A Gemstone Among Pebbles

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

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

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

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

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


Rave Reviews 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sad Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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