Saturday, October 2, 2004

VIEW: Malaysia’s Badawi encounters his first hurdle — Farish A Noor

The concept of race has no place in either the theology or praxis of Islam. If anything, Islam sees the human race as singular, and coming from the same singular God. To suggest that race can be the basis of politics of Islam hadari, is a contradiction as embarrassing as a socialist party trying to promote capitalism

When Malaysians voted into power earlier this year the incumbent prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, it was more a vote for the man himself than his party.
Prime Minister Badawi is a new leader. The new administration has tried — as is the case in many other countries — to distinguish itself from the previous order. One of the ways it has done this is to adapt and co-opt the rhetoric and discourse of the democratic ‘reformasi’ (reform) movement of 1997-98, as it speaks the language of multiculturalism and pluralism, openness and political reform.
Since he came to power, Mr Badawi has tried to promote his vision of a modern, progressive, tolerant and multicultural Islam where Muslims are encouraged to learn from and interact with other communities. This Independence Day (August 31) none other than the prime minister himself articulated a vision of the common destiny of the Malaysian people. His statement that “no Malaysian should think that he or she is more Malaysian than others” struck a chord with many fellow citizens, in and out of his party. It seemed that the country was finally under a leadership willing to break away from the crass and repugnant communitarian politics of the past. Even long-time opponents of his UMNO party and the BN coalition had to agree with the prime minister– at least in principle.
The Independence Day speech should have been the icing on the national cake, the final statement of intent that would seal the new order and foreclose any possibility for shifts or contradictions from within. This was ‘regime continuity’ at its ablest and best: a move that not only temporarily robbed the opposition of their ideological leverage but also allowed the new leadership to draw a defining line between itself and the past.
The problem however, is that UMNO’s feudal culture being what it is, the house of UMNO has seen numerous internal coups, upheaval, character assassination and muck-raking. Entrenched in power for so long, the party has developed an institutional inertia that would be the envy of many Third World banana republics. This was made evident during the recent UMNO general assembly in Kuala Lumpur.
While Prime Minister Badawi might think and state that “no Malaysian is more Malaysian than another”, it was clear that such sentiments were far from the norm in his own party. UMNO deputy chairperson Badruddin Amiruldin’s warning that to question the notion of Malay special rights was akin to “stirring a hornets’ nest”, could hardly be construed as a bold step forward for multiculturalism in Malaysia.
Also from the mouth of this prodigy of homespun UMNO wisdom came gems such as: “Fifty-eight years ago we had an agreement with the other races, in which we permitted them to menumpang (temporarily reside) on this land. In the Federal Constitution, our rights as a race have been enshrined... Let no one from the other races ever question the rights of Malays on this land. Don’t question the religion because this is my right on this land.”
If there is anything the UMNO should want to liberate the people from, it should be the oppressive order of knowledge and power that this country inherited from the British during the colonial era. Apart from the ISA, the colonial legacy that continues to poison Malaysian society includes the notions of race and racial differences.
But the concept of race has no place in either the theology or praxis of Islam. If anything, Islam — being a monotheistic faith of the Abrahamic tradition like Judaism and Christianity — sees the human race as singular, and coming from the same singular God. To suggest that race can be the basis of politics, or more bizarre still, the politics of Islam hadari, is a contradiction as embarrassing as a socialist party trying to promote capitalism.
The hysterical outburst of the UMNO deputy chairperson (greeted, we are told, by a thunderous applause from the audience) demonstrates that the leaders of UMNO still have a long way to go before they understand, much less internalise, the ideas and values of Islam hadari. The prime minister has said time and again that he wishes to present Malaysia to the world as the face of moderate, progressive Islam that is pluralist and tolerant. While we wait with bated breath for the arrival of the new school of thought, some leaders of his own party should perhaps be sent back to school.
And a final word to the demagogues and xenophobes in our midst: apart from debunking and rejecting the illogical concept of race and racial differences, UMNO’s leaders will also need to dispel the myth that the Chinese and Indians are ‘foreigners’ who simply ‘menumpang’ (reside) in Malaysia. From an Islamic point of view, the idea that any piece of land can ‘belong’ to a ‘race’ is unacceptable. In case the good folk of UMNO have forgotten, the foundational principle of tauhid (unity of God) in Islam immediately leads us to the simple conclusion that unto God is the entire universe, and all of us (Malays and non-Malays alike) happen to be here merely on a temporary basis.
To suggest that any country ‘belongs’ to a particular ‘race’ is tantamount to overturning the principle of tauhid itself. This should be clear to any Muslim with even a modicum of Islamic instruction. Ironically, it seems an alien concept to some leaders of UNMO — the very party that claims to be the defender of Malay and Muslim interests in Malaysia!

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


Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"