January 27, 2016
Book Review –Azmi Sharom’s Brave New World
“A great writer creates a world of his own and his readers are proud to live in it. A lesser writer may entice them in for a moment, but soon he will watch them filing out.”― Cyril Connolly
He has Brains, Values, and Guts
COMMENT: I have often wondered why Azmi Sharom chose ‘Brave New World’ from the Aldous Huxley novel of the same name as the title of his column for The Star. As one critic observed, Huxley’s novel was a rejection of the ‘Age of Utopias’.
Anyone reading Azmi’s columns would note the undisguised optimism permeating from his writings even when he is engaged in dissecting the foibles of the authorities. This last part in my experience has been a rancorous endeavour.
Some readers perhaps unaware of the pedigree of the title would assume that Azmi is writing about a possible new world of hope. What Malaysia could be instead of what it is? I do not subscribe to this point of view.
Perhaps the title is a sly reference to the propaganda that infects every aspect of our beloved country. Perhaps, Malaysia as a post-colonial construct with its social contract, Petronas ads, National Harmony Act, Bangsa Malaysia and the host of other dystopian tropes is the so-called Utopia we are told we are living in but in reality a dystopia ripe for mockery by men and women driven by conscience.
Azmi is currently facing sedition charges for giving his opinion on the Perak constitutional (sic) crisis. Only in Malaysia would a law professor be charged with sedition for giving his academic opinion on a legal matter. That is not exactly true. There are many countries in the world run by venal cabals, who would persecute those who dare to speak the truth to power but Malaysia, Truly bumbling Asia, which has always flirted with tin pot dictatorship status, seems intent on emulating what the minions learned on their “lawatan sambil belajar” jaunts to who knows where.
Reading the compilations of articles, one can’t help but be amused by Azmi’s cheeky pop cultural references, which reads like a middle finger to those corrupt forces that inhabit our political landscape.
Writing on PAS’s dissolution of its Pakatan Rakyat marriage, ‘An identity crisis for PAS’, Azmi references extend from the Beatles to the Clash (of Civilisation) and in a memorable sentence compares PAS’s changing identities to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust phase. How wonderful.
This subtext provides fuel to his opponents that label him as a “Malay” traitor or anti-Muslim. Referencing these Western cultural touchstones, ideas such as music and the fraternity, rebellion and fleeting freedom that comes with it, the very concepts that are anathema to the religious mullahs intent on imposing group think on the Malay and eventually the Malaysian polity. Azmi reminds them, albeit subtly, that public spaces however confined are still being used by some Malaysians to speak the truth to power.In other words, Azmi has no problem rocking the Kasbah.
Without guile, he writes, “I suppose there was a certain naiveté amongst some people (myself included) regarding the character of PAS. Over the last eight years or so, there was a belief that PAS had changed. It was modernist and inclusive, and had moved away from its insular and traditionalist past. Wrong, sadly very wrong. “KeADILan untuk Semua” (PAS 2008) is pure and unadulterated bumkum and Abdul Hadi is a fraud.
“This view was encouraged by certain individual PAS leaders whose eloquence and forward-thinking attitudes made one believe that there were more similarities between PAS and their partners than differences. Hence, a viable coalition opposition (and perhaps a viable new federal government) was a real possibility. How exciting it all seemed.”
And this is what is interesting about this compilation of articles. Azmi has no problem retreating from certain positions, recalibrating his views as the facts change and acknowledging that the sometimes very fallible Malaysian yearnings for a better tomorrow are misplaced. It was John Maynard Keynes who said “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”. Why should Azmi be an exception, then.
Furthermore, unlike some columnists who waffle around principles either out of fear or out of sycophancy, Azmi Sharom is not afraid to lay his cards on the table.
In ‘Freedom of religion and fear mongering’, he states – “I believe in freedom of religion. Completely. This means that I believe in the right of people to practice their religion as they see fit and this includes their right to proselytise.” But he also acknowledges that “That is my belief and as far as Malaysia is concerned it amounts to little more than a hill of beans. In our country there is no complete freedom of religion.
“The Constitution guarantees the freedom of everyone to choose their religion and the Supreme Court has confirmed this, but yet, the practice of the state governments does not respect this. If you are a Muslim and you convert out of Islam, in some states you can and will be punished.
“The Constitution also allows the control of proselytising. No person can proselytise to Muslims if the state government makes the necessary laws to control such actions. This includes Muslim to Muslim proselytising. This is the reality in our country.”
This is the toxic reality that someone like Azmi finds himself exploring. Just how toxic? In ‘Suffer the children … of some’, a short fictional piece on the angst of holiday making amongst the political elite in times of financial turmoil, Azmi ends with this postscript:
“When we the people of Malaysia were experiencing hardship due to the rising petrol costs, the BN government in all their wisdom suggested that ministers could only holiday in the region and not further afield. This is so that they would suffer along with the rest of us. I shit you not.”
We are living in an era, were words do not matter. Unfortunately, for Azmi Sharom, the Umno state has proven that words matter. This book like his spurious sedition charge is evidence that the UMNO state is terribly afraid of words. They are afraid that words matter and that eventually more people would like to inhabit the world Azmi would like Malaysia to be, a sentiment which sometimes escapes because of enthusiasm and passion.
If you believe that words matter and you are interested in another greatest hits collection from a Malaysian with a certain point of view, then Azmi’s book will serve an interesting guide in Malaysian politics. For me, personally, just reading his book, knowing that he causes so much discomfort to the fascists, fearmongers and inept bumbling kleptocrats out there, is worth the price of the book.
S. THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) in the Royal Malaysian Navy.