Archive for October, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #78

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

Chapter 12: Fragmentation of Malaysian Society

Polarization of Malays

Divisions among Malays are deepening and becoming increasingly acrimonious. Being the dominant group, tensions within it would affect the greater racial dynamics. Carelessly handled, it would inevitably affect or spill over to the other communities.

Polarization among Malays, like the earlier division between the races, is accelerating because the cleavage lines reinforce each other. The division between religious conservative versus progressive liberals Malays also coincides with economic class (poor versus rich), geography (urban versus rural, East Coast versus West Coast), cultural (those who look to the West versus the Middle East), politics (UMNO versus PAS), and education (Western or secular educated versus religious and Middle Eastern educated). There are exceptions, but they prove the rule. The Muslim Professional Forum is made up of Western-educated urban Malays, but their theological inclination is towards the fundamentalist variant.

The fundamentalist terrorist Hussein Nordin who blew up Bali was the product of the secular Malay College and obtained his engineering PhD from Britain. It is this confluence of cleavage lines that makes Malay polarization potentially explosive. It need not be inevitable.

There is another perspective. We can look upon Malays as not being polarized, rather as having vigorous differences in views and deeply held convictions. Looked at in this positive manner, we can pat ourselves as not being a society of sheep but of rugged individualists, courageous enough to express our opinions.

This vigorous diversity of views, properly harnessed, could be the savior of Malays.

The oft-expressed quest for “Malay unity” could be a curse; Malay unity could easily degenerate into Malay unanimity. Then we would become the metaphorical flock of sheep that could easily be led to collective slaughter by some charismatic but unscrupulous shepherd. The Germans under Hitler were certainly united—very united—and look at the destruction they wrecked unto themselves and the world.

Malay leaders incessantly lament at what they perceive to be the lack of Malay unity. There is a collective longing for the “good old days” when we were supposedly united. With that unity we were able to achieve many great things, like getting rid of colonial rule. UMNO leaders look back to the days when the party represented all Malays, and its agenda was also that of the race.

Even the most cursory review of history will disabuse us of this myth. Until the British came, there was no such thing as aMalay political entity. Instead there were a series of feudal fiefdoms under a sultan or nobility. Indeed that was how the British managed to colonize the Malay world by flattering those malleable individual little sultans. Malays were never organized as a single political or social entity. Instead we referred to ourselves as Johore Malays, Kelantan Malays, or other regional identities. The remarkable achievement of UMNO was to instill a sense of oneness to Malays. This unity was precipitated by the threat of a common external enemy: Britain’s Malayan Union initiative to turn the country into a dominion.

UMNO was formed specifically to fight this proposal. The Sultans and aristocrats had already accepted the concept, achieved through British flattery (if not bribery) in the form of exalted Imperial knighthoods, perfunctory visits to Buckingham Palace, and piddling pensions for the sultans.

This display of Malay unity was impressive, and remarkably effective. Impressive because it was achieved in such a short order, matter of weeks; effective because it forced Britain to withdraw its proposal and the sultans to rescind their consent. The Malay masses took on simultaneously their own sultans and the mighty British, and prevailed!

The British were formidable adversaries, but knowing the feudal nature of Malay society then, taking on the sultans was a far greater feat. It was the supreme display of Malay subtlety that the uprising against the sultans was played out not as a rebellion but a profound expression of loyalty. The Malay citizenry descended upon the palace in a mass demonstration of public homage such that the sultans who had gathered there earlier were unable to leave in order to sign the historic document. That was a brilliant tactical coup on the part of the Malay leader, Datuk Onn; rebelling by showering your love and loyalty! Completely counterintuitive, but it worked.

That unity was short lived. Immediately thereafter, profound differences broke out among UMNO leaders that ended with the resignation of its founding president, Datuk Sir Onn Jaaffar. Yes, the British tried the knighthood trick too on this great patriot, but he, unlike the Sultans, did not fall for it.

Talk of the gratitude of the masses; here was a leader who brilliantly took on both the sultans and the British simultaneously and prevailed, yet immediately afterwards the members promptly ignored his wisdom and advice. Malays and UMNO survived that “disunity” and went on to achieve greater heights. There were other Malay leaders who proved even more capable than the wise and seemingly irreplaceable Datuk Onn.

Malays should remember this when we think that at any time a certain leader is deemed or make himself (or herself) indispensable. A decade later, when UMNO led the country towards independence, even that very idea was not universally shared. Then too there were the lamenting choruses of “lack of Malay unity.” Many Malays, especially those in the upper levels of the civil service, were against it. The sultans too, were not exactly enthused, especially after seeing what happened to the Indian Maharajahs and Indonesian Sultans following the independence of those countries.

Datuk Onn went on to found another political party whose platform was specifically against independence. He felt that the nation was not ready for it. Many, including my parents, agreed with him. They saw what happened to India and Indonesia, and did not want Malaysia to risk it. They preferred to remain under the comfort of British rule. It was the humility of my parents that later, on seeing how well Malaysia fared after independence, they would readily admit how wrong they were.

The more important lesson from that era is that my parents were able to express their views so freely and openly. They were not afraid of losing their job or being lynched by their neighbors. Indeed, leading to the 1955 elections, there were vigorous yet civil debates in the villages on the merits and demerits of merdeka. There were no epithets of “Mat Salleh culup!” (derogatory term for Anglophile) or “Hating your own race,” hurled at those who opposed independence.

What a difference today! Now even senior civil servants are cowered into not expressing their doubts about polices and ministerial pronouncements. Everyone spouts the party line for fear of losing his or her job or contracts. The cabinet is reduced to being the Prime Minister’s echo chamber. That cannot be good for the nation. Those ministers enthusiastically echoed Mahathir’s decision to build the crooked bridge over the Johore Strait when he was Prime Minister; those same ministers now heartily supported Prime Minister Abdullah when he later canceled it!

The remarkable observation is that back then there was no angst that Malays would be destroyed by the apparent disunity. The fear then was to the contrary; that is, Malays would become a nation of sheep. When the leaders shouted, “Merdeka,” the rest would merely bleat their approval. The colonial government tolerated and indeed encouraged such divergent views. Some would attribute a sinister motive; the colonial policy of “divide and conquer.” I would like to be generous and attribute that to the sense of fair play of the British. It is precisely this sense of fair play that is so lacking among today’s Malay leaders and society. They view any dissension as treasonous.

Dissent was not limited only to politics but extended to religion, language, and other matters. On religion, there were the older conservative kaum tua versus the younger progressive kaum muda. Differences in language were no less vigorous, with one group insisting that Malays should stick with the Arabic jawi, the other opting for the roman script. Practical realities, not government edicts solved that particular dilemma; Indonesia opted for the roman script, and Malaysia followed suit.

Even then there were fierce arguments that jawi was more attuned to our culture, it being the script of the Quran. The roman script was denigrated as a symbol of Western domination of our language and culture. Again there were powerful emotional appeals about stripping ourselves off the colonial mentality, never mind that both jawi and the roman script were equally foreign to us. Adopting the roman script proved particularly prescient. It greatly facilitated the growth of Malay language and made its adaptation to the computer age that much easier. This point is worth emphasizing. Sometimes the best move is to simply go with the flow and follow practical realities instead of blindly following emotions or official decrees.

Next: The Unraveling of Malay Society

A Ruler’s Latest Foibles

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

[MBM’s note: A few days after my piece below was posted on, the Special Court on October 15, 2008 unanimously ordered Tuanku Ja’afar to re-pay the US$1mil (RM3.5mil) loan to Standard Chartered Bank.

Chief Justice Abdul Hamid Mohamad sat with Chief Judge of Malaya Justice Alauddin Mohd Sheriff, Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak Justice Richard Malanjum and Federal Court judges Justices Ariffin Zakaria and Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin.

Three additional facts were known after the judgment was released. One, the transaction (loan) occurred on February 12, 1999, during Tuanku Ja’afar’s tenure as the Yang Di Pertuan Agong (King). Two, I tried to “google” the American company involved, Texas Encore LLC, but was unable to find any information. In America, a LLC (Limited Liability Corporation) has the tax advantages of a private partnership while enjoying the legal shield of a corporation. Three, there will be no bankruptcy proceedings as the Court allowed the bank to recover the money owed from Tuanku Jaa’afar’s fixed deposit account with the bank.

The five-man panel also dismissed with costs a counter-suit filed by the former King seeking for a declaration that the bank was not entitled in law to uplift his fixed deposit in settlement of any liability arising from the loan.

Justice Abdul Hamid read out the 32-page judgment over the two suits on his last day sitting on the Bench as the top judge of the country. MBM]

Two recent news items tucked inconspicuously in the mainstream papers caught my attention. One was a column by Shad Saleem Faruqi (“Test Case On Right To Sue Sultans,” The Star, August 20, 2008) on the precedent-setting Special Court trial in which the Yang Di Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan Tuanku Jaafar was being sued for non-payment of debts, and the other, an essentially palace social announcement of the same ruler going on leave and naming his son as Regent (“Tunku Naquiyuddin is Negri Regent,” The New Straits Times, September 30, 2008).

The two may be separate news items, but I see a disturbing connection, if not a pattern.

The proceedings of the Special Court, unlike that of the regular courts, are not open. We have to wait for the judgment to be delivered to get the material facts of the case.

This much we do know from Shad’s column. Standard Chartered Bank is suing the ruler over a debt of RM 3.24 M. While that is quite a sum of money, it is considerably less that what the state has to fork out annually to maintain the royal household. Further, that amount represents only a tiny fraction of the ruler’s non-royal or investment income, and an even tinier portion of his total assets, considering that the Negri royal household has considerable business interests.

On the “lack-of-tact” scale, that amount is only a fraction of former Sabah Chief Minister Osu Sukum’s weekend gambling debt in London. I am heartened that our sultans in the peninsular have less extravagant and equally less vulgar taste than those newly-rich Bumiputras of Borneo.

Then there is the announcement of the ruler going on a two-month overseas holiday. I do not know who will be responsible for the tab, but going by past experiences taxpayers will ultimately be left holding the bag. Nonetheless there will still be considerable personal expenses for which the ruler would not be reimbursed from the state (at least I hope so!).

Stated another way, if the ruler had stayed in the country instead of going on an expensive foreign vacation, and diverted the money thus saved towards repayment of his debt, it would have made a considerable dent towards the principle. He would also spare the state treasury a considerable sum, money that could be used to improve the lives of citizens.

Finally, on an administrative matter, the cost of empanelling the Special Court including the legal fees for both parties could easily exceed the amount of the loan.

In a trial over the recovery of a loan, unlike tort or criminal cases, there would be very little disagreement over the material facts. Meaning, there will be no dispute over the fact that money was transferred from Chartered Bank to an entity in which the ruler has an interest, or is liable for. And that sum of money has not been repaid. If there had been any fraudulent transfer, it would be a criminal, not civil case.

The possible point of contest would be for the ruler to deny any liability for the loan. The bank would of course contend otherwise, and that the ruler is either directly or vicariously liable for the loan. I eagerly await the bank’s arguments as those transactional details would inevitably reveal the myriad commercial and other links of the royal household.

Mahathir’s Finest Legacy

One of Mahathir’s finest legacies is his amending the constitution in 1993 to remove the sultans’ absolute legal immunity. With that, our sultans can now be sued over both civil and criminal matters relating to their personal conduct.

If not for that amendment, Standard Chartered would have to swallow its bad debts to the ruler, just like other lenders had pre-1993. Of course the bank would not have made that loan then; its loan officers would not jeopardize their careers, unless of course the bank is one of those GLCs where normal prudent lending practices do not apply, especially when the beneficiaries are “big shots.”

The mistake the ruler made here is in borrowing from a “real” bank, a multinational outfit where its officers are true professionals who put their banking reputation ahead of the prestige of some Third World royal potentate. There was a time however when these foreign banks were not above bribing local chieftains, but enlightened legislations back in their home country put an end to that. Foreign especially Western bankers are now liable for criminal prosecution back home if they were to engage in such activities abroad.

It is to be noted that during pre-amendment times, local bankers and businessmen willingly extended credit to our sultans fully aware that these lenders would have no recourse should our sultans renege on their promises to repay. Those lenders were not stupid; they considered those unpaid loans as part of the cost of doing business in the state. Meaning, their other customers would have to bear those costs of unpaid royal loans. Besides, those creditors now sport fancy royal titles; to them those are payments enough. Those loans are nothing more than barely-concealed and very expensive royal bakshis (corruption).

As Shad noted in his column, the constitutional amendment is silent with regards to the fate of rulers during the trial or once the verdict is delivered. If convicted on matters criminal, the ruler would have to vacate (abdicate) the throne unless pardoned by his brother rulers.

With matters civil, as with non-repayment of loans, the matter is less clear. Regardless, it would be a great shame were the Council of Rulers to pardon the Negri ruler for a measly sum of RM 3M. Surely the council would not risk besmirching its dignity by doing that. Let us hope that their collective judgment is wiser.

The Negri ruler has shown little judgment in risking the dignity of his throne over such a small loan. I do not expect that to change should the judgment be against him. Thus expect even greater assault on the dignity of the throne.

Standard Chartered will undoubtedly pursue the matter vigorously, as well it should. We could thus potentially see the ruler be subjected to bankruptcy proceedings. He would not be the first member of the royal household to be so subjected, but he would be the first ruler. That would be quite a legacy.

Absent a pardon, the country would face the specter of a bankrupt ruler sitting on the throne. Even if the Council of Rulers were to grant a pardon, that would not erase the fact that the ruler was bankrupt, someone who reneged on his promise to repay his loan.

Malay sultans are more than just rulers; they are the head of Islam, Allah’s representative on earth. During khutbas in all the mosques, the sultan is always mentioned and prayers offered for his longevity and wisdom in ruling.

One of the tenets of Islam is that we must be true to our words and contracts. Non-repayment of loans is a breach of that. Specifically in referring to loans, Muslims are advised to settle their debts before the end of Ramadan, so that on Hari Raya day we would start with a fresh slate, clear of debt.

Like Father, Like Son

This brings me to the second news item about the naming of the Regent. This is standard procedure when the ruler is expected to be away for an extended period.

Negri Sembilan is unique in that the throne is not automatically passed on to the oldest son. Instead the territorial chiefs, the Undangs, have the final say. Tuanku Jaafar’s naming a regent does not mean that the person would automatically ascend to the throne. However, there is the universal law of inertia, of things remaining where they are. The aphorism, “possession being nine-tenth of the law” is a derivative of that observation.

I am wondering whether the naming of a Regent now is an attempt to benefit from this law of inertia. I hope that the Undangs will exercise better judgment when selecting the successor to Tuanku Jaafar, and not be bound by the law of inertia.

The other consideration is that the ways and morals of a father inevitably would rub off onto his children. Tuanku Jaafar’s children, including the one he named as regent, are all successful in their own careers. Their individual net worth must be considerable. I would have expected that at least one of them or they collectively would bail out their father. That they did not reveal much about themselves.

At age 86, Tuanku Jaafar is not in the best of health. It may well be that the Special Court’s judgment will be mute. At which point the citizens of Negri Sembilan would have to await the judgment of the Undangs.

This is a time for our Undangs to remember why our ancestors in their wisdom chose to name the ruler of our state not sultan but “Yang Di Pertuan Besar.” Literally it means, “The One We Make Big.” The we refers to the people, as represented by our Undangs.

On a larger scale this is also the title we give the “King” of Malaysia, “Yang Di Pertuan Agong,” meaning, the one we make supreme. Mahathir’s 1993 constitutional amendment gives substance to the meaning of the phrase “we make supreme.” That amendment also made it possible for Standard Chartered to pursue its current suit against the Negri ruler.

First posted on, October 12, 2008

Politics And Posturing

Friday, October 24th, 2008

Politics And Posturing

Farish A Noor

I have not given up on the idea of democracy yet, though I would have to say that even as the best of political arrangements, there are still some bugs in the system. The most obvious is the tendency for democratic politicians to pander to the whims and demands of every constituency that comes forward and says, “If you give us this, we will vote for you”. The run-up to the American Presidential election has witnessed just one such prolonged bout of horse-trading as the candidates were forced to deal with demands from every single lobby and interested party, be they disenfranchised single mothers or the looney gun lobby.

Democratic politicians are therefore inclined to that most distasteful and indecorous of habits: political posturing. It is all part and parcel of the pathetic attempt to win votes at any cost, though the costs — social and political — are many as they are high. Add to political posturing the plural climate of a multicultural society, and you have the formula for disaster.

In many post-colonial societies like Malaysia, we see the same perilous path being walked by all parties. At present the uncertain fate of Malaysia hangs in the balance as nobody knows for certain who or what party will be running the country by 2009. Added to that is the increasingly vocal cry of so many dissonant voices demanding different things. The vernacular educational lobby is demanding separate educational streams where students will be taught in their mother tongues, be it Malay, Chinese or India. The religious lobby is likewise divided amongst themselves as Malay-Muslims demand Islamisation and more mosques, while the other communities are demanding protection of their Churches and Temples. Malaysian politicians, being the craven lot that they are, are conceding to all the demands and promising everything under the sun as long as they are voted into office.

Now of course all of this posturing will lead us to that fateful day when the electorate says, “Now that you have won, where are the things you promised us?”

Can any Malaysian government — regardless of who leads it — really deliver on all their promises? Can any Malaysian leader really deliver more Malay-Muslim, Chinese and Indian schools at the same time, or more money to be spent on mosques and madrassas, churches and temples, at the same time?

Even if all these demands are met, does anyone has the common sense to look at the realities on the ground and note the fact that Malaysians are less inclusive and accommodating compared to what they were like in the 1970s? In Malaysia’s universities Malay, Chinese and Indian students are not even sitting down and eating together in the canteens.

The nightmare scenario that may be the outcome of multiculturalism gone wrong is the day when a Malay-Muslim in Malaysia can be born to a Malay family, live in a Malay home, have Malay friends, speak Malay, read the Malay papers, watch Malay TV shows and movies, live and die in a Malay neighborhood without ever having had a serious meaningful conversation with a non-Malay throughout his or her life. The same concerns can be extended to Malaysians of Chinese and Indian origin, and multiply this on a scale of 25 million and you will have the Malaysian nation-state falling apart before our eyes.

Democratic politicians in Malaysia and elsewhere should therefore understand one simple fact: That democracy is not a license for every sectarian grouping to come forth and make exclusive sectarian demands for itself and at the expense of the rest of the nation. While Malaysia’s race and religion-based lobby groups have been calling for their own specific interests to be met, when was the last time any Malaysian group called for a simple thing like a playground, a common neutral space where Malaysians of all races and religions could come together on a universal basis, as citizens?

If Malaysia’s multicultural society seems to be growing further apart, the time has come for Malaysia’s democratic forces to get its act together and insist on the widening and deepening of the country’s shrinking neutral democratic space.

Populist politicians may get political mileage by pandering to the demand of bigots and sectarian-minded exclusivists when it suits their electoral prospects, but politicians are leaders who should lead, not be led. They can start by leading the way back to an inclusive neutral democratic culture where citizenship, rather than parochial ethnic and religious belonging, is the defining feature of our plural politics. Failure to do so means that they are just taking us down the path to the Balkans, or worse still, Rwanda.

Dr Farish A Noor is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; and one of the founders of the research site

Daily Times, Pakistan

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #77

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008


Chapter 12: Fragmentation of Malaysian Society

When the vase is broken, it matters not whether a stone or feather that strikes it.

—Malay proverb

Malaysians increasingly view themselves less as “we” and more as “us” versus “them.” The “us” could be Malays versus the “them,” non-Malays. For Muslims, it could be “us” progressive liberals versus “them” conservative fundamentalists.

Among Bumiputras, there are the “us” Muslim Bumis versus the “them” non-Muslim Bumis. Among Chinese Malaysians, the “us” could be those who have successfully adapted to the Malaysian realities and proudly display their Datukand Tan Sri-ships, while the “them” are those in the DAP who think that the very future of the great Chinese civilization rests on their shoulders. As for Indian Malaysians, the “us” could be those who have forsaken their “anak lelaki” (son of) or “anak perempuan” (daughter of) of their birth certificates for a “bin” or “binte,” acquired an affected Kedah accent, and voila, become ardent champions of Malay rights! The “them” is of course the rest.

This has not always been the case. Malaysia gained its independence on the premise that we would all be, well, “we.” That was the social contract agreed upon, at least by our earlier leaders. It was they, through their leadership and personal demonstrations of their “we-ness,” that brought their followers together to this grand experiment called Malaysia. The British would certainly not have granted the country its independence otherwise; it did not want its hands bloodied again as with the Indian sub-continent catastrophe.

The British premise was that the greatest threat to Malaysia’s viability was not the then active communist insurgency, but that Malaysians would savagely turn against each other. That was not an imagined fear. There were already intimations of such tragedies. Besides, the world is full of deadly examples of people turning upon their fellow citizens. A seasoned gambler would wisely not bet against the British.

This is still the prevalent view in Malaysia, that is, the greatest threat to its stability is interracial strife. I disagree. On the contrary, the greatest threat facing Malaysia today is not conflict between the races rather divisions within a race, specifically Malays. That is the more real and likely danger.

Divisions between Malays and non-Malays had been over issues that are referred to as “divisible conflicts;” meaning, they can be resolved through negotiations. Divisions within Malays however originate with differences over core values and beliefs. They are “indivisible conflicts,” not readily negotiated and therefore much more dangerous.1

Divisible Versus Indivisible Conflicts

The mark of a civilized society is how it handles conflicts not only within itself but also with others. In primitive times, we resorted to killing each other. We would like to think that we have moved away from that, but we have not. The only difference between then and now is the sophistication and hence the lethality of our killing machines, substituting primitive arrows for guided missiles.

Conflicts are inevitable. Whenever two individuals come together, we immediately have the potential for one. Conflicts can arise even within the same person. Such inner conflicts can create even greater havoc. The mark of a wise man, it is said, is the ability to tolerate simultaneously two contradictory views. We all can learn how to handle conflicts better.

Divisible conflicts are those that can be resolved through negotiations, with the parties eventually coming to a compromise. You may think the fire caused $150K worth of damage to the house, but the insurance adjuster valued it at only $120K. That is a divisible conflict as you could negotiate a figure somewhere in between that would be acceptable to both. On the other hand, if you like the house design but your spouse does not, then that is an indivisible conflict. It is more difficult to compromise, as it is a matter of values and esthetics. The only solution would be to learn to live with such differences.

Conflicts between Malays and non-Malays belong mostly to the divisible category, involving such issues as the award of scholarships, university admissions, government contracts, or number of cabinet seats. Those can be resolved through negotiations, albeit tough and contentious. The number of scholarships and cabinet positions could be increased to satisfy both parties.

The conflicts among Malays over issues like religion and language are not divisible, and therefore more difficult if not impossible to resolve. Hence they are much more dangerous. If a PAS Malay were to believe that chopping off the hand for stealing is a Quranic imperative and therefore should be the law of the land, and if you disagree with that interpretation, there is no room for compromise. There is no middle point, as for example, cutting only the finger. The kafir mengafir (true believers versus presumed infidels) debate between UMNO and PAS was so acrimonious precisely because that conflict was over issues that were not readily divisible.

Sadly, Malay leaders are blithely unaware of the dangerous consequences of such indivisible conflicts; they eagerly egg on their followers. Fortunately the Malay masses are wiser and more astute; they have learned to ignore their leaders, for the most part.

Civil and religious wars are that much more vicious and difficult to resolve because they are based on indivisible conflicts. The American Civil War dragged on because it was initially viewed as an indivisible conflict. The Confederates believed that it was their divine rights to own slaves; the Northerners believed that was an inherent violence to the American ideals. There was no middle ground. In reality that conflict, like most, was over economics. Marx was correct in that the root of all conflicts is economics, but it would be difficult to whip up your followers into a killing frenzy over mere money or material gains. You have to agitate them by wrapping your cause under such noble values as freedom, equality, justice, or the latest, democracy. Only when the Civil War was viewed as essentially an economic conflict over the rights of Southerners to have cheap labor (slaves) was a resolution possible. The subsequent introduction of farm machinery effectively removed slave ownership as a competitive advantage.

Not all differences between Malays and non-Malays are divisible, that is over the distribution of privileges and the state’s largesse. The doctrine of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony), so much hyped up by UMNO leaders, is an indivisible conflict between Malays and non-Malays. Non-Malays can either accept (or be forced to) or they do not. There is no middle ground.

The solution to the conflict over Ketuanan Melayu is not to view it as an indivisible conflict over the “real owners” of Malaysia, but to see it in its practical realities, a conflict over economic issues, just like slavery was with the American civil war.

A good beginning would be to critically analyze the doctrine more carefully. Both the premise and promise of Ketuanan Melayu are false. The premise that since Malaya was once Tanah Melayu (lit. Land of the Malays), Malays must automatically be Tuan (Master) perpetrates a cruel hoax on them. It implies that Malays do not have to work hard to be Tuan. Malays have convinced themselves that they are Tuan simply through the operation of the law, a social contract agreed upon by earlier leaders, or perhaps through some grand divine design.

The promise of Ketuanan Melayu is equally false, and doubly cruel. It breeds an unnecessary and unproductive sense of entitlement among Malays. We are led to believe that with Ketuanan Melayu, the world (at least that within the Malaysian border) would be at our beck and call simply because we are Malays. We use the constitution to anoint us with the glorious title Ketuanan Melayu, and then confidently proclaim that our language, culture, and norms would prevail. When our own little (much less the greater) world does not pay any heed, we become even shriller in demanding our rights as Tuan.

All such maneuvers succeed in doing is to delay the day of reckoning. It prevents Malays from realizing the stark reality that in this era of globalization we all have to earn and work to be Tuan. While Malays are content fantasizing being de jure (by operation of law) Tuan, non-Malays through their competitiveness have become de facto (as a matter of fact) Tuan in Malaysia.

When reality strikes (as it will inevitably), it will be a rude shock unless Malays disabuse themselves of the false promise of Ketuanan Melayu.

If we were to view Ketuanan Melayu at its symbolic and emotional level, then the conflict over it is indivisible, thus not resolvable. Viewed from its practical economic perspective, we would effectively convert it to a divisible conflict, and thus potentially solvable. Who cares who “owns” Malaysia; besides, what does it mean that Malays own Malaysia? It does not mean that a Malay could simply grab anything in Malaysia and claim it as his or her own. The harsh reality is that beneath the rhetoric and emotions over Ketuanan Melayu is the realization that Malays are left behind and are fast being marginalized economically. That is the real issue. If we resolve that, then the issue of who owns Malaysia becomes meaningless, and Marx would have been proven right once again.

Malaysian leaders would do well to remember and emphasize this crucial point. At the heart of the obsession with Malay hegemony is a cry for Malays begging not to be marginalized in the land of their birth. They are obsessed because they are indeed being rapidly left behind. Recognize this fact, and we are that much closer towards finding a solution. If we focus on the emotional issue of Ketuanan Melayu, then we will tear the nation apart, and both Malays and non-Malays would suffer together.

Instead of harping on such nebulous issues as the social contract and what was agreed or not agreed upon in the days leading to independence to buttress the claim of Malay “ownership” of Malaysia, it would be more fruitful to focus on how to make all Malaysians, in particular Malays, productive and competitive. Then they could indeed feel a sense of ownership and contribute accordingly towards the betterment of the nation.

Focusing on indivisible conflicts is non-productive; it would only aggravate them. It is more productive to try resolving the more solvable divisible conflicts. Solving them also creates goodwill, which gets transferred onto other areas. With time and the accumulation of a reservoir of trust and goodwill, we would learn to live with our indivisible conflicts, or that they would have become irrelevant. If Malays were to become competitive and play their rightful role in the economy, they would no longer be obsessed over Malay hegemony, and Ketuanan Melayu would cease to be a source of conflict, indivisible or otherwise.

Since divisions among Malays are more important and difficult to resolve than interracial differences, I will deal with that first.

Next: Polarization of Malays

The Myth of An Islamic State

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

The Myth of The Islamic State

M. Bakri Musa (

Book Review: Islam And The Secular State: Negotiating The Future of Shari’a, by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA

324 pp, Indexed, US $35.00, 2008.


Every so often I would read a book that would profoundly affect me. I have yet however, to get two such books written by the same author, that is, until now.

In 1990 I came across a paperback, Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law,” by Abdullahi A. An-Naim. I do not remember what prompted me to browse through let alone buy the book. Its cover design was nondescript, and neither its author nor publisher (University of Syracuse Press) was exactly well known. But bought the book I did, after scanning only a few pages.

Despite being only 255 pages, it took me awhile to finish it. I have read it over many times since. It is not that An-Naim’s prose is dense (far from it!) rather that the ideas he expounds are breathtakingly refreshing. They also appeal to my intellectual understanding of my faith.

That book resurrected my faith in Islam. Brought up under the traditional teachings of my village Imam, I had difficulty reconciling that with the worldview inculcated in me through my Western liberal education. The certitudes that had comforted me as a youngster were becoming increasingly less so as an adult.

I knew however, a religion that gave my parents and grandparents (as well as millions of others) their anchoring stability despite the terrible turbulences in their life must have something substantive to offer. I took that as a matter of faith. It was just that I was not getting the message, until I read An-Naim’s book.

I discovered that many of the issues I had wrestled with were shared with and have been dissected by many great minds in Islam of the past. This realization reassured me. Far from weakening my faith, those doubts ironically strengthened it.

Shari’a: A Human Endeavor

In that earlier book, An-Naim developed further the thesis of his mentor, Sudanese reformer Mahmoud Mohamad Taha, that while the Shari’a was based on the Quran and the Sunnah (sayings and practices of the prophet), nonetheless it remains the works of mortals. As such the Shari’a suffers from all the limitations inherent in such endeavors. It is time to revisit it using the same rigorous intellectual tools used by our earlier scholars, while cognizant of today’s universally accepted norms of constitutionalism, gender equality, and human rights, among others.

That is exactly what An-Naim has been doing with his “The Future of Shari’a Project” at Emory University, Atlanta, where he is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law. Islam And The Secular State: Negotiating The Future of Shari’a is the culmination of his scholarly effort.

Like that earlier book, this one is also a slow read despite being written in highly readable prose. The book is packed with substantive and innovative ideas that require some digesting and much contemplation. An-Naim’s writing is also precise and concise; he conveys in one sentence what others would take two or three, or even a paragraph.

An-Naim is a solid scholar but the book is written for a general audience, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. He uses Arabic phrases sparingly, and there are adequate references in English, Arabic, and other traditionally native Islamic languages including Bahasa (Indonesia).

An-Naim asserts, “The historical reality is that there has never been an Islamic state, from the state of Abu Bakr, the first caliph in Medina, to Iran, Saudi Arabia, and any other state that claims to be Islamic today. This obvious reality is due to the incoherence of the idea itself and the practical impossibility of realizing it, not simply to bad experiments that can be rectified in the future.”

The immediate rebuttal by many Muslims is that there is historical precedent – and a very excellent one – of an Islamic state, that of the first Muslim community in Medinah. Muslims rightly hold that as the ideal, but it cannot possibly be replicated, led as it was by Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w. He was both spiritual and political leader. To have a similar state today would require us to be endowed with another prophet, a blasphemous assumption in Islam.

Not only is an Islamic state not achievable, it is also not desirable. The very idea of an Islamic state, according to An-Naim, is based on later European concept of the nation-state and the law, not on Shari’a or Islamic tradition.

Throughout Islamic (indeed, world) history, there has always been tension between ulamas (and religious establishment generally) versus the state and its rulers, with each trying to use the other to further their own ends. Caliphs and sultans have co-opted ulamas to justify their (rulers’) power, while ulamas are not shy in maximizing the bounty they get from the state from such collaborations. In Malaysia for example, they vie with ministers and mandarins for government-issued worldly trinkets as the plushest bungalows, sleekest sedans, and most exalted royal titles.

A few ulamas have been known to leave their mimbar (pulpit) for political office. Some like Kelantan’s Nik Aziz do not even bother to separate their roles. Islam is actively being subjugated by political rulers while religious functionaries eagerly prostituted themselves to the state.

“As a Muslim, I need a secular state in order to live in accordance with Shari’a out of my own genuine conviction and free choice,” An-Naim declares, “… which is the only valid and legitimate way of being a Muslim. Belief in Islam, or any other religion, logically requires the possibility of disbelief, because belief has no value if it is coerced.”

He goes on, “Maintaining institutional separation between Islam and the state while regulating the permanent connection of Islam and politics is a necessary condition for achieving the positive role of the Shari’a now and in the future.”

Caution here, before hurling the epithets! An-Naim’s “secular” state does not mean the atheistic communist regime of the Soviet Empire where religion is completely vanished from public sphere, rather one where the state is “morally neutral” with respect to religion.

America proudly cites its “strict” separation of state and church. The reality is far different. Prayers are regularly offered at opening sessions of Congress, and as the current presidential campaign demonstrates, religion is never far from voters’ considerations.

Muslims yearn for an Islamic state without having the foggiest idea of what that would entail, except for some vague mumbling about it being based on the Quran, Sunnah, and Shari’a. The reason for the longing is obvious; most so-called Muslim states today fail miserably in the basic task of governing. Worse, they regularly trample with impunity on the basic rights of their citizens.

Perversely, this obsession with the Islamic state detracts these leaders from their basic task of governing, and citizens from taking their leaders to task for this elemental failure. Such fundamental and pressing needs as providing heath care, housing, education, development, and a modicum of freedom are best handled less by fussing over the Shari’a or the Islamic state and more with acquiring the skills of modern management. Today’s Islamists would get closer to achieving their vision of an Islamic state if they would first learn how to build effective and enduring institutions of governance.

Negotiations, Not Religious Fiat

While An-Naim advocates the separation of Islam and Shari’a on one hand from the politics and the state on the other, nonetheless he actively encourages nurturing the relationship between the two, including the state’s regulating the public role of Islam.

This would first involve reexamining the Shari’a. “For Muslims, Shari’a should be known and experienced as a source of liberation and self realization,” writes An-Naim, “not a heavy burden of oppressive restriction and harsh punishment. No action or omission is valid from a Shari’a perspective unless it is completely voluntary, and there is no religious merit in coercive compliance.” The emphasis is mine, and I would have it in huge fonts framed in every JAKIM office!

In its time the Shari’a represented a quantum leap in intellectual as well as juridical achievements. It emancipated women. Whereas before, women were part of her husband’s inheritance, to be disposed off like the rest of his estate; under the Shari’a they were entitled to their own rightful shares.

As that other law professor, Harvard’s Noah Feldman, wrote in his Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, “ … for most of its history, Islamic law offered the most liberal and humane legal principles available anywhere in the world.”

Feldman notes further that with Shari’a the scholars provided the crucial and fundamental checks and balances on the powers of the rulers. This is exactly what is glaringly absent in many Muslim countries today. Consequently, self-professed Islamic states like Iran and Saudi Arabia have more in common with fascist Germany and totalitarian Russia, both in the traits of the regimes as well as the tendencies of their leaders.

It was the genius of those early scholars to be able to reconcile the apparent contradictions in the Quran and Sunnah by resorting to “abrogation,” where certain verses of the Quran “override” earlier ones. With that they formulated a coherent body of laws that had served the community well for centuries. They successfully reconciled the earlier Meccan verses that there be no compulsion in matters of faith to the latter Medinah ones relating to apostasy. Likewise, the latter verses relating to the differential treatment of inheritance between sons and daughters to the earlier verses that declare everyone is equal in the eyes of Allah.

Abrogation was the tool devised by the ancient scholars; it was not a divine mandate. Today’s scholars should likewise use their insights and intellectual prowess to formulate a new Shari’a which should also be based on the Quran and the Sunnah. This is the only basis to make it acceptable to Muslims and not violate our basic beliefs and traditions. Such an exercise must be inclusive, with engagement of the entire community, utilizing the insights from various disciplines.

If we were to incorporate the Shari’a into the laws of our country, the objective of advocates of an Islamic state, such “negotiations,” as An-Naim puts it, must necessarily also include non-Muslims, especially for a plural society like Malaysia. The consequence of this is that the Shari’a formulated for Malaysia would necessarily be different from those for homogenously Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, just like there are significant variations in the Shari’a in the various fighs (jurisprudence) in Islam.

In short, An-Naim separates the concept versus content of Shari’a. The concept is readily apparent: a body of just laws applicable to all based on divine revelations (Quran) and the sunnahs. All Muslims agree to that, while most non-Muslims could be readily persuaded to the viewpoint of “just laws applicable to all.” The content however, must necessarily vary with time, place, and culture. That is An-Naim’s central message.

The central enduring values of the concept of the Shari’a are regularly missed and often confused by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In the West, as Feldman noted, the Shari’a is caricatured by such odious hudud laws as stoning to death for adultery while ignoring the Shari’a stringent standards for conviction. Contrast that to the gross perversion of justice in many capital convictions in America today, as revealed by the Innocence Project.

The central premise of the Shari’a is that all – ruler and ruled alike – are subject to its rule. That is the rule of law at its most fundamental level. That is a novel concept in the West for most of its history (the prince being above law) as well as in today’s self-professed Islamic states. Malaysia amended its constitution removing the sultans’ immunity with respect to their personal conduct only in 1993.

An-Naim has advanced and elevated the debate on the Shari’a and the Islamic state by a quantum leap. His is a much-needed intellectual antidote to those who would mindlessly exhort “Islam is the answer!” to every political problem, as well as those who delude themselves that the myriad problems facing Muslims today would magically disappear once we establish an Islamic state or a caliphate.

This book will be widely read in the West. I hope it will also reach a wide audience in the Islamic world. Muslims – especially leaders – would do well to expend the necessary intellectual diligence to ponder the totality of the ideas and concepts presented in this book. We should not dismiss them because they challenge our comfortable assumptions.


Poverty of Riches

Friday, October 17th, 2008

Guest Commentary: Poverty of Riches

Farish A Noor

The truth is that for revolutionary Islamic and Communist movements alike the world over, the democratic impetus and the drive for revolutionary politics was accompanied by a strong sense of disdain for worldliness, and a respect for a Spartan way of life.

As an aside to the academic work I normally do, last week I was given the opportunity to meet with Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the Spiritual Leader (Murshidul Am) of the Malaysian Islamic Party PAS at his office in northern Malaysia.

Despite the frail health of the man and his taxing schedule, we managed to pack in close to two hours worth of interview on tape.

One thing, however, struck me somewhere during the second half of our meeting. I remarked to the alim that his home was surprisingly similar to that of Ho Chi Minh’s in Hanoi, Vietnam, and that both he and the revered ‘Uncle Ho’ chose to give up their stately government mansions to live in humble wooden houses.

I also remarked to him that he was using the same cheap, plastic BIC ballpoint pen that I had seen him use when we first met in 1999. This occasioned a laugh and a smile from him, but it struck us both that these observations were far from pedestrian.

The truth is that for revolutionary Islamic and Communist movements alike the world over, the democratic impetus and the drive for revolutionary politics was accompanied by a strong sense of disdain for worldliness, and a respect for a Spartan way of life. Whatever you may say about Ho Chi Minh, one thing you could never accuse him of was corruption and taking the easy life. The same applies to Nik Aziz as the spiritual leader of the Islamic party of Malaysia.

This cannot be said of the secular modernizing elites of many post-colonial societies that rather quickly got used to the comfortable lifestyles of their former colonial masters they had previously vehemently condemned and demonized. So what gives?

As someone who studies the various modes of religio-political behaviors in the Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist worlds, I am left with the rather simple conclusion that the ‘moral economy of the peasant’ that was talked about in the 1970s is as relevant now as it was then. With the global economy in a tailspin and many an Asian economy precariously hanging in the balance, we already see the repeat of the mistakes of the past. The list of errors and complaints sound surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly) similar to those that came to the fore during the Asian crisis of 1998: indiscriminate credit expansion, contracts given to government contractors or those close to power, etc.

Time will tell whether this imminent global recession will see political heads roll as it did in 1998 when public protests brought down the governments of Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia, and rocked the political foundations of Malaysia too.

Then it was apparent that the economic crisis was as much a political one as it was financial due to the murky dealings of political fixers and the unfettered role of political parties and elites in so many Asian countries.

If this were to happen though, the credibility of religio-political leaders like Tuan Guru Nik Aziz will remain intact, for the man has nothing to lose in the first place. Nik Aziz, above all, understands the meaning of the poverty of riches and the riches of poverty. His wealth lies in his cultural capital as a pious man whose hands are clean.

In any case he has no luxury items to give up. After all, he still uses the same plastic BIC pen today that he used ten years ago!

Dr Farish A Noor is Affiliated Professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta, Indonesia. First published in Daily Times, Pakistan.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #76

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Chapter 11: Learning From Our Successes

Economic Growth with Equity

Another remarkable achievement, widely lauded, is Malaysia’s success in achieving economic growth with equity. Accomplishing economic growth alone would have been quite a feat, but to have that growth distributed equitably was a double bonus, especially for a plural society like Malaysia.

Many countries had impressive economic growth but few did it as equitably as Malaysia. China has enviable economic performance but struggles to correct its obscene ethnic, regional, and social disparities. Such glaring inequities are dangerous and de-stabilizing. Besides being morally and socially unacceptable, they could also impede future growth.

A concerted effort at both economic growth and redressing inter-racial inequities began with Tun Razak in the 1970s, and greatly expanded under Mahathir in the 1980s and 90s. There were hiccups along the way, the latest and most severe being the 1997 economic crisis, but the thrust of the policy remains intact.

Unbridled free enterprise and trickle-down theory works well only in the sterile world of econometric modeling. In practical life, there is a role for governments to ensure and encourage that the wealth not only trickles down but also spreads sideways across racial and social boundaries (Frances Stewart’s vertical and horizontal inequalities).

Malaysian leaders recognize the self-evident fact that wealth must first be created before it can be redistributed, hence the focus primarily on wealth generation and only secondarily on its redistribution. This insight may be obvious but it is remarkable that it escapes the thinking of many.

It may be argued that Malaysia would have performed better economically had it not be concerned with social and racial equity, or that these inequities would best be solved through economic growth alone. That may well be, but as had been painfully demonstrated in 1969 in Malaysia, and in many parts of the world today, glaring inequities can be downright disruptive, destroying whatever gains that had been achieved.

The dilemma Malaysia faces is whether policies designed to ensure equity a generation ago is applicable to and effective with today’s realities. Then it was to narrow the dangerous gaps separating the various races; today it is the deepening inequities within Malays.

Tun Razak’s NEP was successful because it concentrated on the basics: eradicating poverty, and blurring racial identification with economic activities. He did so primarily through stimulating economic growth and investing in such basic social infrastructures as education and rural development. The NEP’s many early successes are attributed to the fact that it focused on these two basic issues. He was not concerned with creating Malay millionaires, or for glamorous corporations like airlines to be owned or led by Malays.

A reflection of the overall modest mindset of the late Tun was this reputed conversation he had with his children when they were residing at the much more humble abode of Sri Perdana, the official home of the Prime Minister. The children had wanted a swimming pool put in but the Tun would have none of it considering the costs. “What would the people say?” he chided them.2

Today the official prime minister’s residence is the plush 50-million ringgit “People’s Palace” in Putrajaya. When Mahathir left, it took over a year and another RM15 million in renovations before his successor Abdullah would move in. Presumably all those millions were to make the place more humble and pious to reflect Abdullah’s new image as the nation’s imam.

Such are the differences between today’s leaders as compared to those of yore. With conditions changing, we need to reexamine critically the assumptions, thrusts, and executions of our policies. The challenge today is how to make all Malaysians, in particular Malays, competitive. Investments in education alone would not suffice; we must focus on the right kind, with emphasis on language skills (in particular English), critical thinking, science literacy, and mathematical competency.

With hosts of countries now discovering the wonders of capitalism, Malaysia faces intense competition for the finite global investment funds. Malaysia can no longer rely on its traditional advantages of cheap labor and low commodity prices. It could not and should never compete on that basis with the likes of China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Malaysia needs to climb up the value ladder, hence the critical need for better education and training.

It is sad that these three remarkable achievements I highlighted here are not more widely noted, much less appreciated. In part because they are not well chronicled and documented.

I have yet to read the personal accounts by any of the participants in the pivotal negotiations with Britain that lead to independence. We have glimpses from the recollections of Tunku Abdul Rahman through his columns in a local tabloid. 3 We know that members of the delegations were not unanimous in their views when they left for London in the steamship MV Asia. There were differences between representatives of UMNO, MCA and MIC, as well as between them and agents of the sultans. Their being cooped up in their less-than-luxurious cabins on that long sea journey did the trick, for by the time they reached India, they were well bonded on their way to an agreement. That greatly facilitated and strengthened their hands in negotiating with the colonial office.

Sadly, all the players are now dead, and the nation is that much poorer for their not documenting their experiences, and with that, the valuable learning opportunities.

Some of the progenitors of the NEP are still alive; they too have not shown any inclination to share their thoughts. In part this is the consequence of the government’s repressive attitude on discussing what it deemed “sensitive” issues. It does not reflect well on local scholars and academics that most of the critical studies on the NEP are done not by them but by foreigners. Ironically they have many positive things to say about the NEP.4

Likewise with the peace treaty with the communist party; many of the participants on the Malaysian side are all still alive. All are senior officials and presumably highly educated. Yet none has seen fit to document their experiences and perspectives. The only accounts thus far of that singular event are by the leader of the communist party, and the Thai General closely involved in the negotiations.5 Haniff Omar, the one time Chief of Police, signed the treaty for Malaysia. He is a lawyer by training and writes a regular column in one of the local tabloids. Yet he too has not seen fit to pen his recollections.

These three great successes—peaceful independence, defeat of communism, and achieving economic growth with equity—should give Malaysia the necessary confidence to face the future. These lessons of the past would be for naught if Malaysia were content merely to rest on its laurels.

Next: Chapter 12: Fragmentation of Malaysian Society

Wise Decision And A Class Act

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

Wise Decision And A Class Act

Prime Minister Abdullah’s decision to resign is wise. That decision is good for him, his party, and most of all, for our nation. I am certain it was not easy for him to reach that decision but in the end he did it, “guided by my conscience” and placing “the interests of the nation above all else.”

I applaud him, especially considering the intense last minute pleas by his many well-meaning supporters. It was a decision that was not expected by many, yours truly included. This is one instance where I am only too happy to acknowledge my misjudgment of the man. [See my earlier commentary below]

Abdullah’s plaintive admission, “I know I’ve not been doing well; it’s time for someone else to take over,” must come only after the most difficult introspection. To admit to one’s limitations is never easy, especially for a leader, as there are always supplicants and subordinates who are only too willing to filter the harsh reality. Some leaders never get it at all. Saddam Hussein went to the gallows still believing that he was Allah’s gift to the Arabs.

I applaud Abdullah’s wise decision for another important reason. I never underestimate the potential multiplier effect of a single good decision. Properly seized upon, it will lead to many other positive consequences. Already judging from his resignation statement, Abdullah is now all the more committed to reforming the anti-corruption agency and the process of judicial appointments, among others.

Freed of the burden of his political future, and fully aware that these last few months could well determine his legacy, Abdullah will hopefully be more focused.

Dignified Statement

Abdullah ready set a standard of sorts in the dignified manner in which he announced his stepping down. He made sure that his cabinet colleagues and fellow leaders in the Barisan Nasional coalition hear of his decision first, in private, and directly from him.

When he made his statement, it was a formal affair, surrounded by his cabinet colleagues and fellow UMNO leaders. He also read from a prepared text; this was not the occasion to ad lib. His tone was proper; his body language and emotions displayed appropriate. He did not blame anyone, nor did he express regret. There was no hint of personal disappointment or a sense of being betrayed. Abdullah gave proper due to the serious occasion.

As well he should. The country has been good to him; he had the privilege of serving the highest office in the land, granted only to a lucky few.

The content of his announcement may have surprised many, but not its timing. There was no unexpected statement that would shock the audience and move them to public hysteria. Nor was there uncontrolled sobbing of his supporters, as the embarrassing public spectacle that accompanied Mahathir’s first announcement of his retirement.

When there are no public tears, then the question whether those displays of emotions are genuine does not arise. As we now know from subsequent events, those earlier hysterical displays of affection as shown by the likes of Rafidah Aziz during Mahathir’s announcement of his retirement were a fraud. Those histrionics were more for public consumption rather than genuine expressions from the heart.

In his resignation statement, Abdullah wisely avoided anointing his successor. He expressed only the hope that Najib would take over, and reemphasized that point in case it was missed. This was not a lukewarm endorsement for Najib or an attempt at getting even with him, rather Abdullah’s correct reading of our constitution.

The leadership of our land has to be earned. It is not your private heirloom to be passed on to a member of the next generation who strikes your fancy. Abdullah is correct in reminding everyone that Najib first has to win UMNO’s presidency.

Abdullah showed great wisdom, besides not being presumptuous, in not even hinting who Najib should pick as his deputy should he win UMNO’s presidency.

Abdullah’s Five Goals

To his credit Abdullah articulated five goals he wished to accomplish in the remaining few months of his tenure. I would be satisfied if he could accomplish two, or at most three. Apart from strengthening the Anti-Corruption Agency and setting up the Judicial Appointment Commission, Malaysians would be satisfied if he were to establish an effective social safety net.

Those three objectives are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are closely related. If we have a judicial system that has the respect and confidence of the people, that would go a long way towards reducing corruption. And by eradicating corruption, then we would have enough resources to devote to helping the needy. We have currently wonderful programs for the poor, at least they are on paper, but because of endemic corruption and abusive political patronage, those programs suffer through considerable leakages.

There is one major reform, supported by many in UMNO, which Abdullah could initiate. That is, remove the current onerous burden placed on challengers to senior party leaders. Instead, relax the rules such that anyone with the minimal number of nominations by individuals, not divisions, could compete. When no candidate could secure a majority vote, then have a run-off election between the top two vote getters.

Abdullah’s calls for a convention of his Barisan coalition parties “to improve inter-racial and inter-religious relations.” I respectfully suggest a more modest and readily achievable goal:  focus on improving UMNO. Leave the coalition alone. A clean, strong and effective UMNO will mean an equally clean, strong and effective Barisan.

Such a simple and easily implemented reform initiative would effectively dent the corrosive powers of the party’s warlords that have created the cesspool of money politics. By removing this onerous nominating barrier, the divisional meetings currently underway this month would become mute, at least as far as nominating candidates are concerned. Perhaps then those meetings could become more meaningful with members using these opportunities to discuss substantive policy matters instead of trying to create camps around personalities. That would also elevate the deliberative levels of those meetings to the benefit of the members and UMNO.

Only by opening up the nominating process and encouraging as wide a field of candidates as possible, could UMNO attract and produce its own Barack Obama. All Malaysians, not just UMNO members, would then benefit.

Those four objectives, three for the nation and one for UMNO, are well within Abdullah’s reach. Focus on them, and Abdullah would be able to redeem his leadership. That would be a legacy worth striving for.

Abdullah’s Pivotal “Non-Decision”

M. Bakri Musa

There are three possible decisions that Abdullah Badawi could make on or by October 9, 2008, ahead of his party’s divisional meetings. One, he could bravely declare that he will defend his post; two, announce his resignation; and three, waffle and leave it up in the air, effectively a “non-decision.”

This third option would be more in character with him. Throughout his tenure Abdullah has shown a singular inability to make even the simplest decisions. He would defer them until the last minute when the decision would be forced upon him, as the other choices would have been effectively taken away by changed circumstances.

With the third choice, Abdullah, with advice from his “bright” advisors, would of course frame or “spin” it not as a “non-decision;” rather he would dress it up in a language more in tune with our culture. He would for example “leave his fate to Allah,” or for his “party members to decide.” This would also be a classic Abdullah’s non-decision and “flip-flop!”

This option is also nothing more than a diluted form or an attempt for a more acceptable and less confrontational version of the first choice. Former Tun Mahathir, who knows a bit more about Abdullah, had predicted that Abdullah would not give up his position. Mahathir would be wrong if he were to think that Abdullah would boldly declare his intentions to stay on, that is, go with the first option.

The first option would also be out of character for Abdullah as it would mean an inevitable confrontation with his party leaders, specifically UMNO Supreme Council members who had earlier given him an ultimatum. If there is any certainty about Abdullah, it is that he would do anything to avoid a confrontation, especially with his party members.

That has been the bane of his administration. Abdullah came in boldly proclaiming to end corruption. With the first resistance from UMNO warlords used to plump government contracts san competition, he waffled. Likewise with his “determination” to set up the much-needed Police Commission. That project is still in the air years later because of persistent opposition by senior leadership in the police force.

The decision that millions of Malaysians and I are hoping for is that Abdullah will gracefully announce his resignation, that is, the first choice. Were he to do that, it would give all his critics including severe ones like me a chance to finally praise the man. It would certainly be a brave decision from him. It would portray him as a leader who has the interest of the nation at heart, of a leader who puts the future of Malaysia ahead that of his own, as well of his family’s and cronies’ ambitions.

This painful decision could only come after the most difficult self-introspection. More significantly, it would require him to dismiss the advice of those closest to him. For this reason I believe that this would not be the decision he would make this week.

On a practical level, it would also mean Abdullah giving up those luxurious perks of his office that he has become accustomed to, if not relished. It is more than just having an opulent corporate jet at his disposal; it is all the attention and adulation he is currently getting from his staff, ministers, civil servants, and finally, the people. I recently saw a picture of Rais Yatim, one of Abdullah’s senior ministers, bowing low and very deferentially towards Abdullah while kissing his hand! That is heavy stuff!

More to the point, as Henry Kissinger once observed, power is the most powerful aphrodisiac. With a new wife (albeit a divorcee) at his side, and with Abdullah in his late 60s, this is not a minor consideration.

In a more profound level, by resigning now Abdullah would go on record as being the shortest serving Prime Minister of Malaysia. He is also mindful of the accompanying opinion that invariably would be associated with him, of being the least effective leader of the country. I am certain his advisors, and others whose fate is tied to him, would not too subtly remind Abdullah of these realities in an attempt to dissuade him from resigning.

Gracefully resigning now would require much of Abdullah. It would require of him to acknowledge the worsening situation in the nation as a consequence of his ineffective leadership. Not many of us are courageous enough to face up to our own limitations. This task is made that much more difficult as there would be plenty of folks around him and whom he holds dear telling him otherwise.

Self-examination and serious introspection are not and have never been Abdullah’s strong suits. Meaning, this option is out for Abdullah.

Consequences of “Non-Decision”

Abdullah and his advisors will, as usual, be oblivious of the devastating consequences of his hanging on. For UMNO, it would mean further turmoil and fractious upcoming divisional meetings and the twice-postponed General Assembly; for the nation, continued and rapid decline.

The implosion of UMNO is already inevitable; Abdullah’s hanging on would only hasten this. The decline of UMNO as an institution is not something I would celebrate, notwithstanding the party’s many detractors. Quite apart from it being one of the most enduring political parties, having been in power continuously for well over half a century – a record unmatched anywhere – it is also one of the few successful modern Malay institutions.

UMNO is still the largest Malay party with the strongest grassroots organizations. While not belittling PKR’s remarkable achievements in attracting young Malaysian especially Malay talents, UMNO still has many capable leaders despite the fact that they have been eclipsed by the more numerous corrupt and ineffectual ones.

UMNO’s accomplishments are many and we should not belittle them. It was instrumental in successfully leading the nation to independence, of besting a domestic communist insurgency, an achievement that has yet to be replicated anywhere else, and an earlier enlightened development policy of emphasizing growth with equity, now accepted as mainstream economic wisdom.

If that sounds like an obituary for UMNO, it is, and not a premature one at that!

The fact that these achievements have been corroded and corrupted by later leaders, especially during Abdullah’s tenure, does not in any way diminish those achievements. Instead they should be the inspiration and challenge for subsequent leaders to exceed those high expectations.

The reality under Abdullah is more ugly. While his apologists would claim that the present climate of political “openness” is Abdullah’s finest legacy, the reality is that he was an ineffective bystander. The present climate of openness has more to do with technology, in particular the Internet, than with Abdullah’s stated mission.

For that, it would be best if we were to ask the likes of Raja Petra Kamarudin, the “Hindraf Five,” and hundreds others incarcerated without trial under the ISA during Abdullah’s tenure. That is Abdullah’s real legacy, and the reason I do not look forward to this week when he will announce that he will not vacate his office.

October 5, 2008

Rest In Peace, Islam Hadhari

Friday, October 10th, 2008

Guest Commentary:

Rest in Peace, Islam Hadari

Farish A. Noor

Observers of Malaysian politics at home and abroad have already begun to write the political obituary of the country’s embattled Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. While the global economy goes into a tailspin and markets across Asia tumble on an hourly basis, Malaysians seem more engrossed in the country’s on-going political drama that has turned into a comical farce of near-epic proportions: The fate of Prime Minister Abdullah hangs in the balance as rival contenders for the coveted post of leader of the UMNO party and Prime Minister of Malaysia come to the fore, ranging from his current deputy Najib Razak to veterans like Tengku Razaleigh whom many had written off years ago.

To be sure, the immediate verdict on Abdullah’s period of rule will not be a pleasant one. The picture that is being painted at the moment is less-than-rosy, and the list of his failings is as long as it is impressive. The man who started with such promise, and who promised so much to the electorate, may well end up in the history books of Malaysia as the one who lost it all.

When he came to power in 2004 Abdullah scored the highest mandate in the history of Malaysian politics. Not a single leader before him, not even his immediate predecessor Mahathir Mohamad or the country’s founding father Tunku Abdul Rahman had ever managed to win such a huge share of the public’s votes. Yet following the elections of March 2008, he earned himself yet another honour, this time being the leader who lost the most votes, seats and state assemblies in the history of Malaysia.

Abdullah’s great promise (which turned into an even bigger disappointment) was his claim to be a reform-minded leader who seriously wanted to change the institutions of power in the country. His attempts to deal with corruption, abuse of power by the police, lack of transparency in governance and the judiciary, all earned him the approval of the Malaysian public and managed – temporarily – to sap away support from the opposition parties too.

Yet by 2006 it became clear that Abdullah had bitten off more than he could possibly chew, and the signs of institutional inertia were plain to see: His reform gestures were not well met by the police in particular, whom for a long period were given a free hand to operate during the days of former PM Mahathir. Despite talk of anti-corruption, few cases of high-level corruption were brought to court (compared to neighbouring Indonesia where even high-ranking members of the Suharto family have been brought to book).

But it is in the area of Islam, or rather normative Muslim religiosity, that Abdullah failed the most. His trademark project was the Islam Hadhari programme that he hoped to launch. ‘Islam Hadhari’ was, from the outset, a state-sanctioned and state-sponsored exercise in social engineering, at a somewhat crude level. Its aims were simple: To open the way for a modern and relevant interpretation of Islamic laws and norms that would help galvanise society to think of religion in a dynamic and contemporary mode, in keeping with the modern age we live in. It promoted the notion of gender equality, and insisted that Islamic practice can and should be used as a vehicle for social advancement, capacity building, and individual empowerment. The key ingredient in this formula was knowledge and exposure to new ideas.

Yet anyone with even the most shallow understanding of Malaysian society would realise by now that engineering a society and trying to make Muslims modern and progressive cannot ever be a top-down process, anymore than a slave master can teach his slaves how to be free. The prevailing values and norms of Islamic praxis in Malaysia, like in many Muslim countries today, remain conservative and even reactionary in many quarters.

Thus while Abdullah the leader preached open-mindedness and called on his fellow Muslims to think and live in the modern age, he underestimated the extent to which his own efforts would be foiled by the very same conservative Muslims who manned the religious institutions of power in Malaysia’s vast Islamic bureaucracy.

The irony of the situation was as pathetic as it was comical at times: Foreign scholars like Karen Armstrong were invited to conferences on Islam in Malaysia while her books were banned; and throughout the years of Abdullah’s feeble leadership scores of other books on Islam and religion were banned as well. How, pray tell, does one open up the minds of Muslims when they are not allowed to read anything in the first place?

It has to be said however that Abdullah was not entirely at fault here as he was attempting a reform of Islam while battling it on several fronts. On the one hand he had to deal with an un-cooperative Islamic bureaucracy that paid little attention to his own reform initiatives, some of which were indeed laudatory. On the other hand he also had to deal with opposition from the Malaysian Islamic party that took an even more conservative stand and whom simply dismissed Islam Hadhari as a ‘deviant’ idea. Yet this is the same Islamic party that in 2001 valorised the Tabiban as ‘true Islam’ and their ‘brothers’. To make things worse Malaysia’s stifling race-based communitarian politics made it even more difficult for discussion on Islam to take place in the public domain without it bring racialized and used as a political toy by all the communitarian parties in the country.

Half a decade on, it would appear that Abdullah’s days are drawing to an end, and with that Islam Hadhari as well. In the years and decades to come, future historians may be kinder to Abdullah, who may well be remembered as the man who tried to reform Malaysia but failed, and whose failure was due to the rot and inertia that had settled in the very same corridors of power that he walked. But perhaps the biggest loss for Malaysia in the long run will be the demise of Islam Hadhari as a project that was never really understood, unfairly criticised, crassly instrumentalized, and ultimately cast into the dustbin as just another item in the long train of baggage left behind in the wake of Abdullah’s exit from power.

Dr. Farish A Noor is senior fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU and affiliated professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta, Indonesia.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #75

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

Chapter 11:  Learning From Our Successes



Defeat of Communist Terrorists


Long before Malaysia signed that peace treaty with the outlawed Malaysian Communist Party (MCP) in 1989, the insurgency (and communism as an ideology) was a spent force. The mighty Soviet empire, like the Berlin Wall, was already crumbling. Even Red China was paying only lip service to communism’s ideals.

The peace treaty was nothing more than a magnanimous gesture on the part of Prime Minister Mahathir in giving the MCP leader Chin Peng and his emaciated and rapidly decimating followers a chance at collective face-saving, an important Asian tradition.

It was significant that Malaysia was able to defeat the communists, for at about the same time in neighboring South Vietnam the Americans were being humiliated by a ragtag bunch of pajama-clad communist peasants.

While Robert McNamara and his band of “bright boys” at the Pentagon were consumed with “body counts” as their measure of progress in their war against the communists, Malaysian commanders were concerned with making sure that their troops were not being senselessly killed in ambushes or direct battles with the terrorists, or that innocent civilians were not needlessly caught in the crossfire.

The Malaysian commander who successfully prosecuted the war, Major-General Mahmud Sulaiman, went out of his way to make sure that those communists were given every chance to surrender and escape from being killed. His rationale, somewhat counterintuitive but proved brilliantly effective in the end, was that once these terrorists had a “lucky” escape, they would thank their blessed fate and would then mend their ways.

The General’s guiding principle was simple: In fighting terrorists, first create no new ones. He and his civilian superiors, principally Prime Minister Mahathir, did not subscribe to the thinking that once a communist terrorist always a communist terrorist, or that the only good communist terrorist was a dead one. The General saw immense propaganda value in former terrorists who were now alive, repentant, and leading full productive lives.

General Mahmud likened the war against terrorists to getting rid of rats. Killing and poisoning the critters would not do it; they reproduce prolifically. Besides, those toxic chemicals could haunt us in the end by poisoning our pets and ourselves. Retrieving rotting rats from hidden crevices could also be problematic. Clear the garbage and get rid of the debris, and you would go a long way towards solving the problem.

Malaysia treated its struggle against the communists less as a military exercise and more as a psychological battle for the minds and hearts of the people. Progress was measured not in body counts or number of enemies captured rather in lessening the sympathy the insurgents would command with the populace, and shifting the people’s allegiance away from them and towards the government.

Malaysia’s victory holds important lessons for the world, in particular America in its current battle against Al Qaeda terrorists. Malaysia too would do well to remember these important lessons as it meets future challenges from Muslim and other extremists within its midst.

Elsewhere, brilliant strategists like Major-General Mahmud Sulaiman would be amply recognized if not adulated. General Collin Powel who successfully executed the First Gulf War against Iraq went on to be State Secretary. He commanded premium fees on the lecture circuit, and his memoirs sold by the millions. Today few Malaysians, citizens and leaders alike, remember Major-General Mahmud Sulaiman. Then Prime Minister Hussein Onn bypassed the General to be the nation’s Chief of Armed Services, so the General subsequently resigned.

It was sad that Malay leaders like Hussein Onn did not recognize the General’s talent even after it was so dramatically demonstrated. It took a foreigner to recognize, and recognized early, the potential genius in Mahmud Sulaiman. General Templar, Britain’s High Commissioner to Malaysia (top colonial officer), picked young Mahmud back in the 1950s to be sent to Sandhurst. Yet another reason for Malaysia to be grateful to Templar!

I wonder what would happen to a young Mahmud had he been born today. Lamentably, it is a recurring theme that I revisit often, of Malaysia and specifically the Malay community and its leaders not recognizing and nurturing talent within its midst.

Looking back to the successful strategy against the communists, it now seemed easy and obvious. Not so then. Thus we now belittle those earlier struggles precisely because there were no heroic battles or the equivalent of Hamburger Hill to remind today’s generations of the pivotal decisions that were being made by their leaders then.

As a consequence, today we have attempts at revising history, as exemplified by the recent publication of Chin Peng’s memoirs written with the help of two British leftist writers.1 Fortunately that book flopped in the marketplace, despite the tireless flogging by its publisher. I am glad that Malaysians are not interested in the self-serving accounts of a murderer. I am forever grateful that Malaysia was led by the Tunku and not by thugs like Chin Peng. If we can believe his account, Chin Peng is claiming the mantle of leadership for the independence movement. Such delusion! Nothing could erase the fact that he killed and maimed many innocent lives.

Chin Peng is now trying to use the court system to seek his return to Malaysia. Imagine an outlaw belatedly having faith in the court system! If he should succeed, he should be prosecuted for the crimes he committed. There is no statute of limitation for murder and other heinous crimes. His victims too should seek civil remedies in the courts for the damages this cold-blooded terrorist had inflicted upon them and their loved ones.


Next:  Economic Growth with Equity