Archive for August, 2008

Anwar’s Path To Putrajaya

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

The Path To Putrajaya

M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

The path to Putrajaya for Anwar Ibrahim began on a very sure footing last Tuesday, August 26, 2008, at Permatang Pauh. His landslide electoral victory was a rousing endorsement of his person and of his leadership.

Anwar inspires Malaysians with his promise of new dawn; a new direction for nation that has been drifting in the slumber land of its leader, Abdullah Badawi. Anwar challenges us to think beyond our narrow interest towards a more inclusive anak Malaysia (children of Malaysia). He dares us to aspire for a Malaysia where justice is cherished and corruption banished. He promises us a government that is transparent and efficient, a government that emancipates instead of suppresses its citizens. Most of all, Anwar pledges to the supremacy of citizens, Ketuanan Rakyat.

Malaysians, yearning for a change, responded enthusiastically in Permatang Pauh. It was an evening for Anwar, and deservedly so.

This by-election was also a decisive defeat for and a public humiliation of Abdullah Badawi. Permatang Pauh voters saw through the hoax that is his leadership. These are no ordinary Malaysians who have passed this harsh judgment; they are neighbors of Abdullah. He cannot pull wool over their eyes; they easily cut through his borak kosong (empty words).

This election marks not only the beginning of the political ascent of Anwar but also the beginning of the end for Abdullah.

This was the other clear message from this election. It was badly needed as the earlier one sent by Malaysians last March obviously did not register on Abdullah. Abdullah still deludes himself, and his advisers continue to let him do so, that the March electoral debacle and the Permatang Pauh humiliation were aberrations and not a trend.

This was not a case of Abdullah having eyes that would not see or ears that would not hear, as Mahathir suggested, rather of Abdullah refusing the message.

Dirty Tricks and Bribes Did Not Do It

In this by-election Abdullah and his minions tried all the dirty tricks in their books, and then some. Despite the sleaze, including the obscene and very public desecration of our Holy Quran by their operatives, Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak failed to drag voters down to their gutter level of politics.

Earlier, UMNO Youth Deputy Leader Khairy Jamaluddin brashly predicted that he would bury Anwar’s political career. I wonder what his spin is now that his party’s candidate received fewer votes than the number of registered UMNO members.

Khairy helped dig a grave all right, to bury his father-in-law’s leadership. Khairy has in-law’s flat political learning curve, an affliction they share with the rest of UMNO’s leaders, sparing only a few. The few like Tengku Razaleigh get drowned in the sea of mediocrity.

The leadership of UMNO is today paralyzed. In the past when the party faced serious challenges as in 1969 following the race riots and again in 1987 when the party was deregistered following a divisive leadership challenge, it was fortunate to have decisive and intelligent leaders. Today they have a listless leader who could not even decide what tie to wear.

UMNO under Abdullah is incapable of renewing itself; the implosion of UMNO has begun. The cacophony we are now hearing is nothing more than the howling of jackals fighting over UMNO’s carcass. That is bad for Abdullah, UMNO and Barisan Nasional, but great for Anwar, PKR and Pakatan Rakyat. Most of all it is great for Malaysia and Malaysians.

That is splendid enough reason for celebration.

Abdullah-Najib Duo On Trial

Contrary to the pundits’ pontifications, Anwar’s path to Putrajaya will be smooth and fast. Anwar’s challenge is not in getting there but what he should do once he gets there.

The machinery of state he will be inheriting is precariously out of gas, badly in need of a major overhaul, and had been recklessly driven by an incompetent operator. Bringing it back to roadworthiness will be a major undertaking, let alone making it race-ready.

Anwar’s goal must be to get that statecraft ready for the great race. That should be his focus. He should not settle for anything less. The temptation when the going gets tough would be to compare himself with Abdullah. That would be setting the bar too low.

Anwar’s top if not only priority must be to restore our institutions now wrecked by the twin blights of corruption and incompetence. That should occupy him for at least a decade.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, the trial over Saiful’s allegation of being sodomized will not in the least stop or even slow Anwar. Instead, like the earlier trial a decade ago, it will expose the corruption and incompetence of the police force, the prosecutor’s office, and ultimately the Abdullah Administration.

We are already feeling the bracing effect of this fresh wind that is Anwar. The judge in the preliminary hearing demonstrated her judicial wisdom by granting Anwar a modest bail in what otherwise is a no-bail charge. She also denied the prosecutor’s request to impound his passport. A few years ago such expressions of independence from the bench would have been unheard of.

A comedian once quipped that the difference between rape and seduction is salesmanship. I would extend that humorous though insensitive line to consensual versus non-consensual sodomy. When that trial is over, it will dawn upon Malaysians that it is us who had been sodomized by Abdullah and his ilk while we were being seduced by his seemingly pious sermons.

When that moment of realization arrives, Abdullah and his minions will bear the full fury of the wrath of Malaysians. And they would deserve it.

That however should be the least of the concerns confronting Anwar once he is in Putrajaya.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #68

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

Bless Our Geography

Of the four elements in my diamond of development, geography is the only one that cannot be altered. Whether a nation is blessed with bountiful natural resources, be strategically located for trade, or have a climate suitable for agriculture is purely the gift of nature. While we cannot change those geographic attributes, we can modify our attitude and relationship towards them. That would determine whether those attributes are assets and a boon, or liabilities and a curse.

I made reference earlier to Ibn Khaldun’s observation relating geography, in particular climate, to behavior, temperament, and ultimately culture of a people. To him, adverse living conditions would bring out the ingenuity in a society. Otherwise its members would not survive, let alone thrive. I also discussed how the four seasons of the temperate zones forced the residents to be in rhythm with nature, and with that the concept of planning and appreciation for time.

Three centuries later, the French enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu postulated the same idea, relating climate to human physiology, and in turn character. The cold climate would constrict the body’s fibers causing coarser juices to flow through them, while heat expands those fibers and produces more rarefied juices. Those from cold climates were vigorous and bold, phlegmatic, frank, and not given to suspicion or cunning. He further declared that those attributes were not genetic for if one were to move from one climatic region to another, one’s temperament would change accordingly.

Monstesquieu’s assertion may be simplistic but there is no denying the influence of the environment on human behavior. I am always impressed at how quickly Malaysians become civic conscious once they come to America. When they have a group picnic in an American public park they dutifully put their garbage into the cans whereas back in Malaysia they would carelessly leave them strewn all over. In America, the well maintained lawns with the garbage bins conveniently located and regularly emptied prompt them to change their behaviors and habits. The influence is not so much the physical surrounding (or geography) as much as the social or peer pressure.

Ibn Khaldun’s observation cannot be extrapolated too far. The Inuits live in the harshest environment possible, the Tundra. By his reckoning, theirs should be the most inventive and innovative culture. While they are remarkably successful in adapting to such a forbidding environment that had previously humbled the more “cultured” Norsemen, nonetheless the Inuit have not contributed significantly to the betterment of mankind. Their environment is so harsh that being able to survive is a miracle in itself, and a tribute to the human spirit and ingenuity. The talent of the Inuit might yet save mankind were our planet to experience another Ice Age.

The German anthropologist Franz Boas introduced the concept of cultural relativism. He was impressed with the survival qualities of the Inuit culture and argued that we should not simplistically compare different cultures. Each culture should be evaluated on its own terms on how well it prepares its members to a particular environment. Attempts at comparing and thus ranking cultures would be methodically flawed as we would evaluate other cultures through our own prism. The assessment could never be objective.

More critical is how a culture adjusts to stresses in its environment. The Norsemen in Greenland were done in by the mini Ice Age; North America Indians by White settlers. The former is a physical stress; the latter, social. Consider the Japanese reaction to Commodore Perry’s intrusion. They were humiliated but learned from the experience quickly by changing from being a xenophobic society to one eager to learn from the West. They learned only too well for later, they too began having their own imperial aspirations, much to the chagrin of their Asian neighbors.

Later I will describe how different the colonial experiences of the Indonesians under the Dutch were from the Malaysians under the British. One obvious difference is that today Malaysians harbor fond memories of their former colonial rulers, with many Malaysians aspiring to go to Britain for further studies and holidays. The same cannot be said of the Indonesians for the Dutch. Likewise, observe the startlingly different cultural reaction to the same geographic fact (the oil bounty), from the profligate Arabs to the prudent Canadians and Norwegians, with Malaysians somewhere in between (as discussed in Chapter 2).

These cultural values often are derived from long experiences with the environment. I was scuba diving off Pulau Perhentian, Trengganu, in the 1980s. There were many school children watching from the beach. At the end of the dive I tried to interest some of them into taking a dip to discover the wonderful underwater world. Tried as I could, I was not successful. They were scared of the water hantu (evil spirit). One season experiencing the east coast monsoon and you too would be convinced of the massive destructive powers of the sea. No wonder those folks associate the sea with hantu.

Likewise, the cultural mindset of the Norwegian settlers in Greenland precluded them from adapting to their new environment (like changing their diet from meat to fish) and learning from the “inferior” Inuits. That would be an admission of failure.

Those same cultural values that served the Norsemen so poorly in Greenland had the opposite results when their descendents came upon America centuries later. When they arrived in Minnesota, they found the area carpeted with log pines so thick that the sun never reached the ground. With their Lutheran attitude towards nature (something to be conquered or subdued), it did not take them long to clear the forests for lumbering and farming. Today they still have their rich farmland, but their lumber industry is long gone. They now have to import wood from Canada.

If they had the cultural values the Indians have for nature, and treated those forest with greater respect instead of simply stripping and clear-cutting it, the trees would replenish themselves and their lumber industry would still be viable. Today the grandchildren of those early Minnesotans are preaching to the world to love their forests and not repeat their mistakes. When Malaysians like Mahathir hear that, they respond by dismissing these latter-day tree huggers and question their credibility. The lesson should instead be what could we learn from them to avoid making comparable mistakes.

Next: Malaysian Geographic Attributes

American-style Crony Capitalism

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

Beware of lecturing others; you may have to learn that same lesson. And sooner than you may think!

In 1983 when the Soviets shot down a Korean Airline 747 jet, there was outrage especially in America, and rightly so. How could those Russians be so barbaric? How could they not recognize a jumbo jet on a clear moonlit night? Barely five years later, an American missile cruiser shot down Iran Air Flight 655 on a clear morning, also killing hundreds of innocent passengers.

As an aside, the Soviet general who ordered the shooting was disgraced while the American commander was honored upon his retirement.

In 1997 with an economic contagion destroying much of Asia’s recently-gained prosperity, the ‘Washington consensus’ demanded, as the price for its much-needed assistance, greater transparency, end of crony capitalism, and “shock therapy” to wean citizens off subsidies.

A decade later, with America reeling from its humongous sub-prime mortgage mess that threatens its (and the global) financial edifice, there is little indication that America is willing to learn the very lessons it dogmatically preached earlier to Asia and the world.

Asian leaders, especially former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir, may be excused in being gleeful at America’s present economic plight. Alone among them, Mahathir bravely defied the then prevailing wisdom and stood up against the Washington consensus. The result of this unique economic ‘experiment of nature’ is now readily apparent: Malaysia emerged earlier and stronger than the other Asian countries that followed Washington’s prescription.

Mahathir could also be excused for being smugly satisfied, for many of the measures Washington is now taking in managing its economic mess are straight out of his 1997 playbook. There is the massive bailout of huge government-linked companies (Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae), the earlier ‘rescue’ of Bear Stearns, a major investment bank, and FDIC’s (a regulatory agency) nationalizing a major bank, Indymack.

Of course this is the 21st Century, and with it some new vocabulary for a new-fangled financial age. Granting massive and generous credit lines to the two financially-troubled giant mortgage companies is not a “bail out” but merely providing the necessary “liquidity backstop,” in the language of Treasury Secretary Paulson. Taking over Indy Bank is not nationalization, rather “regulatory supervision.”

Then, suffering Asian countries were forced to end subsidies for food and other essential goods as per the wisdom of Washington. Meanwhile in America, the tax-deductibility of mortgage interests (otherwise known as subsidy for homeowners) remains sacrosanct. No politician would even dare touch that, even in light of the current mortgage mess. At least with the Indonesians, the subsidies were for basic staples and benefited the poor.

Like Malaysia earlier, America is purposefully keeping its interest rates low and unhesitatingly going into massive deficits to keep its economic pump primed, even at the risk of igniting inflation and devaluing its currency.

Malaysia also anticipated the same potential negative effects then and wisely devalued its currency formally; America leaves it to the marketplace to determine the value of its dollar. There is orderliness and predictability to the former; the latter would be at the mercy of and subject to the herd mentality inherent in the marketplace. Yes, it is this same herd mentality that created the housing bubble in the first place.

Of course when Mahathir devalued the currency, kept interest rates low, and injected much-needed capital into government-liked enterprises (otherwise known as bailouts), he was accused of being reckless, anti-capitalistic, and ignorant of marketplace realities. When Paulson does essentially the same thing however, he is being prudent and responsible, to calm a jittery market and maintain its stability.

Cynicism aside, I hope (and the world too) Secretary Paulson would be successful.

The Relevant Lessons

Before Malayisans savor their sense of schadenfreud (glee in the misfortune of others), remember that America is, among other things, our biggest trading partner and source of foreign investments. Whatever that would cause America to sniffle could wreck a suffocating pneumonia upon Malaysia.

Besides, there is much that Malaysia could learn from the current American financial mess, and for America to tweak the lessons Malaysia so painfully learned during its tribulations of a decade earlier.

The Malaysian situation in 1997 was eased considerably in that the economic crisis was her only albeit heavy burden. America today faces the far more serious challenge of simultaneously fighting not one but two very expensive and bloody wars abroad.

Treasury Secretary Paulson’s remarks that the bailouts would cost “at most two month’s war in Iraq” betrayed his callousness on the plight of hundreds of thousands of Americans evicted from their homes through foreclosures, and the consequent devastations on their loved ones. He also dishonored the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers, Americans as well as Iraqis.

Quite apart from the huge expense, the wars divert attention and resources of American leaders and institutions. The economic crisis is challenging enough even without the two ongoing wars. Ending the war would simultaneously ease the global oil market and remove a huge financial burden, two steps that could only help the financial strain, quite apart from the humanitarian considerations of ending the killings and sufferings.

Had Malaysia still been fighting its communist insurgency in 1997, or had to contend with ethnic unrest as with 1969, that would have definitely slowed if not aborted the recovery. Economists in their analyses of the slower recovery in the other Asian countries ignore this important element. Indonesia was bogged down fighting a bloody secessionist movement in Aceh; the Philippines its Moro Independence movement; and Thailand its rebellion in the south.

Malaysia also had a strong leader then; Mahathir could and did push whatever stern measures he needed and the populace would comply, if not grudgingly. Had Abdullah been in charge, he would be flip-flopping from one policy to the next, and Malaysia would still be mired in the mess. To say that President Bush is weak is a gross understatement; besides, the Democrats control Congress. Thus any initiative would have to satisfy both parties and their respective lobbyists, meaning it would more likely be diluted and ineffective, with the taxpayers carrying the final tab.

Malaysia could take comfort in that the blights of crony capitalism and political corruption, in their infinite variations, are universal. In America, the transfer of money from interested parties to politicians is ‘political contributions;’ in Malaysia, outright corruption. The intent is the same in both. Presumably when the transfer of money is receipted and duly claimed as ‘business expense,’ it all miraculously becomes legitimate.

America may swallow its capitalistic pride and adopt barely-concealed socialistic remedies in managing its current crisis, nonetheless it does not lack for strong dissenting views. These are expressed vigorously in open congressional hearings, the editorial pages, and in academic symposia.

There will also be lawsuits, civil and criminal. Rest assured that accounting and other shenanigans will be uncovered, and appropriate punishments meted out. The Enron scandal of a few years ago took the venerable accounting firm of Arthur Andersen with it, together with some hitherto powerful corporate figures. More than a few are now behind bars.

More importantly, new legislations were adopted that would hopefully prevent future recurrences. The consequence of the Savings and Loans scandal of the late 1980s saw the demise of that entire financial sector.

Contrast that to the many financial debacles in Malaysia, from the London Tin fiasco to the collapse of Bank Bumiputra. No one was held accountable. There were no parliamentary hearings or royal commissions, and our academics have showed minimal inclination in studying them.

If in our haste in gleefully criticizing the American style of crony capitalism we overlook these other important lessons, then we would have missed a splendid learning opportunity. It is always dyspeptic to acknowledge our mistakes and to learn from them, but ultimately that is the best safeguard against repeating them. That is the crucial lesson Malaysia could take from America, regardless of whether America is preaching it or not.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia # 67

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

The Fourth Estate

The colonial rulers, never sympathetic to native causes, saw fit to give the locals room to express themselves. Malay newspapers and periodicals thrived during colonial times. While espousing nationalistic goals, these publications kept the masses informed as well as providing important avenues for Malay writers to showcase their talent. Many prominent authors polished their skills writing for these publications.

These publications also served another important function; they encouraged lively debates among Malays. The topics covered were equally varied, from nationalism to religion. No topic was deemed sensitive or beyond discussion. The result was that the public had remarkably diverse opinions even on such popular issues as independence. To me this was one of the finer legacies of colonial rule. To be sure, the British were not above supporting those publications sympathetic to the colonial cause, but the essential fact remains that the colonials allowed such freedom. Tunku Abdul Rahman recalled how he had to struggle against Malay publications covertly supported by the British that were not sympathetic to the independence movement.28

Today, five decades after independence, the authorities are forgetting this important legacy. The mass media in Malaysia, as in most of the Third World, are an embarrassment. Far from being the vigilant guardian of the public interest and fearless watchdog on the government, Malaysian media are nothing more than the propaganda arm of the government. The major media are either part of the government machinery like Radio and Television Malaysia, or wholly owned by it (Bernama, the national news agency). The ruling parties also own major media companies like The New Straits Times and The Star. These publications serve more as unabashed cheerleaders for the government and ruling parties. They are essentially the ruling parties’ glorified newsletters. They make no pretense to be otherwise, even when that goes against their commercial interest. Thus during elections, they refuse to accept advertising from the opposition parties!

They also fail miserably in their minimal obligation to keep the public informed. These government-owned media and those owned by the ruling parties should be exposed for what they are—propaganda agencies. Being owned or funded by the government does not mean that you cannot discharge your duties of keeping the public informed; UK’s BBC clearly demonstrates that.

By any criterion, the quality of the mainstream media is deplorable. If I were to compile an anthology of essays by Malaysians, few of the pieces from the mainstream papers would merit inclusion. The sloppy writing is matched only by the careless editing. There is not even consistency of style or spelling.

When I advise my nieces and nephews on how to improve their English, my very first suggestion is for them not to read the mainstream newspapers. The quality is such that the New Straits Time owned by UMNO has a rapidly declining readership. Nor does it attract talented writers and journalists. In late 2006, the senior editor of The New Straits Times was exposed for brazenly plagiarizing a piece from an American publication.29

Tune to RTM. Its news broadcasts consist of nothing more than what the prime minister says and does for that day, plus press releases from the various ministries. Among UMNO elite, there are fierce internal battles on who gets what coverage on NST, and whether it is on the front page or buried deep inside. They even argue on the size of font used! Never mind that the general public does even read the paper. The minister in charge of RTM bitterly complained that none of the reporters would cover his press conferences. The sad part was that he was not in the least embarrassed to announce that fact!

The public hunger for reliable and independent news is responsible for the explosive growth of the alternative and independent media, and the Internet blogs and news and commentary portals. Raja Petra’s Malaysia-Today.net regularly gets over a million hits a day. Any of the mainstream papers would be lucky to get a fraction of that! Many of the political and business scandals are exposed either by the foreign or alternative media. The compliant mainstream media do eventually cover such misdeeds, only after they have been widely disseminated over the Internet. The government’s reaction, totally typical, was to threaten censoring cyberspace.

A vibrant democracy requires its citizens to be well informed. The major responsibility falls on the mass media; hence the label “fourth estate.” The press also needs to act as effective checks and balances on the authorities, especially in Malaysia where the opposition is either nonexistent or ineffectual. Similarly, to attract investors the country must have reliable sources of news. There must be somebody to keep those executives and corporations in check, and to monitor the regulators. Financial news and information cannot simply be the self-serving corporate press releases. Investors need reliable information to make informed decisions. It is in the interest of the nation to have a free and vibrant press.

All these institutions—from the judiciary and financial intermediaries to the mass media and civil society—play important roles in a modern economy. They must be nurtured and enhanced.

Cont’d: Bless Our Geography

Last Chance To Save Malaysia!

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

Before last March 2008 elections, I urged Kepala Batas voters to perform a great national service by booting out Prime Minister Abdullah. That would have triggered a seismic shift in UMNO’s leadership. With its ban on contesting top posts effectively circumvented, the party would get to preview other potential candidates.

If Kepala Batas voters were to shy away from exercising that historic opportunity, I suggested that Malaysians could still teach Abdullah a lesson by substantially reducing his coalition’s victory. That would also trigger a challenge to his leadership, and we would have the same effect as with the first scenario.

Alas, Malaysians did teach Abdullah a hard lesson, but not hard enough. Besides, being a slow learner, Abdullah did not get the message. Now voters in Permatang Pauh, practically next door, will get a chance to deal Abdullah a third and final knock-out blow, one he would surely get.

This upcoming by-election will be more than just electing the area’s representative to Parliament. Permatang Pauh voters will get the unique opportunity to decide on behalf of entire Malaysia on who will lead our nation. It is as much an opportunity to vote for Anwar Ibrahim as it is against Abdullah Badawi, and to vote for Malaysia’s future – on whether she would progress to join the developed world or continue its present path to join the likes of Zimbabwe.

Anwar Versus Abdullah

In Abdullah we have a dull and apathetically detached leader who exploits the differences among us in order to remain in power. In Anwar we have a charismatic leader well regarded especially internationally. He nurtures our commonalities and challenges us to rise above our differences.

Abdullah’s “I am Prime Minister for all Malaysians” utterance rings hollow when he allows, nay encourages the racist taunting of UMNO Youth leaders. Again illustrative of his opportunistic and exploitative character, right after the March elections when his party’s position was threatened in many states, he initiated a series of secret meetings with the opposition PAS. In so doing he showed contempt for his Barisan coalition partners.

Abdullah was also insensitive, or more accurately contemptuous of the feelings of those non-Malays who voted for his Barisan candidates, UMNO and non-UMNO alike. The rewards he dangled must have been quite substantial to tempt the otherwise self-righteous PAS leaders to participate in those talks. Fortunately wiser heads prevailed in PAS; the futile discussions were aborted.

Anwar does not have as yet a formal leadership role. Yet as adviser to PKR he successfully created a viable coalition effective enough to deny Barisan its two-thirds majority in Parliament and dislodge it in five states, including such major ones as Perak, Penang, and Selangor.

It is a testament to his leadership skills that Anwar could forge an alliance comprising the DAP and PAS, two parties that represent the polar extremes of political views in Malaysia. Anwar was successful because he builds on their commonalities, their yearning for a clean, efficient and transparent government, one not blighted by cronyism and corruption.

It is also the wish of all Malaysians, whether they embrace “Malaysia for Malaysians” or the “Islamic State of Malaysia” political ideals. It should also be the theme and aspiration of any government.

I am also impressed with Anwar’s ability to attract many young talents. While UMNO had to content with such worn-out retreads like Ezam Noor, Anwar managed to attract many young educated individuals like Nik Nazmi and Sim Tze Tzin.

It reflects the priorities of Abdullah and more importantly, his lack of diligence as a leader, that on such important matters as our energy policy he remains blissfully detached except for making empty silly remarks. With rocketing oil prices threatening the global (and Malaysian) economies, Abdullah and his deputy Najib are content busying themselves that Saiful would swear on the Quran that he had been sodomized.

It is the height of obscenity to see this young man wearing his songkok and Baju Melayu, symbols of everything pure and pristine in our culture, entering the sanctity of the holy mosque in the heart of Malaysia to utter, “… telah memasukkan zakarnya ke dalam lubang dubur saya.”

All so clinical, and so well-timed politically! It would have been obscene even without the ugly smirk on Saiful’s face after he blurted his utterance. Thankfully, he spared us the lurid details. One’s fantasy can get quite vivid, especially when given some attention and encouragement. As for the frequency, he has yet to decide on that. He is waiting to see Anwar’s diary first!

With his hands above the Holy Quran, witnessed by the Imam and nationally televised, those crudities issued forth from his sullied mouth. Obviously the cleansing ablution he took only minutes earlier before entering the mosque was merely a ritual, and a meaningless one at that. Surely Saiful, and others beside him including and especially the pious Imam, realized that by just uttering those crudities he had effectively nullified his ablution. Yet there he was, piously declaring Allah hu Akhbar (God is Great!), and then proceeding to his prayers.

I cannot imagine a more despicable sight of desecration of our Holy Book. I would not stoop to this college dropout’s gutter level to even translate the obscenities coming forth from his soiled lips.

Someone had put a microphone on the young man so the world could hear his filthy utterance. How thoughtful! The event was broadcasted at prime time! I pity those parents who would have to explain to their young children on what had transpired.

Such are the priorities of this dysfunctional duo of Abdullah and Najib. And they want Permatang Pauh voters to endorse their leadership!

Contrast that with Anwar’s statesmanship. The day he forms the government, he declared, he would lower gasoline prices and release those prisoners of conscience held under the ISA. Regardless whether one agrees with his policies, there is no denying that Anwar has set his priorities and the national agenda right.

Respecting The Quran

I am appalled that many Malaysian Muslims are calling for Anwar to debase himself to the same sewer level as Saiful by swearing on the Quran. If the truth could be had so simplistically, we would not need the court system and extensive police force.

Those Muslims’ commitment to things Islamic does not extend however to their suggesting that the Sharia Court takes jurisdiction over this case. After all both participants are Muslims, and Anwar has already lodged a complaint to the religious department. Somehow at this particular instance and circumstance, those Muslims suddenly have more faith with our secular criminal justice system than with the Sharia.

I would rather Anwar swear on the Quran to commit that, on becoming Prime

Minister, he would uphold the constitution and lead a government that is efficient, not corrupt, and has the interests of the people uppermost, as encapsulated in his Ketuanan Rakyat declaration. I also challenge Abdullah and Najib to do likewise. That would be the proper and dignified use of our Quran, the symbolic enactment of the phrase, “Let Allah be my witness!”

It would also have been more meaningful and dignified had Saiful taken the oath over the Quran committing himself to be a diligent student when given the rare opportunity for a precious slot in a local university. And had he followed through with that and studied hard, he would have achieved something for himself and be of service to his nation. Saiful should have known that he was given an opportunity denied to too many other young Malaysians. Instead, he blew that chance for a moment of infamy.

A few years ago former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Ghaffar declared that UMNO could be had for a few billion ringgit, at most. He was referring to the endemic corruption in the party. Apparently that price has gone down considerably since. Today, a local college drop-out with only a promise of a cheap scholarship to a lousy local institution could derail the whole UMNO government and paralyze the country.

I would have never imagined that the future of our Prime Minister and his Deputy would hang on whether a young man’s posterior had been violated. That is what Abdullah’s and Najib’s leadership has been reduced to, and how it will end, on Saiful’s end.

If a struggling failed-freshman like Saiful could create such a havoc, I would not dare imagine what a smart, savvy, rich foreigner could do to UMNO and our country. There is one sure way to spare our beloved nation such a fate: get rid of UMNO and the incompetent and dysfunctional team of Abdullah and Najib.

By voting for Anwar in the upcoming elections, Permatang Pauh voters get to do just that, and thus protect our country.

Thin Skin and Relative Sensitivities

Friday, August 15th, 2008

Farish A Noor

Odd how sensitive some people can be at times. Reading the reports about the debacle that passed during the Bar Council’s public forum on Religious Conversion in Malaysia, one gets the distinct impression that there are still many Malaysians among us who cannot and do not understand the meaning of respectful, intelligent dialogue between equal citizens who have reached adulthood. Rather than sitting down quietly and listening to the other’s point of view before making one’s own point or expressing one’s reservations, it turned out that a rather large crowd of demonstrators had assembled to demand that the forum be called off altogether, on the grounds that such a forum would upset the gentle and genteel sensitivities of some.

Well, before commenting any further, let us revisit what actually happened at the Bar Council’s forum itself:

According to the Bar Council’s account of the event, the forum passed without any undue incident and the discussion – before it was disrupted – proceeded without any degree of animosity or chaos. The first part of the forum involved two individuals who merely recounted their personal experiences of having to deal with the issue of conversion when a member of their respective families or spouses had converted to another religion without their knowledge. This was, by all accounts, a rather mundane recounting of personal experiences for the sake of shedding some light onto what actually happens in such cases and showing just how such instances of conversion can lead to all manner of legal complications later.

The second part of the forum was stopped before it began thanks to the entry of some of the protestors into the auditorium, thereby forcing the Bar Council to bring the proceedings to an untimely end.

Beyond the forum itself what really caught the attention of the press has been the reaction of the crowd of demonstrators and the language used by some of them as they demanded the forum to be stopped: Taunts of a racial nature, apparently, were used and there are reports of phrases like ‘Babi’ (pig) and ‘Balik Cina’ (Back to China) being uttered, by the very same people who claim to be defenders of a faith that is just and loving. One wonders just how Islam can be reconciled with such racist language and behavior; and whether those who uttered such remarks considered the simple fact that it was they who were really damaging the image of Islam and Muslims in Malaysia…

To make things worse, the Bar Council’s report on the forum went on to note that Molotov cocktails were found in the vicinity of the Bar Council building, and that on the same day another Molotov cocktail had been thrown into the compound of the former residence of the President of the Bar Council. Should these developments be related, we are again compelled to ask the obvious question: Was this also part of the defense of Islam and the reputation of Muslims, one wonders?

Malaysians, of course, are not unused to the claim that certain topics and issues cannot be discussed in public due to ‘public sensitivities’. Since the formation of this nation, we have been told again and again that issues such as race and religion are taboo and that Malaysian citizens are not allowed to discuss them in the open.

What is distressing, however, is the fact that among those who took part in the demonstration were also leaders of the Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance, notably YB Zulkifli Nordin of PKR and YB Salehudin Ayob of PAS. It would appear that despite claims to representing a new Malaysia that aims to go beyond the communitarian logic of the past, some leaders of the Pakatan Rakyat have no problems whatsoever calling for a ban on public forums alongside their counterparts in UMNO. And some of us were under the mistaken impression that the results of the 8 March 2008 elections were an indication of the emergence of a new Malaysian politics that is non-sectarian and non-communitarian. Perhaps we should be thankful for the active and vocal participation of the PKR and PAS in this latest fiasco, that has reminded us that nothing has really changed after all.

While disrupting public forums has become somewhat of a specialty among the more robust members of the BN, as was the case during the disruption of the APCET II meeting in KL years ago, it is sad to see that the component parties of the PR are likewise able to emulate their BN counterparts, all in the name of protecting Muslim sensitivities. We therefore need to raise a host of other related questions here that may shed some light into helping us understand the real motivations behind this latest drama in Malaysia’s convoluted politics:

Firstly, it should be noted that talk of ‘protecting public sensitivities’ is not unique to Malaysia or Muslims alone. In my research into the rise of Hindu fundamentalist groups in India, I have come across ample instances of the same sort of skewered logic at work; where extreme right-wing Hindu fascists proclaiming the exclusive ideology of Hindutva have also resorted to the same sort of argument. Thus whenever there is any debate about the rights of Muslim minorities in India, the right-wing Hindutva lobby sounds the rallying call of ‘Hindus in danger!’ and makes the claim that Muslims and Christians are touching on Hindu sensitivities, and consequently provoking a violent response. Even after numerous instances of Mosques being destroyed, Muslims being harassed, attacked and even killed, the Muslims of India are told that they cannot question the politics of the far-right Hindu lobby, its hate campaigns and demonization of other faiths, as this is a ‘sensitive issue’ that would ‘inflame Hindu anger’. Minorities in India have thus been held hostage by an extremist, racist, Hindutva lobby and one cannot even question this on the grounds that such interrogations would be insensitive! Now, tell me, is it not the case that a similarly flawed and biased logic is at work here in Malaysia?

The appeal to communal sensitivity is perhaps one of the easiest ploys that have been used time and again to further the end of extremist, communitarian and sectarian politics at its worst. Likewise the issuance of bogus threats and fear-mongering campaigns that are designed to distract our attention from the real issues at stake, and are instead used merely as a smokescreen for a more insidious politics of racial, ethnic or religious majoritarianism worldwide. From the rise of the Fascists in Europe during the 1930s to the rise of the Hindutva lobby from the 1970s and the rise of Muslim fundamentalists from the 1980s, we have seen the same tired and worn-out strategy at work: To use the notion of ‘public sensitivity’ as a blanket excuse to foreclose debate, narrow down the public domain, marginalize civil society and erode democracy. While this is to be expected from a ruling elite that is bankrupt of ideas and values, again we need to ask: why was PKR and PAS there?

Secondly, we would like to remind our friends in the Pakatan Rakyat that the PR is precisely that: it is the PEOPLE’s alliance and it is meant to express and mirror the aspirations of the Malaysian people as a whole. Now this may be news to some of the leaders of PKR and PAS, but Malaysia happens to be a plural, multi-confessional nation that is complex. Malaysian society is made up of many different faith communities as there are varied ethnicities. The election results of 8 March 2008 was the clearest indicator ever given by this plural Malaysian public that we want a new form of national politics that transcends racial, ethnic and religious differences; one that demands a new politics based on universal citizenship.

Now one of the features of any democratic plural society is its maturity and ability to deal with matters that transcend communal divisions, including religious conversion. In case the leaders of PKR and PAS are not aware of this, conversion is a commonplace occurrence and it often leads to distress among family members and those related to the convert. I myself have had to play a pastoral role in assuaging the worries of many non-Muslim families when one of their members converted to Islam. Surely this is a matter that requires all those qualities that Islam speaks of: compassion, understanding, sympathy and integrity? And not to merely fly off the handle and start a demonstration just to make a point and grab some media publicity? To unilaterally demand that a perfectly sensible, responsible and objective public forum be stopped on account of the perceived injury to one community – real or imagined – smacks of bias and prejudice, and the failure to even understand the anxiety of other communities. One is compelled to ask if these ‘defenders of Islam’ have even thought of the pain and anguish caused to those families who have seen and lived through broken marriages, divorces and grave-robbings? Or do the feelings of other communities do not count, and do other communities have no sensitivities? Why is if that time and again, it is only the sensitivities of Muslims that matter in the eyes of some of these people?

And finally, a note about decorum and language. That PKR and PAS could have been present at a demonstration where phrases like ‘Babi balik Cina’ were uttered is a mind-boggling revelation that beggars belief. If the members of PAS’s Unit Amal could have walked out of a public performance simply because they did not take to the sort of music being played at a concert on the grounds of its alleged indecency, how and why could they consent to be present at a demonstration where such foul, obscene racist language was used? Or have we come to a point where PAS is able to live with racist language that calls on our fellow Malaysians to ‘Balik Cina’, while unable to tolerate even a simple, mature and objective discussion on freedom of religion?

Truly, the event at the Bar Council has served as a check on the perception and optimism of the Malaysian public who voted for the Pakatan in March. We gave the parties of the Pakatan – notably the PKR and PAS – our votes on trust and the longing to see a new Malaysia. Instead all we have is the hysteria of mass-organized moral panics and the language of ‘Babi balik Cina’ instead. Shame on you

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #66

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

Islamic Civil Society

Paralleling the development of the modern civil society is its Islamic variant. It too transcends ethnicity and operates outside the sphere of the state. This last assertion needs clarification.

In contrast to the secular West, there is no separation of church and state in Islam. It is all encompassing. True, but conveniently forgotten is that this is so because in Islam there is no “church” and no formal clergy class. The imam is imam because we, the flock, call him so. His power is derived from and not imposed on the congregation—the essence of representative governance at its basic level. That has long been the tradition in Islam.25

Exceptions occur. Shiism, often dubbed Islam’s Catholic Church, has a penchant for an elaborate clergy: Mullahs, Ayatollahs, and the Grand Ayatollah. Malaysia, although non-Shii, is also picking up this trend of having formalized state-sanctioned “church,” complete with its hierarchy of officials with their proud civil service status.

This bureaucratization of Islam in Malaysia is relatively recent, within the last decade or two. Malay leaders try to legitimize their positions through control of the religious establishment. In the past, local communities governed their mosques, with the congregation selecting its imam; today the state takes over that function. Today’s imam is just another civil service functionary, and has as much commitment to his congregation as his fellow bureaucrats in other agencies to their clients. Even the sermons are canned, supplied by the central office.

When the state becomes large and intrusive, whether in Eastern Europe or the Muslim world, that human yearning for freedom begins to express itself. The vibrancy and mushrooming of Islamic civil society is precisely the result of the overbearing presence of the state.

A complicating factor in Malaysia is politics. Many Islamic civil society activists are sympathetic to PAS. This kindred spirit has less to do with Islam and everything to do with their common opposition to an intrusive powerful government. Precisely because of its close association with PAS, Islamic civil society is getting an unfair bad rap from the establishment.

Contrary to the perception in the West, civil society (or its equivalent) has a long tradition in Islam. The institution of waqaf (local endowment) builds hospitals, schools and universities, is active in social welfare, and welcomes new converts. The bulk of their charitable activities are outside the sphere of the state.26

Two Islamic civil society organizations are worth noting: Sisters in Islam and Al Arqam. The former is a women’s advocacy group led by moderate, liberal and essentially political establishment types. One of its officers is Prime Minister Abdullah’s daughter. Its leaders are regularly lauded in the mainstream media. The reason? Their brand of Islam matches that of the government.

At the opposite end of the theological spectrum is Al Arqam, started by one Ashaari Muhammad who until recently was jailed for “deviationist” preaching.27 That movement emphasizes personal responsibility, believing that if individuals were moral and upright, society would become clean and wholesome. “Amen!” to that! The movement was remarkably popular and successful. It combined the independence and discipline of the Mormon Church, the asceticism and cohesiveness of the Amish community, and the communality and free spiritedness of a hippie commune.

Today we have leaders exhorting Malays to be independent and to shed our “subsidy mentality.” That was the same message Ashaari was preaching three decades earlier. He was very successful, and the government jailed him and banned his movement!

Many would consider ABIM, the Muslim Youth Movement once led by Anwar Ibrahim, an Islamic civil society. It certainly has all the trappings of one, but in dynamics it is nothing more than pseudo civil society.

The traditional and pseudo civil societies are fast fading. Today the main contenders are secular (Western) civil society and its Islamic variant. At first blush, the twain will never meet. They view the cosmos, in particular self and state, very differently. Modern civil society, following in the grand humanist tradition, places supremacy on the individual, with the state deriving its power from and using it to serve the citizens. In Islam, everyone—ruler and ruled—are ultimately answerable to a higher authority, Almighty Allah.

If advocates of both civil society and its Islamic variant were to emphasize their missions and ideals, they would find that they are on the same path. Were they to emphasize their symbolisms and differences, they are bound for collision. Malaysia, with its plural society and where both elements are strong and vibrant, is the ideal environment and unique opportunity to test this proposition. Malaysians should seize it.

There is always the possibility that religious-based civil society would heighten ethnic and communal identities with devastating consequences, as in the Balkans and India. The models to emulate instead are the Red Cross and Red Crescent. They share the same ideals and mission; an injured Christian in Beirut would not feel out of place in a Red Crescent ambulance any more than a Muslim patient in Boston would be discomfited receiving blood from the Red Cross. Were we to associate the cross with the Crusade, and the crescent with the Saracen, we would be heading for collision.

Early civil society in America too had strong religious orientations. With time and responding to an increasingly plural America, they began transcending ethnic and religious boundaries. Today, the YMCA is more an athletic club and less a Christian organization. Many recognize the Salvation Army for its many wonderful charity works; few recall its Christian origin.

Islamic civil society, like Islam, should transcend ethnicity, politics, and geography. In reality, the Malaysian version is essentially a Malay movement and politically aligned with PAS. Doctrinally, with few exceptions like Sisters in Islam, their adherents tend towards the more fundamentalist version of the faith. They are also insular; they do not welcome Muslims of less pure persuasions, and of course non-Muslims. Their circle of trust is small. They are significant barriers to developing a common Malaysian identity.

I hope that with time and responding to the plurality of Malaysia, Islamic civil society would lose its religious emphasis and focus more on its missions and goals a la the YMCA and Salvation Army.

There are two avenues to achieve this: revamp the way Islam is taught; and reduce the state’s presence in matters Islamic. Both are tall orders. Islamic learning in Malaysia and in the wider Muslim world is nothing more than indoctrination. Students are dustbins to be filled with dogmas rather than intellects that needed to be sharpened. Islamic schools and colleges are more seminaries than educational institutions. If they were more like their Catholic counterpart in America and also teach “secular” subjects like science and mathematics, then they would not only attract non-Muslims but also produce better and less insular Muslims. Islamic International University uses English and offers nonreligious courses; as such it attracts many non-Muslims. I see no reason why an Islamic school would not attract non-Muslims.

The morals and ethics of Islam are universal. The central command and recurring theme of the Quran is to “command good and forbid evil.” All, believers and non-believers, would agree with that.

Young Muslims must have broad-based liberal education in schools and undergraduate years. They can specialize and study Islam in depth later in graduate school. Exposure to and learning the humanities and sciences (natural and social) would enhance their understanding of our great faith. Muslims would benefit by being exposed to the rich and varied theological interpretations of Islam. It would be the height of intellectual arrogance if not downright “un-Islamic” to declare that your interpretation is the only true one.

The second approach would be to reduce the role of government in the lives of its citizens. The state’s close identification with Islam risks many negative consequences.

It alienates non-Muslim Malaysians and makes them feel disenfranchised. It also degrades the faith; it would be viewed as nothing more than a bureaucracy. Failures of the state would be viewed as the deficiencies of Islam, eroding the public faith in this great religion. This is exactly what is occurring in Iran. The Ayatollah and other members of the overbearing clergy class have driven more Iranians away from Islam than any Western crusader. The current contempt many Malaysian Muslims have for the Islamic pseudo clergy in the political establishment also reflect this sentiment. These political ulama are viewed less as men of piety and more as petty bureaucrats. With the government out of Islam, Muslims would be free to explore and discover our rich and varied traditions without fear. This intellectual freedom, like all freedoms, is empowering.

The most devastating consequence of the state’s heavy involvement in Islam, and one inflicted exclusively on Malays, is that it diverts scarce talent into the non-productive activities of the bloated religious bureaucracy.

With the bureaucratization of Islam, functions previously done by the local waqaf are taken over by a paternalistic and authoritarian government. I do not know whether the poor are looked after better today, but I do know that those religious functionaries (I would not dignify them by referring to them as Imam) live in government-appointed bungalows, drive luxury cars, and work in palatial offices.

With the government out of Islam, Muslims can truly focus on the essence of our faith instead of its superficial rituals and manifestations. Then we would see in the modern civil society not its Western origin, rather its ideals that are also the ideals of our great faith. With the de-emphasis on Islam, Islamic civil society could concentrate more on its civic mission and less on its Islamic trappings. That would also bring Malaysians together.

Next: The Fourth Estate

The Sarong Index of Political Corruption

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

M. Bakri Musa

The eminent economist Ungku Aziz, whose insight on rural poverty remains unmatched, once proposed the “sarong index” as a measure of rural Malay poverty. You count the number of sarongs in a household and divide that by the number of dwellers (excepting infants, who presumably would still be in their diapers).

The lower that number the greater is the poverty, with an index of less than one (more people than sarong) signifying extreme poverty. Perhaps that explains why the poor have large families; they are, in the language of my old kampong, sharing the same sarong too often!

With politicians now routinely giving out sarong pelakat to Malay voters during elections, I suggest a new “sarong index,” this time as a measure of political corruption. Divide the number of sarongs distributed by the number of Malay voters. The higher the number, the more corrupt the politician, and the more competitive the constituency or the position sought.

My index is superior in that it simultaneously measures two variables: the degree of political corruption and how keenly a position is being contested.

Like Ungku Aziz’s old index, mine too could be refined by, for example, noting the material of the sarong. If it is only the cotton Madras variety, you could conclude that the corruption is low, or that the election is only for a branch and not a national position.

I imagine Abdullah Badawi’s team is now aggressively handing out the more expensive and finely-embroidered Kelantan sutra in anticipation of defending his party’s presidency in the upcoming UMNO elections!

Bless those folks of Permatang Pauh, for they, at least the Muslim voters, will now be inundated with gifts of sarongs given out by generous UMNO operatives intent on denting Anwar Ibrahim’s assured victory in the upcoming by-election.

It may be argued that my index is so, well, 1960s or kampong-like. In these days you would need an extended stay at a plush hotel in the capital city or even a brief overseas trip to carry any weight. Rest assured that my sarong index would still apply in those circumstances, albeit with some modifications.

For in addition to the number of sarongs and type of material, the manner by which the sarong is presented would also matter. For the ordinary villager, simply leaving the sarong in its original clear plastic wrapping would be acceptable. For more important or exceptionally influential clients, that would not suffice. Not only would you need a better material like the sarong sutra, but you would also need to wrap it around something attractive, like a voluptuous body a la the Mongolian model, with the carrier included as part of the gift! And if your target has shall we say a more avant garde taste, you would have to wrap the sarong around a Saiful!

A note of caution for those ill informed on matters of chemistry: biological stains on fabric, unwashed, last a long time, as President Clinton so woefully found out.

In traditional Malay culture, the gift of a sarong is the most personal and thoughtful, bestowed only on special occasions. For a youngster, it would be the traditional gift at the time of circumcision and on khatam, the completion of reciting the Quran, both seminal events in a young Malay’s life. The sarong is also a wonderful wedding gift.

The sarong has both religious and traditional significance. The more embroidered and expensive sutra is worn at weddings and to adorn the pelamin (wedding dais). The simple cotton sarong is the apparel for our daily prayers. Imagine for your prayers wearing the sarong given to you with the intent to corrupt!

The gift is very personal for when donning the sarong one would immediately be reminded of the generosity of the giver as well as the unique occasion on which it was given. I still have the samping sutras given to me by my friends and family decades ago. On the special occasions like Hari Raya and wedding receptions when I would don it, it would inevitably rekindle favorite memories of those dear friends and family members, as well as the warm occasions when I received those gifts. Such is the meaning of the gift of a sarong.

I also remember fondly the sarongs given to me by my grateful patients, not so much for the gift as for the emotions and sense of gratitude expressed with the giving. On those occasions I would feel a certain kinship with the village dukuns (medicine man), for whom the gift of a sarong from their cliental is the tradition.

It saddens me that such a pristine part of our culture is today debased. Far from being the symbol of affection and generosity, as I know it, the sarong is now part of and the emblem of corruption.

Earlier we saw the obscenity of our very symbol of honor and nobility, the keris, being publicly degraded by those who would claim to be our future leaders. What saddened me were not the thuggish behaviors of these young pseudo leaders rather that they were wildly cheered on by their followers. Such perverted values!

Alas, the sarong, like our beloved keris, is now a metaphor for the erosion of our traditional values and the desecration of our culture. There is no index to measure that.

The Last Temptation of Arjuna

Friday, August 8th, 2008

Why Nation-States Need to Embrace Complexity

Farish A Noor

Modern nation-states are rather clumsy, careless things that blunder along the path of history until they eventually get to their appointed destinations. Along the way, modern nation-states tend to tread rather heavily on the conscience of their marginalized minorities and liminal, subaltern groupings who do not quite fit into the grand logic of the monologuos state with its singular vision and homogenous, self-referential narrative of unitary identity. All over the world today we see the perils of assimilationist politics at work, with minority groups beings sidelined, marginalized, erased or silenced. More often than not such discursive closure and historical erasures are justified before the altar of realpolitik and pragmatic majoritarianism, and we are told time and again, that the history of nations must necessarily be the history of the majority. So where does this leave the subaltern Other?

All of this, of course, points to the quaint parochialism of the modern nation-state which is, after all, a rather crude and blunt instrument at best. Nationalism and nation-building have always been a messy process and invariably the bloods of innocents have been shed for the sake of creating some false sense of unity in identity and purpose. We need not repeat the catalogue of atrocities that human beings have committed in the name of nationalism and of course we cannot escape the fact that the nation-state is all but normalized and hegemonized in the age we live in.

But can the modern nation-state be induced to engage is a modicum of self-reflection and auto-critique? Can it be compelled to reconsider some of its foundational premises; to back track and retrace the steps that it has taken to where it is today (which often leads it to the mistaken conclusion that history is determinate and teleological); to question some of its cherished settled assumptions?

The root of the matter is the question of identity and the perpetuation of identity over time. This, incidentally, is a question that is both personal as it is political; and the nation-state, like the individual, has to be made to look into the mirror of self-doubt to see the glimmer of reason tucked behind the cloud of untruths (in the Nietzschean sense) that are its instrumental fictions. It has, in short, to be made to ask the same existentialist questions that we are all bound to ask ourselves sooner or later: “what am I; why am I here; is this all I am; is this all I can be?” How, in short, do individuals and states deal with complexity?

Instructive in this respect is the dialogue between the semi-divine hero Arjuna and the God Krishna that takes place on the eve of the great battle of Kurukshetra, which makes up the theme of the Bhagavad Gita, and which, incidentally, happens to also be one of the most important works of localized Hindu literature in Southeast Asia, rendered as the Hikayat Pandawa Lima.

Unable to lay his soul to rest the warrior-prince Arjuna contemplates the folly of life and the madness of power on the night before the great battle between the two warring clans of the Pandawas and Korawas, cognizant of the fact that regardless of the outcome the battle will spell the doom of both. Gnawing at his conscience is the perennial conundrum that he is unable to resolve: How can he, the warrior-prince, obey and comply with two apparently contradictory moral orders, the dharma of the just man who must respect life, and the dharma of the warrior who must destroy life itself?

It is Krishna who comes to Arjuna’s aid by offering him sage counsel that is equally relevant to the modern technocrat of today. Krishna reminds Arjuna that life is full of contradictions and that as a human being one of the first conditions to be met while living in the here-and-now is to accept, understand and live with these contradictions. Arjuna has to protect life, but he also has to kill. He must be both prince and warrior, protector and killer. Having to bear the burden of both obligations is his destiny and he cannot escape this.

Arjuna is faced with the last temptation before the great slaughter at Kurukshetra. He longs to relinquish all sense of responsibility, to escape, to deny his own agency and responsibility, to refuse to act, to do nothing. But it is Krishna who reveals himself in all his magnificent universal plenitude and shows him in no uncertain terms that Life is far greater than the individual. While the warrior-prince is forced to do battle with his conscience, Krishna reminds him that Life is far greater, more complex, much richer than the finite conscience of the individual; and that even if the greatest of heroes cannot reconcile such contradictions in him, Life is far more abundant and expansive and great enough to reconcile all contradictions within itself.

The moral of the Bhagavad Gita – of which there are many – is that inaction is no escape from the complexities of life and that submission to Life means accepting the complexities, contradictions and paradoxes that make up mottled landscape of living itself. No, we cannot run from our fears and anxieties and we cannot gloss them over with counterfeit simple solutions either. To truly live to the full, one has to reflect the complexities of life in our personalities as well, to mirror the myriad of life’s contradictions in the myriad of personalities that inhabit ourselves. We have, in other words, to accept and live as a community of selves.

As it is for Arjuna the beleaguered hero, so is it with beleaguered nation-states and confused technocrats. The modern nation-state harbors still an anxiety so deep that it points to its primordial origins and its murky roots in a past that it wishes to forget. Again and again the nation-building project sets itself upon the weakest of foundations, be they artificial histories or instrumental myths of creation that attempt to disguise the confusion and chaos of their genesis. States and nations lie, again in the Nietzschean sense, to escape the prospect of having the mirror of history pointed squarely in their faces; and to be reminded of the mythological seats of their birth. Like children who refuse to grow up, they attempt to escape and are tempted to deny their own agency in their auto-genesis. They deny their authorial responsibility in the writing of their own – often lopsided, narrow and simplified – histories.

The challenge that remains before the modern nation-state today, living as we do at a time when the project of Modernity itself has come under question and in a world where myths are dying all around us, is to admit to its own mythological origins and its fictional identity. The nation-state has to grow up, and like Arjuna, realize that the writing of the national narrative is necessarily a process that is complex, confusing and contradictory; and to learn to live in a confused and complex world. Only then can we say that the nation-state has reached adulthood, only then can we say that we live in a nation that is mature.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University and co-founder of the www.othermalaysia.org research site.

Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor, Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Block S4, Level B4, Nanyang Avenue, Singapore, 639798 Tel: (Office) 0065 6790 6128; Main line: 0065 6793 2991

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #65

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

Civil Society

The concept of the civil society—the space between self and state where citizens voluntarily come together for the pursuit of personal fulfillment and the common good—is universal. It is not merely a social construct of the modern secular West, as many in the Third World would like us to believe. Nor are the aspirations and ideals implicit in that concept suited only to citizens of Western democracies, as many in the West believe, with the rest being unworthy recipients.

While the concept may be universal, its content varies with cultures. As what we view as self and state varies, there must necessarily be variations in the definition and content of the civil society. In the West, self is essentially the individual and his or her nuclear family. As for the state, it derives its authority from the people, “Government of, by, and for the people.” In many parts of the world self refers to the full extended family, often the entire clan or tribe, and the state is viewed as deriving its authority from a higher source, “The Mandate from Heaven” for the Chinese emperor, and daulat or divine dispensation for Malay sultans, or directly from Allah as in an Islamic theocracy.

As various cultures look upon self and state differently, the defining characteristics of their civil society must necessarily vary.23 This caveat is necessary lest we get fixated on terminology and expect grapefruits to grow on vines simply because of terminology.

I discern four variants of civil society in Malaysia: the traditional, pseudo, modern, and Islamic. The first two are minor players; my focus is the modern civil society, and its Islamic variant.

I grew up in a feudal Malay society, albeit one that was rapidly modernizing. Civil society was not supposed to exist in such a setting. Yet I remember villagers getting together voluntarily to set up an English school, a communal catering group, and to cultivate rice fields belonging to disabled members of the community. Such gotong royong or communal self-help groups are the hallmark of traditional Malay society. The Chinese too have their clan organizations; likewise the Indians. Operationally they all have features of civil society: voluntary, bottom-up organizations, and beyond the purview of the state.

The reason such a civil society existed in feudal Malay society was that the state, despite its seemingly formal structure of rulers and ministers, had in reality no effective power. Those ministers and other officials were essentially royal courtiers, not administrators. In the words of Clifford Geertz, the Malay Negara was a theater state, with little resemblance to the modern political state. Court and state officials were merely playing their role, as in a sandiwara or theater.

With the penchant of many newly independent nations for big governments, many of the activities of these traditional civil societies were taken over by the state. A few remained, to champion such issues as language and cultural rights. These traditional civil societies had limited reach, rarely extending beyond the village, clan, or ethnic group.

With globalization, many Western institutions including civil society are grafted onto the local social landscape. Often these native versions bear only the superficial trappings of Western civil society, for in dynamics and structure they are nothing more than extensions of the state. Participation is far from voluntary, and they are strictly top-down organizations. They are invariably headed by aspiring or has-been politicians, or members of the royalty seeking yet another title. Ostensibly registered as “non governmental organizations” (NGOs), they all have lofty “do good” mission statements. In reality they are propaganda arms of the state or instruments to advance the careers of their leaders; hence my label of pseudo civil society.

These organizations often receive generous governmental funding, at least those compliant with and supportive of the existing order. Being top-down organizations, their existence depends entirely on their leaders. If they fall out of favor, so too would the organization.

A prime example is masyarakat madani. Madani derives from the Arabic word madaniah, meaning civilized. Masyarakat madani actually means civilized society, with the emphasis on civilized or civility, a slightly different shade in meaning, but in its current usage, it is the Malay version of civil society. The man behind the movement was former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. It was an instrument more for his personal political advancement. With his disgrace, the movement fell apart.

The true modern civil society has a long history in Malaysia. During the benign neglect of colonial rule, civil society of both secular and religious variety flourished. The phenomenon no doubt had the enlightened approval if not tacit encouragement of the colonial government. Many of the Malay-based ones later formed the backbone of the now ruling party, UMNO. Civil society then was, not surprisingly, consumed with nationalism and the independence movement.

The colonialists, behaving like other state powers, successfully influenced some of these organizations such that their members were agitating for Malaysia to remain a colony!

Come independence, there was a lull in the activities of civil society as citizens viewed their domestic government as part of themselves. With the increasing dominance and intrusion of the state typical of many newly independent countries, civil society began once again emerging, tentatively at first because of the repression from the state.

With globalization, transnational or global civil societies find a ready soil in Malaysia, especially those dealing with human rights, environment, and clean government. Many are so effective that they have become millstones around the administration.

Perversely, the government’s very policies encouraged the development of these local chapters of global civil societies, in particular, the push towards urbanization, free enterprise, and foreign trade. Malaysia’s healthy economy elevated many into the middle class, enabling them to benefit from modern education abroad. In the process, they aspire to the same goals of these global civil societies. Unlike the pseudo variety, these transplanted global civil societies remain true to their founding ideals and dynamics in being voluntary, foregoing state funding, and having a bottom-up structure. Their leaders often are distinguished Malaysians who have been educated abroad and had absorbed those same ideals. A prime example is Transparency International, headed by Tunku Abdul Aziz. It remains an effective critic of official corruption.

Other influential groups include those associated with environmental issues, like Friends of the Earth (Sahabat Alam). They have effectively blocked the construction of the highway along the crest of the Main Range, and Penang’s outer ring road.

The government is aware of the increasing influence of the modern civil society. As Prime Minister, Mahathir in his usual confrontational mode tried to discredit its members by labeling them as stooges intent on aping the ways of the West. His successor Abdullah is using the velvet-glove approach by co-opting the leaders. He recently appointed Transparency International’s Tunku Aziz to the Police Royal Commission.

Global civil society also stimulates the formation of homegrown institutions. The Consumer Association is an effective watchdog against government and corporate excesses, akin to America’s Consumers Union. Another is Aliran, a reform movement dedicated to “justice, freedom and solidarity.” Its monthly publication is a refreshing antidote to the puerile products of the mainstream media. There are others concerned with peace, rights of indigenous people and immigrants, and women’s rights.

A feature of these organizations is that they are, like their counterparts in the West, bottom-up in structure, independent of the state, transcend geography and ethnicity, and led by outward-looking Malaysians wise in the ways of the modern world.

Next:  Islamic Civil Society