January 15, 2016
Malaysia :Moderates and extremists and anyone in between
by Dr. Kua Kia Soong
Our society is fast becoming an Orwellian dystopia in which “moderates”, “extremists”, “national security”, “national harmony” and other fluffy terms have become relative (Doublespeak) and imprecise, depending on how they are defined by the state and the judiciary.–Kua Kia Soong
The rise of the far right and the religious bigots in Malaysia has in turn given rise to a movement of “moderates”. As human beings, we have an instinctive grasp of the ancient wisdom of moderation as the way (the Tao) to a healthy body and way of life. In the body politic, however, espousing “moderation” becomes imprecise since it is an example of fluffy language that is also used by the powers-that-be to deal with those who uphold truth, justice and human rights.
Let me illustrate what I mean. When I was detained without trial by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad under Operation Lalang from 1987 to 1989, the Special Branch in their relentless interrogations insisted on categorizing me as an “extremist”.
Among ‘allegations of fact’ under the Internal Security Act, I was alleged to have written a book ‘Polarisation in Malaysia: The Root Causes’. This is an excellent example of the relativism of “moderation” and “extremism” in Malaysia.
In the first place, this book was sponsored and signed by all the 24 major Chinese associations in Malaysia in 1987. It was not banned by the government. But I was considered an “extremist” for having written it and (in their eyes) deserved to be detained without trial because I was alleged to have threatened the internal security of the country.
On the other hand, Mahathir himself had in fact written a book, The Malay Dilemma, in 1969 and the government at the time under the Tunku had considered it “extremist” and banned the book. Nonetheless, while his book was considered “extremist” and not fit for public consumption, Mahathir was not considered extremist enough to be detained without trial and he has, in fact, never been detained under the ISA.
If we are to ensure the principles of democracy are upheld, we have to question the validity of the issues involved in such loosely used terms as “moderation” or “extremism”, and take a stand so as not to fall for these fluffy concepts. Recently, we had religious bigots and racists calling for Bibles containing the word “Allah” to be burned. The authorities considered them to be “moderates” because they were “merely trying to defend Islam”. Such an interpretation of “moderation” seems to go on ad nauseam in contemporary Malaysian society.
Our society is fast becoming an Orwellian dystopia in which labels such as “moderates”, “extremists”, “national security”, “national harmony” and other fluffy terms have become relative (Doublespeak) and imprecise, depending on how they are defined by the state and the judiciary. This requires civic vigilance to demand precision about who “the perpetrators of a crime” are; we need to know “who specifically said what” and “what specifically they said or did”. “
Calling an Equality Act an Equality Act
It is very clear that we are trying to deal with a problem widely recognised by the world community, at least since the Second World War – namely, racism, racial discrimination, related prejudice and intolerance. Let us examine how other countries deal with this problem.
Britain has the Equality Act 2010, the purpose of which is to align the Race Relations Act with European human rights legislation and to extend protection to other groups not previously covered namely, age, disability, gender, religion, belief and sexual orientation.
Thus, in my critique of the “Harmony Act” that has been proposed to replace the Sedition Act, I have stressed that we should call an Equality Act an Equality Act and not by any other fluffy name. If equality is still taboo in Malaysia in the 21st century, we are indeed living in Never-never Land (or Takboleh Land)!
Religious bigotry and Islamic populism
The increasing cases of religious bigotry and injustice toward non-Muslims in the country are actually instances of the misapplication of the federal constitution which provided for freedom of religion as at independence. Subsequent amendments to the Federal Constitution and state enactments have led to the Judiciary deferring its powers to the inferior syariah courts in disputes between a Muslim and a non-Muslim regarding conversion from Islam and other areas.
To reinstate the status quo ante as it was in 1957 (our “social contract”?), there needs to be in place a Law Commission that would be empowered to ensure freedom of religion in this country and restate the jurisdiction of the civil courts and the syariah courts. In upholding the principle of freedom of religion in the federal constitution, the post-1957 state enactments that clearly violate this freedom – as in the case of the Bible-seizing episodes – have to be rescinded. Such a reform is essential in order to recognize the 1957 “social contract” as supreme and thus prevent any further Bible-seizing adventures. This and not the magnanimity of the Menteri Besar or the monarch is crucial in establishing our right to freedom of religion under the federal constitution.
Routinization of racial discrimination
These are examples of the routinization of racial discrimination in Malaysia that has become part of the “normality” accepted by many so-called “moderates”. Again, this only exposes the relativity and vagueness of the concept of “moderation” that currently abounds in the media and begs the question: moderate in relation to what?
Concerned Malaysians should call for the institution of structural reforms for healthy ethnic relations and the equality to which we as citizens are entitled. These include calling upon the government to immediately initiate moves to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
We need to address the main issues of racism, racial discrimination and related intolerance in our society and to propose appropriate bills and institutions to resolve these problems. Failure to do so results in fluffily clad initiatives and bills which can be used by despots as double-edged swords to deal only with human rights defenders rather than the perpetrators of hate and division.
Dr. Kua Kia Soong is the adviser of SUARAM (Suara Rakyat Malaysia).