“Compassion or Toleration? Two Approaches to Pluralism”


October 198, 2018

“Compassion or Toleration? Two Approaches to Pluralism”

On October 4th, 2018, Karen Armstrong, writer and religious historian, delivered the sixth Annual Pluralism Lecture titled “Compassion or Toleration? Two Approaches to Pluralism”.

Please to listen to Karen’s lecture and reflect. Egoism is our problem. God is always Great.  –Din Merican

 

A New Biography Presents Gandhi, Warts and All


October 15, 2018

By Alex von Tunzelmann

GANDHI
The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948
By Ramachandra Guha
Illustrated. 1,083 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $40.

“The number of books that people write on this old man takes my breath away,” complained the politician B. R. Ambedkar of the proliferation of Gandhiana. That was in 1946.

Image result for ramachandra guha

 

Ramachandra Guha  (pic above) must have smiled when he quoted that line in his new book, the second — and final — volume of his biography of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Few figures in history have been so extensively chronicled, including by himself (Gandhi’s own published collected works run to 100 volumes and over 50,000 pages). The really surprising thing is that there is still so much to say.

“Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948,” encompassing both world wars and the struggle for Indian independence, is a portrait of a complex man whose remarkable tenacity remained constant, even when his beliefs changed. It is also extraordinarily intimate. Gandhi drew no distinction between his private and public life. He made his own body a symbol, mortifying it through fasting or marching for political and spiritual change. He even went public with his sexual life — and the negation of it through brahmacharya, or chastity.

It is difficult to write about a man who was a revered spiritual leader as well as a keen political operator. Guha, the author of “India After Gandhi” and “Gandhi Before India” (the first volume of the monumental biography that this book concludes), approaches Gandhi on his own terms while trying not to gloss over his flaws. Perhaps inevitably, with one who has been regarded almost as a saint, it is the flaws that will capture many readers’ attention. A key theme that emerges is Gandhi’s effort to control himself and those around him. This extended from his own family to his political allies and opponents.

 

The most compelling political relationship Guha reveals is the antagonism between Gandhi and the aforementioned B. R. Ambedkar, the pre-eminent politician of outcaste Hindus then known as “untouchables” and now as dalits. Guha’s book charts the two men’s interactions over decades, along with Gandhi’s own changing views on caste.

Even while he still saw some value in the caste system, Gandhi opposed untouchability. Guha is at pains to refute Arundhati Roy’s dismissal of Gandhi as a reactionary on caste. He details Gandhi’s exhaustive campaigns to allow untouchables into temples, and his many attempts to persuade other Hindus of his caste to accept them. Certainly, Gandhi did much brave and important work. Yet he still characterized untouchables as “helpless men and women” who required a savior — namely, him. As Guha says, Gandhi’s rhetoric “sounded patronizing, robbing ‘untouchables’ of agency, of being able to articulate their own demands and grievances.”

Image result for politician B. R. Ambedkar

Gandhi fought Ambedkar over establishing separate electorates for untouchables, arguing that these would “vivisect” Hinduism. “I want political power for my community,” Ambedkar explained. “That is indispensable for our survival.” Gandhi’s reply, as quoted by Guha, was that “you are born an untouchable but I am an untouchable by adoption. And as a new convert I feel more for the welfare of the community than those who are already there.” Gandhi cared passionately about untouchability: He repeatedly emphasized his willingness to die if that was what it took to end it. What he could not seem to do was let untouchables themselves take the lead.

Image

Some of the most interesting parts of this book concern another group Gandhi sought to instruct: women. Two sections in particular are likely to raise eyebrows. The first is Guha’s account of Gandhi’s relationship with the writer and singer Saraladevi Chaudhurani in 1919-20. Gandhi was, by then, celibate; both he and Sarala were married to other people. Yet their letters speak openly of desire — “You still continue to haunt me even in my sleep,” he wrote to her — and he told friends, “I call her my spiritual wife.” He signed his letters to her Law Giver, which, as Guha observes, was “a self-regarding appellation that reveals his desire to have Sarala conform to his ways.” Gandhi’s friends appear to have talked him out of making this “spiritual marriage” public. Eventually he distanced himself, confessing that he did not have the “infinitely higher purity” in practice “that I possess in thought” to maintain a “marriage” that was perfectly spiritual.

The secon section that will provoke controversy tackles an even more sensitive subject: Gandhi’s notorious brahmacharya experiments, beginning in 1946. When Gandhi was involved with Sarala, he was 50 and she was 47, a mature woman exercising her own free will. Nearly three decades later, when he was 77, he made the decision to “test” his vow of chastity by sleeping in a bed with his teenage grandniece, Manu Gandhi.

Manu was vulnerable. She had lost her mother at a young age and had been taken in by Gandhi and his wife (who was deceased by the time the “experiments” started). Manu grew up in an ashram in which everyone was devoted to her great-uncle. She wrote a diary mentioning the “experiments” that Guha quotes, though it is a compromised source: Gandhi read it as Manu wrote it and his own writing appears in the margins.

Guha has found a letter written by Horace Alexander, a close friend of Gandhi’s. Alexander said that Gandhi told him Manu wanted to test her own vow of chastity. Guha suggests that this puts a new light on the “experiments,” and that Manu may have become involved partly to deter another man who was pursuing her romantically: “There may have been, as it were, two sides to the story. Both Gandhi and Manu may have wanted to go through this experiment, or ordeal. To be sure, there was a certain amount of imposition — from his side.”

That caveat is important, for, as Guha allows, there was an enormous power differential between Gandhi and Manu. It is not clear that the letter from Alexander changes how we view the “experiments”: He spoke only to Gandhi, not Manu. In the wake of #MeToo, we know that the powerful may delude themselves about the willingness of those they manipulate, and that their less powerful victims may go along with things they do not want because they are overwhelmed by the status of their abuser.

Lest anyone think this applies modern standards to a historical event, Guha provides extensive evidence of the horrified reaction of many of Gandhi’s friends and followers at the time. Most were appalled that a young woman should be used as an instrument in an “experiment,” and some of his political allies, like Vallabhbhai Patel, feared it would become a scandal. At least one, the stenographer R. P. Parasuram, left Gandhi’s entourage when Gandhi refused to stop sharing a bed with Manu.

Guha does as much as any reasonable biographer could to explain the “experiments” with reference to Gandhi’s 40-year obsession with celibacy. Ultimately, though, the reader is left feeling that Gandhi’s own defenses of his behavior are riddled with self-justification, and Manu’s voice may never truly be heard.

Gandhi posed a huge challenge to his world in his time, and still does. Guha’s admiration for his subject is clear throughout this book. He tries to explain controversial aspects of Gandhi’s life by contextualizing them within Gandhi’s own thinking. Some of Gandhi’s fiercer critics may feel this is soft-pedaling, but it does help build a fair, thorough and nuanced portrait of the man. Gandhi spoke for himself more than most people in history, but even the most controlling people cannot control how history sees them. Guha lets Gandhi appear on his own terms, and allows him to reveal himself in all his contradictions.

There is much truth in a verse Guha quotes, written by Gandhi’s secretary, Mahadev Desai:

To live with the saints in heaven
Is a bliss and a glory
But to live with a saint on earth
Is a different story.

Alex von Tunzelmann is the author of “Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire.”

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 15 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Gandhi, Private and Public. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Khoo Salma Nasution: The Pride of Penang


October 15, 2018

Malaysians Kini

Khoo Salma Nasution: The Pride of Penang

by Koh Jun Lin  |www.malaysiakini.com
  • Khoo Salma

MALAYSIANSKINI | George Town native Khoo Salma Nasution @ Khoo Su Nin, 55, wears many hats in championing the Penang capital’s colonial era heritage.

She was the President of Penang Heritage Trust, and prior to that was involved in the group’s successful lobbying to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to list George Town as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 2008.

Khoo Salma has written multiple books about Penang’s history, some of which were published through the publishing house Areca Books that she co-founded with her husband Abdur-Razzaq Lubis in 2004.

1

One of her books, The Chulia in Penang that talks about the Indian Muslim community on the island, had gone on to win the International Conference of Asia Scholars (ICAS) book prize in 2015.

She is also a custodian of the Sun Yat Sen Museum in Penang, which was once the house of her grandfather, Ch’ng Teong Swee.

In campaigning to preserve Penang’s heritage, Khoo Salma lobbied against over development, swiftlet nest farming, gentrification and the Penang Pan-Island Link highway project.

She had even served a one-and-half-year stint as Penang city councillor, beginning in 2017 as the representative of the NGO, Penang Forum, in the Penang Island City Council.

But the road to becoming a heritage activist – or indeed what to do at all – wasn’t clear at first when Khoo Salma left Duke University with her liberal arts degree in 1985.

This is her story in her own words:

I was born in Penang – Khaw Sim Bee Road – in 1963, so I’m Penang Hokkien. I have one sister; an elder sister. The lingua franca (in Penang) was Hokkien and it’s very much you feel like this is your hometown; the streets have lots of trees; if you want to go to Seberang Prai you take a ferry; you can do shopping along Penang Road or Campbell Street, in those days there were no shopping malls. Once awhile, you take a beca (trishaw) because that’s the means of transport.

Image result for st. george's girls school, penang

 

I went to St George’s Girls’ School, and then I took liberal arts at Duke University – kind of mixture of philosophy, psychology and visual arts.

I always wanted to be a writer, but I have two kinds of… One is visual. I’m a very visual person, but also, I wanted to be a writer. So, there were two things that I wanted to pursue. But in the end, I’m doing more writing but still I’m involved in books, in the design of books, and mapping.

I didn’t mix that much with Malaysians (while in the US), but there was one meeting with Malaysians in Boston where everybody said, “Oh, we must go back to Malaysia and do something.” That’s what I did, but then I found that a lot of people, from that generation, didn’t come back to Malaysia.

So, in the 1980s, many of us took something called Development Studies. Malaysia is depicted as the Third World. So how do you develop the Third World? You try to think about what it is that the country needs. Of course, people who are scientists will contribute in that sense.

But when I came back I knew I wanted to do something for Malaysia, but I wasn’t sure what it was. After a few years I found that, you know, what I wanted to do was to get people to appreciate Malaysian heritage, and especially built heritage. So, my strength is in understanding heritage conservation.

I felt that something that you know… It’s like you really feel that there is a need to do something or a need for something to be recognised, but people don’t recognise it. So, when I came back I wasn’t aware of this and took for granted my surroundings. But after I had travelled a bit came back, I said that, “Actually, Penang has a very nice built environment”.

In the late 1980s, people didn’t really appreciate it. Penang is a port, but by that time we had lost our port status around 1970. I understood that Penang was an important port and that’s why the buildings that were built were quite well-endowed; I mean they were very well built. They were built for people who were very affluent.

We are talking about… Let’s say the late-19th century up to the middle of the 20th century – up to the Second World War. So, you have this kind of Victorian or Edwardian-era buildings – which during the colonial era – the wealth came from the port trade.

But nobody knows. When you ask people, they don’t quite know what this trade was about, or who were the people who came through the port. The city was built because of the trade, but people didn’t quite understand it as a historical process. They were living in it, but they couldn’t describe it because everybody could only see a small part of it.

So, that piqued my curiosity.

I was actually a freelance writer and I was devoting a lot of time to the Penang Heritage Trust, which I joined in 1989. At that time, I was 26 years old. I was the honorary secretary. I was doing a lot volunteer work for the Penang Heritage Trust and was very interested in conservation.

Image result for khoo salma nasution

Although I’m not an architect, I took all these courses on heritage conservation. At that time, not many architects were interested in heritage conservation, but I was very interested. And so I felt that I was spearheading interest in this field.

We organised talks and invited people to speak and introduce this whole idea that all these old buildings are not going to be one day replaced by new buildings. You must learn how to take care of them. That was my main role.

And then in the 1990s we tried to change the tourism paradigm by saying that tourists don’t just want to look at beaches. Actually, they would appreciate looking at the city because the city is different.

In 1998 we invited the Unesco regional advisor for culture to come and look at Penang and he said: “You should do something about it. You have not only cultural diversity, but you have – in some cases – cultures that have blended and fused and it’s something quite unique.” And so, then, we started this whole World Heritage nomination process, which ended with Unesco listing George Town as a World heritage Site in 2008. It took about 10 years to achieve this.

I was doing a lot of freelance writing. It’s kind of very frustrating to wait for opportunities, right? Actually, both my parents are teachers, so I had to learn how to do business the hard way. I’m kind of allergic to numbers… but both my husband and I are writers. My husband wrote this book Sutan Puasa: Founder of Kuala Lumpur. And then we moved on, and set up Areca Books.

We published our friends’ books and sometimes our books because what we write is very specialised and there’s no mainstream publisher who’s willing to publish something like that. Even if they were, they would say, “Oh why is it so specialised? Why don’t you write for a more general audience?” But this is what we don’t want to do.

We know that there are niche things that appeal to certain people. It’s kind of a knowledge that we want to share; certain knowledge that other people have also shared with us, so we ought to share it with other people. And to write narratives about our history, to help shape our understanding of Malaysian history.

I think my most successful book so far is something I wrote in 1993. It’s called Streets of George Town, which, in a way, started up the whole interest in what is now the World Heritage Site. That was 25 years ago.

It was basically telling the story of the streets. At that time, we didn’t have that much, and we didn’t know that much history. I mean it was a bit patchy, right? So, one way of putting it together was to go street-by-street. It’s a mixture of urban legends and some architecture. It’s quite a bit anecdotal.

Anyway, before that I was the editor of Pulau Pinang Magazine. That was a magazine about the culture and local way of life. So, it’s just to make Penang people conscious that they have something. At the time we didn’t think, “Oh it’s a unique product or whatever”, but you know, it’s something that is to be appreciated.

So then, after Streets of George Town, I wrote a few more books. But the one that won the prize is like a serious, a bit academic, book, which took a long time.

It took me like 17 years to write the book. But I did other things during that time. I didn’t just stop for 17 years but I started 17 years earlier and then I couldn’t finish it. So, I abandoned it, did something else, and it came back to it. So that one is called The Chulia in Penang, and that one won ICAS award.

 

Actually, my main passion is urban history. Basically, it’s understanding the built environment and the history of how the whole thing… How the city grew. So, you have to use maps, old pictures, and all that to reconstruct and also understand what were the economic drivers of that urban growth. I have a small group of friends that we’d just get together and then we just talk about these obscure things that nobody else seems to appreciate.

But what is great about George Town is that you could still read it. You know you can read the city like a book. You can look at something and you can try to understand what happened and then, when something was done. In Kuala Lumpur it’s very difficult because it’s been so overdeveloped with highways and all that. With Penang today, you can still get the feeling of… I mean even though things have changed, but the context has remained the same. You can still feel the context.

Moving forward? Oh, I have to work on another book on Penang, actually. I was starting to do that. Like a general book, not… I think Chulia one is too specialised for most people, but a general book on Penang is needed because now I know so much more than I did 25 years ago. And then when this environmental impact assessment report (on the Pan-Island Link) was released, I had to stop and just focus on fighting the highway.

So, I’m working on a general book on Penang, which I hope to bring out… I hope I can still finish it by early next year.


MALAYSIANS KINI is a series on Malaysians you should know

Book Review: The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam


October 14, 2108

By: John Berthelsen

https://www.asiasentinel.com/book-review/the-road-not-taken-edward-lansdale-and-the-american-tragedy-in-vietnam/

There was a time when Edward Lansdale was arguably the most famous American in Asia, ostensibly the model for the hero of the novel “The Ugly American” by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer and widely thought of – erroneously – as the protagonist of Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American,” both books about a US aid official in a war-torn Southeast Asian country, in Greene’s case Vietnam.

Today, Lansdale, who died in 1987, is largely forgotten. But during the 1950s and 1960s, he was a legend, a man who literally single-handedly turned around the Philippines, ending the Communist Hukbalahap revolution and installing as president Ramon Magsaysay, an incorruptible and effective leader in a shambolic country.  Purportedly an officer with the US Air Force, he was actually on a kind of permanent loan to the Central Intelligence Agency.

As Max Boot writes in this impressive, extremely well-researched biography, the decisions  by generations of American planners stretching from the Kennedys to Richard Nixon to ignore Lansdale’s advice on how to handle wars of rebellion and insurrection were beyond tragedy. Lansdale’s advice, which worked in the Philippines, was to combine clever propaganda with a dedication to democracy, of making sure that all levels of society had a stake in its success, and finding credible local political figures to work with.

It wasn’t just the Road Not Taken, the title of Boot’s 713-page history. Refusal to heed Lansdale resulted in what would arguably be the loss of Vietnam and the death of 2.5 million Vietnamese along with 56,000 Americans who should never have been there in the first place and who, once there,  did absolutely everything wrong.

Image result for The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam

After his triumph in the Philippines, Lansdale was posted to Vietnam, where he took on the task of shepherding a truncated country in chaos after partition following the departure of the French, as a million Catholics fled the north. He became mentor to Ngo Dinh Diem, wreaking order out of the disarray and putting South Vietnam, as it was known, on what appeared to be a solid footing before he returned to the US in 1956

That was pretty much the end of Edward Lansdale’s effectiveness. He was posted back to the United States as the Kennedys and the hawks took over.  A long procession of Americans who knew little of the country’s history and cared less decided that Diem was a liability, saddled as he was with his autocratic brother and the brother’s harridan wife Madam Nhu. On Oct 31, 1963, with the Kennedys’ acquiescence, Diem and his brother were murdered in an armored personnel carrier.

On that same day, ironically, Lansdale was officially retiring at the Pentagon. As Blow writes, “While colleagues were delivering flowery toasts and speeches in honor of Lansdale, (Defense Secretary) Robert McNamara walked in. And he kept on walking, striding purposefully forward, one polished wingtip after another, never looking at what was going on through his polished spectacles, much less stopping to join in the tributes to a man who had left behind a successful advertising career to devote the last 21 years of his life to his country’s service.”

Image result for robert s. mcnamara

It was McNamara, of course, who was the architect of America’s descent into the folly of the Vietnam War.

Lansdale didn’t leave the service of his country. He was instead put in charge by the Kennedy brothers of attempting to oust Fidel Castro from Cuba, something Lansdale from the start said would be folly. He argued against the disastrous attempt by the Kennedys to invade Cuba, using CIA operatives and anti-Cuban exiles, which ended up one of the administration’s worst embarrassments.  Dubbed Operation Mongoose, the campaign against Castro was characterized by loony attempts to poison El Jefe, to lay dynamite charges in seashells near where Castro swam and other stupidities

Lansdale would be rehabilitated somewhat by Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson and would return to Vietnam to head pacification efforts in a country that already was too far gone to be saved. US troop levels climbed and continued to climb. Lansdale was looked upon as a woolly-headed liberal by most of the establishment in the country – and by the press establishment as well, with the disdain particularly full-throated by David Halberstam of the New York Times and other establishment press figures.  I was there at the time as a correspondent for Newsweek Magazine, and Lansdale was pretty much a shadow. Few ever went to see him. We all were too busy covering the war by that time although a few still believed in his attempts to mold the country into something other than sadly what it became – a killing ground.

Image result for robert s. mcnamara

Of course, the folly of the war was never in doubt. And the bigger problem was how American foreign policy followed Vietnam down the rabbit hole.

”The key American shortcoming, in the early twenty-first century, as in the 1960s, was the inability to constructively guide the leaders of allied states in the direction desired by Washington. The Kennedy administration had seen a downward spiral into a hostile relationship with Ngo Dinh Diem after Lansdale’s return home at the end of 1956. Something similar happened with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki under the Bush and Obama administrations. What was missing was a high-level American official who could influence those allies to take difficult steps such as fighting corruption without risking a blowup or backlash. Lansdale believed such tricky tasks could be accomplished by a ‘person who was selflessly dedicated to the ideal of man’s liberty, was sustained by spiritual principles of his own faith, was demonstrably sensitive to the felt needs of the people of a foreign culture and had earned their trust.’”

Image result for Nixon and Kissinger in Cambodia

Lansdale pulled it off twice. But reading Boot’s account, particularly of Vietnam, as official after official came and went, knowing nothing of the country and willfully refusing to learn while piling on the ammunition, is heartbreaking.

Boot was one of George Bush’s Vulcans, a right-wing neocon. But this book, written while he was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a remarkably level-headed and astute  account of how US foreign policy went wrong and how it remains tragically wrong today. The US remains tied up in Afghanistan 17 years after it entered, with no idea how to extricate itself. Nor is the country’s foreign policy any more nuanced or intelligent anywhere else.  With the current administration, which has emptied out the State Department, it is unlikely to get any better any time soon.

Small states must play smart


October 5, 2018

Small states must play smart

by Chheang Vannarith

Cambodia Flag
“Cambodia is pursuing a light hedging strategy and striving to strengthen multi-lateralism through an omi-enmeshment strategy – a diversification strategy to create an interlocking network of partners with common economic and security interests.”– Chheang Vannarith

The foreign policy of small states is constrained by the size and location of the country and its natural resources and population. Small states are more vulnerable to external changes and shocks, the level of dependency on external sources for security and development, and the perception of their national roles.

Image result for Hun Sen

 

Size does matter for small states. They find it difficult to have favourable foreign policy outcomes than larger nations. To make up for this, small states tend to focus on their immediate geographic area and economic diplomacy, with an emphasis on international rules and norms, while promoting multilateralism and international cooperation.

The primary objective of small states is to ensure their survival and strengthen their position and relevance in a fluid or even anarchic international system. The fast-evolving international system together with global power shifts is posing more challenges for small states to adjust and realise their foreign policy objective. Hence they must play smart and be innovative in order to achieve their foreign policy goals.

Cambodia is thriving to stay relevant in the international system through the implementation of a dual-track diplomacy: bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. Recently, Cambodia has taken a relatively proactive approach in strengthening multilateralism and a rules-based international order as these two norms are under stress and threat caused by unilateralism and protectionism. The US retreat from multilateral institutions has caused severe disruptions and turbulence in the international liberal order.

Cambodia’s foreign policy is at a critical juncture as the country remains at the frontline of geopolitical rivalry in the Mekong region – a new growth center and strategic frontier of Asia. Geopolitical risks are heightening as major powers are vying to create their own sphere of influence in the region. The Kingdom is very much vulnerable to becoming a pawn of major power politics if foreign policy is not managed carefully. The evolving geopolitical dynamics thus demands that Cambodian leaders be more adaptive, flexible, resilient, and pragmatic.

As geopolitical risks and vulnerabilities rise further, Cambodia’s foreign policy options could be more constrained. The strategic space for Cambodia to manoeuver is getting narrower. Once geopolitical power rivalry becomes clear-cut and all-out, Cambodia could lose its balance and would be structurally forced to hop on the bandwagon of a major power for its survival.

At the moment, Cambodia is pursuing a light hedging strategy and striving to strengthen multi-lateralism through an omi-enmeshment strategy – a diversification strategy to create an interlocking network of partners with common economic and security interests.

Hedging is the best strategic option for Cambodia, especially in dealing with uncertainty. However, implementing this strategy is a huge challenge. It requires strategic articulation on certain issues and strategic ambiguity on others. Even sometimes it requires to have contradictory views on certain issues but it must be implemented smartly in order not to lose trust with any major power.

The key challenge now for Cambodia is how it could gain trust from all major powers. At the moment, Cambodia’s relations with the US faces a serious trust deficit. It is urgent that Cambodia and the US find common grounds and explore innovative pathways to restore trust and normalize their bilateral relationship.

Image result for Hun Sen

Economic pragmatism, strategic diversification, a denial to a regional hegemonic power, and regime legitimization are the key components of a hedging strategy. ASEAN as a regional grouping is an important shield for Cambodia and the group’s other members to neutralize and cushion the adverse effects created by rivalry between the major powers.

Yet ASEAN faces the risk of being marginalized by two competing institutional frameworks – China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the US-initiated Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Unless ASEAN member states are able to stay united and forge a common foreign policy position, they risk becoming the proxy states of major powers. Consequently, the region will be divided into two diametric poles: the pro-China camp versus the pro-US camp.

To avert these risks, ASEAN must be more innovative and adopt a bolder approach to protect common regional interests. Just playing it safe and keeping a low profile is not a solution. ASEAN must be bold enough to stand up against any major power that intends to build its hegemonic dominence in the region at the expense of the core interests of its member countries.

Cambodia is of the view that ASEAN driven multilateral institutions and mechanisms play a critical role in constructing an open and inclusive regional order that can accommodate all major powers. ASEAN is widely regarded as the main vehicle for its members to engage and integrate major powers, and hopefully shape the behaviour of major powers.

Engaging major powers is a viable strategic option for small states. Engagement is a means to integration. Small states like Cambodia can partially contribute to constructing an international order by engaging and integrating major powers into a rules-based international system and getting them to assume responsible leadership role in multilateral institutions.

Dr. Chheang Vannarith is a board member and Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP).

What the 1998 Reformasi taught me


October 4, 2018

What the 1998 Reformasi taught me

This is an article I never thought I’d have to write. Somehow, the strange post-election events have sparked off a stream of socio-political events that are even stranger than the idea of a 93-year-old man once dubbed Public Enemy No. 1 being back in the Prime Minister’s seat.

Image result for reformasi 1998

 

The series of harsh statements by students and activists against Anwar Ibrahim, his wife Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and their daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar shocked me more, in some ways, than the commando raid of his house in 1998. I feel compelled as a citizen to recount not just what happened in 1998, but my feelings and positive growth as an individual, a citizen, a Muslim and an academic for the benefit of a new generation of Malaysians.

In 1998, Anwar Ibrahim was unceremoniously sacked by the Prime Minister and UMNO President. The charge was firstly about some guy named Nalla who owned a gun, but then we heard whispers of flings with women, and ultimately the big headlines in Utusan Malaysia, Berita Harian and The Star on the alleged sodomy of Azizan the driver, Munawar Anees, his political brother, and Sukma Darmawan, his adopted Indonesian brother.

As I recall, Munawar and Sukma were detained under the ISA while Azizan sang like a canary. A few weeks later, an exhausted Munawar and Sukma were brought to court to confess to the accusation of sodomy. After they were freed, they both retracted their confessions and recounted the torture the Police had inflicted to force the confessions. The Judiciary, Police and academia ignored their retractions and let an innocent man stand trial in a Malaysian kangaroo court.

Can Mahathir make the spirit of <I>reformasi</I> fade away?

Then came the incredible and dangerous drama of balaclava-clad commandos with machine guns storming the house of the former Deputy Prime Minister. Anwar was whisked away without anyone’s knowledge of where he was being held or what condition he was in.  A few days later, he emerged with a bloodied black eye amid news that he had been beaten by the “gangster” Police Chief, Rahim Noor. Anwar’s famous black eye appeared even in foreign media like CNN, Newsweek and Times.

Image result for Rahim Noor

After that came damage control efforts with the Prime Minister accusing Anwar of inflicting the injury on himself. I will never forget the sneer on his lips as he spoke, describing how Anwar could have given himself the black eye. I will also never forget how a member of his Cabinet, a loud-mouthed woman, demonstrated with a drinking glass how Anwar could have pulled it off. We heard later that Anwar had suffered a severe spinal injury and almost lost his life, left to bleed after the “heroic” efforts of the then-Police Chief who has now been appointed as a peacemaker.

I also need to mention how the court allowed the Chief Public Prosecutor to bungle the dates and change them so many times, even allowing the prosecutor to place the sodomy incidents at an unfinished condo at an unknown date and time. The accused was supposed to have committed the act from one date to another, which amounted to several months in total. No specified day or time. Only many specified days and times. And the “honourable” court allowed that.

Image result for Mattress carrying in Anwar case

 

Then came the trial of Anwar, with sordid details and the unforgettable parading of mattresses in and out of the courts. The court allowed this funny but shameful act while the prime minister and his Cabinet watched from the comfort of their homes – in glee, I assume.

No one said anything about how the law and justice was shamed and desecrated. No mufti said anything. No vice-chancellors said anything. No highly paid public servant said anything. The whole nation watched as one man’s honour, dignity and integrity was raped in front of RTM, TV3 and the newsprint.

Finally, Anwar was convicted – not of sodomy, but of “abuse of power” by asking the Police to extract a confession on a planned political assassination. So he was convicted and sentenced to six years in jail. He was imprisoned before the trial, during the trial and after the trial.

Outside the prison, the then-President of UMNO mercilessly bashed Anwar’s legacy, character and contributions at every UMNO convention – no different from the antics of Rahim Noor, punching a blindfolded man whose hands were tied. For this, the UMNO President was considered a Malay hero with a morality second only to the Prophet. The great Malay hero berated his rival, knowing full well that the man in prison had no means of rebuttal. Such was our prime minister then – the great leader.

What did this all mean to me?

In 1998, I was appointed as an Associate Professor at a public university in the south. I was 36. My career was just beginning to take off, with my books, media articles, public talks and television appearances on the issue of Islamic and heritage architecture.

While building up my career, I read every piece of news and attended every ceramah on Anwar and the Reformasi at every chance I got, sometimes dragging my wife and two daughters to wet padangs filled with mud puddles. I bought every CD I could find on speeches by PAS leaders and Ezam, Saifuddin, Azmin and Mat Sabu. I still have the CD of the Deklarasi Permatang Pauh where the Reformasi was born.

The first thing I learned from the first decade of Reformasi was that a prime minister could be powerful enough to let Anwar be taken off like a terrorist without his loved ones knowing where or how he was. It was hard for me to imagine how my wife and daughters would feel if I were in Anwar’s shoes – not knowing where her husband was or whether their father was dead or alive.

I was shocked not only at the sheer amount of power but also at the attitude of our highly paid religious officials, professors, judges and civil servants. Never mind the police, they were acting like the personal army of the prime minister and Umno. Wahhhhhh, I thought, you can simply pick a fellow up in the middle of the night while brandishing an M16 at him, his wife, his children and his unarmed friends, then take him, beat him up and come out telling us that he punched himself in the eye.

Is the prime minister a person elected by the people in trust to uphold law and justice and preserve the dignity of citizens, or is he no better than a godfather or triad boss who can toy with lives at will? I cannot describe the shock to my social, psychological and religious system of life and understanding.

Before 1997, we were the darling of Asia, looking towards a multiracial and multi-faith nation under the hardworking ethos of Mahathir and the civilisational values of Anwar. Before 1997, I thought we had discovered the Malaysian Renaissance as opposed to the Melayu Reminiscence. But in 1998, we became, under the Prime Minister’s colourful leadership, a third-rate nation ruling with guns and murders. That was when I understood that what we had was not democracy, but a modern feudal version of the old Malay raja-ship criticised by Abdullah Munshi for being uncivilised and unIslamic.

If Najib Razak popularised the term “cash is king” in 2016, in 1998 it was “titles and projects are king”. I learned that the higher the status of a person in society paid by taxpayers, the quieter one becomes in accepting what would normally constitute indecency and pure unadulterated corruption of power.

The new generation of Malaysians shouting at the steps of the education ministry and the 30-something-year-old NGO activists must know that Anwar could have easily left the country in the months before the commandos stormed his house. In fact, I think the prime minister and Umno would have loved it if Anwar had followed those of his friends who fled to another country and were safe as houses. But Anwar stayed on and went on a whirlwind ceramah tour until the Prime Minister and UMNO saw the damage and unleashed their “private muscle”: the Police. The Police were supposed to be an institution enforcing what is constitutionally right, but the leadership of the force understood only “titles and projects”. Harapkan pagar, pagar makan padi.

If Anwar had left the country, we would not be where we are today, I think. Knowing the gullible Malay society, as long as there was UMNO and a Malay presence in the Cabinet, the universities, the army and the police, things would go on as before.

I am not a professor of political science, but I think Anwar’s unjust incarcerations on two occasions not only brought down a despicable racist party in UMNO Baru (formed by Mahathir after the 1987 tussle with Ku Li), but also put a serious dent in the vast institution of the Judiciary, Police and shameful public universities.

Of course, historians are always quick to point out that one man alone can never take charge of the course of history, but truth be told, history is littered with the ideas and suffering of individuals: one Muhammad, one Gandhi, one Mandela or one Martin Luther King. Today’s activists and students may cry foul upon reading my article and say it is melodramatic or worse, a propaganda piece paid for by the Anwar camp.

But I have been writing for 20 years against the mainstream of Malay and official Islam, which has nearly cost me my career. I have done so because of my sentiments following the first 10 years of Reformasi. That decade was my coming of age as a Muslim, a Malaysian and an academic.

We must know who the rightful leadership of this country should be, and the only clues we have are in our history. Who was the victim, and who was the leader who became corrupted by power? I believe people can change through great suffering. Leaders who have never tasted true suffering can work with anyone and make pacts with any party as long as their personal agendas and egos are satisfied.

The first decade of Reformasi taught me never again to fully trust politicians in power, high or low ranking religious officials proclaiming the morality of Islam while collecting honourifics and projects, vice-chancellors of public universities without conscience, and the police force which has neither the morality nor the integrity to uphold the law.

In choosing a leader, I would prefer one who has gone through great suffering because of his beliefs, not one who switches camps and approaches like riding a wave, as if he were the great emancipator. My choice is governed by what I witnessed in the first decade of Reformasi.

The new generation that woke up and came in at the end of the second decade of Reformasi does not understand its origins. If the new generation does not learn to choose a leader from an appreciation of history, then I think our new-found democratic freedom does not serve an honourable path for our country. It only serves our own selfish and narrow perspectives and a false, egotistic comprehension of truth, justice and integrity.

The childish poem of a Prime Minister titled “Melayu Mudah Lupa” may be true in many senses, but this Melayu has never forgotten and hopefully never will.

Tajuddin Rasdi is a professor of Islamic architecture at UCSI University.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.