Francis Loh analyses the divisions and confusion bubbling beneath the surface of Malaysian politics, especially revelant given the evident rifts at the ongoing Umno general assembly.
2015 has been a very significant year both in terms of the bigger picture regarding Malaysia’s changing political economy, as well as in terms of the smaller picture regarding Aliran’s own activities and our engagement with wider developments in the country.
Let me start with the smaller picture. You will notice that the Aliran Annual Report does not include special items devoted to discussion of the editorial preparation, the production, and the distribution of Aliran Monthly, a magazine that we sustained for 33 years.
You know that we began this transition towards fully digitalising about two years ago. At the 2014 AGM, support for going fully digital was reiterated with the proviso that Aliran continues to challenge the dominant discourses on political, social and economic developments as espoused by the BN powers that be, and as disseminated via the mainstream media which they own and control.
Have we been able to play the role of critic and as an alternative discursive site while making the transition to digitalisation? In our Annual Report, we document our activities during 2015 under categories such as Thinking Allowed, Media Statements, Critical Socio-economic Insights (CSI), Civil Society Voices, and perhaps most importantly, the E-newsletters, which we desire to release every week, but which comes out only two or three times each month.
Nonetheless, through the E-newsletter and other releases, we believe that we have persisted in remaining critical and as a site for alternative discourse of current developments in Malaysia.
One way to evaluate our performance is to look at whether we have been able to play a useful role against the major political events that unravelled in the course of the year.
Why so quiet?
Let me do that by first sharing with you a conversation that Anil Netto (Aliran honorary treasurer) and I had in the Aliran office, a few days before the AGM. Anil remarked that Perkasa, Isma, Martabat and others like them seemed to have been very quiet of late. So we wondered why.
First, might they be feeling remorseful for all the troubles, especially the heightening of ethno-religious tensions they have caused? Most unlikely, we quickly agreed.
Second, perhaps they feel embarrassed that the Malay community does not seem to be responding to their strident calls for Malay-Muslim unity and Ketuanan Melayu anymore. In fact, it was the Malay media that turned them into larger-than-life entities by giving them unnecessary media coverage. Currently, the Malay media seem to be ignoring them.
Instead, the Malay media appear to be going out of their way to highlight the PM’s wassatiyah (moderation) and his wooing of the Indians and Chinese. “You are Malaysians, not pendatang,” he pronounced to the non-Malays at the recent MCA, Gerakan and MIC assemblies.
For me, this tone of moderation and the highlighting of it in the media are directly related to the fact that Obama and the Asean leaders were visiting Malaysia and the world’s media were here.
When they are gone, and if the local media so wishes again, Perkasa and Isma will be given their media coverage again. In the event, Anil and I agreed that these groups cannot be credited for feeling embarrassed about anything; for they are so thick skinned and thick in the head.
Not quiet, but disquiet
Third, and most likely, Perkasa and Isma are confused. The quiet is more a disquiet. Indeed, in spite of their call for unity, Malay society has become more divided and fragmented.
I wish to stress this point to those among us who maintain that ethno-religious relations in Malaysia are worsening. For me, this is only half the picture.
Do not forget that Malaysians are also crossing ethno-religious boundaries and interacting with people of other ethnic and religious backgrounds rather regularly nowadays. I refer to the civil society organisations (CSOs), many of which work across ethnic faultlines; to the formation of the Pakatan Rakyat (and now the Pakatan Harapan); and to mass movements such as Bersih 4.
From this point of view, ethnic boundaries have been crossed again and again, and ethnic relations are getting loosened and less rigid.
As loosening occurs, those who stand to lose most – like the ethnic-based parties and the would-be ethnic heroes, indeed the Perkasa and Isma types, and the Umno extremists – will shout louder and more stridently. But do not get misled that they are so strong and influential. Indeed, they are getting desperate!
Consider the split within Umno itself as the PM kicks out Umno deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin and one of the Umno vice presidents, Mohd Shafie Apdal, from the cabinet. Muhyiddin will be denied the opportunity to address the Youth, Wanita and Puteri wings at the Umno general assembly, contrary to tradition.
We also know that former premier Dr Mahathir has called Najib to step down over a string of scandals including Najib’s receiving of the RM2.6bn ‘donation’ and allegations regarding his involvement in the Altantuya murder.
As a result, Umno is investigating Mahathir and considering referring the former prime minister and Umno icon to Umno’s disciplinary committee. Many branches are also calling out for Najib to step down.
It must be very disquieting for Perkasa and Isma to witness this intra-Umno conflict. Whom do they support?
As a result of the scandals surrounding the PM, and this intra-Umno conflict, one of its most respected and popular young leaders, Saifuddin Abdullah, a former deputy minister of education, has left the party to join PKR. Another outspoken and persistent critic is Zaid Ibrahim, a former Umno minister.
And we should not forget Anwar Ibrahim, who had been removed as deputy premier and deputy president of Umno. That resulted in a split down the middle. Large numbers left the party to join Anwar in the Reformasi movement and PKR.
Anwar was re-jailed in March 2015, again on sodomy charges. A UN Working Committee has concluded that his imprisonment was arbitrary, that he was “denied a fair trial, and then jailed for political reasons. Apparently, the intra-Umno conflicts have been accompanied by a resort to authoritarian and arbitrary measures as well.
From Sharia law to maqasid Sharia
Poor Perkasa and Isma; it not as though they can easily switch support from Umno to Pas either. For Pas has experienced its own major break-up. Seven of its 21 MPs elected in GE13 have split from the party; six helped to form Parti Amanah Negara while the seventh joined the PKR.
Those who left were among the most dynamic and intelligent of Pas’ leaders such as Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa, Mohd Hanifa Maidin, Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad with whom Aliran has interacted in past dialogues and forums.
In a forum ‘Maqasid Syariah in a Constitutional Democracy’ held in Penang on 31 October 2015, Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, who summed up the day’s proceedings, explained that the Amanah reformers and other like-minded Muslims want to shift their advocacy of an Islamic state that had previously (under Pas) emphasised implementing Sharia law, especially hudud and qisas, to one anchored instead in ‘maqasid Sharia’, or the principles or purposes of the Sharia. These principles include nurturing the righteous individual, establishing justice, and realisation of welfare and benefits.
He also talked about moving from Islam as a religion of compulsion to a religion of compassion and of an Islam that is cognisant of the multi-religious make-up of Malaysia. It should therefore be a religion that is inclusive instead of one that tended to be exclusive and ending up fighting narrow concerns such as the exclusive use of the kalimah Allah by Muslims.
Apparently, this new turn is drawn from the ideas of Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia, Tariq Ramadan of the Islamic Centre in Oxford University, and from the political initiatives in Turkey under Recep Tayyyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.
This new turn allows for the possibility of pursuing a Muslim political agenda without establishing an ‘Islamic state’ in the traditional legalistic sense. Might this new turn have created further confusion for the Perkasa and Isma types?
Apart from the Penang forum, two other meetings on the same topic have been held in Kuala Lumpur during the past two months. Apart from Amanah leaders, the new discourse and dialogue is also being promoted by people in Ikram and by the Group of 25 (G25).
Group of 25 and DAP Malays
Yes, there has emerged a Group of 25 Malay-Muslims who were former senior civil servants. Espousing liberal and democratic concerns, G25 have insisted that Perkasa and Isma do not represent them or the majority of Malays. They have published a book ‘Breaking the Silence: Islam in a Constitutional Democracy’, which was recently launched by respected Umno senior statesman Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. The book is essentially a collection of the talks on that topic that have been presented at the three forums.
In late November, one of the G25, Tawfik Ismail, son of former deputy prime minister Tun Dr Ismail, called for Jakim (the Malaysian Islamic Development Department) to be abolished, as the department, he argued, had no role under the Constitution. Yet Jakim was trying to act like “a government within a government” and trying to have “a say in almost every service ministry affecting Muslims and non-Muslims alike”, he stated (Malaysian Insider, 24 Nov 2015).
He was supported by Zaid Ibrahim, who reportedly tweeted: “Jakim is just another department to support Putrajaya’s control of the Muslims. Nothing to do with Islam.”
Predictably, Tawfik was probed for sedition. (Zaid was already being probed for earlier remarks.) Remaining defiant, Tawfik further insisted that Jakim has no right to be the final arbiter of the version of Islam Muslims can follow in Malaysia. He also stated that the RM1bn annually spent on Jakim would be better used to uplift Muslims from poverty (Malaysian Insider, 29 November 2015).
G25 has also stated that it had, back in 2014, already raised similar concerns with the PM’s Department about Jakim acting beyond its limits as permitted within the Federal Constitution. Now it called for an audit of Jakim finances (Malaysian Insider, 29 November 2015).
In response, Jakim’s head tried to explain that it needed that much funds because it was battling not just Isis, but “liberalism, pluralism and the LGBT community”, which he described as “radical ideologies” threatening Malaysia (Malaysiakini, 29 November 2015).
Even more disquieting for Perkasa and Isma, some prominent Malays such as national laureate Pak Samad Said, former UIA Professor of Law Aziz Bahari, Tengku Zul Zulpuri Shah Raja Puji (Pahang DAP chairman), Zairil Khir Johari (MP for Bukit Bendera), and well known blogger and assembly member Mohd Asri Sabri (Sakmongkol) have joined DAP.
The Perkasa and Isma types must consider them as pengkhianat or traitors to the Ketuanan Melayu cause. Worse, during the Aidil Adha celebration in 2015, the sermons prepared by the Pahang Mufti’s Department denounced those who had joined the DAP as “having gone against Islam” (The Malaysian Insider, 26 September 2015).
From Umno hegemony to political fragmentation
Yes, Perkasa and Isma would be very confused indeed. Their disquiet steams from the fact that the Malays today are terribly divided and fragmented politically speaking.
It reminds one of the earlier Independence period when Malays were divided at least three ways:
- the secular nationalists led by Umno aristocrats and administrators,
- the Islamic nationalists led by Burhanudin al-Helmy, and
- the Malay left associated with Ibrahim bin Haji Yaacob, Pak Sako and Ahmad Boestamam
Why, there were even Malays who fought alongside the Malayan Communist Party.
By associating themselves with the British and by calling for Malay-Muslim unity under the aristocrats, Umno established a hegemony that has lasted for half a century. The political restructuring of Malaysia and the introduction of the NEP after the May 13, 1969 riots helped that hegemony to be extended. It is this Malay-Muslim unity led by Umno that is unravelling today.
From a political scientist point of view, this unravelling is not unexpected. For the Chinese and Indian, the Dayak and the Kadazandusun communities have been fragmenting for a long time already. For any community, the norm is disunity as society gets increasingly complex and diversified.
Long lasting unity and hegemony therefore needs to be explained. Little wonder the Perkasa and Isma types are so confused and in disquiet mode. But let’s put them aside for the rest of this discussion.
Why is this unravelling and political fragmentation occurring?
Elsewhere, I have argued that we need to investigate how our economy has evolved, not least by our integration into the global neoliberal capitalist system,
We also need to examine how our society has been restructured by economic growth as well as by 30-plus years of the NEP and become very complex and diversified in terms of occupation, socio-economic status, education, to understand the new politics that has emerged in Malaysia. The ethnic identification associated with the colonial division of labour no longer exists.
Ethnic politics remains, but it is not the be-all and end-all of our politics.
In fact our politics has seen the emergence of a two-party system, as well as the rise of Bersih-style politics. Add to this globalisation and the rise of the new IT and social media, a new politics has surely arrived in Malaysia.
Dr Francis Loh was re-elected president of Aliran at the 39th Annual General Meeting held in Penang on 29 November 2015. The above is the first part of his president’s address at the AGM. The second part can be found here.