A Damning Report on Malaysia’s New Autocrat by The Washington Post

November 30, 2015

Obama shakes hands with Najib

The New Autocrat shakes hands with The Democrat

A Damning Report on Malaysia’s New Autocrat by The Washington Post

by Anna Fifield


Online critics of the Malaysian government would be well advised not to spend too much money on cellphones. “Just lost number four,” Eric Paulsen, an outspoken civil liberties lawyer and compulsive tweeter, said Nov. 20 after nearly two hours of questioning at the main police station here over his latest sedition charge.

Paulsen went into the Police station with a shiny new Chinese handset, a Xiaomi, and came out without it. At least it was cheaper than the iPhone and two Samsung Galaxies that previously were confiscated from him this year, apparently because they are tools in his social-media activism.


MP Steven Sim Tze Tzin

His friend Steven Sim Tze Tzin, an opposition parliamentarian who also was questioned that day, still smarts over the iPhone 6 Plus that was taken from him this year. “Don’t they know how much that thing cost?” Sim said, laughing, after emerging from his own session with the Police.

Malaysia, ostensibly one of the United States’ democratic allies in Southeast Asia, is engaged in a broad crackdown on freedom of expression that detractors say is all about silencing critics of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is embroiled in a corruption scandal. And the crackdown is particularly focused on online commentary, which is proving much harder to control than traditional media.

“The government has at least two intentions,” said Yin Shao Loong, who is Executive Director of the Institut Rakyat, a think tank, and is aligned with the opposition. “One is to stifle freedom of expression. The other is to harass the opposition and sap their energy and tie them up in court cases that could take years.”

Najib’s government has been making heavy use of the 1948 Sedition Act, a remnant of the British colonial period, which makes it an offense to “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against any Ruler or against any Government.”

Azmi Sharom 3

University of Malaya’s Dr. Azmi Sharom

Among the three dozen or so who have been targeted so far this year are  Dr.Azmi Sharom, a law professor at the University of Malaya who gave his legal opinion on a 2009 political crisis, and Maria Chin Abdullah, the leader of the Bersih group, a civil-society organization that promotes electoral reform, who has been charged with illegal assembly and sedition for organizing huge anti-Najib rallies in August.

Numerous opposition parliamentarians also have been charged with sedition, most of them for criticizing a federal court’s decision in February upholding the conviction of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of sodomy. That case is widely viewed as political.

S. Arutchelvan, a socialist politician, was charged in the past week with sedition for comments he made in February. The well-known cartoonist Zunar, who in September won an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, has been charged with nine counts of sedition for nine tweets criticizing the Anwar conviction.

Congrats Zunar

Award Winning Malaysian Cartoonist ZUNAR

And two newspapers deemed hostile to the government were suspended from publishing.“Prime Minister Najib Razak and the Malaysian government are making a mockery of their claim to be a rights-respecting democracy by prosecuting those who speak out on corruption or say anything even remotely critical of the government,” said Linda Lakhdhir of Human Rights Watch. The government, she added, should stop using “repressive laws to harass the media and intimidate its critics.”

The crackdown began after the ruling party fared poorly in 2013 elections, said Murray Hiebert, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, but the repression has accelerated amid a corruption scandal that threatens Najib’s hold on power.

Investigators looking into the heavily indebted sovereign wealth fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, found that almost $700 million (Malaysian ringgit 2.6 billion) had been deposited into Najib’s personal bank accounts, the Wall Street Journal has reported.

Najib, who founded 1MDB and heads its board of advisers, has strenuously denied any wrongdoing. Arif Shah, a spokesman for 1MDB, said the allegations against Najib were “old” and had been “comprehensively addressed” by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, which in August reported that no funds from 1MDB had been transferred to the Prime Minister’s personal bank accounts.

But amid investigations into the fund, Najib has replaced key officials with appointees deemed friendlier. The new Attorney-General, for example, has dismissed a recommendation from the central bank to begin criminal proceedings against 1MDB.

For Peace and Freedom

The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond directly to questions about Najib’s links to the fund, saying the investigation continues, but a spokesman strongly denied suggestions that opponents of the government were being targeted with legal action.

“The Sedition Act does not impinge on free speech or democratic principles,” said Dato’ Tengku Sariffuddin, the ‘Prime Minister’s press secretary. “Most, if not all, countries have legal safeguards on the printed and spoken word in order to maintain public order. It is reasonable for Malaysia to safeguard itself in the same manner.”

Pending amendments to the Sedition Act, he said, would serve “to better protect all religions and to prevent the incitement of racial or inter-ethnic conflict.”

The changes would remove a clause outlawing criticism of the government and judiciary. A provision would be added to outlaw incitement to religious hatred in the country, which is 60 percent Muslim. The amendments, once ratified, also would increase the term of imprisonment for sedition from three years to seven years and add a penalty of up to 20 years in prison for seditious activities that result in physical harm or destruction of property.

The spokesman said that Malaysia has “a thriving online space in which opposition voices and publications are given free rein” and that government critics “are more outspoken than in almost any other country in the region.” But critics of Najib describe an elaborate effort to silence them. The Malaysian government has long controlled newspapers and TV stations. Although the rising use of cellphones and social media has loosened the state’s grip on information, especially in rural regions, the government is trying to get a handle on the new technologies.

“There are lots of cybertroopers monitoring posts by opposition [members of Parliament], taking screen shots of them and then circulating them and tagging the Police Chief,” said the opposition parliamentarian Steven Sim, who is being charged for a tweet in which he mistakenly suggested that the former attorney general was manhandled out of office. Sim deleted the tweet when he realized that the photo included was an old one and said it was a genuine mistake. Too late.

“The cybertroopers wrote, ‘Arrest Sim. He’s giving the government a bad name,’ ” the legislator said. It is not clear whether these online monitors are hired by the government or are zealous volunteers. But they have been effective at alerting the authorities to criticism.

For Paulsen, 42, an ethnic Chinese lawyer who leads a human rights advocacy group called Lawyers for Liberty, problems began after the terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January.

A government official said such an attack could happen here, prompting Paulsen to send out a tweet about the Department of Islamic Advancement Malaysia, or JAKIM, which prescribes the sermons delivered during politically slanted Friday prayers.

“JAKIM is promoting extremism every Friday. Goverment needs to address that if serious about extremism in Malaysia,” Paulsen tweeted. The cybertroopers seized on it. The next day, Khalid Abu Bakar, the fawning Inspector General of Police, who also is active on Twitter, posted a photo of Paulsen and his tweet overlaid with the word “rude.”

Then came Paulsen’s first sedition charge. The second was filed after he tweeted that the most extreme forms of Islamic punishment, such as cutting off hands and stonings, were inhumane. The third run-in with the law was a criminal defamation charge after two tweets suggesting that Najib was trying to avoid questioning over the 1MDB affair.

Paulsen does not deny writing any of the tweets, but he does assert his innocence on the fourth allegation against him, which concerns a Facebook post showing a banner in a march that had been doctored to read, “Chinese pigs go home.”

“It was clearly fabricated to make it look like I had posted this,” he said, adding that it seemed designed to provoke racial divisions.

Paulsen said he thinks the efforts against him are part of a broader attempt to silence criticism of the government on social media. “If you’re from the opposition, are a dissident or are active in civil society, they’re going to come after you.”

But Lakhdhir of Human Rights Watch finds some cause for optimism. “A bright light for Malaysia is the strength of its civil society,” she said, “with many who are willing to speak out despite the risks.”

Anna Fifield is The Post’s bureau chief in Tokyo, focusing on Japan and the Koreas. She previously reported for the Financial Times from Washington DC, Seoul, Sydney, London and from across the Middle East.

ASEAN needs the support of its Leaders and the private sector

November 29, 2015

COMMENT: It is true that ASEAN has come a long way, makingDin Merican@Rosler considerable inroads in its effort to bring together all peoples in Southeast Asia. Since its founding in Bangkok in 1967, it has grown into an organisation that is taken seriously by Australia, China, the European Community, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the United States and other nations.

All ASEAN leaders and officials too are working hard on the basis of mutual trust and renewed self belief in the pursuit of peace, sustainable socio-economic development, and cooperation.

Success poses a challenge, one of managing high expectations from the business sector, civil society and the people. Right now, the ASEAN Secretariat is working on a shoe string budget and with limited professional staff. It is time for the secretariat to be strengthened. While we should avoid being another Brussels, we should at least ensure that the secretariat is given the resources needed to carry out its awesome tasks more effectively.

One of its biggest challenge is how to bridge the development gap between the original ASEAN-5, Brunei, and the CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam). It is time for ASEAN Leaders to consider the creation of an ASEAN Development Fund for the development of the CLMV region. Enough with the rhetoric and let us put money where it counts since high-sounding words and slogans are meaningless.

Laos as the next chair can take the initiative to propose this idea as part of its agenda in 2016-2017. Make the ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together document a living reality.

It is necessary for the private sector to take a very proactive role in promoting cross borders investments and intra-regional  trade since ASEAN is a huge market of some 300 million people with rising incomes due to strong economic growth. So, I expect dynamism, entrepreneurship, and risk taking from the private sector since the ASEAN Free Trade Area is in existence.

An effective partnership between ASEAN governments and the private sector is vital if we are to promote economic integration and give meaning to the big ideas  as contained in the aforementioned ASEAN 2025 documents.


I welcome Dr. Munir’s idea that we should ” [T]each ASEAN history. Organiseinternship programmes for university students and for vocational and technical trainees”. More than that is required.  For example, at the University of Cambodia’s Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations with which I am actively involved as Associate Dean and Professor of Political Philosophy and International Relations, on the initiative of our President, Dr. Kao Kim Hourn we are offering ASEAN studies at the Doctoral and Masters levels.

Dr Kao Kim Hourn
The University also organises courses leading to degrees in English Literature and Humanities, and conducts English-speaking courses for young Cambodians. All our degree courses are conducted in Khmer and English.

The University has established an ASEAN Leadership Center which has received books, research papers, reports, and publications from the ASEAN Secretariat, some ASEAN countries, Asian Development Bank, World Bank, IMF, UNDP, and friends and associates.We need contributions and support for our resource center, and grants for research in ASEAN studies.

We hope to form collaborations with reputable universities  and public policy schools in our region  and beyond for capacity building and faculty exchange. It is our intention to welcome researchers and scholars to our campus in Phnom Penh.

There is  a lot of work to advance the ASEAN Economic Community project. From here on,  ASEAN will be judged by results. Will we take the challenge or are content with business as usual with countless meetings, golf,  and durian eating sessions and expensive dinners funded by taxpayers; money? –Din Merican

ASEAN needs the support of its Leaders  and the private sector to move purposefully FORWARD

by Dr. Munir Majid*


Najib and ASEAN Leaders

Simple things must be done. These have been outstanding for such a long time that people wonder if ASEAN leaders are bothered about them. Make it easier for them to travel. Make them recognise things they have in common such as with food. Teach ASEAN history. Organise internship programmes for university students and for vocational and technical trainees.–Dr. Munir Majid

The region has come a long way and can point to many achievements, says Dr. Munir Majid of the London School of Economics.

ASEAN is an association of states seeking to become a community of nations. There is no surrender of authority or sovereignty to any ASEAN supranational body. ASEAN works by consensus. Every member state in the association has to agree before any agreement can be said to have been concluded.

Yet ASEAN has come a long way and can point to many achievements. Many agreements on greater integration have been concluded. And there have been no major conflicts between or among ASEAN states since the association’s establishment in 1967 precisely to achieve peace and stability so that there can be economic and social progress.

The absence of war is a good sign of the ethic of cooperation which points to potential formation of community. While there can be debate over how much the existence of ASEAN contributed to the avoidance of conflict, it cannot be denied meeting regularly and working together towards regional cooperation provide strong incentives towards peaceable rather than conflictual relations.

In the economic sphere there is the ASEAN Free Trade Area whatever the non-tariff barriers that may be said to exist as indeed, they exist everywhere in the world. While much has been made of the unsatisfactory level of ASEAN trade, since the AEC 2007 Blueprint it has increased by US$1 trillion, and at US$2.5 trillion the 24% share is well above that of second placed China at 14%.

The single market and production base is well on its way. With size and growth of ASEAN economies expected to achieve 7% above baseline by 2025 through greater integration, and the reshuffling of manufacturing and services base from economic development, a greater complementarity that is currently not the case will definitely boost intra-ASEAN trade further.

ASEAN's Time

Just imagine if there was better progress in the flow of investment and capital and of skilled labour as well, ASEAN would surely be on the way towards becoming that fourth-sized global economy which even now attracts more FDI (foreign direct investment) than China, an 11% share of total global flows, when not too long ago it was the fear that ASEAN would fall between the two stools of China and India.

Another positive development not often credited, on the socio-cultural side, is the participation of social activists and NGOs in the ASEAN decision-making process who would otherwise not get the time of day in a number of national jurisdictions.

These groups and activists interact with leaders, ministers and officials at ASEAN summits – like the one a week ago – and also organise their own events and activities. As the ASEAN Business Advisory Council chair this past year, I have also been trying to accommodate them at private sector meetings, as there are many issues, such as treatment of migrant labour and responsible business practice, which have a bearing on the economy that need to be thrashed out. They are not political or purely social issues alone.

Of course no one is satisfied. Not the geopolitical strategist, the businessman or the social activist. When you call yourself a community, you raise expectations. You cannot expect to go round telling everyone to be grateful for small mercies. You have promised them big.

Dr Munir Majid

Whenever I am asked about the ASEAN community or the AEC, by local or foreign media representatives, the question is always framed in a skeptical manner. There is a lot of cynicism whatever the leaders and officials say.

Even when the numbers are thrown out, there is suggestion that they would have been attained without ASEAN integration which is characterised more by what has not than what has been achieved.

Even businessmen who have benefited by what has been achieved complain about all those barriers that remain. So do social activists who are dissatisfied particularly by human rights violations in the region which do not obtain ASEAN reprimand and by evident inability to work together to address transnational problems such as the smog (euphemistically called the haze).

There is no sense of being ASEAN, especially among the people the governments are supposed to serve. Simple things that can make them feel ASEAN have been outstanding for years. As usual, it is felt, it is big business that is getting the lion’s share of the integration attention.

If this distance between what the people feel – or not feel – and the high level integration process continues the ASEAN community will be nothing but hyperbole.

Simple things must be done. These have been outstanding for such a long time that people wonder if ASEAN leaders are bothered about them. Make it easier for them to travel. Make them recognise things they have in common such as with food. Teach ASEAN history. Organise internship programmes for university students and for vocational and technical trainees.

So many have been suggested so many times in so many reports. If by the end of its first year the ASEAN community does not see these simple things materialising, its future development will be bleak. No point talking about a milestone in a process if the process at the people level does not move.

The 27th ASEAN summit ended last Sunday with a lofty declaration full of many promises. The ASEAN 2025 document pushes out much of the unfinished business while being loaded with some highly qualitative objectives for the next 10 years.

If with the quantitative ASEAN falls short, how will it do with the qualitative? There was a great sense of urgency running into the end of 2015. Now that’s over, however what has been achieved is felt and perceived, is there going to be a similar drive now that there are 10 years to play with?

Every ASEAN summit promises something. This last one of course the most. About community. After the song and dance, and the lofty declarations and linking of arms, ASEAN decamps. Everyone goes home. It feels like the morning after the night before.

But there is so much work to be done. There must be continued drive. Not just Laos, the next chair of ASEAN.

All member states. Association and community. High level and people-centric. Official and private. Relaxed and delirious. Developed and much less developed. Politically stable and not so stable. Closer to China and closer to the US.

There are always two parts to ASEAN. Diversity is a challenge. Convergence does not come of itself. The community must not have a split personality.

Where the differences have been most pointed is with regard to China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea. ASEAN Foreign Ministers failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in July 2012, exposing the fissures in the association on the matter. What will happen in 2016 when Laos takes the chair?

The most work has to be done where the greatest differences exist. The South China Sea is one such area. The foreign ministries have to work to fashion what can be a common position, and not just rush in and out of negotiations. Who is taking the lead, many people wonder.

So much work remains to be done. So many differences remain among member states. Without drive and leadership ASEAN will not get anywhere just because the ASEAN community has been inaugurated. ASEAN can have no morning after the night before.

Tan Sri Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB ASEAN Research Institute.

Only Competent Ministers can save Malaysia from Muddles

November 28, 2015

Only Competent Ministers can save Malaysia from Muddles

by Syerleena Abdul Rashid
Najib-It takes a worried man

A Muddled and Dishonest Prime Minister

William Shakespeare once said, “Confusion hath now made his masterpiece and in our country it has reached stellar heights”. For Malaysians, it seems as though confusion has found a permanent friend in our local political scene and never has such words seem so true.  A majority of us, regrettably, think politics has become nothing more than a constant battle in confusion – the ministers appointed and elected by the voters are the ones confusing a large number of us to no end.

Recently, a minister was caught eating a bunch of turtle eggs – consuming anything endangered is illegal and this is just common sense. Unfortunately, the minister in particular claimed he had no idea and tried to reason with the public that no one in their right mind would ever eat eggs with a fork. Well, no one in their right mind would be caught in that position in the first place and no one in their right mind would dare to come up with that sort of excuse.


Turtle Egg Eating Minister Ismail Sabri

Our ministers get caught up in this wasteful game we call politicking while brazenly claiming that they have our best interests in heart.

Some ministers try their very hardest to justify certain policies no matter how draconian or how antediluvian or how bigoted they may seem. They validate the massive restrictions imposed upon us by reminding the importance of security – Malaysia is under constant threat of rising religious fundamentalism, liberalism, LGBT , electronic cigarettes, yoga, K-pop, Jews, pluralism and Valentines Day.

It seems as though several of our esteemed ministers tend to pacify debates with this mind-fumblingly abstruse template of confusion, which became apparent during the whole “Allah” conundrum. In a just and sound society such an issue would not have seen the light of day, but it did, and this is nothing more than an obvious game created by the powers that be to ensure that they hold the key to Putrajaya (and the whole system) for a very long time.

They use fear mongering tactics and instill hate mongering methods in our society and into our psyche because, after 58 years of rule, this is the one art they have perfected to a tee. The control they have on some of those in our society is astounding but nonetheless, not impossible to undo.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

Think Critically–Socrates

Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates believed that one of the best forms of teaching is to question everything. The core concept was to develop a level of critical thinking that can help distinguish what humans believe we know and what we don’t know.

This type of questioning highlights the importance of discourse and discussions – how we perceive an issue, how others may have differing ideas and our reasons for thinking the way we do.

Questions force our thoughts and make us deal with many of life’s complexities. It also enables us to digest information and the quality of important facets. The relevance to evaluate truth and to test accuracy forces us to judge how we are forming our thoughts and our little worlds together.

Malaysians must be reminded that thinking commences with respect and the understanding that while differing views are unavoidable, logic and sound judgement must always prevail in any discourse that may ensue.

When an individual has to make educated choices on complex matters, can they truly be considered truly competent. If we want to stimulate change, rational dialogue and an all out socio-political reform, we must not allow ourselves to become bewildered by the barrage of confusing statements often made by some of our ministers.



Congratulations Zunar

November 25, 2015

Congratulations Zunar

by Kean Wong


Sapuman -Zunar


For a well-travelled Malaysian zipping between London, Cambridge, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Washington DC and New York, cartoonist Zunar belies his reputation as a hell-raiser activist, always sketching our homeland in black and white, the splashes of colour only to accentuate the differences he has with the ruling Barisan Nasional.

Instead of his apparently fearsome reputation which has earned him a record nine charges for sedition and a possible 43 years in prison, Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque is mild-mannered, a little droll, and funny in the way Malaysian ministers are not.

Like his satirical cartoons that often harshly portray a nation on the skids, the symmetry of culprits making off with glittering loot as the rakyat go under, the past week had a similar balance of scenes as US President Barack Obama thrilled his Malaysian hosts in Kuala Lumpur while Zunar made his case for urgent Malaysian reforms to the US Senate’s Human Rights Caucus in Washington DC and the US Mission to the United Nations in New York.

As Zunar claimed again last night in his speech in New York when receiving this year’s top media freedom prize from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), “the government of Malaysia is a cartoon government – a government of the cartoon, by the cartoon, for the cartoon.”

“For asking people to laugh at the government, I was handcuffed, detained, thrown into the lock up,” he told a slice of Manhattan’s moneyed elite at the glittering black-tie gala in the storied Waldorf Astoria, which raised US$2 million (RM8.43 million) for the CPJ’s work.

Congrats Zunar

“But I kept laughing and encouraging people to laugh with me. Why? Because laughter is the best form of protest. My mission is to fight through cartoon.”

“Why pinch when you can punch? People need to know the truth and I will continue to fight through my cartoons. I want to give a clear message to the aggressors – they can ban my cartoons, they can ban my books, but they cannot ban my mind,” the political cartoonist said, echoing the points he’s been making in the past few weeks in London, Sydney and Washington DC.

In Sydney the previous week, Zunar had regaled the big crowd of Malaysians and Australians at the state Parliament how the corruption scandals that have rocked Malaysia inform his arresting caricatures, his trials of satire, and his outrageously popular female protagonist’s helmet-haired symmetry, consumed in flights of fantasy money and jewels.

Obama at Taylors University

Although he insists that Malaysia has become a “kartunation”, “run by kartuns for kartuns,” many Malaysians demurred with that last part, preferring they were left out of an increasingly melancholy joke’s punchline.

For his hosts the Sydney MPs Jamie Parker and Jenny Leong, they were bemused and perhaps a little incredulous that a colonial-era law like the Sedition Act was still widely used to silence critics of a government in a proudly independent Southeast Asian nation.

Leong, who explained her father was originally from Sibu but never returned after his studies in Adelaide, welcomed Zunar to “a nation, a Parliament that celebrates the freedom of expression”.

The Australia Director of New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), Elaine Pearson, also took the lectern to congratulate Zunar for his “courage in cartooning” and for being awarded HRW’s Hellman/Hammett grant this year, which helps him work and publish at a time when his books are banned and whole print runs are confiscated in the thousands of copies in Malaysia.

In Washington DC in the past several days, Zunar caught up with his growing legion of friends and fans in the epicentre of America’s political cartooning community like Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Matt Wuerker of Politico.

For a town obsessed with China and its impact on the Asian neighbourhood now unsettled by apparently waning American power, Zunar’s interventions were effectively rendered in forums on Capitol Hill and media like The Washington Post.

While President Obama made plain the key role Malaysia (and Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak) plays in America’s plans coping with a rising China asserting itself across the region – in what some in Washington agreed was a “blingtastic success” among young people in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, thanks partly to Obama’s fable-like story of an Indonesian childhood – Zunar on the other side of the world stubbornly kept the stage curtains a little askew, to highlight what the cartoonist alleges was the misleading golf game indulged in at top levels.

Like many Americans following the clampdown on human rights in Malaysia, detailed in last month’s HRW report ‘Creating a Culture of Fear: the Criminalisation of Peaceful Expression in Malaysia’, Matt Wuerker is not amused.

“Sadly, Zunar’s case doesn’t surprise me,” said the softly spoken Wuerker, ahead of Zunar’s arrival in Washington.“It’s entirely too common the response to cartoons and satire in so many parts of the world today. In some sense, it’s a compliment to irascible cartoonists like Zunar. It just demonstrates the power and effectiveness their work.

“At the same time the response by a government that uses threats, lawsuits and other forms of intimidation to try silence dissent just demonstrates a weakness and fragility of their hold on power. Governments that are strong, popular and enjoy the support of their people have nothing to fear from a little ridicule and a few cartoons. Yes, I’m blessed to live in a part of the world where people can take a joke.”

For a Malaysian like Zunar facing jail time – and who has arguably cut through the fog of indifference about Malaysia in noisy power centres like Washington with little more than his starkly drawn portraits of a troubled nation and a rude sense of humour – it’s no joke.

Defiant Tawfik Ismail: Use JAKIM funds to rehabilitate Mat Rempits and the Poor

November 25, 2015

Defiant Tawfik Ismail: Use JAKIM funds to rehabilitate Mat Rempits and the Poor

by Anisah Shukry


Jakim Budget

Despite a sedition probe into his remarks on the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM), Tawfik Ismail maintained his stance that the federal Islamic agency was problematic and needed to be accountable to taxpayers.

G25Tawfik Ismail

The son of former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman and civil society activist said JAKIM’s budget was better used to uplift Muslims from poverty.

He said religious authorities, including the Minister and Deputy Minister in charge of religious affairs, as well as the Director-General of JAKIM, be redeployed to tackle problems ailing Muslims, such as urban poverty.

In Malaysia, Islam is big business

November 24, 2015

In Malaysia Islam is big business

by Azrul Mohd. Khalib


MOF Najib Razak

Cash is King PM and Finance Minister

There exists a reality which has been present ever since men discovered organised religion: organised religion as big bsiness.

There are countless examples from history. In ancient Egypt, people would voluntarily give offerings to the cult of Pharaoh in the belief that they were living gods or descended from divinity. Jesus flipped out when he saw the moneylenders at their tables in the temple with the sheep, oxen and pigeons on sale. Martin Luther was so upset about the selling of indulgences as a method of fundraising that he raised hell by nailing 95 objections to the door of a church.

Din's Montage

In more recent times and in our cozy corner of the world, we have seen examples of priests driving luxury cars, wearing expensive watches and living lifestyles more suited to the rich and famous. Just last month, the court decision of a corruption scandal convicting the leaders of a mega church and involving fraud of millions in funds rocked Singapore.

So, being part of organised religion especially in the leadership, can be a lucrative and profitable enterprise both personally and for the faith, of course. It should be no surprise to anyone that those involved would fight tooth and nail on any move which threatens the status quo.

Young Imams

The New Executives of Business Islam

Over the past few weeks, we have heard the bleating and baying of protests from officials, personalities and politicians in response to revelations and accusations alleging the misuse of funds earmarked and intended for religious and humanitarian purposes.

Make no mistake, the amount of money involved in the administration, development and enforcement of Islam in Malaysia is huge. And it involves the use of money from both Muslim and non-Muslim taxpayers. That must be made clear as there is often a mistaken belief, particularly among Muslims that everything dealing with Islamic religious expenditure comes solely from Muslims and that non-Muslims have no right to object or comment on how expenditure is done.

However, regardless of the source of the funds, these religious affiliated bodies must justify the major provisions made to them and also be held accountable, like all other government institutions.

The allocation (2015:RM783 million; 2014: RM 806 million) given to the Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (JAKIM) under the Prime Minister’s Department gets most of the attention and the fuss as it is visible under the federal budget. It is one of the largest allocations under the Prime Minister’s Department.

However, when the different allocations for the Jabatan Agama Islam Negeri under the individual state budgets including that of the Federal Territory are combined and counted in, the annual amount is closer to more than RM 1.2 billion.


The Big Spending Guardian of  Business Islam

The figure increases further when the costs of running the offices of the state muftis, and bodies related to administration of Islamic justice such as the Shariah courts and judiciary, are taken into consideration.

Last year, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Jamil Khir Baharom was happy to announce that the 2013 collection of zakat (tithes) from Muslims in Malaysia had exceeded RM2.2 billion. In fact, data from the Centre for Zakat Collection (Pusat Pungutan Zakat) also indicates that contributions appreciate on an average of around 20 per cent each year. That is a lot of money and it is good that there is such a large amount available for humanitarian and welfare purposes as the need these days is quite great.

Unfortunately, we seem to be good at collecting but less efficient or diligent in delivering much-needed assistance to the intended recipients and beneficiaries.

Malaysia 2050

The Business Outcome-Damaged Goods

Despite the fact that zakat can only be used to help those of the Islamic faith (as opposed to sedekah which is for anyone) and with such large amounts available annually, there are still too many who are being left out or denied help and assistance.

For reasons which range from the moral and undesirable (e.g. being transgender persons, sex workers, living with HIV and AIDS) to the bureaucratic (incomplete paperwork, no address of residence, non-Malaysian), many, especially the poor, homeless and destitute, are left with hands outstretched hoping to receive money and access to services which ironically were established to help and serve them but remain out of reach.

Knowing of this and seeing so many in need has led many Muslims in Malaysia to wonder where the zakat money has gone to despite the huge amounts collected each year. It is an increasing trend for those fulfilling their religious obligation to do so directly to the poor and needy. Simply put, most of those who do so no longer trust the authorities to distribute their zakat.

The recent arrogant and baseless statement by Dato’ Che Mat Che Ali, chair of the Federal Territory Zakat Centre (PPZ-MAIWP) that Malaysian Muslims are committing a sin when they do so lends strength to this distrust. His assertion that such donors were more likely to be generous to “cute widows” or “eloquent speakers”, rather than those truly in need, was really offensive and likely to result in a backlash with more people electing to bypass the PPZ.

Transparency and accountability of funds related to religious bodies is an issue which appears to not be taken seriously by those in authority. Senator Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki recently stated that the two overseas courses by the Yayasan Pembangunan Ekonomi Islam Malaysia (Yapeim) ― reportedly costing RM290,000 to organise ― were part of the government’s efforts to stop the spread of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) in Malaysia.

Maybe he thinks that we are all stupid or gullible but it is laying it quite thick to expect Malaysians to believe that you had to go all the way to Paris (the city of love!) to do that.

This is on top of the earlier allegations that Jamil Khir, his wife and their entourage had used over RM400,000 in Yapeim funds meant for orphans to pay for an eight-day trip to the US which included shopping sprees and games of golf.

Amidst the fallout came the revelations that this government-backed foundation made a combined annual revenue of RM1.034 billion from 16 profit-making subsidiaries. More than half a million people contribute monthly to Yapeim through a monthly salary deduction scheme which is expected to bring in RM65.73 million this year. A pawn broking business (Ar-Rahnu) is also expected to bring in RM83 million by the end of 2015. Sounds like a successful business.

Let’s not kid ourselves. When it comes to Islam in Malaysia, it is a business. And everyone wants to get a piece of the pie, enjoy the perks and benefits and make a bit of money on the side. All for the faith, of course.