December 4, 2018
Wanted: A new national narrative
IN my agama school in Johor Baru in the 1960s, I learnt about Iblis (Satan) who refused to bow down with the other angels before the first human (Adam) that God created. When God asked why, Iblis said, “I am better than him; You created me from fire and you created him from dirt.” For his contempt and his disobedience, God cast Iblis out of heaven.
This parable has remained in my mind as it is this belief in one’s superiority that is the root of cruelty and injustice in the world. To think that one is better, one is greater, one is superior than the other in the name of religion, race, ethnicity, gender, caste, class, leads to all manner of injustice against those who are different from us – for no other reason than the fact that they are different. It is the logic of Satan.
At last Tuesday’s seminar on Islam and Human Rights organised by JJAKIMakim and Suhakam, the de facto Minister for Religion, Datuk Seri Dr Mujahid Yusof, made an impassioned plea for Muslims to recognise that human rights are a part of Islamic belief. He sprinkled his speech with verses from the Quran and stories from Prophet Muhammad’s life to illustrate the values of justice, compassion, dignity, freedom of religion, non-discrimination, and anti-racism.
Human rights, he said, constitute “darah daging” (inherent in) Islam. There will never be peace, he warned, if one side insists that its race or its religion is superior as the other side will then retaliate with its own claim of superiority. Two Malay men who had entered the hall in tanjak and keris regalia to display their “superior” Malay identity slinked away in silence after the speech.
Mujahid said he wanted to create a new narrative for a new Malaysia. I believe this is an imperative given the dogged efforts by the supremacists of race and religion to destabilise this new government and derail its change agenda. And I hope Mujahid’s colleagues in the Cabinet and the Pakatan Harapan leadership and membership will share his courage of conviction to do the same. For Malaysia cannot afford to go on being polarised on the basis of race and religion.
Events over the past few weeks reveal the continuing agenda of these desperate demagogues to incite hate and escalate further the sense of siege and fear among certain segments of the Malay community. These mischief makers are priming for violence, with threats of blood being shed and another May 13 being engineered. Such incitement to hatred and violence constitute criminal acts that must not be allowed to go unpunished.
It is obvious that those baying for blood are those who have lost political power and lucrative financial entitlements that they were used to. If they can no longer plunder the country at will as in the past, let’s tear this country asunder so that no one else benefits, seems to be their plan. And they dare proclaim they are doing this in order to protect the Malays and Islam? What an insult. You can fool some Malays some of the time, but you can’t fool all the Malays all of the time.
Enough Malays stood up on May 9 to say enough is enough and voted for change. Let’s get real here. While Pakatan Harapan might have garnered only 30% of the Malay votes, Umno’s share of the Malay votes plummeted by a whopping 15%. There was not just a significant Malay swing, but also a youth swing against Umno and all that it stood for – epitomised by a leader who thought it was all right that RM2.6bil could enter his personal bank account, countenanced by his cabinet and his party leadership.
The challenge before this Pakatan Harapan government is to find effective ways to build more Malay support for its change agenda. Who really pose a threat to the well-being of the Malays? Those who claim to speak in their name and yet plundered the wealth of the nation for personal gain cannot possibly be the champions of those left behind.
The focus of affirmative action must be on those left behind. They have a right to feel aggrieved, not the privileged UMNOputras whose gravy train is wrecked, with no spare parts in sight. Rising inequality and low wages must be addressed immediately so that these demagogues who exploit the vulnerabilities of those left behind have little space to advance their us-versus-them hate narratives.
Datuk Onn Jaafar would be crying in his grave to know that almost 100 years after he relentlessly wrote and cajoled the Malays to work hard, to study hard, to send their daughters to school, to be entrepreneurs, to be brave and confident, to take risks and be their own bosses, the party he founded is today led by those who manufacture endless threats in order to keep the Malays feeling insecure and fearful, instead of building their confidence and their capacity to embrace change.
Onn was obsessed since the 1920s with the backwardness of the Malays, and the need to “betulkan orang Melayu” (get the Malays on the right path). I choke at the sight of our 93-year-old Prime Minister still obsessed with this same mission.
It is a tragedy that 72 years after the founding of UMNO, 61 years of being the dominant party in power, 47 years of affirmative action, these UMNO leaders and Ketuanan Melayu agitators still cannot figure out what they might have done wrong if the Malays still feel insecure and left behind in the country’s development. Obviously, their priority is not to find solutions. Their priority is how to get back into power. Since the rakyat have lost confidence in their leadership, and refuse to buy into their race and religion under threat mantra, they are upping the ante by publicly baying for blood and violence. What a disgrace, what a betrayal.
But how do you get those Malays who feel threatened by every conceivable difference to deal with the realities of the Malaysia and the world they live in today? How does this new government undo the damage of decades of indoctrination and demonisation against the Chinese, the Christians, the DAP, the liberal Muslims, the LGBT community, the Shi’as, the Ahmadiyyahs, and against principles and standards that uphold equality, non-discrimination, human rights, liberalism and pluralism. These were all constructed as bogeymen used to divide the nation in order to build Malay groupthink for their Ketuanan Melayu and authoritarian brand of Islam to maintain power and privilege.
This pipeline of hate and mistrust must be plugged.The latest Merdeka Centre survey on religious extremism in Southeast Asia shows that narratives matter. Muslims who believe in the diet of conservative beliefs such as a literalist understanding of Islam, the primacy of hudud law, and reviving the Islamic Caliphate are those who feel animosity towards others who are different from them and who hold violent and non-violent religious extremist tendencies. Around 66% of Muslims in Malaysia want non-Sunni sects to be banned, and only 41% support multi-faith education, compared to 73% non-Muslims who believe that students should learn the religious beliefs of all groups. What is also disturbing is the attitude towards Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. Muslim respondents in Malaysia look negatively towards these “outgroups”, when asked to rank their attitudes towards others. Malaysian Muslims also scored the highest in terms of support for Jemaah Islamiyah (18%) and ISIS (5%), compared to Muslims in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.
May 9 has given us hope that change is possible. The new Malaysia must build new dominant narratives on a just and compassionate Islam in a Malaysia that is big enough for every one of every hue and colour.
Those in government, in academia, in business, in the media, and in civil society must take the bull by the horn in loudly challenging the hate spewed out by these supremacists who use race and religion to divide the nation for political and personal gain. Rule of law must be upheld and the authorities must take firm action against those who incite racial and religious hatred. The responsibility to steer this nation to embrace diversity and differences belong to all of us.
There is no other choice. We need to reimagine and rebuild this new Malaysia if we want to live together in peace and prosperity in an inclusive country that should be a model to the Global South and to the Muslim world. We were once that country. We will, we must, we can, once again, be that model.