Abdullah Badawi missed the opportunity to do what is right and this cost him greatly in the eyes of many Malaysians, writes K Haridas.
The first post Mahathir elections were held in March 2004. In comes Abdullah Ahmad Badawi winning an overwhelming majority. The ruling coalition secures nearly 64 per cent of the votes and just over 90 per cent of the 219 seats in the Dewan Rakyat.
The opposition fared badly securing 36 per cent of the vote and under 10 per cent of the seats. With such an impressive mandate, the Prime Minister and the Barisan Nasional (BN) had the opportunity to stamp their mark and take the nation forward. Wanting to make a difference and aiming to distinguish his leadership from that of his predecessor, he launched ‘Islam Hadhari’ as his charter endorsed both by Umno and the Barisan Nasional.
The Badawi feel-good factor played a big role and voters responded to his plea for a big mandate. His relaxed and accessible appeal coupled with the fact that opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim was in jail gave him advantages. The euphoria of this victory gave a blank cheque to the BN and in particular Umno.
But subsequent Umno general meetings showed a rise in temperature regarding Malay expectations at the expense of the others. The televised Umno annual general meetings with the issue of the ‘keris’ and other expletives expressed caused serious concerns among the other communities. The same is also true for the other ethnic parties. The AGM of every ethnic component party of the BN is always reacting to the power exerted by Umno and begging for a greater share of the largesse, participation and involvement.
Enter Islam Hadhari
At a time during the late nineties and the dawn of the new millennium with Samuel Huntington’s book ‘Clash of Civilisations’ as the backdrop, the idea of ‘Islam Hadhari’ or ‘Civilisational Islam’ was presented because as Abdullah Badawi says “it emphasises development consistent with the tenets of Islam and focuses on enhancing the quality of life”. While Islam Hadhari is grounded on the teachings of Islam. promoters go on to emphasise that ‘Islam Hadhari’ is meant for the benefit of all in Malaysia regardless of their religion and racial identities.
Abdullah Badawi outlines the approach and says, “It is not an approach to pacify the West. Neither is it an approach to apologise for the perceived Islamic threat, nor is it an approach to seek approval from the non-Muslims for a more friendly and gentle image of Islam. It is an approach that seeks to make Muslims understand that progress is enjoined by Islam. It is an approach that is compatible with modernisation and yet is firmly rooted in the noble values and injunctions of Islam.”
At the same time, it must be emphasised that the problem for adherents of other religions in Malaysia did not lie with Islam but with the short-sighted views of Islam projected through ethnic eyes.
Those states that call themselves as Islamic republics, Christian nations, Buddhist or Hindu kingdoms do great disservice to the names of their respective faiths. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka or even the Philippines are not great examples of the noble inspirations that underlie these great faiths and traditions. In fact such identification distorts the image of the various faith traditions.
The ten principles of Islam Hadhari as outlined are:
- Faith in God and piety
- A just and trustworthy government
- A free and independent people
- A rigorous pursuit and mastery of knowledge
- Balanced and comprehensive economic development
- A good quality of life
- Protection of the rights of minority groups and women
- Cultural and moral integrity
- Safeguarding the natural resources and the environment.
- Strong defence capabilities.
Who would want to disagree with the above. The same can be said for the ‘Rukunegara’ and the goals outlined under ‘Vision 2020.’ During the remaining years of his rule Prime Minister Abdullah took pains to explain the aims and goals of ‘Islam Hadhari.’ There were those within the Islamic mindset who were strong proponents as well as those who held other views. This charter was then affirmed at the 55th Umno General Assembly and was included in the election manifesto of the Barisan-led government. That he secured the largest election victory in the history of Umno and the BN shows the all-round endorsement they received. The government then adopted ‘Islam Hadhari’ as a principal policy programme.
For many, this symbolised a set of principles that took the interest and concerns of people at heart focusing on accountability, governance, freedom and the quality of life of citizens. To give the benefit of the doubt to Abdullah Badawi and his supporters, ‘Islam Hadhari’ had to be defined within the polity of Islam and this required more time. It started with an emphasis in Malaysia and as Chairman of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) Abdullah Badawi hoped the OIC Commission of Eminent Persons would consider adopting ‘Islam Hadhari’ at the international level.
Six months following Badawi’s landslide victory, Anwar Ibrahim was acquitted. This brought to life once again the factor of ‘reformasi’ into the Malaysian political equation.
Over the next four years while confronting criticism within the country and expressing the need for ‘Islam Hadhari’ Abdullah Badawi went through a time of challenge. Amongst his fiercest critic was his predecessor Dr Mahathir who was known for his cynical and crude remarks about ‘Islam Hadhari’. He made the tenure of Abdullah Badawi difficult in more ways than one. However, true to his conscience Abdullah Badawi never hit back and took things in stride. The acquittal of Anwar was not well received by Mahathir and the cancellation of his crooked bridge project in Johore added to Mahathir’s displeasure.
Abdullah Badawi opened avenues for greater freedom of expression and the online media were never curtailed. Exposes of corruption and mismanagement led to the formation of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.(MACC). The overall emphasis on Islam also had a concerning impact on non-Muslim segments of the community. Having to follow Mahathir’s act was difficult and his constant criticisms of Badawi’s leadership caused consternation within the party. The situation came to a head when Mahathir could not even be a delegate to the Umno General Assembly. ‘Reformasi’, the opposition slogan promoted by Anwar’s party, meanwhile was gaining momentum.
The opposition alliance was speaking about issues on the ground and at the same time focussing on the glaring failures of the BN on issues related to mismanagement and corruption. ‘Islam Hadhari’ got lost in the din of all these issues. While Abdullah Badawi was the champion, he did not have the dynamism and charisma to defend nor argue his position. While the non-Malay parties within BN gave nodded agreement, they did little to espouse the cause and like the ‘Rukunegara’ and ‘Vision 2020’ there was a severe lack of overall ownership and commitment.
While the 10-point charter was all embracing it was merely a statement of intent, of beliefs somewhat like a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).
The subsequent actions of the government in no way reflected the aims of ‘Islam Hadhari’ nor did it inspire an inclusive approach to the ethnic challenges and way of seeing issues in Malaysia. Polarisation continued and ‘Islam Hadhari’ had very little impact on the behaviour and conduct of the Muslims. Here was a man with Islamic credentials, a man who had the power with his party’s two thirds majority in Parliament; and yet he failed to deal with the real issues on the ground, to draw strength from his Charter and to initiate change.
With the powerful mandate that Badawi enjoyed, people expected action and clarity. Several cases of body snatching arising from conversions, family disputes, apostasy all added to a climate of unease and concern. Further, an increase in crimes like snatch thefts, sex crimes and violence raised serious concerns about public security. Sadly, the perception grew that Badawi’s leadership was on auto drive.
He failed to take an ethical stand on issues. Some of his glaring failures include a lack of clear direction on the inter-faith commission, issues of jurisdiction relating to the Shamala’s case and the custody of children, the Kamariah Ali case, the Nyona Tahir case, the Leena Joy issue and very significant issues relating to Article 11 of the Constitution. The judicial impasse between the syariah courts and the civil courts could only be addressed by parliament. However when ethnicity overrides justice, the status quo remains and injustice continues.
These jurisdictional issues caused much consternation and people began to lose faith in his leadership. He had the opportunity and the power to arrive at a fair decision through appropriate amendments being passed by Parliament. However when you have ‘Islam Hadhari’ viewed through Umno’s eyes, the grandeur of Islam is lost. He missed the opportunity to do what is right and hence this cost him greatly in the eyes of many Malaysians. Just as it was said in ‘Yes Minister’ it was the case of the Law of Inverse Relevance, where the less you intend to do about something the more you have to keep talking about it, ending thus with all talk and no action.
The issue of the nine Ministers and their memorandum calling for a review of laws affecting the rights of non-Muslims was taken as an affront by Umno. Sadly, these nine Ministers shamelessly withdrew their joint memo though they were standing up for serious concerns raised by their constituents. Justice was the ultimate casualty and when seen through ethnic eyes, it only perpetuated greater injustice.
This was to eventually cost Abdullah Badawi dearly at the next elections. This also revealed that the BN did not have an internal working mechanism to deal with such issues and highlighted the sorry state of the coalition. Ultimately the selfish interests of all the nine Ministers prevailed at the cost of justice to Malaysians. This again showed that when the chips are down ‘Islam Hadhari’ was just a facade and ethnic Islam prevailed.
We then saw the Report of the Royal Commission to enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysian Police. There were significant recommendations which included the setting up of an oversight body to investigate abuse by the police; amendments to remand procedures; a code relating to the arrest and detention of persons; confessions; inquiries into death in custody; freedom of assembly; ISA; and a repeal of acts like the Restricted Residence and Emergency Ordinance 1969.
Had these recommendations been implemented it would have given a boost to the administration of justice and enhanced law enforcement capabilities in keeping with the notion of ‘Rule of Law’ as enshrined in the ‘Rukunegara’ or a ‘Just and Trustworthy Government’ as highlighted in ‘Islam Hadhari’. Again, the failure was absolute, and the Executive went about ignoring the serious work that had been done by several NGOs and Suhakam, the Human Rights Commission. These recommendations never made it to Parliament for serious discussions.
BN has to get its first principles correct. Race-based parties cannot create a just society based on race. We have had 55 years of independence and have gone through 12 elections under the BN. Do we still need to be convinced that theirs is an impossible agenda? To vote them in again at the 13th General Elections is to hope for an impossible miracle. All the semantics about Transformation and Entry Points are ideas of management that can only work provided you have an inclusive agenda. Look at the end results that we face today with greater ethnic polarisation; violence and insecurity; corruption on a scale that we would not have dreamed about and a fat and rent-seeking civil service.
Serious lack of transparency and accountability as exhibited by the Auditor General’s report year after year with little disciplinary action shows that the government is not serious about dealing with gross mismanagement. Our hope with ‘Islam Hadhari’ was also dashed and like the earlier Charters this has been consumed by ‘ethnic Islam’ promoted by BN in the form of ‘Ketuanan Melayu.’
We seem to be going further and further away from even meeting the agenda of National Unity. The bankruptcy of the current Prime Minister can be equated to his saying, I give you and you give me; I trust you and you trust me.
Where have we landed when we have senior leaders of the BN who have told the non-Malays to leave; that the Indian vote does not count and that they are ‘pendatang’. Where was the word of censure from the PM or other senior Umno leaders? Where is their sense of sincerity? Now that elections are near they go around begging and buying votes!
Vote for a difference
In the end the people gave their verdict through the 2008 elections. The BN led by Abdullah Badawi won 140 seats out of 222 seats in the Dewan Rakyat (63 per cent). The remaining 82 seats went to the Opposition. The BN lost its two thirds majority. If one were to only consider Peninsular Malaysia then out of the 165 seats BN won 85 with 48.7 per cent of the popular vote while the opposition took 80 seats with a better popular vote of 51.30 per cent. In effect, BN lost the popular vote in Peninsular Malaysia. Gerrymandering obviously gives the tilt to BN especially when you have a seat like Putrajaya with 6600 voters and the opposition seat of Kapar having 117000 voters.
This is the way the ‘dacing’ is tilted by the BN despite all the talk of Rukunegara, Vision 2020 and Islam Hadhari. With over 3 per cent more of the popular vote, the opposition got five seats less. It is this sort of injustice that we need to stand up against to ensure a level playing field. ‘Islam Hadhari’ did not address such blatant injustice.
The need of the hour is to vote on the basis of conscience. Let your vote again be a vote for a difference. Why continue with BN when the results will be what we have experienced so far with worse to come. Let us in a democratic spirit give the alternative a chance. They have shown in the states they govern and exhibited a greater sense of accountability and transparency with laws like the Freedom of Information Act, declaration of assets and other measures. There may be a lack of perfection but the option provides an alternative after 55 years of BN rule. Do this also because BN may then evolve to be what it is meant to be and that this nation will see a two-party system where ethnicity will not be the key issue.
This article first appeared in Malaysiakini.com