.00, ISBN:  9789834352103

When you have a pathway of pebbles, expect your toes to be stubbed and knees scrapped.  You certainly do not expect – nor do you purposely seek – any gem amongst the gravel.  Nonetheless when there is a glint in your path, you do pause to examine it.  If perchance you pick up a genuine gemstone, your heart bursts with joy for the rare and unexpected lucky fine.

This was my emotion upon reading Zaid Ibrahim’s In Good Faith.  That is not to say that I did not expect great things from the man.  After all, Zaid Ibrahim built Malaysia’s largest law firm that bears his name well before his 50th birthday!  Size alone is not much of a bragging point especially with firms of professionals.  His however, is the first to recognize the impact of globalization on professional – in particular legal – services, and thus the few if not the only local law firm to have a presence beyond Malaysia.  His firm is also one of the few to have the expertise to meet the complex needs of transnational corporations.

In addition to being a practicing lawyer, Zaid is also an UMNO politician and Member of Parliament.  The standard vocabulary of parliamentary debates these days includes such words as bodoh (stupid!) and bocor (leaking – crude reference to the regular female biological process), as well as rude finger pointing and all-too-common racial taunting.  As for UMNO, its leaders are trapped in their keris-brandishing theatrics and Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony) rhetoric.  In short, both Parliament and UMNO are bodies of pebbles; do not expect gemstones.  Hence my pleasant surprise with Zaid Ibrahim!


Rave Reviews 

This book, a collection of Zaid’s speeches, interviews, and essays, gets rave reviews from such luminaries as former Chief Justice Dzaiddin Abdullah and former top civil servant Ramon Navaratnam, as well as academician Khoo Kay Kim and writer Marina Mahathir.  Former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam wrote a short laudatory introduction.

Apart from being a lawyer and politician, Zaid is also a Malay, Malaysian, Muslim, and world citizen.  He is no ordinary global citizen for sure, having participated as a co-panelist with the Dalai Lama (“Forum 2000 Dialogue:  Do Religions Offer a Solution or Are They Part of the Problem?”) organized under the auspices of former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel in October 2006.  His insight with respect to Islam is thus:  “[T]he development of Islamic thought has not progressed in a way it should have …. The intellectualism of Islam has been stagnant ….”

This issue of the intellectual development in Islam and of Muslims (Malays in particular) is dear to Zaid.  Discourses in Islam, academic and public, are long on quoting the Quran and hadith but precious short on critical thinking and original thought.  In an address to SUHAKAM’s Conference on Human Rights and Culture (“The Most Sacred of Rights”) Zaid observed, “There is a vast difference between the word of Allah and man’s interpretations of the word of Allah.”  I might also add, of women’s.

Apart from sex, we bring our culture, language, ethnicity, and sets of experiences to these interpretations.  Thus we should expect differences in our views, expectations, and interpretations.  As per the wisdom of the Quran, differences amongst the ummah are Allah’s blessings.

Thus Zaid asserts that we should go beyond mere tolerating to embracing and celebrating our differences (“Pluralism and Democracy in Malaysia”).  This is the only way for a plural society like Malaysia to survive and indeed thrive.  I would go further; if we do not treat our diversity as an asset, it will by default become a liability.  And what a horrendous liability!  Malaysia had a foretaste of it in May 1969, and there are many ready tragic examples in the world today:  Iraq, Darfur, and the Balkans.

Zaid is proud of his multiple identities and sees no contradictions with any combination thereof.  He is not bothered at all nor does he indulge in silly pseudo-philosophical waxing on whether he is first and foremost a Malay, Malaysian, or Muslim.  He is all that and more simultaneously, and he does not feel at all schizophrenic about it.  Indeed each identity reinforces the others.  Being a good lawyer makes him a better politician, and contributes to his being a more informed and rational Malay, which in turn makes him a better Malaysian and Muslim.  Where is the conflict?

As a lawyer he is passionate about and totally committed to justice, freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.  He leaves no doubt about that in this book and elsewhere.  “If we continue to put ourselves in reverse gear by departing from democratic principles,” he said, “we will continue to fall behind other countries.”  He added, “Democratic and civil values are not new novel concepts, alien to Malaysians!  In fact, strong subscription to these values propelled us to where we are today.”

Freedom, especially of thought, conscience, and religion, is for all, including Muslim Malaysians.  Zaid forthrightly stated his conviction in an address at the Middle Eastern Graduate Center (“Faith and Freedom To Think”).  In two essays (“Case Reaffirms Need for Press Council” and “More Freedom of Information, Please”) Zaid stresses the crucial role of press freedom and freedom to information generally in advancing democracy and development.  On a pragmatic level, freedom empowers citizens, enabling them to realize their full God-given potential.


Sad Reflection

As a lawyer, Zaid is not at all shy on commenting on the sad state of our judiciary and the generally sorry performances of our judges.  In a speech to local law students sponsored by his legal firm (“Attributes of an Independent Judiciary”), and in two essays published in the mainstream media (“Urgent Need to Reform Judiciary” and “Judges Must Show Courage”), he directly addressed the subject.  In the other essays he made tangential observations on the matter.  He is critical of non-Syariah judges who shy away from cases remotely involving Islam or Muslims.  Nor is Zaid complimentary towards Syariah judges.  He clearly stated this singular point, purposefully made confusing by many, that while Islam is under state jurisdiction (except in the Federal territories), the Supreme Court decisions are binding upon all other courts, including the Syariah’s.

Other lawyer-politicians have also expressed similar strong commitments to democracy and the rule of law.  Consider Zaid’s parliamentary and UMNO Supreme Council colleague Rais Yatim.  In his Freedom Under Executive Power in Malaysia: A Study of Executive Supremacy, Rais was scathing in his criticism of the unchecked powers of the executive.  “Rule by law and not rule of law supersedes and takes priority in most aspects of ruling the people,” he wrote, thus producing “a culture of fear in an already non-critical society.

Rais, like Zaid Ibrahim, also called for abolishing such repressive laws as the Internal Security Act and the Universities and University Colleges Act.  There is however, one signal difference between these two lawyer-politicians.  Rais was vocal only when he was outside the political establishment, as when he was kicked out of the cabinet for joining the UMNO-breakaway Party Semangat 46.  Now that he is back in the cabinet, he is singing a decidedly different tune.  He goes so far as to disavow his earlier views (which was his doctoral dissertation) as nothing more than a “mere academic exercise.”

With two notable exceptions, Zaid’s views and passions resonate with me.  Zaid argues his points rationally, convincingly, and most of all, very clearly.  If I have not stated it, few would know from reading this book that Zaid is a lawyer.  It is pleasantly free of legal jargons and that most irritating habit of lawyers, of lacing their commentaries with ancient and barely comprehensible Latin phrases.  Without exposing my obsessive compulsiveness, there are only eight such phrases, including such commonly used non-legal ones as de facto and modus operandus.  There are only three legal Latin phrases used in fewer than half a dozen times in all:  An independent judiciary sine qua non (without which, non) to a real democracy; Montesquieu’s trias politica (separation of powers between executive, legislative and judiciary) doctrine; and the writ of habeas corpus (of appearing before a court).

Zaid advocates bringing back local elections (“Bring Back Municipal Elections”) believing that to be the essence of democracy, of government closest to the people.  To me, the problems of our towns and cities are best handled through competent professional management.  Bringing back local elections would only replicate the national political paralysis to the local level.

The other area where I disagree with Zaid is having a special bureaucracy for Bumiputra affairs (“Department of Bumiputra Affairs”).  If there is one truth that has emerged in the past few decades it is this:  The government is part of the problem, not part of the solution to the Malay dilemma.

This book is modestly priced at RM30.00.  In pricing it so affordably, Zaid has done more to enhance the reading habit among Malaysians than all the speeches of the ministers.  In donating the proceeds to his adopted charity, The Kelantan Foundation for the Disabled, Zaid has demonstrated the finest attribute of a Muslim, that of giving zakat (charity).  In this he is way ahead of those official ulamas who endlessly lecture us to be modest and charitable while they ride in their government-issued Mercedes Benzes.

If Zaid is as passionate and forceful with his UMNO colleagues as he is with his readers, then we are justified in being optimistic about the future.  This gem that is Zaid may not make the pebbles of UMNO any more valuable, but it may just point a little light on them, enough to spare others from stubbing their toes or scrapping their knees.

It is a sad reflection of the culture of UMNO specifically and of Malays generally that this gem of an individual is found among pebbles instead of adorning the ring of a princess or the crown of a king.  In any other setting, this accomplished personality should at least be Attorney General or Law Minister.  That he is not speaks volumes of the ability of the cobbler-in-chief in differentiating between pebbles and gemstones.

It is good that as we are celebrating our 50th Merdeka anniversary, we are hearing enlightened messages from the likes Zaid Ibrahim and Raja Nazrin.  They provide a refreshing and much-needed antidote to the increasingly shrill shouting of the keris-wielding chauvinists.

If somebody could give a copy of Zaid’s book to every UMNO politician, I would gladly underwrite the costs by making a donation to his Foundation.  And if perchance any of them were to read his book, then I would double my contribution.  It would be less a charitable contribution, more an investment in Malaysia’s future.

If I may be permitted to indulge in some pseudo sophistication, I say this of Zaid Ibrahim’s In Good Faith:  res ipsa loquitor (the thing speaks for itself).

The Pathologization of Muslims in Europe

Friday, September 14th, 2007

Farish A. Noor

[First posted on on September 11, 2007.  Posted with permission of the writer.]“No we are not racist.  It is just that we need to preserve and protect our German identity and culture, and our Judeo-Christian heritage.  The more Turkish Muslims come here, the less we know who and what we are.  We cannot allow our identity and culture to be confused like that…”

How many times have I been fed such pedestrian drivel, and how long have I been trying to play the role of bridge-builder between communities, only to find my efforts reduced to naught thanks to the asinine and facile platitudes that spill forth time and again?  The gem quoted above was the comment made by a rather ordinary German at a public debate on Islam and the Rule of Law in Berlin; and just one week after an equally grueling series of public talks in Amsterdam I could not help but feel as if Europe’s slide to the right is accelerating faster than ever.

That a public forum on Islam and the rule of law could degenerate into a senseless round of Turk-bashing speaks volumes about the shallowness of public debate in some parts of Europe these days.  That the debate took place in Berlin, the much-hyped cosmopolitan capital of Germany was itself a less than startling revelation:  Judging by some of the comments uttered it might as well have been a local talk in some village tavern in the deepest recesses of the Black Forest.  The only things that were missing were the leather shorts and bust of the Kaiser on the mantle piece … for those present had reduced themselves to caricatured stereotypes of the worst order.

What was most alarming, however, was the manner in which a host of complex issues and dilemmas were reduced and pathologized to a single problem:  The Muslims and their non-Western culture and belief system.  That some of the commentators were right-wing politicians was bad enough, worse still was the evident lack of self-critique, irony and objective distance to the things that were meant to be discussed in the first place.

The list of complaints were many:  One man in the audience produced a fatwa – with a stamp no less – calling for the punishment of a non-Muslim in Egypt; and then proceeded to ask the Muslims present what they thought of the death penalty.  Oblivious of the fact that most of the Muslims he was addressing were second generation migrants to Germany who were probably as rooted and as German as he was, he seemed to be assuming that Muslims in Europe were still undecided over the choice between democracy or the fabled Caliphate.  Yet how many times has the random Catholic been picked out in the street and asked if he or she agreed with the latest ruling of the Pope from the Vatican?

This was the first essential misunderstanding that sadly colored the entire debate, and by extension most debates about Islam and Muslims in Europe today.  It is still assumed that Muslims are a homogenous bloc; that they are defined primarily and solely by their religion; and that they are unable to take objective distance from their creed, culture and history.  Yet does Islam decide which football team Muslim kids support in the inner cities?  Is it Islam that tells them which musicians to listen to, which novel to read, which movie to watch?

Taking a further step back from the sordid goings-on in the debating hall, I reflected on the times I had heard the same sort of nonsense from Muslims in the Muslim countries I have visited and lived in.  The cornucopia of racist essentialisms came thick and fast.  I recall:  “The West has no religion, no ethics;” “Westerners are decadent drug addicts with no morals;” “Western women are loose and Western men are promiscuous’” etc.  The list of racist bile directed to the West is as long as Western complaints about Muslims.  On both sides there is no attempt to understand or communicate with the “Other”; on both sides the framing of the stereotype of the Other suffices for the semblance of a non-dialogue to take place; and on both side the values of self-reflection, auto-critique and introspection are totally absent.

Yet surely the root of the problem is this:  Both the Western and Muslim worlds are facing unprecedented changes thanks to the ravaging effects of unrestrained global capitalism that has radically altered social relations, overturned social hierarchies, exposed long-held misperceptions and misconceptions that have been around too long and is now totally changing the way we live, think and see ourselves in the world.

In the face of such challenges, it is all too easy to demonize minorities in our midst and reconstruct the “other” in dialectical terms.  The debate in Western Europe has framed Muslims as the root cause for all that is wrong with multiculturalism and pluralism in Europe today, and posited the idea that Muslims are the ones who cannot assimilate, integrate and adapt to the realities of Europe.  Related to this is the idea that the presence of Muslims in Europe threatens the continents sense of self-identity and self-representation, leading to caricatured accounts of an Islamic takeover of the West and the proliferation of mosques and minarets all over the European continent.

But look around the capitals of Europe and we will see that the colonization of the continent has already happened.  A short walk down Ku’damm, the main street of Berlin, will show that contemporary German popular culture comprises of McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Coca Cola, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks. What is more, it was not the dreaded Turks who imported all this American junk pop culture to Germany or Europe, but the Europeans themselves.

The fact is that the world is indeed shrinking and becoming more homogeneous and uniform at an alarming rate.  From the ‘Hiltonization’ of urban life to the less than subtle exchange of Cafe Latte for drinking water, we are all plugged into global consumerism more than ever before.  Failure to accept our complicity in the spread and hegemonization of global capital has led us instead to search for scapegoats to blame for all that is wrong in our countries, from rising unemployment to the loss of job security and educational opportunities.  The stigmatization of Turks and other Muslims in Europe today is just the tip of the iceberg, reminiscent of the campaigns against the Jews and other cosmopolitans in Europe in the past.

How do we escape from this blind impasse of our own making?  Perhaps the first step involves the recognition of our own role in the mess we have created around us; and to begin to re-forge the common links of universal human solidarity across class, gender and communal boundaries that may inject some meaning into the concept of Society again.  In the long run, apart from a minority of troublemakers who have hijacked some of the mosques of Europe, the overwhelming majority of European Muslims want to be part of Europe and to be accepted as such. What needs to happen next is the development of genuine bridging capital between all these communities to counter the dislocating effects of globalization that has really damaged the world we live in, be it in the East or West.

Dr. Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #22

Wednesday, September 12th, 2007

Chapter 5:  Consequences of progress and Prosperity (Cont’d)

The Social Price of Progress 

The social changes accompanying progress are no less consequential. They revolve primarily around lifestyles at the personal, family, and community levels.

At the personal level, the most profound and completely opposite to what would be anticipated is declining fertility. The accepted wisdom was that with improved medical care, abundant food, and better living conditions people would reproduce prolifically, and many more would survive to old age resulting in a population explosion. With finite resources, it would not be long before we would outstrip the food supply. This was the dire prediction of the 19th century British clergyman Thomas Malthus. Modern thinkers like Paul Ehrlich and members of the Club of Rome echoed variations of this dark theme.(6) Malthus went so far as to conclude that only famine, war, or disease would save humankind from this inevitable fate.

Malthus, Ehrlich and others have good reasons for their gloomy outlook. In the larger biological world, when food is plentiful and conditions favorable, the specie would reproduce with abandon. This is true of bacteria as well as rats. It is the universal truth in biology; it is thus reasonable to postulate that a similar pattern would occur with humans.

Alas, humans are unique. When times are good, we behave in the very opposite manner. With progress and prosperity, fertility rates decline dramatically even in societies that were once known for their reproductive proclivities. Prior to World War II, the Japanese were notorious for having large broods. The reason often given for their earlier expansionist policies was to find space for their rapidly expanding population. Fast-forward to today and with greater affluence, the Japanese are hardly reproducing at replacement level. Their population is actually declining, as with most of the First World.(7) America is the exception because of immigration; its native-born population is actually declining.

This fertility transition, with fertility rate below replacement level, defies explanations as well as attempts at reversing it. Even Singapore, with its authoritarian leadership, could not force its citizens to procreate fast enough.

In Malaysia, non-Bumiputras already experience this fertility transition. Malays and other Bumiputras too will soon reach it. They are being temporarily delayed by silly arguments on the racial calculus of the country, propagated by their ill-informed leaders. If a strong-willed leader like Lee Kuan Yew were unable to influence his followers with regards to their reproductive activities, I doubt very much whether far less effective Malay leaders could stop the low fertility of Malays that would inevitably accompany their progress.

This fertility transition is the most dramatic and unexpected consequence of human progress.

Another far-reaching social change is the general sense of alienation, what sociologists refer to as anomie. For some, when their basic needs are taken care of, they lose their sense of purpose. This is reflected in the high suicide rates in developed countries. When people are consumed with having to survive, this apparently gives their lives a purpose.(8)

There are also profound changes at the family level. The intergenerational household so common in the past is a rarity today, and with it, opportunities for intergenerational bonding. The extended family of yore is giving way to the nuclear family of today: a father, mother, and the children. This makes the family unit small and isolated, compounding the anomie.

A major correlate of economic growth is gender equity. Economists assert that it is a prerequisite for economic development. They point to backward nations where women are denied opportunities as ready examples.

Certainly a nation that does not value half of its population and does not offer them educational and other opportunities is losing out on the potential of a major chunk of its human capital. The world would be poorer without the contributions of women. They bring their own special perspective to a problem. Besides, it is just not right morally to deny them opportunities or to discriminate against them.

Gender equality, right morally and in every other way, creates its own problems. When a husband and wife are equally capable of bringing bread to the table, economic considerations do not factor much when divorce is being contemplated. There is one less barrier against divorce, or put differently, one more step that eases it. It is not surprising to see the high correlation of gender equality with delayed marriages, high divorce rates, and rise in households headed by females.

Another consequence is the devaluing of child rearing. With women entering the workplace and the value of their labor outside the home being tangibly valued (it counts towards the GDP), child rearing is now left to others. Mothering is no longer valued by society. This can only have adverse consequences.

The solution is not to regress to the “good old days” and confine women to the kitchen, rather to use our ingenuity and resources to resolve these new issues. The Scandinavian nations have done particularly well in this regard, with their readily available, publicly supported, and highly affordable childcare centers. These centers often do a better job taking care of children than young inexperienced mothers. Both mother and child benefit from such arrangements. Ultimately, society too benefits.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Western societies now have nursing homes, extended living facilities, and senior citizens homes. I am uncertain whether these arrangements are better than having the aged stay with their grown up children and have opportunities to bond with their grandchildren. These senior living arrangements have one benefit: They free old parents from the sense of guilt for being dependent on their adult children. Conversely, adult children are freed of the burden and guilt of taking care of their aged parents, and thus able to pursue their dreams and live wherever that dream takes them. These senior homes are far from the decrepit “benevolent” homes common in Asia in the last century where the aged were deposited to live out their dying days. Many are well designed to enhance the golden years of their inhabitants.

Next:  Economic Growth and Social Equity