Arrival of New Politics undermines Old Politics (Part 1 of 2)

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Umno-BN continues to manipulate ethno-religious issues to delay the emergence of a New Politics that is associated with justice, equality and freedom, and the push towards a more democratic two-party system, writes Francis Loh.

Predictably, the mainstream media will highlight statements made by right wing groups like Perkasa  - Photo credit: http://umno-kselangor.blogspot.com
Predictably, the mainstream media will highlight statements made by right wing groups like Perkasa – Photo credit: http://umno-kselangor.blogspot.com

In recent months and years, there have occurred vicious attacks and actions taken against people and groups who have stood up for justice, equality and freedom.

In the course of 2012, the leaders of Bersih 2.0 and Duduk Bantah 3.0 were systematically attacked. We also witnessed attacks against Tenaganita leader Irene Fernandez who was campaigning for greater justice for migrant workers. Perkasa condemned her as ‘anti-national’ and demanded that her citizenship be revoked. There has also occurred a campaign against the Member of Parliament and PKR vice-president Nurul Izzah Anwar, who has been accused of supporting apostasy for Muslims, something she had not said whatsoever.

Meanwhile, her colleague Mohd Rafizi Ramli who had first exposed the National Feedlot Corp scandal, has been accused of breaking banking laws and condemned for tarnishing the image of Malays; the whistleblower has been called in for questioning! The DAP and its leaders have been accused of being anti-Islam and anti-Malays when in fact the new policies that the DAP-led Penang state government have implemented have removed certain Umno-connected Malays from the lucre that they had had access to previously. Human rights group Suaram and malaysiakini.com, the on-line daily, are among the latest to come under attack. Significantly, Suaram is pushing for an investigation by French legal authorities into the Scorpene submarine deal on corruption grounds; while, unlike the mainstream media dominated by the Umno-BN coalition, malaysiakini.com have been investigating and reporting on many of the above controversies all too critically, from the point of the authorities.

Pattern in these attacks

A pro-Umno-BN or NGO will fire the first salvo. The pro-Umno-BN mainstream media will then play up the issue, often deliberately twisting the facts and dishing out misinformation. On a recent occasion, Mohd Zaini Hassan, the assistant chief editor of Utusan Malaysia, unabashedly claimed at a forum on social media communication that his newspaper does not lie, but admitted that it resorts to ‘spin’. Considering that the forum was organised by the Biro Tata Negara, the government’s propaganda machinery, it is not surprising that he dared to excuse himself in such a manner.

At any rate, on account of such misinformation, Perkasa and Perkida, Harrusani Zakaria the mufti of Perak, or Nakhaie Ahmad, a former Pas leader who had crossed over to Umno, or the so-called ‘independent’ lawmakers like Ibrahim Ali, Zulkifli Noordin or Hassan Ali, if not the Umno youths themselves, will then get into the act. Predictably, the mainstream media will highlight their attacks against the critics in the front page. One or more of the above will then file police reports that such-and such had ‘menghina Islam’ and the royalty, and committed sedition by questioning Malay rights and ‘Ketuanan Melayu’, etc.

After a short while, the Umno-BN ministers, sometimes the former prime minister, if not the current prime minister himself, will next step in. By this time, the Police, Jabatan Agama, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and other authorities would have been unleashed against the critics.

The case of Nurul Izzah Anwar

Consider the recent case involving Nurul Izzah Anwar. On 3 November, in response to a question from the floor at a forum on ‘The Islamic State’, Nurul had made comments to the effect that there was no compulsion in Islam. Understanding the sensitivity of the issue, she was quick to add that she was not in favour of apostasy.

And yet, it was reported in the Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian that she had declared that Malays could renounce their faith, which she had never said. These newspapers also reported various groups and leaders – they included minister of Home Affairs Hishammuddin Hussein Onn, Gerakan Masyarakat Prihatin Meru leader Jaya Kusuma Rosman and Persatuan Ulama Malaysia secretary-general Dr Mohd Roslan Mohd Noor – denouncing her for what she had not actually said, but what was reportedly claimed that she had said.

Although various groups like Sisters in Islam, the Islamic Renaissance Front, and individuals like the former Mufti of Perlis Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Ariffin, blogger and lawyer Harris Ibrahim, columnist Mariam Mokhtar and several Pas leaders came to her defence, none of these opinions and clarifications in support of Nurul was reported in the mainstream media.

Why, some pro-PKR blogs also circulated a news clipping quoting former prime minister Abdullah Badawi saying about the same thing – that some ‘Muslims who wanted to leave Islam should be allowed to do so’. These remarks had appeared in Channel News Asia on 10 July 2007.

Despite support for what Nurul had actually said, clarifications that she had been misrepresented in the mainstream media, and that Abdullah Badawi had also said, more or less the same but was never attacked for it, Nurul Izzah continued to be misrepresented and attacked. The intention, it was clear, was simply to whip up a frenzy among Umno-BN supporters.

In so doing, several critical issues that had been making the headlines particularly in the alternative media – the Scorpene submarines contract, the National Feedlot Corp scandal, the Automated Enforcement System, and the alleged RM40m contribution to Sabah Umno, all, clearly and potentially corruption cases – were conveniently sidelined! So, instead of investigating the truth behind these cases, various government agencies began questioning and investigating the various groups and alternative media that had given attention to these potential corruption cases, and to the counter-reports of what Nurul Izzah had said.

Haram to vote for the DAP

Another disturbing example concerns how the Utusan Malaysia had on 8 August 2012 declared in its front page: Haram sokong DAP. Apparently, the declaration was first made by a religious teacher called Abdullah Sa’amah who runs a sekolah pondok in Kampung Geting in Tumpat. The next day, under the headlines ‘Lagi seruan tolak DAP’ the newspaper carried more reports condemning the DAP.

In essence, the DAP was labelled as kafir harbi or kafir dimmi which translates as ‘belligerent infidel’. More seriously, kafir harbi is used to describe ‘non-Muslims seen as enemies of Islam and whose deaths are allowed and justified in a war setting as they are seen to be attempting to kill Muslims’. For the Utusan Malaysia, the DAP’s opposition to the implementation of hudud law in Malaysia was tantamount to being anti-Islam. Their depiction of the DAP as kafir harbi, therefore, was justified. Apparently, the same term ‘did not apply to the MCA and MIC because they are prepared to accept Islamic supremacy in multi-religious Malaysia’! This is very heavy stuff!

Related to this labelling of the DAP are the allegations which have been highlighted in the Utusan Malaysia during the past year, namely that the DAP was planning to turn Malaysia into a Christian country and that they had pledged to instal a Christian prime minister. No matter how ludicrous the charge, Perkasa, Perkida and other groups lodged police reports and demanded that the Police and the various State religious councils investigate these allegations of the DAP’s intentions.

The DAP’s veteran leader, Member of Parliament Lim Kit Siang alerted the public and protested against the Umno-BN government that this depiction of the DAP was akin to calling Muslims to hate, if not to destroy the DAP. When queried on the matter, the deputy editor of the Utusan Malaysia had the gall to claim ‘fair comment’ for so calling the DAP. There were no qualms on his part that he could have taken Malaysia to the brink of a racial catastrophe. Certainly, there were no qualms that he was acting unprofessionally. The cabinet minister in charge of Islamic affairs simply clarified that these were but ‘personal opinions’ because there were as yet no fatwas (religious rulings) on these matters. The minister in the prime minister’s department opined that it was good to air such views on ‘sensitive matters’, so that they did not remain sensitive and controversial!

Fanning racist sentiments and extremist views?

In fact, there have been many other occasions in the past few years when irresponsible and extremist opinions have been openly expressed, sometimes by very important political leaders. I mention some of these in passing:

  • In Sept 2001, Dr Mahathir had proclaimed unilaterally that Malaysia is an Islamic country. Naturally, there occurred a heated debate over his pronouncement.
  • An off-shoot of this controversial pronouncement was the attempt by the Bar Council and other NGOs to set up the Inter-religious Council (IRC), which was opposed by a group of Malay-Muslim associations that saw the establishment of any such Council as a move that would undermine the status of Islam as the official religion of the country. The matter came to a close after then prime minister Abdullah Badawi ruled that the establishment of the IRC was ill-conceived and ordered the Bar Council to halt its efforts.
  • Thereafter, there emerged a new coalition of like-minded NGOs that called themselves ‘Article 11’, named after the article in the federal Constitution that guaranteed freedom of religion. After several public forums were held, this effort was also halted in its tracks. Not least, a meeting co-organised by Aliran in Penang was disrupted by demonstrators and even a bomb scare!
  • The problem, of course, was not resolved. It was only swept under the carpet. For in the course of that decade, there developed a series of court cases involving the competing jurisdictions of civil law and the sharia related to burial rights, custody and upbringing of children when one spouse had converted to Islam. In the midst of this, the Lina Joy case also came to Court. Despite a Cabinet ruling over these matters, it does not yet appear that the question of competing jurisdictions has been solved once and for all. Not least Article 11 on the freedom of religion appears to contradict Article 121(1A), an amendment to the federal Constitution in 1988.
  • There was also the ‘Allah controversy’ involving the Catholic Herald. Related to this was the seizure and withholding of the distribution of the Malay version of the Holy Bible: 30,000 copies were confiscated at Kuching Port and another shipment of 5,100 Bibles was impounded in Port Klang. The matter has been resolved temporarily by requiring that the Bibles be numbered, and stamped ‘only for the use of non-Muslims’ before they were released. But there has not been a withdrawal or amendment of the said administrative law which led to the seizure and distribution of the Bibles in the first instance.
  • The perennial debate over the History syllabus also came to the fore again when it was proposed that History be made a compulsory subject in the SPM. There was a complaint by mainly non-Muslims and non-Malays that the syllabus had over-emphasised the study of Islamic history. As well, little attention had been given to the contributions of non-Malays, or to Sabahans or Sarawakians to the making of modern Malaysia. Again, the matter has been left hanging.
  • Amidst this controversy, a group of non-Muslims, alleged that the novel Interlok written by a national laureate Abdullah Hussein, which was used as a compulsory text by upper secondary school students in the Klang Valley, contained racist sentiments. In this case, the matter was resolved not by replacing the text but by removing certain passages in the text; this move neither appeased the complainants nor the author.
  • Meanwhile in Penang, the publication of a pamphlet myBalikPulau by Arts-Ed in Penang, the result of a popular history project by Penang youths of all multi-ethnic, multireligous backgrounds caused a stir when Umno-Penang leaders claimed that the pamphlet had denigrated Penang Malays. The accusation was completely baseless and was an attempt to turn Malays against the Pakatan Rakyat-led state government. The matter came to rest when it was revealed that it was the previous Umno-BN government which had first awarded Arts-Ed the grant for the project. In this instance, alas, the creative efforts of the youths who had been involved in the project were subjected to the politicking of racist politicians.
  • There were several other attempts by racist politicians to smear the reputation of the Penang state government. No less that the deputy prime minister had alleged, wrongly as it turned out, in front page reports of the Utusan Malaysia, again, that the state Islamic Council had replaced the name of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong with the chief minister’s name in their Friday prayers. Although, the allegation was proven baseless, there was no retraction of the reports, no apology from the deputy prime minister.

Part Two to follow tomorrow: Getting our analysis right

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Francis Loh
Dr Francis Loh served as honorary secretary of Aliran for 20 years and then president of Aliran for five years from 2011 to 2016. He was formerly professor of politics at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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