With the hudud bill dominating the ethno-religious political narrative of late, a small but significant victory for inclusivity and moderation went almost unnoticed, writes Allen Lopez.
The blight of racial and religious prejudice, which seems to dominate political discourse in the country, reared its ugly head recently at an event which until now had been spared this pestilence – the recent annual general meeting of the Kuala Lumpur Bar committee on 23 February 2017.
Expecting a rancorous affair, members flocked to the meeting – a record attendance of over 1,000 members (out of some 7,000 members). [On a personal note, this was the first annual meeting I attended.] Members were clearly determined to oust the taint of racial and religious intolerance which threatened to infect this august body.
Of the three candidates who offered themselves for the chairperson’s position, one stood out – for all the wrong reasons. The individual in question ran an overtly ethno-religious campaign, by openly appealing to sentiments of race and religion. This self-proclaimed champion of religion had pledged to defend the interests of his group by, among others things, banning alcohol consumption from the social events of the committee and supporting a move towards harsher Sharia penalties.
Before voting began, the floor was open to attendees to air their views on matters germane to the proceedings. As it turned out, this was the most heartening episode of the afternoon’s event. About half a dozen members took turns to speak. They spoke in hard-hitting, no-holds-barred language in condemnation of the position espoused by the candidate in question in his manifesto.
The common thread which ran through all the speakers’ comments was that our identity as Malaysians was something to be prized and protected and, to this end, we should be vigilant and ceaselessly battle the forces of divisiveness. They held that politicians were the ignoble proponents of division and the time-honoured role of the Bar was to thwart this pernicious legacy.
Instead, we now had a candidate in sympathy with this vile trend, trying to suck us into the same putrid swamp. Indeed, this was a candidacy which contaminated the essence of all that the Bar stood for: justice, respect for each another and the upholding of the dignity of the individual on the basis of merit, not of the race or religion professed.
What was especially heartwarming, though hardly surprising, was that all the commentators were of the same race and religion as the candidate they were taking to task. They said that such a candidacy was an affront to them as it called into question their ability to compete on equal terms – namely, on meritocracy. Their comments were unsurprisingly met with rapturous applause.
The three candidates were then each allowed five minutes to elaborate on their respective manifestos. The first two candidates eloquently explained the issues which they hoped to champion if elected.
Then came the turn of the inglorious man of the moment. Faced with the verbal bombardment just moments earlier, this candidate recoiled and resorted to a most curious response. Rarely has such an embarrassing exhibition been on such open display. Here was the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.
He suggested with jaw-dropping temerity that his platform was merely a device to attract the record turnout of members at the annual general meeting! And given the record turnout, he suggested that he had succeeded superbly. Trump couldn’t have done a better job at obfuscation.
Predictably, the candidate’s response was greeted with the derision it deserved. It was an exhibition of astonishing doublespeak.
The voting concluded with his humiliating defeat and outright rejection. He bagged a mere 31 votes against the winner Goh Siu Lin’s 663 – who becomes the first female chairperson of the Kuala Lumpur Bar committee – and a third candidate’s 240.
In the midst of our despondency with the state of our body politic, this event shone a ray of hope that all is not lost in the fight for the soul of Malaysia. The blight of bigotry may yet be vanquished in our quest for a better tomorrow.