May There Be Many More Such Encounters!
M. Bakri Musa
I congratulate Ustaz Sheikh Mahmud for bringing Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim together recently for a luncheon honoring Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. I also applaud Anwar and Abdullah for their very public display of civility towards each other on that occasion.
Along the same vein, I am pleased to see on the last day of the UMNO General Assembly Tun Mahathir and Abdullah Badawi shaking hands. Despite the many harsh exchanges between them recently, at least they could still manage a brief show of courtesy. Supporters and commentators may read many things on that, but the fact they could bury their personal differences even if only momentarily is praiseworthy enough.
Such public gestures of cordiality and mutual respect are sadly lacking in our society today. As with everything else, we could only change that if we have some very visible examples set by our leaders. We can do without such obscene displays as when a supposedly “Honorable Member” calling the Deputy Prime Minister a murderer in the hallowed hall of Parliament, or the Minister of Education branding the leader of the Opposition “a traitor to Malays!” Splendid example for our school children!
I wish academics as well as heads of NGOs, think tanks, and professional bodies would emulate Sheikh Mahmud. They too should bring together our leaders to discuss issues that deeply affect us in settings other than the political arena.
Unnecessary Conspiracy Theories
It reflects the rarity of the event, as well as the volatility of the current political climate, that a social encounter between Anwar and Abdullah would raise eyebrows among local political observers. Otherwise perceptive and sensible commentators are reduced to concocting mysterious conspiracy theories purportedly to explain and interpret such a happening.
We should all relax and quit being suspicious or invoke conspiratorial tones lest we might discourage or frighten other leaders from taking similar initiatives. Even if Anwar and Abdullah had discussed nothing more than their host’s rendang on that day, the fact that they had shared lunch together at the same table was enough. Anwar and Abdullah need not apologize for what they did. On the contrary they should thank their host publicly and profusely for that opportunity.
Anwar should not dismiss the meeting as mere “coincidence.” Even if it were so, he should still make full use of the opportunity. Likewise, Abdullah should not pretend, as he did, that Anwar “unexpectedly” dropped by. Yes, I know this is Malaysia, and an invitation from a friend of a friend to visit another friend is valid enough!
Imagine if either Anwar or Abdullah were to have said something along this line: Someone from the Ustaz’s office had approached me about the meeting and I readily agreed to it. To add some religious pizzazz to the response, make some references to the sunnah (practices) of the Holy Prophet to suit the occasion. The one that readily comes to mind would be the Prophet’s offer to negotiate with the Meccan leaders that culminated with their signing the peace treaty at Hudaybiyyah. That spared a potentially bloody battle between the followers of the prophet and the then pagan Meccans.
If Anwar or Abdullah had responded thus to the many ensuing queries instead of trying to dismiss this important encounter, even it was truly happenstance, imagine the valuable message of reconciliation and respect it would have sent to the citizens, especially their followers.
I am also pleased that Anwar had brought along his wife Azizzah. I wish that Abdullah too would have done the same. Spouses of leaders play a major role in moderating and supporting their respective wives and husbands.
I am not in tune with the Malaysian social protocol, but arriving after the Prime Minister on any occasion is definitely a “No! No!” However, Anwar had a ready explanation for his late arrival as he had to put up with some shenanigans at the courthouse.
Learning From Others
During the height of the American presidential election last year, candidates Barack Obama and John McCain took time off from their hectic campaigns for a joint appearance at the annual charity event, the Alfred E Smith Foundation Dinner, where they poked fun at each other (and shared the same dining table).
Similarly, former Presidents Bush, Sr., and Clinton, once fierce political competitors, were able to combine their considerable influence and prestige to head a charitable fund to help victims of the Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.
As Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman made it his practice to invite Members of Parliament and their spouses for a social evening of joget dancing at the Sri Perdana on the opening day of Parliament. The Tunku was a gracious host; he knew how to make his guests feel at home and have an enjoyable evening. Even parliamentarians from PAS felt at ease at such parties.
Such social interactions serve a very useful purpose; they help smooth and cement relationships in other spheres. Such interactions are what enabled the late Tan Chee Koon, Malaysia’s “Mr. Opposition,” to be a trenchant critic of the government and yet earned the admiration of government leaders.
It is not a surprise that the Selangor state government under Datuk Harun, an UMNO ultra, gave Tan, a socialist and in the opposition, a land grant for him to build Sentosa Hospital. Such goodwill gestures across the political (and also racial) divide are unimaginable today. Witness the current very ugly and public spat between Selangor Mentri Besar Khalid Ibrahim and his predecessor Khir Toyo. And they are both Malays! Imagine if they were of different races! As it is, you can bet that you would not find them at each other’s “Open House” during Hari Raya.
Speaking of Hari Raya “Open House,” it was commendable of Anwar to be at Abdullah’s soon after he (Anwar) was released from prison. Alas, that was then. It seemed so very long ago!
UMNO Youth used to organize an annual social golf tournament with its counterpart in Singapore’s PAP Youth. To say that the political philosophies of UMNO and PAP are poles apart would be an understatement, yet their members were able to set that aside for an afternoon of friendly rivalry on the greens. If UMNO Youth could this with the PAP, why not with PAS Pemuda? If those folks at PAS are not into golf, then why not try Quran reading sessions or a zikir barat?
Instead we have that ugly scene of Hishammuddin calling Anwar Ibrahim a traitor. Even factoring in the highly partisan atmosphere of the recently concluded UMNO General Assembly, I still find Hishammuddin’s utterances offensive and unpardonable. And this guy fancies himself leading UMNO and our country some day!
I hope that new Prime Minister Najib Razak would reinstate the Tunku’s practice of having a social gala at the “People’s Palace” in Putrajaya on the opening day of Parliament so our legislators and their spouses, as well as senior government officials, could get together for an evening of fun and relaxation. Surely those folks could put politics aside for the evening.
I would also like our future Prime Minister to make it his practice of meeting regularly with the leader of the opposition to discuss pending major legislations. That would also help smooth out Parliament’s operations.
It would be too much to expect Najib and Anwar to spend a quiet social evening together as President Reagan did with the Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. Of course it is not the place for Anwar to seek such regular meetings, but it would be the courteous and civilized thing for Najib as Prime Minster to initiate the gesture, just as Reagan did with O’Neill.
There was something else remarkable and heartening about the Mauludal Nabi event at Ustaz Sheikh Mahmud Al-Mazjub’s place, quite apart from the presence of both Anwar and Abdullah. The occasion was also graced by the presence of not only ulamas from neighboring countries but also the head of the Buddhist Monastery in Bangkok.
I hope that our leaders and Malaysians generally would learn something from this great alim, and that at our next national Maludal Nabi event we should also invite the heads of other religious organizations in the country. We should go further and expect our leaders to visit each other’s “Open House” during the festive seasons. Wouldn’t that be wonderful! That would truly be a worthy legacy for this great alim.