Unless Pakatan Harapan has a strong defence on issues of race and religion, it will not be able to attack effectively on 1MDB and corruption, writes Ronnie Ooi.
A Malay friend said to me he thought the coming general election would will be won and lost on issues of race and religion and not on 1MDB and government corruption. On thinking about it, I am certain he is right.
Pakatan Harapan thinks it can beat Najib by fighting on the grounds of 1MDB and government corruption.
But Najib is not stupid. Why should he fight the coming general election on grounds where he is weak when he can switch to grounds where he is ‘strong’ and PH ‘weak’, ie race and religion? He is ‘strong’ on the grounds of race and religion because he needs only to defend the interests of the Malay and Muslim community.
PH is weak in this area because, being multi-racial, its policies need to be acceptable to all the communities. This is difficult in a deeply divided country like Malaysia. Because it is difficult, PH has neglected this area.
PH must learn the lesson of the last British general election earlier this year. Theresa May, the Conservative British Prime Minister, called the election planning to fight it on the grounds of Brexit.
But Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Opposition leader, campaigned instead against government austerity and spending cuts in public benefits. By the time she realised what was happening, it was too late, and the Conservatives lost their parliamentary majority.
The Malay agenda
Recently comments have appeared in Malaysiakini that PH “needs to push Malay Agenda to win GE14”. What about Chinese Agenda, Indian Agenda, Malaysian Agenda?
Some interpret a Malay Agenda as matching or outdoing Umno’s aggressive approach in defending Malay rights. But you cannot defeat Umno by trying to outdo Umno.
Besides Mahathir is trapped. Having now spoken so many nice words about the DAP, he cannot now afford to push an aggressively pro-Malay agenda which will cause a breakdown in relations with the DAP. To swing from demonising the DAP to praising the DAP and then back to demonising the DAP would make him lose all credibility.
Zaid Ibrahim is right when he urges that PH’s Malay Agenda must not replicate the Umno and Pas versions. He is right when he says “Harapan must outline its plans to help Malays in concrete terms”. This will take time to work out especially in the complex areas of awarding government contracts and transparency in decision-making. And there is no certainty there will be agreement between Bersatu, with its Umno DNA, and the reformist PKR and the DAP.
In my first open letter, I had proposed that disagreements over the Malay Agenda be postponed, to be fought over in a future general elections, thus allowing the coming general elections to focus on issues about honest government, institutional reforms and a repeal of repressive laws.
Policy inertia on Islamic issues not an option
I wrote in my first letter that in our divided country that “if you try to please the Chinese, you lose Malay votes; if you try to please the Malays, you lose Chinese votes”. It is the same with regard to religion.
Opposition political leaders who depend on multi-racial and multi-religious support are afraid to propose policies that are good for Muslims because they fear a non-Muslim backlash and policies that are good for non-Muslims for fear of a Muslim backlash. This forces political leaders into policy inertia. Umno leaders do not have this problem as they focus on only one race.
The alternative to policy inertia is, PH must have the courage of their convictions, be bold in their policies, and be prepared to work hard to explain the benefits of their policies to both Muslims and non-Muslims. They must have a good mix of policies so that those which appeal to conservative Muslims are balanced by those which appeal to non-Muslims and progressive Muslims.
PH must teach both sides to know when to give and when to take. It cannot be that one side does all the giving and the other side does all the taking. Non-Muslims are tired of being told to defer to Muslim sensibility all the time.
Stopping creeping Islamisation
Presently there is great anger and anxiety in the non-Muslim community that the constitutional guarantee to their freedom of worship and way of life will be gradually chipped away by Islamists in a process of creeping Islamisation. PH cannot ignore this and must come up with ideas to stop creeping Islamisation.
1. Enact national harmony bills
National harmony bills, drafted by the now disbanded National Unity Consultative Council, will protect against creeping Islamisation. According to a Star editorial of 8 October, the council drafted a trio of bills as follows:
- The Racial and Religious Hate Crimes Bill would make it a criminal offence to incite racial and religious hatred.
- Under the National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill, it is mandatory for the government and everyone to promote equality. It also prohibits discrimination based on religion, race, birthplace, gender and disability.
- The third bill provides for the formation of a national harmony and reconciliation commission.
The bills were submitted to the government in 2014 but have not yet been tabled in Parliament.
Malaysians make a lot of proposals to the government for action, but when government action is not forthcoming, they often lack the determination to initiate the action themselves.
I was therefore very happy to see Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa at the Amanah national convention reveal that Amanah, in the face of government inaction, would table three bills in Parliament with exactly the same titles as the bills proposed by the disbanded National Unity Consultative Council. (Mujahid was a member of this council.)
But when I looked up the Amanah website, I could find no details of the proposed bills. It would be a great mistake if Amanah intends to keep the details secret until the speaker allows them to table the bills in Parliament, which may never happen.
These bills are a potential election winner for PH. Their details must be circulated as widely as possible. Voters must be given a chance to comment on and propose changes to the bill. The proposals must be discussed and understood by all component parties of PH. It must be presented as a PH initiative and not as just an Amanah initiative.
A word of caution on the bill promoting equality. It shows Amanah’s big heart but equality in Malaysia is a controversial topic. The Constitution itself safeguards the special position of the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak so that they can receive reasonable affirmative action, and Bersatu supports a continuation of such action.
I had proposed In my first letter that the issue of equality be postponed to be fought over in the election after the coming one. On the other hand, I see a great need for the other two bills, which many should be able to support.
If we had a Racial and Religious Hate Crimes Act, Zamihan Mat Zin, the Muslim preacher who considered the Chinese to be “unclean”, would have been charged under it. Zakir Naik, accused by some Hindus and non-Muslims of hate speech but strongly defended by some groups of Muslims, would be another case for such an act.
The principle involved is simple – free speech is to be prized except when it strays into incitement to hatred.
I do not know the ideas of the National Unity Consultative Council on the formation and functioning of a National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission. But I see a great need for a body to which people who feel they are being subjected to unwarranted pressure from a religion may appeal, such as the cancellation of beer festivals in KL and Selangor or instruction to a Muslim in Kelantan that he could not wear shorts to play futsal.
I see such a commission as being composed of leaders and learned scholars from all the religions in Malaysia, legal experts and retired judges, outstanding citizens from any walk of life, and trained mediators.
When an issue is referred to them, they would have to consider whether the religious pressure or demand is based on correct religious teachings, and resolve any conflict between different interpretations, between different religions and between religious teachings and civil and criminal law. Their role is to mediate, to make both parties “see the light”. If one or both parties do not agree, they can still take the matter to court.
2. The royalty’s role in promoting moderation
The advice from the sultan of Johore and the Raja Muda of Perlis to the operators of Muslim-only laundrettes that such practices are not acceptable, and the actions taken by the sultans of Johore and Selangor on Zamihan Mat Zin are greatly welcomed by all who want a moderate Malaysia. These members of the royalty took the lead when politicians hung back.
But these are clear-cut cases. We should not expect them to take such ad hoc action in more controversial cases, such as the banning of beer festivals. They would then be seen to be taking sides, damaging their position as constitutional rulers for all their subjects.
Already questions are being asked about a preacher who forbade Muslims from going to non-Muslim hairdressers or sending their children to Chinese schools. As Nazir Razak posted on his Instagram account: “We urgently need to define and legislate the boundaries of (what is) acceptable in how we relate to each other. What is racist, what isn’t. What is unacceptable segregation, what isn’t.”
I see the National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission as a body that the royalty can refer to for learned and impartial advice when faced with tricky religious issues. There should also be a mechanism for the commission to bring to the attention of the rulers issues which require the wisdom and authority of the royatly to resolve.
3. Prevent politicians abusing religion for political advantage
The complaints against the beer festivals in KL and Selangor appear to me to be a planned and coordinated move to make the Selangor state government appear unIslamic, so that it can be defeated in the general election. How else to explain the upsurge of sensitivity over events which have taken place without problems for years?
A way to prevent this kind of abuse is to have a rule that a complaint, made for example in 2017, on religious grounds against an event which had been held for years without problems, will only be considered the following year, ie 2018. Politicians who abuse religion for political advantage want immediate results. If they cannot get immediate results, they will not make the complaint.
While politicians are responsible for deciding on certain religious issues, there is no justification for them to be in charge of the day to day administration of religion.
4. The role of education
Most countries realise the best opportunity to foster racial and religious harmony is when children go to school. But in Malaysia, some Malay children go to Muslim religious schools, Chinese children by and large go to Chinese vernacular schools, and rich kids go to private and international schools, and all these various groups never mix!
If this is not a recipe for future problems, I do not know what is. I am all in favour of religious schools, vernacular schools and private schools but surely some way must be found for these different streams to mix together.
Education issues are very emotionally charged and too hot a potato for even me to handle. I have suggested education issues be left for the general election after the coming one, but eventually someone will need to tackle the problem.
Anwar, PH must be prepared to be attacked on issues of race and religion in the coming general election! Unless PH has a strong defence on these issues, it will not be able to attack effectively on 1MDB and government corruption. This letter looks at non-Muslim needs. My next two letters will look at Muslim needs.
To members of the public reading this, I say: no legislation nor institution can guarantee the future. I believe the best defence against creeping Islamisation is trust and goodwill between conservative Muslims and non-Muslims, and the ability of non-Muslims to persuade the Muslim community of the justice and reasonableness of their wishes through face to face negotiations.
Those who have feedback and ideas are invited to contact me at email@example.com so that by banding together, we have a stronger voice.
Your old friend,
Dr Ronnie Ooi
Dr Ronnie Ooi is a retired medical doctor. Thirty-five years ago, he was active in Malaysian politics until he left for the UK, where he lived for 20 years and gained a knowledge of UK politics. He returned to Malaysia in 2008 and is now not involved in party politics.