In a televised interview on 26 June with Channel News Asia, newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad doubled down on a longstanding issue relating to Malay-Muslim privilege, stating that policies for the economic empowerment of the country’s largest ethnic group will be continued. Given that these controversial policies have been a source of deep ethnic and religious division in the country since the deadly May 13, 1969 racial riots, one wonders if it isn’t high time that institutionalised ethnic and religious favouritism come to an end in so-called moderate Malaysia.
“Never forget where you came from,” was a favourite saying of my maternal grandmother. Every year, particularly over Eid al-Fitr, Islam’s answer to Christmas, Nanimak, her preferred pet name, never failed to dust off this old, exhausted adage and lay it before my younger sister and me. Looking back on it now, her barely concealed sense of alarm, which clearly spurred her cliched pronouncement, was somewhat understandable.
My sister and I are half Dutch. We were educated in the French schooling system, the ethos of which is rooted in a reverence for secularism. From Nanimak’s perspective, these factors in our upbringing threatened our Malay-Muslim roots. What was there not to be alarmed about? If you were born in Penang during the Japanese occupation, devotedly recited the Koran, and made it your weekly mission to attend Friday prayers, the possibility of having grandchildren who strayed from the faith could bring you shame and jeopardize your entry into paradise. That’s what she believed, and for that she convinced herself that she had a hell of a lot to be worried about.
A Malay-Muslim way of life was my grandmother’s provenance. It was all she knew, and what she came from, if you will. Given that I saw her only sporadically, her overarching concerns of a creeping irreligiousness in us had to be hammered home when the occasion arose. Whenever she had the chance, she would seize upon the opportunity, her eyes never failing to beam with hesitant pride as she imparted her banal entreaties, swiftly followed with a slice of cake, or kueh, to serve as a sweet bribe. “Never forget that you are a bumiputera,” she would muse, jittery. “Never forget that you are a Muslim.”
I, being the product of a motley, not to mention quite confusing mix of parentage, would make little of her appeals to honour my roots abstractedly by honouring hers. You see, children are not given to ruminating over the past, so inexperienced are they in the present. So, after gently rejecting her earnestly-pressed advice, my appetite for cake satiated many times over, I would return back to Kuala Lumpur, then my home, decidedly unmoved. It was not until I was much older that those two regrettably unavoidable concepts, Bumiputera and Muslim, began to germinate in my mind, causing me to scrutinize those words with curious apprehension.
I was certainly not going to succumb to credulity and embrace those two concepts superficially just because it was expected of me. The inquisitive mind, as another old saying goes, is never at rest; a Socratic maxim dictates that the unexamined life is, after all, not worth living. Thus, I was to examine, mental microscope at the ready, the labels attached to me at birth.
Having always had contrarian instincts meant that I was never likely to take an authority figure’s demands to heart. Just as I would mock the reflections of my European teachers, so steeped they were in deluded lamentations of past glories, so I would spurn the call to venerate a heritage I simply did not find very riveting. What did Nanimak really have to be proud of, I wondered?
She lived in a claustrophobia-inducing house in Bayan Baru, Penang; complained about her unlivable quarters incessantly; and as far as I can recall, was always in poor health, and unfortunately was poorly educated. Compounding her conflicted state was a stultifying superstitiousness and a disaffection with a system that she either did not grasp or simply could not grasp. To share walls with pious, nosy neighbours and to wail about the free-roaming, disease-ridden mongrels did not strike me then as a recipe for contentment. To make matters worse, these same prowling mongrels were possessed by demons, she would lament, so there again, the threats were everywhere and always afoot. Her daily meanderings to and from the local place of prayer turned into the only palpable purpose in her life.
Being a quintessential worshipper of the sky god Allah, she naively sought answers from on high, and her innermost insecurities were almost always laced with fatalism and self-pity. I could never reconcile this willingness to suspend a pleasurable life on Earth in order to secure a place in paradise with happy, enlightened living. Was life after death all she really looked forward to? If this brimmed her heart with pride, I can only conclude that it must have been a pride of the false variety.
Needless to say, these beliefs that my grandmother clung to seemed incompatible with my Western proclivities, instilled through formative teachings in the individual’s sovereignty. I rejected being part of some kind of herd. I am an individual first, I was taught, no mere follower. I must think for myself, and on no account view life as a dress rehearsal, split only between two destinations: heaven or hell.
But proverbs, sayings, adages and cliches all have a peculiar knack of sticking, a little bit like chewing gum sticks on the soles of one’s shoes. Not so easy to scrape off the chalkboard of consciousness, to use one of Hunter Thompson’s quips.
Reductionism is a vice that can take many forms. It intertwines quite inconspicuously with weeds of words, sprouting annoyingly, devoid of any real resonance. “Respect your elders,” “have faith,” “love thy neighbour,” “be a simple kind of man,” “be ladylike,” and so on are more or less of the same ilk as “never forget where you came from.” And similarly, they can all be dismantled, if not altogether debunked, with the simplest of rejoinders: “why should I?”
Accordingly, the next time my grandmother produced her cherished reminder, I was armed with a question in response. Once more with misplaced pride, she tentatively recruited her favourite platitude, “never forget where you came from.” “Why?” I would fire back. Why should I have been proud, like she was, to be Bumiputera? Why should I have been proud, like she was, to be a Muslim? The way I saw it, how either came to be regarded as virtuous was anyone’s guess. But her standing in the multicultural and multi-ethnic melting pot I had always observed Malaysia to be might have had a lot more to do with her flimsy convictions than she was ever capable of explaining rationally.
So perhaps it was not just a fluke or a coincidence of circumstance. Perhaps she was just another casualty of the epidemic of vacuous thinking. In other words, I suspected that she was a product of the scourge of religious indoctrination.
In fact, her perceived role, or duty in the jambalaya of Malaysian society, had everything to do with it, I now realize. What’s more, it also had a lot to do with an all-powerful northern Malay-Muslim. Her beloved modern day Caliph, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad; eminent defender, propagator of and leader of the Malays’ ethnic and religious cause — otherwise known as the Malay Agenda, as I will soon demonstrate
The triumvirate of economic, ethnic and religious favouritism toward Malay-Muslims or Bumiputera cannot have been soldered to the concepts — and the subsequent consequences — of birthright-privilege and claimed supremacy without the nascent political rise of Alor Setar-born Mahathir Mohamad.
In 1964, he won the Kota Setar Selatan seat and had earned a rather catchy sobriquet, Dr UMNO, after his party, the United Malays National Organization, from his time as the first Malay doctor in town. He named his clinic with due modesty after himself: MAHA.
As a Member of Parliament, he wasted no time in launching his first attack on the non-Malay “other,” namely the mainly ethnic Chinese People’s Action Party (PAP) of the satellite south of the Malayan peninsula, Singapore, then still part of the Federation.
He, unlike many who espoused ultra-Malay nationalist sentiments, was daring enough to go toe-to-toe with Lee Kuan Yew, the leader of the PAP and later Singapore’s very own Sino-Caesar, who ruled on his throne across the Causeway for thirty-one years.
So feared was Lee Kuan Yew by Malay leaders for his stature and his intellectual prowess that even Tun Dr Ismail, an illustrious Malay politician who by all accounts was not one to be easily daunted, once advised former Prime Minister Tun Razak “not to talk to that fellow for too long…he’ll persuade you of anything.”
Mahathir the tough newcomer regarded Lee Kuan Yew with contempt for having “the mad ambition…to see himself as the first Chinese Prime Minister of Malaysia.” He would not cower in the face of confronting an enemy of the Malays, no matter how astute the enemy was presumed to have been. And thus with rhetorical gloves firmly fitted to fist, the future Caliph of Malaysia took on the ascendant Caesar of Singapore.
The junior MP’s bravado paid off. But it came at a price. The failure to secure his seat only five years after he had won it, in 1969.
Quite predictably, he blamed his failure to win a second term on the perfidious Chinese constituents of Kota Setar Selatan, who he claimed had betrayed him. Simultaneously, the embittered Mahathir would turn his silver-tongued fire on the then-Prime Minister, Mr Merdeka himself, by calling for Tunku Abdul Rahman’s resignation, citing his ineptitude in preventing the deadly riots of May 13 1969 from occurring — a criticism that would lead to Mahathir’s expulsion from his beloved UMNO.
Unlikely though this may seem to some, these factors had all contributed to the acquisition of a much more potent public image. That of martyr in the cause for Malay supremacy. Mahathir would make the most of his new reputation.
There might have been more famous proponents of the Malay Agenda at the time, and they could be grouped into two occasionally overlapping sects, in neither of which Mahathir was a prominent personality.
The first cabal was made up of the pre-independent nativists who nurtured Malay nationalism, such as Dato’ Onn Jaafar, Ibrahim Yaakob, Burhanuddin al-Helmy and Ahmad Boestamam, all on the front-lines of establishing an ethnic Malay supremacy to replace the British one.
In the second cabal were those who comprised and consolidated the UMNO-led independence movement, such as Tunku Abdul Rahman, the nation’s first Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak, the nation’s second, Tun Dr Ismail, Deputy to Tun Abdul Razak from 1970 to 1973, along with Tunku Hazaleigh Hamza, who became the virulent poster boy for Bumiputera economic development and the advancement of the Malay Agenda. Who says only great minds think alike?
Nevertheless, the disorienting sequence of events which spiraled the 1969 General Election into savage disorder catapulted Mahathir into the orbit of Malay nationalism, soon allowing him to surpass the other foremost Malay nationalists in the country.
It was Mahathir, the political outcast, who rose from the ashes of defeat to be admired as a man ready to make personal sacrifices for his belief in Malay firsterism — endowing the good doctor with a formidable amount of moral and political capital with the Malays post-May 13. And with that, a star-cum-cult figure was in the ascendancy.
His blistering brand of Malay supremacy was gaining traction, ever-swelling with ultra nationalist fervour. And nowhere is this fervour more scathing than in his rather unlettered book the Malay Dilemma, which he wrote during his time in the party political wilderness of 1969 to 1972.
He claimed in the Malay Dilemma that the Malays, and the Malays alone, should reserve the right to be regarded as the “rightful owners of Malaysia,” as even during the time of British rule “the non-Malays were never true legislators, but merely rubber-stamps.” After all, he contumaciously railed, the Chinese and the Indians were non-Malays, and “the non-Malay is always a guest to the Malay, a guest in his country.”
These pesky immigrants, these opportunistic guests, had, in Mahathir’s view, no right to consider themselves equal to Malays. The Chinese were too savvy, their heightened business acumen too threatening. They must be called out for their sneaky savviness. The Indians worked too hard, they made the Malays look feckless by comparison. God forbid the Malays are made to feel inferior. At the end of the day, was it not but for the undying “courtesy and self-effacing” nature of the chosen people that tenancy was granted to the insolent non-Malays, the “always privileged” and ever ungrateful “other,” who were never required nor “expected to conform,” essentially because “the Malay is prepared to forgive and tolerate the non-Malay”?
How could it be that such unending deference, such generous hospitality, could be spat upon by these infiltrators, these “others,” as Mahathir repeatedly referred to non-Malays as in the Malay Dilemma? The pendatangs’ (a euphemism for non-Muslim Malaysians) idea of returning the favour by striving for success and recognition was evidently a sinister pursuit veiled by sinister motives, was it not? Well, it was brusquely deemed so all the same. How are we to solve this terrible quandary? must have been a query rattling in the minds of the pompous Malay nationalists.
To stoke the rising flames of racial tension, the wrongly-perceived-to-be-morally-bereft non-Malays were actually being subliminally nudged to change their ways. Should they choose to conform to the alleged superiority of the Malay way of life, the struggle for equal coexistence may be less burdensome, and more tangible.
By accepting the supremacy of the Malays and adapting themselves more to the chosen sons of the soil, perhaps the non-Malays will be more appreciative, and hence their surreptitious quest for equality more favourably reconsidered. That is quite the non-sequitur. Alas, when the prejudice is strong, the judgement is weak.
The rights of the native people, the Bumiputera, must be sacred, according to Mahathir. Those who are embedded in the soil of the land have an unchallengeable birthright. But to every card there are two sides.
That birthright cannot have come without certain inherent responsibilities, and bestowed upon the Malays was the duty to perpetuate a discernible characteristic, in order to preserve the definitive nature of the self-ascribed rightfully-chosen natives.
However, the door into the sons-of-the-soil club was if not tantalizingly, then teasingly left ajar; enough so to entice non-Malays into entering the club, but with a proviso — if they could sufficiently tailor their jib to fit in with the Bumiputera, the quest for an imperfect equality among the compliant few would be perfectly acceptable.
The way the Malay nationalist leadership saw it, the colours on the canvas of Malaysian society must be painted within the contours of language, immigration, national education and citizenship. These colours, when translated into policy, synthesized to create a vague but not totally ambiguous religious prerequisite.
It was imperative to the Malay leadership to spell out to the Malays what was required to preserve their role at the apogee of Malaysian society. There were certain standards the soil’s sons and daughters had to conform to when confronted with the socioeconomic and political composition of Malaysia. Understanding what one’s duty to oneself; to one’s nation; to one’s nature; to one’s duties in the name of Malay-Muslim identitarianism; and how those duties are to be carried out. In a nutshell, the Malay Agenda framed the societal composition; the elite Malay nationalists highlighted how the Malays should differentiate themselves apropos the “other” — the encroaching, savvy non-Malay creature.
And if the non-Malays could convincingly conform to an all-important criterion, their road to equality, albeit imperfect, may yet be paved. But not so fast. First, some arm-twisting. What were the non-Malays going to have to sacrifice, in order to disarm the Malays of their resentment? And what precisely was it about these non-Malays that so desperately needed to change, in order to please their alienated Malay puppet masters?
“It is the duty of all citizens to submit to and to insist upon those policies with regard to language, immigration, culture, which are calculated to create and preserve the distinctive national characteristics” Mahathir shrilly writes in The Malay Dilemma. Pray tell, how is one to measure these national characteristics, if what makes them distinct is how indistinct they essentially are? Needless to mention that, according to Mahathir, the true national characteristics are distinct insofar as they are personified by the Malays. So, cards on the table, what makes the Malays archetypal Malaysians, to whom the non-archetype should endlessly aspire to be more akin, in order to qualify for and pass the patriotism test?
Mahathir officiously spouts an answer to these questions, namely, that “the only extra limitation is the insistence that a Malay, by definition, is one who professes the Islamic faith…The important thing is that these people not only conform to all the Malay characteristics but to insist on the criteria, for becoming Malays being perpetuated” in order to construct a more perfect polity. So there you have it, the velvetly-veiled keris: the ultimate criterion and the ultimate challenge. The non-Malays, to be truly patriotic, must undertake this transformation in good faith, and that faith is Islam. Good grief.
The Islamization, by an identitarianism tactic, in the insatiable pursuit for supremacy, is now uncloaked and out in the open. A mendacious and shameless ambush on the country’s secular Federal Constitution, enmeshing ideology with national, cultural, spiritual and political identity.
The slow-moving coup staged to establish this Malay-Muslim supremacy was imperial in nature, economic in guise, and religious in application. It was designed to fight for and hijack the moral high ground by stooping to the use of nativistic and populist tactics, with the devious objective of defining of what it means to be a true Malaysian.
On the back of this ideological plot, and in the aftermath of the May 13 riots, the New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1971 was hatched. An identitarian war predicated on an ethnic and religious favouritism of the Malays and Islam was waged against the infidel “other”; and all arrogantly driven by a juvenile, my-morality-is-better-than-yours outlook — the effects of which are still rupturing Malaysian social homogeneity.
The race-based Affirmative Action Program (AAP) that was meant to be temporary continues to crush non-Malay Malaysians’ hopes of achieving genuine equality. Incidentally, the AAP been anything but temporary.
There is little evidence to suggest that the extension of equal rights to non-Muslims is in line with Islamic teachings. In the case of the NEP, it was perks for Bumiputera and measures to the detriment of the non-Bumiputera that epitomized how fundamentally prejudicial the rules were. Some statistics graphically illustrate how lopsided the playing field is in favour of the Malays.
According to an April 2013 article published in the Economist, eighty-five percent of civil service jobs, excluding teaching positions, were occupied by Malays; seventy percent of all university admissions are reserved to Bumiputera, causing some sixty percent of non-Bumiputera skilled emigrants to cite social injustice as the overriding reason for seeking pastures greener abroad. This is just the tip of the iceberg of economic consequences.
Economic mismanagement can be remedied, provided the right policies are initiated and an appropriate amount of time afforded for their implementation to come to fruition. There are certain systemic structures in place when dealing with the economy that simply do not apply to religiously-motivated policies. On the ideological front, the effects, to put it mildly, are far more concerning.
Take these hair-raising statistics from a Pew research centre report on religion and public life from 2013: eighty-six percent of Malaysian Muslims favour making Sharia Law the law of the land. Eighty-six. Sixty percent favoured stoning to death as the appropriate punishment for those who commit adultery, and sixty-two regard the death penalty as a reasonable way to deal with apostates, those who denounce their faith.
Other statistics disclose equally alarming revelations. Eighty-two percent of Malaysian Muslims wish for religious leaders to play a more prominent role in politics, and eighty-five percent believe that religious political parties are better than or equal to secular political parties. This seismic shift among Malaysian Muslims to the religious Right is surely regression of a most worrying kind.
The arrogant charlatanism of Mahathir’s past administrations, concerning the Islamization of Malaysia — such as the 1988 amendment to the Constitution, elevating Sharia courts to co-equal status, or calling Malaysia an Islamic state following the 9/11 attacks in New York City, among other questionable measures — inflicted wounds on the morale of non-Muslims, making many feel marginalized and excluded. Unsurprisingly, such insidious and reckless moves drove Muslims to regard their non-Muslim compatriots with a growing sense of suspicion.
The most arresting statistic in the 2013 Pew report offered a glimpse into how deeply Malay firsterism has severely undermined Malaysian unity. It reveals that thirty-one percent of Malaysian Muslims are concerned about the threat Christianity poses to them. Now, unbelievably, it’s Christians who are on the march and up to mischief?
Today, nowhere is this hypocrisy more apparent than in the calumnious rumblings that Tommy Thomas, the new Attorney-General, is a pastor. What wicked scheme could the Christian AG be cooking up? What evidence is there that he’s actively attempting to subvert Islamic hegemony to advance a clandestine Christian agenda? Who knows? Perhaps for the few in the ignoble pro-Islamist media opposed to his appointment, Thomas’s gravest crime is simply that he isn’t one of them. What is for certain, however, is that this laughable paranoia, my Muslim Malaysian brothers and sisters, must stop. As Abraham Lincoln once pointedly remarked, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Drenched in hypocrisy and delusion, the propagators of Malay firsterism have allowed for too long the wicked insinuations that pit Muslim against non-Muslim to go on. For how much longer can this callousness be tolerated?
It is impossible to extricate the Islamic resurgence of the 1970’s and 1980’s from the New Economic Policy. The political scientist Khoo Boo Teik, in his estimable study of Mahathir’s time in office from 1981 to 1995, lays bare the corollary effect of “NEP-induced modernization and urbanization” on the Malay community.
It “renewed religiosity and dedication to Islam,” trashing any hope of a united Malaysia, never mind a morally or economically egalitarian Malaysia. Boo Teik writes in Paradoxes of Mahathirism that “the accelerated stratification of Malay society and the unequal access to economic opportunities during the New Economic Policy period were accompanied by a degree of class-based disaffection that appealed to Islamic concepts of justice.”
The notion that religious beliefs, immaterial of how deeply they are held, should inform how policy-making is approached is not in line with democratic values. To compound this problematic phenomenon is the almost complete absence of tolerance in Islamic doctrine.
Policy cannot be dictated by convictions that are not amenable to argument. All they achieve to do is foment resentment among religious groups and aggravate social discord. As the Malaysian scholar James Chin wrote in a New York Times op-ed from 2015, “the vast system of institutionalized preferences for Malays,” with policies in place for over four decades, “have failed to significantly help poor Malays.”
Furthermore, the Malay leadership’s cognitive dissonance has had a grave effect on the economy. Long-term prospects have been incapacitated by the droves of non-Malays leaving the country — as I mentioned earlier, up to sixty percent of our brightest have packed up and left — leading me to suggest that policies that have long favoured the Bumiputera can no longer be viewed through the lense of economics, in spite of the NEP being dressed up as solely an economic policy. In fact, as James Chin explains, it has hurt Malaysia’s economy. “The NEP was ostensibly meant to uplift Malays, but it soon became a means for UMNO to cement political support, creating a rentier system with dubious economic results.”
The remnants of the New Economic Policy have failed to make any substantive impressions on growth and prosperity. Therefore, the Bumiputera impediment has to be confronted foremost as a moral rather an economic issue. What is there now left to do other than begin to consider seriously the repeal of policies that hoist Bumiputeras above other Malaysians? Is it not time for the hurting to stop, and the healing to start?
Once a people conflate religion with identity, they are influenced and motivated by their faith and its edicts, which are incompatible with intellectual openness and a robust tolerance. Additionally, the zealously faithful often hold themselves to be more accountable to their conceptions of gods and prophets rather than to an unbiased rule of law. Impairing the vision of the country only spurns the kind of intellectual and societal abjection, which can take generations to resolve, if indeed it can be resolved at all.
The vestiges of religious zealotry in the West often manifest themselves through bigotry and hatred, impacting society in a most pernicious way. In the Developing World, sectarianism is arguably the primary source of misery, oppression, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny and socioeconomic stagnation, not to mention often being the root cause of war and rising tension. Malaysia must make sure to avoid the same fate as many Third World nations and move to abolish any religious-based laws, if it wishes to make meaningful strides toward a prosperous future.
Levels of bitterness between the races have incurred deep divisions among the ethnic groups in the country. It has made the Malay-Muslim Malaysians retreat further and further into the rabbit hole of religious orthodoxy, and has inflicted a hurt upon the ethnic minority groups that has left their faith in the nation in tatters.
Astonishingly, the good doctor, at the age of ninety-two, is Prime Minister again. Today, the once crafty Caliph resembles a milder, dare I suggest, a more contrite crusader. By and large, the Doc’s return is welcome, given his predecessor Najib Razak’s penchant for skulduggery, theft and deviance. The man in charge has promised to usher in a new era of widespread economic and political reform, and by the looks of it, the creases on his countenance appear true. He seems sincere.
Many think that his heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, who stumbled before the throne twenty years ago, is destined to advance the difficult reforms set in motion by Mahathir and his seventh administration. Whether the latter’s one time consigliere turned arch nemesis, now a potential right hand man again, is up to the job of overhauling the country for the better, is a matter for debate. On that one, the jury is still out. Anwar’s wife and current Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail is certainly not first lady material, never mind being qualified to hold the highest office in the land.
When the underwhelming Deputy Prime Minister was asked, about a year ago, on the acme of shifty news broadcasting, Al Jazeera, whether she thought it was a bright idea to be in coalition with the odious Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), she cravenly back-pedalled. When the interviewer pressed her on the subject of the implementation of Hudud in the Islamist-governed state of Kelantan, she stalled, veritably failing to impress.
“Your former coalition of opposition parties was partly torn apart because the so-called Islamist Party had been pushing a controversial bill to enhance the power of Sharia courts in Kelantan state, which would mean harsher Hudud punishments — things like lashings, stonings and amputations. Why on earth would you be willing to be in a coalition with a party proposing such a horrific and extreme law?” he asked, sharply.
Under the bright, probing lights of the sound stage, Wan Azizah, then opposition leader, clad in a baby-pink headscarf, went on the defensive. Resignedly, she blurts out, “they (the Islamists) have actually left us.” (Had the Islamists really left the building, Madam Deputy, or did you just decide covertly to seize at the reins?)
After a tediously circuitous exchange, the interviewer boldly cuts to the chase. “Is it a red line for you, the Hudud bill?” to which the now twitchy Wan Azizah disconcertingly replies, in her trademark monotone, “Hudud — as a Muslim — you just have to accept that these are part of God’s laws.” As a Malaysian, I beg to differ. No seriously thinking or morally decent human being in good conscience could ever countenance such barbaric ideas. Not only should they be highly suspect of them, but they should wholeheartedly reject them, sans hesitation.
The rest of the interview is too sleep-inducing to detail, if only for Wan Azizah Wan Ismail’s uninspiring manner of speech. Jaw-droppingly, there were even rumours during the campaign that she was tipped someday to be Prime Minister.
It is worth keeping in mind that such a ghastly prospect is not entirely improbable. Should a bout of ill health befall the nonagenarian Prime Minister Mahathir, his Deputy Wan Azizah would be next in line to step in for him.
I fear her apparently nonchalant reticence to disavow unequivocally the implementation of Hudud in Malaysia makes her about as unsuitable to be Prime Minister as the rabid Member of Parliament for Marang, Terengganu, is — or anybody else with ties to Islamist parties or organizations, past or present, for that matter. I’m afraid the same applies to Anwar Ibrahim.
The inchoate stages of meaningful change are always fragile. The coin can still fall on the wrong side of progress for the new government, despite the penny having dropped for the UMNO-led coalition on May 10, following six decades of seemingly unshakable power. To build on the momentum that Pakatan Harapan has gathered since election day, Mahathir has to be more expeditious in tackling Malaysia’s longest standing moral impediment.
Some believe he will. That it is just a matter of time. Chin-Huat Wong, a Malaysian political scientist, has implored Mahathir’s sceptics to remain patient. “The man who tied the bell around the tiger’s neck is the only one who can remove it.”
Talk of tigers and bells is all well and good. But what about the camel in the room? It may be early days for this administration, but chartering the right course from the outset is crucial. As is setting the right tone. On the addressing of the egregious issue surrounding ethnic and religious favouritism, Mahathir 2.0 (As Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng so endearingly referred to him as during a separate interview with Channel News Asia) has not done that emphatically enough. Doctor, it would appear, the clock is ticking.
In November of last year, my grandmother passed away from years of accumulating illnesses. She repeatedly put off receiving treatment, stating that her ailments were part of a divine plan. She and I spoke for the last time over the phone as she lay on her deathbed. Her gravely voice was quite the contrast to the tetchy, taut tone I recalled from my childhood days. “Never forget where you came from” or something to that effect was trotted out for the very last time. “Don’t forget you’re Muslim” was uttered with all the energy she could muster, as the curtains of her life were finally closing.
Ultimately, dear old Nanimak had as much to show for her life on Earth as she could take with her to the hereafter. She didn’t realise it, but the lasting lesson she left me with was the futility of her recipe — clinging to your origins and your religion — for achieving a meaningful life.
Perhaps hers is a cautionary tale for her fellow Malay-Muslims. Allowing oneself to be imprisoned by the past risks the grave danger of failing to secure the hope of a better tomorrow. Maybe the late Christopher Hitchens was right when he tellingly warned, “Do not live for others anymore than you would expect others to live for you.”
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