Learning from Tok Guru

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"Nik Aziz Kelantan" by Fayez - Tuk Guru. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Nik Aziz was a highly principled political leader cum preacher; even a counter-model of what a political leader ought to be, observes Francis Loh in this tribute.

Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, affectionately known as Tok Guru, was Spiritual Leader of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas) and Menteri Besar of Kelantan for 23 years.

He was well known for his piousness, humility, honesty and incorruptibility. In this regard, he was different from many other Malaysian political leaders who were arrogant, vain, power-crazy and prone to money politics.

Tok Guru extolled the virtues of Islam, preached and introduced Islamic governance, and founded a prominent religious boarding school, Maahad Darul Anuar. Respect for him, however, extends beyond Muslims and the people of Kelantan, for he was much respected by Malaysians, including non-Muslims, throughout the nation.

Many people close to him have extolled his praiseworthy ways including his contributions to his party Pas and to the Islamic cause. I want to highlight only three non-religious aspects of his legacy to share why I think we find Tok Guru so endearing to our multi-ethnic multi-religious society.

Federal-state relations

First, we owe it to Tok Guru and his Pas state government for first highlighting how centralised Malaysia’s federal system is. In the pre-Reformasi and pre-Pakatan Rakyat days, it was essentially the states of Kelantan and Sabah, both of which were ruled by Opposition parties in the 1980s, that alerted the rest of us in the other BN-controlled states about this fact.

The BN federal government directed development policies and decision-making in the BN-ruled states as though Malaysia was a centralised and not a federal country. Hence, when the Pas-controlled state of Kelantan and the PBS-controlled state of Sabah attempted to make decisions for their own states as is the norm in any federal system, the federal government tried to bully these two states into submission.

Whereas development funds were channelled by the federal government to the Menteri Besar (MB)/Chief Minister’s (CM) Offices in the BN-held states, these funds were directed to the then specially established Federal Development Offices in those two states. And the Development Officers there reported not to the MB/CM, but to the PM instead.

This practice of by-passing the MB/CM persists. In Selangor, Penang and Kelantan today, federal development funds for those states are controlled and distributed by the so-called State Development Officers (SDOs) of those states, not by the MB or CM. In turn, the SDOs are answerable to the PM, not to the MB/CM whatever.

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In Kelantan’s case, oil royalties were denied to the state. On 30 August 2010, Tok Guru himself, on behalf of the Kelantan government that he led, filed a summons in the Kuala Lumpur High Court demanding that the federal government via Petronas pay it royalties for oil obtained from within Kelantan’s waters, as provided for under the Petroleum Development Act, 1974. (Significantly, former federal Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh, who was involved in the passing of the Act, agreed to support in court the plight of the Kelantan state government.)

Alas, on account of a lack of development funds which the MB’s office could control and a lack of foreign and domestic investments, the Kelantan state government turned to (over)exploiting the natural resources under its purview. Perhaps gold and silver mining, logging and oil palm cultivation contributed to environmental degradation which some experts have linked to the unprecedented serious floods that submerged interior areas recently.

One might be able to criticise Tok Guru’s government for not bringing much industrial and business development to his state and for over-exploiting natural resources during his tenure. Kelantan also has the highest index of poverty in all peninsula Malaysia and reputedly the worst water supply system. In fact, the state had been treated unjustly and denied its rightful share of development funds. And yet when those funds were forthcoming, it came under the control of the Federal Development Office – not the MB’s office.

Several Umno leaders have suggested that Umno should not contest the coming by-election for the Chempaka state seat previously held by Tok Guru as a measure of respect for the man. It was also out of respect for Nik Aziz that the prime minister journeyed to attend his funeral.

In response to these, several Pas leaders like vice-president Salahuddin Ayub and information chief Mahfuz Omar have counter-suggested that the BN-Umno federal government ought to pay up the oil royalties due to the state – a central part of Tok Guru’s struggle – if the BN-Umno truly respected him.

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Steadfast supporter of Pakatan

Second, on many occasions during his 23 years as MB and since he stepped down in 2013, various people, both within and outside Pas, have attempted to force Pas’ withdrawal from Pakatan. Tok Guru had a very clear position on this.

It was in part due to the unfair and discriminatory treatment of Kelantan by the federal government which he considered to be unIslamic, that Tok Guru lost trust in Umno, became one of the staunchest supporters of Pakatan Rakyat, and consistently rejected entering into any unity government with Umno. This stance was evident when after GE13 he rejected attempts to forge an Umno-Pas government in Selangor and deny Pakatan control of the Selangor State Assembly.

Again, in 2014, suggestions arose from some quarters in Pas as well as in Umno about forming an Umno-Pas unity government to resolve disagreements within PR over the question of the Selangor Mentri Besar’s post. Such suggestions from within Pas were no longer heard once Nik Aziz voiced his opposition to the idea.

Admittedly, he was prepared to work with Umno to introduce hudud laws in the state. In this regard he held meetings with the deputy prime minister and the minister in the prime minister’s department in charge of Islamic affairs in 2014 to explore co-operation between the federal and state governments on how to implement hudud laws. However, he made a distinction between that co-operation and forming a unity government with Umno.

Pas leaders who respect Tok Guru and appreciate his legacy should remember his steadfast support for Pakatan and appreciate the distinction Tok Guru made.

A counter-model of a Political Leader

Third, yet another aspect of his legacy is that he was a highly principled political leader cum preacher; even a counter-model of what a political leader ought to be. He dressed simply, not in designer suits. He lived in his own house in Kampung Pulau Melaka, Kubang Kerian, close to the mosque he preached in, rather than move into the official residence provided for the Menteri Besar.

Apparently, he invited others to share his room when he travelled out-of-state on official business. And yes, he was soft-spoken, patient and made time for ordinary people to see him, despite his heavy schedule and many official and party duties.

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Although he pushed for introducing Islamic hudud laws and made controversial remarks about the place of women in society and what they could or couldn’t wear, his struggle to introduce Islamic governance extended beyond simply enacting Sharia laws. From his politics one understands that implementing Islamic governance was also to get rid of corruption and money politics, to disallow concentration of power by any individual or clique, to improve the lot of all poor people, and even to improve inter-ethnic relations.

Unlike many other so-called religious experts and would-be leaders, Tok Guru’s struggle was not about protecting the interests of those in power or about the special rights of any particular ethnic group. He was certainly not concerned about whether we could greet Christians ‘Merry Christmas’ or celebrate Valentine’s Day. And he clearly was not associated with the likes of Perkasa, Perkida and Isma which espoused extremist and chauvinistic ideas. He certainly was not into burning Bibles!

His notion of progress and development was not defined by iconic buildings and the tallest and longest this or that. He was more concerned about the morality of the nation and believed that leaders must provide good examples to the people by living moral lives. His death on 12 February 2015, after a long struggle with prostate cancer, has deprived Malaysia of a respected, popular and able leader.

A few days after his passing, Aliran held a two-day Young Writers Workshop in Ipoh, one of four Workshops that we organised in several parts of the country. The 20 young Malaysians present, of various ethnic and religious backgrounds, had the opportunity to discuss the passing of Tok Guru and the legacy he left us. These young Malaysians were saddened by his death too. And there were many ‘likes’ for his legacy, especially his counter-model example of how a political leader ought to style himself.

Thank you for these legacies, dear Tok Guru. Peace and Blessings especially to your wife Tuan Sabariah Tuan Yusof and your 10 children.

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