Fund Scandal Looms in Malaysia

February 27, 2014

Fund Scandal Looms in Malaysia

Mysterious sovereign wealth fund may be billions in debt

NAJIB_RAZAK_091213_TMINAJJUA_05_540_360_100Political insiders in Malaysia say Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak could be facing a fresh political crisis due to the murky dealings of a sovereign fund established five years ago to drive investment in strategic domestic industries.

A widening circle of critics, fed in part by exhaustive reporting on independent news sites such as Malaysiakini, say the fund may have run up as much as RM40 billion (US$12.18 billion) in debt and has few assets to show for it beyond what are described as overpriced acquisitions of independent power producers in Malaysia.

On February 18, Opposition MP Tony Pua of the Democratic Action Party announced on the floor of Parliament that the fund, 1Malaysia Development Bhd, known as 1MDB, had yet to file accounts for the financial year ended March 2013 and that KPMG, the independent auditor, had suddenly resigned. Deloitte Malaysia has since taken over the accounts.

In 2012, 1MDB made a US$1.75 billion private bond placement, one of the biggest private US dollar bond placements on record from Asia, through Goldman Sachs, to acquire a portfolio of power assets. Other bond placements also have been made. According to US laws, failure to file financial accounts is a violation of the law, which should be raising concerns among the bondholders.

 ‘Bold and Daring’
A United Malays National Organization operative told Asia Sentinel a major scandal is lurking in the fund, which is wholly owned by the country’s Ministry of Finance, although no clear evidence has emerged of the exact nature of the scandal.  

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and former Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin, both of whom have soured on Najib, are said to be questioning the operation of the fund. There has been a rising tide of gossip about the fund’s political connections, particularly to Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, and a close friend, Low Taek Jho, who was active in founding the fund. 

Jho Low, as he is known, has become a New York social figure, seen out with Paris Hilton and pouring Cristal champagne for a succession of showgirls.  He and Rosmah’s son by her first marriage, Riza Aziz, produced The Wolf of Wall Street, a major box office success that has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Ironically, the film can’t be shown in Malaysia because of its excess profanity.

Low reportedly was behind Wynton Group, which showed an interest in bidding for the famed Claridge’s, Berkeley and Connaught hotels in London. According to a Malaysian website, in a court document filed in Ireland, Low made the approach in 2010.  According to the court filing, Low was said to have had the backing of an unnamed Malaysian “sovereign wealth fund,” which was not named. Low has acknowledged having friends in Khazanah Nasional Bhd, another Malaysian sovereign wealth fund. The 1MDB fund wasn’t mentioned

Little is known of 1MDB’s operations. As Asia Sentinel reported at the time, it raised hackles when it started in April 2009 as a fund arranged by Jho Low and started by the Terengganu state government, which borrowed RM10 billion (US$2.87 billion at 2009 rates). Critics questioned why an oil-rich state with revenues of RM5-7 billion a year would have to borrow money to start a sovereign fund rather than using windfall revenues from oil and other commodity bonanzas.

The Terengganu fund morphed into 1MBD under the Ministry of Finance in September 2009 to “focus on strategic development projects in the areas of energy, real estate, tourism and agribusiness.” The fund’s website quotes Najib saying its mission is to “be bold and daring… to break new ground and do things differently.”

1MDB soon acquired a strategic partner in an obscure Saudi firm, PetroSaudi International, headed by Tarek Essam Ahmad Obaid, a member of the vast Saudi royal family. Reports indicated that PetroSaudi had signed a memorandum of understanding with Ghana National Petroleum Corp. although the MOU has apparently not resulted in a major project.  

According to a statement by Azmi Khalid, then chairman of the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, 1MDB loaned PetroSaudi about US$1billion, leading to additional questions over why a government fund set up to explore investment in Malaysia was loaning money to a joint venture in Africa. PetroSaudi, despite rumored ties to the Saudi royalty, was unable to come up with its own cash in the joint venture but got 1MDB to accept a potential oil site in Turkmenistan. Subsequently, the loans to PetroSaudi climbed to US$1.7 billion.

Debt and not much else
An exhaustive probe of the sovereign fund by writers Ho Kay Tat and Afiq Isa for the Malaysian publication The Edge, found that about all 1MDB has to show so far “is a multi-billion ringgit debt portfolio, the bulk of which was used to buy several independent power producers at hefty price tags.” 

Its main asset is a 48-hectare chunk of land passed to the fund by the government when the Malaysian Air Force closed its base at Sungai Besi, near downtown Kuala Lumpur’s Golden Triangle. It is a near-priceless plot that 1MBD is to develop as a financial center called the Tun Razak Exchange, named for Najib’s late father. That work hasn’t started yet.

Through a series of complicated financial engineering moves in 2012, the loan to PetroSaudi was prematurely terminated and redeemed, according to Tony Pua’s presentation on the floor of Parliament.

“However,” Pua said, “the repayment of US$2.32 billion (RM7.93b) was made in a perplexing manner in a “segregated investment portfolio” based in the Cayman Islands. To date no one has been able to verify with any certainty who the investment portfolio manager is, the fund’s performance or for that matter, if the money actually exists.”

The “investment” in the Cayman Islands, Pua said, “raises highly suspicious questions as 1MDB is desperately trying to raise funds through new bond issuance in Malaysia to fund its aggressive acquisitions of independent power producers as well as its mega-projects in Bandar Malaysia and Tun Razak Exchange. In fact, 1MDB is already laden with an estimated more than RM40 billion in debt, and hence such investments is a luxury that 1MDB does not have.”

KPMG, in 1MDB’s first financial statement in 2010, raised an “emphasis of matter” over a US$1 billion investment in the PetroSaudi joint venture, which was subsequently converted into a US$1.2 billion (RM3.95b) loan within a period of less than six months. The “emphasis of matter” was removed in subsequent financial accounts as the joint venture was servicing the loan with interest payments, it was also highlighted that 1MDB extended an additional US$700 million (RM2.3b) in loans to the JV, despite receiving less than US$200 million in interest between 2011 and 2012.

To date,  no one has been able to verify with any certainty who the investment portfolio manager is, the fund’s performance or for that matter, if the money actually exists, Pua said.

Fiasco Looms for Malaysia’s Ruling Coalition

February 26, 2014

Fiasco Looms for Malaysia’s Ruling Coalition

Post-election public support drops steeply amid growing calls for PM Najib to take action

One of Malaysia’s most respected polling organizations is expected to release figuresRosmah and Najib over the next few days showing that support for the ruling Barisan Nasional from all three of the country’s major ethnic groups is dropping steeply, to the point where if an election were held today,  the national coalition would be buried in a landslide.

The loss of support is not just from ethnic Indians, whose approval figures for the Barisan have dropped from 45 percent to 30 percent, or the ethnic Chinese, only 8 percent of whom support the coalition, but from ethnic Malays, the mainstay of the coalition.  Support has dropped from 61 percent to 50 percent, according to sources who have seen the figures. In Penang, the poll reportedly shows that the Barisan wouldn’t win a single one of the 40 state seats and 11 parliamentary ones.

That has led to deepening concern over the performance of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, with growing calls for him to either step down in favor of another UMNO figure or to take dramatic steps to revitalize his leadership.  Even the mainstream press, all of it owned by Malaysian political parties, is becoming increasingly emboldened to criticize his performance.

Reportedly, according to political sources in Kuala Lumpur, he is increasingly being ignored within his own coalition, most recently by Sarawak strongman Abdul Taib Mahmud, who is stepping down as chief minister. Taib named his former brother-in-law, Adenan Satim, as his own replacement despite a promise during a meeting in London that he would heed Najib’s wishes in naming the new chief minister.

With both national and intraparty elections out of the way last year, Najib gambled that he could drastically cut subsidies for sugar, petrol and rice in a bid to put the country’s fiscal condition back into shape, with the fiscal debt running close to the maximum permissible limit of 55 percent.  But with the cost of living soaring upwards, he faces growing outrage.  He has since been forced to back away from a sharp rise in highway tolls.  And, while anecdotal evidence in the markets indicates that prices are climbing inexorably upwards, critics say the controlled press is continuing to report that there is no cost of living problem.

One of the issues that won’t go away is a government decision to ban use of the word Allah to mean God in Malay-language Bibles, which has infuriated Christians and moderates, who point out that throughout the Arab world, Christians use the word as a proper noun.  Najib has come under fire for making moderate statements when he is out of the country, but refusing to take a stand on the issue, or to rein in vocal Malay supremacy organizations such as Perkasa, headed by Ibrahim Ali, whose intemperate racial statements have increasingly poisoned the political atmosphere.

Within UMNO, Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, has become a lightning rod for those who see her as flaunting excess wealth including designer handbags, watches and jewelry at a time when the country is facing cost of living problems.  Many blame her for decisions that the Prime Minister is – or is not – making.

Najib is said to be shaking up his staff, replacing his long-time chief of staff with a younger, more dynamic individual. Reportedly he is also expected to call a party retreat to seek to convince party division chiefs and others within the United Malays National Organization that he has a plan to revitalize the political situation.  Party leaders complain that 10 months after the narrow parliamentary victory – and popular vote loss – that left the Barisan in charge, Najib has still not called for a post-mortem of the way the race was run.

With US President Barack Obama scheduled to visit the country on a state visit in April,  it is imperative to get moving, say political analysts in Kuala Lumpur.  Behind Najib is the ever-present specter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has taken no public position against Najib but who clearly has unleashed bloggers who are hounding the prime minister on all sides. Sources within the Mahathir wing of UMNO told Asia Sentinel that Mahathir is after Najib’s head.

the-man-behind-perkasa1It had been thought that, having emasculated Najib’s economic plans after the election, the Mahathir wing would be content to leave the weakened prime minister in his place until the next election.  The two most viable candidates to replace him would be Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who has reportedly said he is too old and tired for the job, and Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is regarded even by many UMNO figures as too mercurial and polarizing for the job.

However, A. Kadir Jasin, former chief editor of the New Straits Times and a close confidant of the 88-year-old former premier, in his blog,”The Scribe,” on Saturday suggested that Muhyiddin might not be so tired, or that a third candidate, Hishamuddin Hussein, Najib’s cousin and the party’s third-ranking vice-president, might be a possible alternative.

Thus, despite denials on all sides, the political picture is beginning to resemble that in 2008 and 2009, when growing forces coalesced to drive Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, from the premiership. The growing drip of blog comments is an indication that Najib must take action or face a serious revolt.


The Allah Issue seen from afar

February 25, 2013

The Allah Issue seen from afar

by John R. Malott

COMMENT Like other friends of Malaysia overseas, I have followed themalott1 controversy over the use of the word ‘Allah’ with interest, but also with great concern. For I believe that this issue, if left unchecked, has the potential to tear Malaysia and the dream of ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ apart.

While there are racial and religious issues in every society, what makes the situation in Malaysia different is that it is the government that has condoned and even provoked these tensions for its own political purposes.

For years, UMNO justified its existence by saying that the Malays are under threat, and that only UMNO could defend “the Malay race”.

After the 13th general election, in which UMNO candidates received only 30 percent of the national vote – and in which BN as a whole got only 47 percent – it had two choices. It could broaden its appeal or it could narrow it by trying to appeal to the PAS voter base, for whom religion rather than race is a more important concern.

Unfortunately, UMNO chose the latter course and started to play the ‘Muslim’ card. Now, according to the government and UMNO, it is not just Malays, it is also Islam that is under threat.

As for the ‘Malay’ card, UMNO increasingly has gone to the extreme, pandering to extreme racist elements, starting with PERKASA.

The irony of the “Malays/Islam under threat” claim, of course, is that in Malaysia, both Malays and Muslims are the majority. And UMNO controls the government. So how can the Malay race and the Muslim religion in Malaysia be under threat?

To UMNO’s leadership, it doesn’t matter. There is no need to explain. They just speak and offer no evidence, and use their propaganda instruments – Bernama, RTM, Utusan Malaysia, the New Straits Times, etc – to spread the word.

From an international perspective, they also make assertions that are totally out of line with Islamic thinking and practice in the rest of the world.

Think about it – Malaysia is the only country in the world that ignores history and linguistics and dares to ban non-Muslims from uttering the word ‘Allah’. Like Humpty Dumpty, the Malaysian government stands alone – and claims for itself the right to decide what words mean and what words people may read, write, think, and speak.

How can Prime Minister Najib Razak, his government, and its supporters justify their actions, when no one else in the Islamic world agrees with them? When Islamic scholars like Reza Aslan say, “We are laughing at you,” how do they respond?

They don’t. Because they don’t know what to say. They seem to be living on their own planet.

Actions, not just words

But it is not just what Najib and his government say, it also is what they have done.

  • It is the government that seized more than 20,000 Bibles in 2009.
  • It is the government that banned the use of the word ‘Allah’ in Catholic weekly The Herald.
  • It is the government’s Police Force that joined the recent raid on the Bible Society of Malaysia, confiscating over 300 bibles without a search warrant.
  • It is the government’s religious affairs department, JAKIM, that directed mosques throughout Malaysia to say, without citing any evidence, that Islam is “under threat,” that Christians and Jews are “enemies of Islam,” and that Christians are responsible for turning Muslims against each other and tricking them into losing their rights.
  • It is Najib’s cabinet that stood silently by and decided not to enforce its 10-point plan to restore religious peace and harmony in the nation.
  • It is the government that refused to take any action after the leader of PERKASA called for the burning bibles.

There is no greater example of uniformed assertions than former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s recent claim that Christians have “no right” to use the word ‘Allah’. Because he is Mahathir, he just says it, and he expects everyone to agree.

As the saying goes, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. In this case, history and the facts are not on Mahathir’s side. Mahathir is totally, 100 percent, wrong.

The word ‘Allah’ was used by Arabic-speaking Christians for centuries before the birth of the Prophet and the rise of Islam. Indeed, archaeologists have found an Arabic-language Christian Bible (the Mt Sinai Arabic Codex 151), that is nearly 1,300 years old, in which God is called ‘Allah’.

Indeed, someone might ask what right Muslims have to say the word ‘Allah’, when it was used first by Christians? Who is violating whose rights?

The answer is simple – even though Jews and Christians used it first, they would never deny Muslims the right to say the word ‘Allah’. Because while over the years, men and women have practiced and interpreted our religions in different ways, in the end we all worship the same God – the God of Abraham, the Creator of the Universe.

So here is the question. In the entire Islamic world, why is it only in Malaysia that people claim that uttering or writing the word ‘Allah’ is the exclusive right of Muslims?  Why is it only in Malaysia, and nowhere elsewhere in the world, that some Muslims say they will be “confused” if other people – Christians – use the word ‘Allah’ when they worship inside their own churches, or when they read the Bible in the privacy of their own homes?

What makes Muslim Malaysians different from the other 1.5 billion Muslims in the rest of the world?

I would like Malaysian advocates of the ‘Allah’ ban to explain this, not to me (a Christian), but to explain it to the rest of the Islamic world.

Dangers of ‘quick research’

The senior judge in the Allah appeal, Mohamed Apandi Ali, wrote in his opinion that through his “quick research” on the history of the language of the Bible, “it is clear that the word ‘Allah’ does not appear even once as the name of God or even of a man in the Hebrew scriptures. The name ‘Allah’ does not appear even once in either the Old or New Testament.

“There is no such word at all in the Greek New Testament. In the Bible world, God has always been known as ‘Yahweh’, or by the contraction ‘Yah’. That being the historical fact, it can be concluded that the word or name ‘Allah’ is not an integral part of the faith and practice of Christianity.”

Justice Apandi’s judgment clearly shows the dangers of “quick research.” He should have spent a little more time on the web. But because he refers to how the word ‘God’ is expressed in Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic, he has raised the important issue of language and the words that we use in different languages to refer to God.

How many languages are there in the world? The Christian Bible has been translated in whole or part into an astonishing 2,817 languages, according to the Wycliffe Bible Translator, a UK organisation. The complete Bible is available in 513 languages, including Arabic and Malay.

Both the Arabic and Malay Bibles use the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God. In the case of Arabic, it has been so for at least 1,300 years, and in the case of Malay, which “borrowed” the word ‘Allah’ from Arabic, for at least 300.

Even so, Justice Apandi ignored both history and language when he claimed that the Arabic and Malay language word for God – Allah – belongs exclusively to Muslims. That is because Jews and Christians used the word ‘Allah’ before the Prophet was even born.

Judge Apandi also was wrong when he said that the Jews have always referred to God as ‘Yahweh’. My own “quick research” on Wikipedia, which must have lasted 15 seconds longer than the learned judge’s, shows that the Hebrew Bible uses many names for God.

While Yahweh is indeed the most common expression, two others are ‘Elah’ and ‘Eloah’. They both sound very similar to ‘Allah’ and there is a reason for that. Just as Jews, Christians, and Muslims all believe in the God of Abraham, the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arab languages are all related to each other.

Most scholars say that Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew. And when Jesus spoke of God, he said, “Ellah.” That sounds remarkably very similar to the Arabic ‘Allah’. And it should, because Aramaic and Arab are what linguists call “cognates.”

As word of Judaism and Christianity spread into the Arabian Peninsula, ‘Allah’ became the Arabic language name for the God of Abraham. The word ‘Allah’ was used first by Arab Christians and Mizrahi Jews, and only later by the Prophet and Muslims.

Sorry, Justice Apandi. Sorry, Mahathir. Sorry, Najib and UMNO.

If anyone owns the “trademark” on the word ‘Allah’, it is the Christians, who first spread the word of the God of Abraham into the Arabian peninsula, and who first used the word ‘Allah’. But here is the point – no Christian Malaysian insists and no Arabic-speaking Christian insists that the word ‘Allah’ belongs exclusively to them.

So the burden of proof therefore is on any Malaysian who ignores history, language, and the facts – and who ignores what the rest of the Islamic world is doing – and simply asserts that only Muslim Malaysians may use the word ‘Allah’.

Prime Minister Najib: Malaysia must embrace middle power position in ASEAN

February 24, 2014

Prime Minister Najib: Malaysia must embrace middle power position in ASEAN

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia must embrace its position as one of the region’s middle powers, in its path towards becoming a developed nation by 2020.

NAJIB_RAZAK_091213_TMINAJJUA_05_540_360_100Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib  Razak said as a middle power, the nation will be expected to play a greater part  in Asia and to help Asia play a greater part in the world.

“Come 2020, Malaysia will be a developed country with far-flung and expanding interests. The international community, as well as our own public, will expect that we assume our share of the burden of responsibility and leadership.

“As a Middle Power, that means playing a greater part in Asia, and helping Asia play a greater part in the world,” he said in his keynote address at the 8th Heads of Mission Conference here today, which was attended by among others, Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman and his deputy, Datuk Hamzah Zainuddin.

Najib said this meant Malaysia was continuing its commitment to ASEAN which groups 10 Southeast Asian countries.

“We swim or sink with our region. If we don’t have an influential voice here, we won’t have an influential voice anywhere,” he stressed.

Meanwhile Bernama reported, Najib said the most effective coalitions in the future will be those which involve both the developed and developing world.

In this regard, he said, Malaysia must be deft and nimble in building and participating in coalitions, seeking out those which shared its concerns. He said there was also a need at the same time to exercise leadership within the shared platforms which were needed to tackle multilateral problems.

“A stronger foreign policy establishment here in Malaysia, which brings together think-tanks, academic chairs and foundations will strengthen our hand when it comes to building coalitions for change,” Najib said.

Najib noted that Malaysia must react to the transformations around it with a transformation of its own, including having a foreign policy that would see the country through to 2020 when this country achieved a developed nation status, and beyond.

Najib also said Malaysia must devote adequate resources to strengthening its bilateral relations with neighbours and continue to value ASEAN as the fulcrum of peace, prosperity and stability in the region.

“Even as we undertake to do more, we must concentrate resources on initiatives that will generate the best returns, leading in areas that concern us the most, not aiming to be everything to everyone,” the Prime Minister said.

He said Kuala Lumpur must sharpen the way it conceived and executed the cooperation and assistance programmes it provided at the bilateral, regional and multilateral levels.

“And we must assess the impact of such programmes more systematically to ensure they are effective and efficient,” he said.

In the speech, Najib noted that the factors which shaped Malaysia’s diplomacy — its dependence on trade, strategic location and demographic change — were in turn shaped by external trends

“And here the grounds beneath our feet are shifting as old assumptions are being overturned and new ones emerging.

“These global and regional trends ask that we adapt our diplomacy to fit the pressures and opportunities of a new century,” he added.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak delivers keynotes address after opening conference on ‘Transforming Malaysia’s Diplomacy Towards 2020 and Beyond’ at the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations (IDFR). Auditorium in Kuala Lumpur. — NSTP/Yazit Razali

CT Ali: Could We be backing the wrong Political Horse?

February 24, 2013

Could we be backing the Wrong Political Horse?

Cronyism and nepotism are rife in DAP and PKR to the point that even UMNO must take a back seat when it comes to family dynasties.


Anwar-KajangMy sleeps are deeply troubled by my thoughts on what the future holds for those of us that had put our hopes and aspirations for our future in the hands of Pakatan Rakyat.

We have done much for Pakatan. Was it not our votes that gave them Selangor, Kedah, Penang, Perak and Kelantan in the 12th general elections? And again was it not our votes that gave Pakatan the popular mandate in the 13th general election? These votes were given by the rakyat to Pakatan, and not won by Pakatan from Barisan Nasional.

These votes were our way of telling BN that ultimately it is the rakyat that decide who should govern them. And I use the word ‘ultimately’ with the hope that these politicians will ultimately come to their senses and understand that what they do today, tomorrow and in the time they have before the next general election will determine their political future.

What is now clear is that in the flush of electoral victory, reason and common sense have escaped many of the Pakatan leaders since the last general election.

You would have thought that securing the popular mandate at the last general election would have given Pakatan a secure path towards federal government by the next general election.

Nothing can be further from the truth. The way things are today for Pakatan, they have as much chance of winning federal government as a Malay would have a chance of being Penang Chief Minister for as long as DAP is the state government.

We are agreed that Selangor has been managed prudently by KhalidLIMGuanEng.htm Ibrahim. PAS has ruled Kelantan and will continue to rule Kelantan for they understand the aspirations of its people well. Lim Guan Eng has financially restructured Penang by reviving industrial investments.

These are all individual achievements in each state by components within Pakatan.

Factionalism within Pakatan had already resulted in electoral blunders that had resulted in Pakatan losing Perak and then Kedah. Blunders by Pakatan’s first tier leadership in the 13th general election meant that Perak, Terengganu and Negeri Sembilan are still firmly in BN’s hand.

Sabah and Sarawak delivered the federal government to BN. Pakatan was sadly deficient in understanding the political dynamics of these two states.

After the 13th GE it would seems that BN is more entrenched in Sabah and Sarawak than before, and whatever inroads made by DAP would by now have dissipated as BN consolidate their hold there. And Pakatan is the antithesis of what it preaches about open, responsible and decent government.

Cronyism and nepotism are rife in DAP and PKR to the point that even UMNO must take a back seat when it comes to family dynasties.

Losing the support

Religion that has been used so effectively by UMNO to galvanise its strength among the Malays after the 13th GE has only created problems within Pakatan.

PAS’ insistence to focus on hudud embarrasses DAP and PKR, and all three within the Pakatan coalition have agreed to disagree of this issue.

mat-sabu-hadi-awangAnd we cannot ignore the reality that within PAS the perpetual struggle between the ulama and the professional technocrats will always advantage UMNO rather than Pakatan.

PAS, DAP and PKR prefer to preach to the converted when in Malaysia it is the fence-sitters who will decide who will govern at state and federal levels. This UMNO knows and is already working on increasing their standing amongst the Malays.

Race and religious centric deeds and actions – and nobody can do this asNAJIB_RAZAK_091213_TMINAJJUA_05_540_360_100 effectively as UMNO – do matter in the rural hinterlands as this is where the next federal government will be decided.

Today whatever goodwill, trust and confidence the people had for Pakatan to win election at the national level – as reflected in the popular mandate they gave to Pakatan at the last general election – is being lost at a fast rate.

Islam that gives strength to PAS in Kelantan cannot be ‘sold’ to the non-Muslims and thus cannot give PAS a national profile.

DAP that has done well in Penang unfortunately also projects what the Malay abhors – the Chinese as a political and economic force – and thus again cannot gain a national platform acceptable to all Malaysians.

PKR is a mass of contradictions, opportunism and political immaturity that is played out in the public domain – from its party elections, defections, nepotism, factionalism and avarice – all a mirror image of what has happened and is still happening in UMNO today.

All these have only reinforced public perceptions that PKR is not yet ready to do government at the federal level – maybe even at state level as evident in Selangor.

We perceived that nobody in Pakatan has the credibility to lead at national level. Whether real or imagined this is what the public perceives and in politics, perception translates into electoral support or not.

Too often Pakatan’s first-tier leadership has put self before party and national interests. Too often Anwar Ibrahim has failed to honor what he said he would do.

Too often DAP has talked itself up as a Malaysian party that is open and responsible – and yet what the party leadership is doing within DAP indicates otherwise.

PAS is torn between religion and politics, and you and I know that it cannot do both well.But I can only speak for myself.

Controversial Muslim Thinker and Politics

February 23, 2014

Controversial Muslim Thinker sets the cat among the canaries, again

by Terence Netto@

COMMENT They say politics makes for strange bedfellows. It looks like religion also does the same. Consider thinker Kassim Ahmad’s ties to former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad – on Islamic exegesis, the two are birds of a feather.

kassim thinkerThe Controversial Muslim Thinker

This is best understood in the context of Voltaire’s famous criticism of Christian belief and practice at the onset of the Enlightenment in the 18th century – that incantations can kill a flock of sheep if administered with a certain quantity of arsenic.

In other words, faith should not be blind and unexamined beliefs are for bovines, not homo-sapiens.

In 1986, Kassim published a book – ‘Hadis: Satu Penilaian Semula (Hadith: A Reappraisal)’ – that espoused a subversive idea.This was that certain bases of Islamic practice and belief cannot sustain critical scrutiny. The book proposed the Quran as sole basis for sound Muslim belief and best practices.

That view Kassim reiterated to a conference which reviewed his thought held last Sunday at the Perdana Leadership Foundation, a think-tank associated with Mahathir (right).

The former Premier officiated at the conference’s opening and days later, after controversy flared over what Kassim had said, allowed that Kassim was a thinker whose opinions are easily misunderstood.

Like the publication of his book 28 years ago, Kassim’s latest musings have caused a furore. Its magnitude can be gauged in the days to come as Islamic authorities mull action against him.

It’s a safe bet, though, that none of them will take him on in a debate because they know that Kassim is a formidable foe to joust with; he will not easily recant his views.

Kassim blames Anwar Ibrahim – the Education Minister in the mid-1980s – for squelching the debate that ‘Hadis’ was obviously intended to provoke.Till today, Kassim nurses an enduring antipathy towards Anwar for the turn of events following publication of Kassim’s book in early 1986.

The ironies in history

Although all this occurred 28 years ago, the passage of decades has not had a becalming effect on the visceral feelings the controversy evoked at that time.

As recently as the middle of 2012, Kassim remained choleric at the mention of Anwar’s name, denouncing the Pakatan Rakyat leader with a vituperation that was ugly to behold.

It is not clear that Anwar had anything to do with the banning of Kassim’s book or with foreclosure of the debate.What’s less incontestable is that had the book not been banned, matters to do with Islamic thought and understanding in Malaysia would plausibly have transcended the present moment where some peninsula Muslim Malaysians insist that the term ‘Allah’ is exclusive to them.

In one of those ironies in which history abounds, in the debate over the ‘Allah’ issue, Anwar (left) is not opposed to non-Muslim use of the term – provided it is not abused – whereas Mahathir is for prohibition of the term to non-Muslims.

Kassim’s position on the issue is not known, but judging from what can be deduced of the man’s intellect, it would be a huge surprise if he agreed with Mahathir’s stance.

There is a strong strain of the iconoclast in Kassim, evident from half a century ago when he suggested that Malay folklore was wrong to view Hang Tuah as a hero because the real hero was Tuah’s friend, Hang Jebat, whom Tuah had killed.

Because of his tendency to examine the received wisdom on a subject, it wasn’t surprising that Kassim, who tuned 80 last September, gave vent at last Sunday’s conference to views that were even more controversial than the ones he aired in his 1986 work.

In what was purported to be his final testament – rendered at the conference themed ‘Thoughts of Kassim Ahmad: A Review’ – the man who started his intellectual journey as a cultural iconoclast and doctrinaire socialist, invited Muslims to return to the teachings of the Islamic faith as revealed in the Quran.

He said that believers would find Quranic teachings to be cognate with natural law (undang-undang alamiah).Kassim also espoused the view that Muslims do not need, like he claimed Christians did, a “priestly caste” to know what God commands of them and to perceive those commands’ consonance with what natural law tells them.

He argued that the female practice of wearing a headscarf (tudung) was a wrong interpretation of the Quranic stricture against bodily exposure, claiming that hair on a woman’s head is not included in the ‘aurat’ that is required by the Quran to be covered. He said that head hair must be aired for health (natural law) reasons.

An interesting tack to take

Thus, he took an example from nature to elucidate a Quranic teaching, demonstrating in the process the supposed truth of his argument that sound interpretation of Quranic revelation would necessarily be found to be compatible with what natural law teaches.

This is an interesting tack to take and is at variance to the asharite (God is power/God is will) school of Islamic thought. The asharite has been the dominant school since the 12th century when it gained the upper hand over the mutazilite (God is also reason) school of Islamic interpretation.

Since the victory of the asharite school, Islam’s answer to what is called “the Socratic puzzle” has been emphatic.But, pray, what is the Socratic puzzle?

It is a question that is so abstruse, it gives philosophy a bad name: Is a good action good because it is approved by God? Or is it approved by God because it is good?

In other words, do the categories of good and evil, right and wrong, have an existence independent of the divine will?

To this, the answer of the Asharite school is: An action is good because it is approved by Allah.

The asharites hold that there is no independent criterion of morality outside the will of Allah. And since the Quran is an absolutely literal and accurate account of that will – indeed in a deep sense, the Quran itself actually incarnates that will – there is no independent criterion of morality outside the text of the Quran.

In other words, if the Quran says something that seems morally offensive, it is morality that is mistaken, not the Quran.

The Mutazilites are inclined to find an interpretation of the Quran that accords with what natural law teaches. This is because they believe that there is an objective moral order to the universe and that this is discoverable through reason. That is why the Mutazilities are called rationalists.

Because these are febrile questions of religious interpretation and philosophy, and apt to foment divisive and emotional effects on believers – Voltaire advised that discussion of complex religious questions be held behind closed doors and out of the hearing of servants – Muslim thinkers approach them with circumspection.

Now and then, one or the other of them saunters on to the turf and inevitable detonations ensue.

Last Sunday, Kassim Ahmad walked into a blast-prone area and set off subversive ripples of resonance. He is likely to enjoy immunity because he did it at the Perdana Leadership Foundation

Last year about this time, Ibrahim Ali (right) escaped a sedition rap for threatening to burn bibles after Mahathir offered extenuations on the Perkasa chief’s behalf, following former attorney-general Abu Talib Othman’s admonishing incumbent AG Abdul Gani Patail against dilly-dallying on pressing charges.

This time round, Mahathir’s extenuations on behalf of Kassim are likely to have intellectually more beneficent uses.

The irony is that Kassim – like the man he detests, Anwar Ibrahim – is not likely to think much of the argument that the term ‘Allah’ ought to be the exclusive preserve of Peninsula Muslims; more certainly, he will laugh Mahathir’s reservation of the term for Peninsula Malays, to scorn.Not just politics, religion, too, makes for strange bedfellows.