Malaysia: Shifting realities

Zaid Ibrahim
Zaid Ibrahim
Written by Linda Hohnholz

A prominent Malaysian politician and lawyer, Zaid Ibrahim, has warned that his country is becoming increasingly polarized and intolerant.

A prominent Malaysian politician and lawyer, Zaid Ibrahim, has warned that his country is becoming increasingly polarized and intolerant. Speaking to the Commonwealth Journalists Association and Round Table in London, Mr. Ibrahim said there was a false perception abroad of Malaysia being a moderate, liberal country but he said this was no longer the case. Mr. Ibrahim, who has spent many years as a lawyer, politician and served briefly as a government minister, said Malaysia was becoming unrecognizable and was abandoning long-held commitments to secularism and respect for the judiciary.

He said religious courts were gaining precedence over civil courts, with resulting confusion over which ruling held sway. Civil courts were no longer regarded as the main dispensers of justice. According to him, few people these days respect Malaysia’s commitment to secularism. Civil society, which was expected to defend these principles, was too disorganised and social media appeared to have filled the space but tended to be fragmented and unfocused.

Mr. Ibrahim gave examples of arbitrary charges of perceived transgressions of which he has personal experience. His son translated a best-selling book by a Canadian author into Bahasa and has been charged for publishing materials “contrary to Islamic law”. In other words the book contains statements, views or opinion that the authority believes are inconsistent with Islam

A respected 82-year old Muslim scholar, Kassim Ahmad, questioned the necessity of relying on the practices of the Prophet ( Hadiths) when the Quraan is clear on the subject matter . For this he was charged for “insulting Islam”.

Mr. Ibrahim was especially critical of religion being used to justify authoritarian rule and this becoming accepted practice because, in his view, no one cared. He emphasised that it was a serious issue for Malaysia. He believed religious freedom was becoming conditional. ” If you want to build a church, the authorities would most likely refuse the permit if too close to a mosque. The authorities control on the exercise of religious practices of non-Muslims is threatening religious freedom in the country.”

Mr. Ibrahim said that in Malaysia one might be permitted to publish something in English but not Bahasa which is spoken by the majority of the population. He said that messages were being spread by the Prime Minister’s own department in mosques urging Muslims to reject democracy, secularism and liberal values.

He said the race issue was still alive with special privileges for Malays who make up 65% of the population. He believed the opposition, which was mainly ethnic Chinese, was too divided to offer an effective challenge to these forces.

The ruling Umno party and opposition PAS were both in favour of instituting hudood, the Islamic code of law. He said Malaysia was a federation mainly in name, the states had relatively little power. He accused elites of failing to prevent the erosion of basic rights.

Mr. Ibrahim asserted that race and religion were used by political parties to hang on to power. The lack of a united opposition allowed governing forces to get away with blatant malpractice. He was asked if the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, might have made a difference if he had come to power. Mr. Ibrahim believed Mr. Anwar was partly responsible for the spread of intolerance and authoritarianism because he didn’t tackle some of these sensitive issues.

A few at the meeting questioned why there were not more protests against rampant corruption in Malaysia. Mr Ibrahim said it was difficult to take action if a political power enriched itself in the name of the state. ” One never catches the big fish who claim they are acting in the national interest.” He felt it was wrong for politicians in power to make up rules when it suited them.

Mr. Ibrahim outlined many factors which enabled the negative trends to go unchallenged. He believed mainstream media could not make a difference because the government controlled the main newspapers, radio and TV stations. The main opposition was Islam-based, civil society society was disorganised, the rural-urban divide, race and religion added to the mosaic of conflicting interests which made it difficult to put together a unified response to counter these trends. Mr. Ibrahim said his intention was to make people see Malaysia for what it is and not be seduced by its modern image.

Mr. Ibrahim suggested that these were issues which the Commonwealth should take up. He observed that in Malaysia, as in most countries, elites control society and have contacts with the west – so international exposure could slow down the process.

It was put to Mr. Ibrahim that he could be considered to be alarmist when one compared the situation in Malaysia to other countries in the region such as Thailand and Singapore whose democratic credentials could be in question. The questioner pointed out, for example, that it had been many years since Malaysia had experienced race riots or serious violence. Mr. Ibrahim’s sharp response was that it was not right to wait for riots before taking action. He was looking at the potential, what Malaysia had been and what it was becoming. ” We had a very good foundation, a respected judiciary, education and other institutions which we are now losing. We should address this.”

Mr. Ibrahim traced the decline to the period when the former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamed, was in power. He introduced the policy of putting Malays or Islamic interests first. As a result, Mr. Ibrahim said, privileges had become rights. He thought the dismantling of the judiciary also began under Mr. Mahathir’s administration. He believed, Mr. Mahathir’s successor, Mr. Abdullah Badawi, was a good man but weak. He put forward right policies but wasn’t able to push them through.

Mr. Ibrahim was especially unhappy about the lack of clarity over which had precedence, rulings of civil or religious courts. He cited the example of a custody battle between a Hindu couple over their children after they divorced. A civil court gave the woman custody of the children. The former husband, having converted to Islam, approached a sharia court which granted him custody and he took the children away. The ex-wife appealed to the police who did not know which court direction to follow.

Mr. Ibrahim gave other examples of questionable judicial practices. In one case, a member of staff of an opposition leader died in custody. The opposition leader said he thought the man had been murdered and was promptly charged with sedition. As a result of these developments, Mr. Ibrahim said many talented people were leaving Malaysia. He urged, ” We should not wait till something like Iraq happens. Malaysia is better than some countries but could be better”.

Mr. Ibrahim was asked to explain the background to the recent court ruling which, in effect, banned non-Muslims from using the word ‘Allah’ to refer to god. He explained that the controversy had its roots in the early eighties when Christians approached the government for permission to translate the Bible into the local language, Bahasa, since many Christians in the east of Malaysia do not speak English. The Home minister at the time refused permission accusing Christians of trying to proselytise. A Christian magazine was banned for using the word ‘Allah’. The editor went to a higher court to challenge the ban. There is now confusion over the enforcement of the ruling against the magazine. Meanwhile, Christians in the east still use the Bahasa translation of the bible imported from neighbouring Indonesia

Mr. Ibrahim pointed out the possible dangers ahead if action was not taken to stamp on extremism. He referred to reports of Malaysian militants fighting in Iraq and Syria. He reminded the audience that the masterminds of the Bali bombings in 2002 were all Malaysian. He warned that giving extremist religious leaders free rein to spread messages of violence and hate could have serious consequences at home.

Mr. Ibrahim singled out education as a particular area of concern. Mr. Ibrahim said there was no control of quality over education. Government schools were more Muslim-centred, Chinese do not go to them and there are separate Tamil schools. As a consequence the education system is also fragmented.

A few at the London meeting wanted to know if there was an outside country which was driving religious radicalism in Malaysia. For example, was there Saudi money funding radical teaching practices? Mr. Ibrahim said he was not in a position to point fingers but explained that in Malaysia if you are a Muslim you are a Sunni. Being a Shia or belonging to another Islamic sect is considered to be beyond the pale.

Mr. Ibrahim was anxious to make it clear that his basic fear was that Malaysia was slowly turning into an authoritarian state using religion as a means of exerting control. Mr. Ibrahim believed that Malaysia had a strong judiciary and institutions and a history of good governance and harmonious living. His objective was to alert the world about the dangerous decline towards authoritarianism and religious intolerance in a country with a potentially explosive mix of ethnic groups and religious allegiances. He was convinced that if steps were taken now it might not be too late to steer Malaysia back towards becoming a moderate, modern and liberal nation.

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About the author

Linda Hohnholz

Editor in chief for eTurboNews based in the eTN HQ.

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