Saturday, September 4, 2004

VIEW: A just Malaysia at last? — Farish A Noor

Will this be the government that finally has the will and courage to do away with colonial-era laws that have for so long kept Malaysians in mental restraint? Anwar is free, although his freedom has not come soon enough. But when will Malaysia and Malaysians be free? When will we be able to think of ourselves as equal Malaysians — no more or less than one another?

For a country where nothing much happens most of the time and the national pastime seems to be shopping and watching pirated VCDs, Malaysia is still capable of surprising some of us once in a while. This week — within a space of 48 hours — two startling things happened.
In his Independence Day message on August 31, Prime Minister Dato Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi focused on the equality of all Malaysians. Despite their apparent differences in terms of race, language, culture and religion, he said no Malaysian was more Malaysian than others. For the sake of the future, he called on all Malaysians to work together and realise the goal of nation building; to forge a nation out of the disparate array of often competing ethnic and religious constituencies.
In any other context and on any other occasion this would have been a pretty mundane thing to say. But the statement was made in Malaysia, a country whose multiculturalism is really a backdrop to a sectarian form of divisive communitarian politics where differences of race, language and religion count for a lot.
All the more significant was the fact that these were the words of the man who happens to be president of the ruling UMNO party, whose ideology has been based on ethno-nationalism. The party has been associated with the right-wing ideology of ketuanan Melayu (Malay dominance). Prime Minister Badawi’s reminder to his fellow citizens that “no Malaysian is more Malaysian than others” is both timely and important. Care should be taken to ensure that the message seeps down and deep — particularly among the members of his own party, some of whom have even gone as far as threatening to attack the Malaysian Chinese Assembly Hall or the offices of Harakah, the newspaper of the Islamic opposition party, PAS.
Yet another startling news came just as Malaysians were beginning to digest the contents and import of the prime minister’s message. On September 2, exactly six years after he was sacked as deputy prime minister and finance minister, Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim — the man who was widely believed destined to succeed Dr Mahathir Mohamad — was set free from jail after the country’s highest court overturned his conviction for sodomy.
Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking in 1998 had sparked off the reformasi (reform) movement in Malaysia; but it was his spectacular arrest three weeks later that brought masses on the streets. Apprehended at gunpoint in the middle of a press conference by the Special Forces Unit (UTK), he was bundled into a vehicle, driven off to an unknown location and subsequently beaten up by none other than the former inspector general of police, Tan Seri Rahim Noor.
What followed led to the loss of credibility of practically every institution of the state — from judiciary to police force and security services. With Anwar Ibrahim the UMNO had also lost its Islamist credentials. It had been Anwar who gave the modernist-developmentalist ideology of Dr Mahathir its much-needed Islamic colour.
Mr Ibrahim’s release — belated though it may be — would indicate that the state institutions are able and willing, if not yearning, to recover the credibility and self-respect they lost over the past few years. The market has already responded with a sudden boost to the Malaysian stock exchange to this move to clean up the governmental apparatus. The release and the prime minister’s call for unity come at a time when the country is desperately trying to maintain a wafer-thin lead over its competitors — the new rising economies of Asia. Prime Minister Badawi is keen to impress on the international investor community that Malaysia is a ‘model Muslim state’ where ‘moderate’ and ‘progressive’ Islam prevails.
If that is the case, the High Court should certainly not stop there. Though it was given no overtly Islamic slant, Anwar’s release from jail can signal a concern for justice, transparency and the rule of law. This is precisely what a ‘moderate, progressive’ Islam should be concerned about. For ‘progressive Islam’ is not just about rejecting religious intolerance and violence; but more importantly about opening the doors of ijtihad (rational enquiry) so that Islam’s universal concerns for justice, equity and freedom apply to all, regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity. The issue here is not just that a former deputy prime minister of Malaysia was abused by those meant to uphold the law: the crime would have been just as bad if he had been a humble bus driver or an illegal immigrant.
Prime Minister Badawi and his ruling coalition have won an overwhelming mandate in the form of the trust the people have reposed in him and his peers. His declared intention of promoting a school of Islam hadari (societal or civilisational Islam) that does not stop at form or ritual is laudable. Anwar Ibrahim’s release shows that, when allowed by the executive, state institutions can indeed reform and correct themselves.
The question after Anwar’s release is: will the government pursue the logic of its Islam hadari project to its logical conclusion? If this leadership wants a modern, progressive school of normative Islam that is cognisant of the needs and realities of the present; sensitive to the issues of justice, transparency and equality, will its proponents do what is both morally and logically correct? Will this be the government that finally has the will and courage to do away with the Internal Security Act and other colonial-era laws that have for so long kept Malaysians in mental restraint? Anwar is finally free, although his freedom has not come soon enough. But when will Malaysia and Malaysians be free? When will we be able to think of ourselves as truly Malaysians — no more or less than one another?

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist


Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"