Lee Kuan Yew’s Political Legacy–Matter of Trust


March 27, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew’s Political Legacy–Matter of Trust

by Bridget Welsh

Lee Kuan Yew 2

As Singaporeans mourn their charismatic leader Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), whose political acumen, drive and ideas defined the young nation and played a major role in its successful development, attention turns to assessment. Moments of transition always bring reflection, and this is especially the case with the passing of the man who both personified and defined Singapore. The fact that LKY has passed on in the pivotal year of the nation celebrating the country’s 50th anniversary only serves to reinforce the need for review.

There is good reason to acknowledge the accolades of a man who has been labeled as one of Asia’s most influential leaders. Most of the media, especially in the government-linked media of Singapore, lay out these reasons well. LKY was a force to be reckoned with, a complex man who made no excuses in his views and was direct in stating his opinions. He trusted few, but chose to collaborate with those who shared his hard work ethic with talent and ideas to develop the busy port of Singapore into a safe dynamic cosmopolitan city-state. He will rightly be remembered for not only putting Singapore on the world map, but as a model that is admired and respected by many the world over.

LKY was a man who was respected, but importantly not loved by all. He used fear to stay in power. From the inception of Singapore’s independence – when it was expelled from Malaysia – the ideas of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘survival’ were used to justify decisions. He promoted the idea that Singapore had to have a strong armed forces, requiring national service in 1967, to protect itself as a nation surrounded by the perceived threat of its Malay neighbors.

The enemies outside were matched by those inside, who had to be displaced and in some cases detained.  Among the most controversial were the arrests of men labeled as communists in Operation Coldstore of 1963 and Operation Spectrum of 1987 (a.k.a. the ‘Marxist Conspiracy’) that targeted social activists who promoted greater social equality and were seen as challenging LKY’s People’s Action Party’s (PAP) authority. Two other round-ups occurred with Operation Pecah (Split) in 1966, which coincided with the year of the arrest of Dr. Chia Thye Poh who was held under detention and restriction until 1997, and the arrests of the ‘Eurocommunists’ in 1976-77. Many others from opposition politics, business to academia faced the wrath for challenging and questioning LKY, his PAP and the politicized decisions of its institutions, castigated in the government controlled media, removed from position, forced to live in exile and, in some cases, sued and bankrupted. In the relatively small city state, it did not take much to instill a political culture of fear by making a few examples.

A main point of contention goes that LKY sparred with Western critics over democracy and human rights, with LKY dismissing these ideas as not part of ‘Asia’s values.’ The debate was never about differences in values, but the justification of holding power in the hands of a few for nearly five decades. Singapore’s political model is at its foundation about the elites, with Lee, his family and loyalists at the core. In recent years, reports in Singapore have highlighted a growing trust deficit in the PAP government that LKY founded. The real deficit that defined LKY and became embedded within the party he molded is that he never fundamentally trusted his people.

The group that received the special focus of LKY’s distrust was the Malay population, who now comprise over 10% of the country’s population. Even as LKY matured as a politician, he continued to reinforce negative stereotypes of this community that rioted over their grievances in 1950, 1964 and 1969 when LKY was in his early years in power, and with whom he expressed hard judgments about their religion, Islam. This distrust was shaped in part by a worldview that was not only shaped by his early experiences in political life but had sharp racial cleavages, drew from eugenics and believed in a clear social order. Part of LKY’s outlook prioritized women as homemakers and disparaged single women who opted not to marry or follow a career – another group similar to Malays that faced discrimination within LKY’s Singapore.

In the heyday of Singapore’s economic miracle, the 1970s through the 1990s, the LKY PAP government worked to win over the trust of its people. It did so by providing for the basic welfare of its citizens, with an impressive housing program, affordable food prices, a living wage, job security, safety, education and opportunity. This involved hard work of LKY’s founding team of PAP cadre, as well as the sacrifice of ordinary Singaporeans. It also reflected the wise realization of LKY that fear was not enough to stay in power. There needed to be a healthy balance of deliverables. The LKY decades of economic growth translated into real rewards – at least through the 1980s.

Singapore’s trajectory of sharing the benefits of development has followed a pattern of diminishing returns, as the country now boasts the highest per capita of millionaires and is the world’s most expensive city, with a large number its citizens unable to save and afford the lifestyle promised in the nation’s early narrative. As much as LKY deserves credit for Singapore’s success, he also should be seen to be part of today’s shortcomings.

Elitism has bred arrogance, and a distance between those in power and those governed. Most of the new leaders of the PAP have come from subsequent wealthy generations that do not fully understand the sacrifices of the country’s working poor – shocking in number – and the obstacles elderly and young people face in an era of high costs. Years of following the LKY’s example and being told that the PAP is made up of the ‘best and brightest’ has imbued a mindset of superiority, a lack of empathy, and frequent dismissal of difference in engagement with the public.

While LKY’s son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has worked to win over support, he has suffered consecutive drops of support in the two elections he has led since he assumed office, failing to match the 75% popular vote height of the predecessor Goh Chok Tong in 2001. Unlike in the information controlled era of his father, Lee Hsien Loong is not able to effectively censor and limit public discussions in today’s wired and connected Singapore.  His recent expansion of social services and incentive packages that provide small sums for pensioners, modest support for health and childcare and tax reductions for the middle class are a drop in the bucket for the growing grievances and costs faced by ordinary citizens.

This has to do in part with the challenge Lee Hsien Loong faces in dealing with his father’s legacy. In 2007 LKY claimed that he governed without ideology. This was not quite true. The ideological foundation of LKY’s pragmatic tenure was materialism. This obsession with money, saving it and forcing the public to save it in rigid regulated ways, assuring that government funds were only given to those ‘worthy’ and loyal and defining the value of the performance of his government ministers by pegging their salaries to growth numbers comprised the lifeblood of LKY’s state. With annual ‘bonuses’ to perform, there is a focus on short-term gains rather than long-term investments.

The irony is that it is not even clear how much money the government of Singapore and its linked companies actually have. Singapore is one of the few countries in the world that does not follow the International Monetary Fund guidelines on its budget reporting. It also does not transparently report losses in many of the financial accounts of the government linked companies (GLCs). Lee Hsien Loong has had to tackle head-on the ingrained pattern of limited government spending on social welfare and services, as he attempts to move away from his father’s restrictive parsimony and secretive mindset that originated from a lack of trust in people

Lee Hsien Loong also has to address the problems of a government dominated economy. Singapore Inc. emerged out of the political economy LKY put in place, with the government and its linked companies controlling over half the country’s economy and undercutting almost all domestic business. LKY did not trust local capital, and did not want to strengthen an alternative power center to his own. As such, Singapore’s economy is not a genuinely competitive one. It favors big business, especially property developers, and those allied with government rather than independent entrepreneurs. Those in the system have apparently disproportionately benefited from it, although the exact amounts and assets remain unknown. The accumulated assets of individuals remain hidden as the estate tax was removed in 2008. What is known is that workers have limited rights in the LKY-shaped political economy. A recent example is the sexual harassment bill passed in parliament that excludes employer liability. The harsh response to the bus driver strike in 2012 is another. Much is made about the limited corruption of Singapore, but few appreciate that the country ranks high on the Economist crony-capitalism index, an important outgrowth of the government dominance of the economy. The ties between companies and government are close, at times with government and family members on their boards and a revolving door that never really closes.

Singapore’s economy also favors foreigners. LKY was to start this trend, with the appeal to outsiders for capital rather than a focus on domestic business. Foreigners may have been easier to engage, as they could always be kicked out. Foreign investment has been extremely important in Singapore’s growth numbers initially in manufacturing and later in services. To maintain global competitiveness, keep wages low and maintain high growth numbers, Singapore also turned to foreign labor – cheap workers to staff their construction sectors and to work as domestic help and foreign talent to bring in ideas and the occasional sports medal. This prioritization of outsiders has fostered resentment. When LKY assumed office he worked to force a nation, but with his passing many in Singapore feel the government he left behind is working for others and undermining the fabric of the nation. The crowded trains, strain on services and displacement of Singaporeans in the job market and advancement have angered many, who now see LKY’s legacy as one that in fact left many Singaporeans vulnerable and worried about survival.

No one can take away LKY’s contributions. He lived a long meaningful life, and shaped the lives of all Singaporeans. This does not mean that there is agreement on what he left behind. Singapore now faces the challenge of moving beyond LKY’s ideas and shaping a more promising future for all of its citizens. An integral part of this dynamic will be moving away from fear, promoting more effective policies for inclusion in the economy and society and building trust. It starts with placing more trust in Singaporeans.

It is arguably the latter that is the hardest. LKY lived in an era where societies trusted their leaders. He was given the benefit of the doubt. The PAP remains a relatively closed institution, with the distrust of those not inside deeply embedded. Today in the age of social media and instant messaging there is not as much leeway to work behind closed doors. There is an urgent need to forge genuine dialogue, connectivity and understanding that moves beyond materialism, and reignites the sense of belonging that LKY forged in his early years.

Singapore today has become a more politically divided nation, with those who strongly defend LKY’s incumbent government, die-hard opponents and the majority in the middle. As the country marks its 50th year it moves toward a different narrative, the task at hand is to forge a new Singapore story, one in which LKY is a valued part of its past, but not a constraint on the dreams and aspirations of Singaporeans’ future.

Bridget Welsh is a Senior Research Associate of the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University where she conducts research on democracy and politics in Southeast Asia.

http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2015/03/24/lee-kuan-yews-political-legacy-a-matter-of-trust/

READThe Interview with Dr. Michael D. Barr

http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2015/03/25/assess-lee-kuan-yew-which-one/

To be both fair and informative in writing an assessment of Lee Kuan Yew requires a level of detachment that seems to be uncommon. Certainly his devotees, whether in Singapore or overseas, don’t usually come close to achieving it as they echo versions of Lee’s own story of how he took the country ‘from Third World to First’, often taking umbrage at those who are more critical. For those of us who are, indeed, more critical, the temptation is to focus on the Lee Kuan Yew who engaged in ‘brass knuckle politics’, and ignore the achievements.

Many of us have friends who have suffered brutality at his hands – or who have been intimidated or suffered discrimination by the system he put in place. It is not easy to put such personal connections aside and give credit where credit is due. Yet despite these burdens, I am pleased to say that this is a temptation in which critics have not generally indulged for a couple of decades now.

At the time of writing it is now a few days since Lee died and while the devotees have been as adoring and banal as one might fear, his critics have been consistent in recognising his formidable achievements. Their (our) record of even-handedness in this regard is only partly inspired by respect for the dead and for his family. Rather it is a recognition of the complexity of this man. As much as some of us might prefer not to articulate it, he was, in all the conventional senses of the use of the term, ‘a great man’ with a long list of achievements to his name.

His critics might (and do) quibble that he did not do this on his own; that he was the leader of a team of talented men (women generally did not need to apply). And this is indisputable.

We complain that the self-serving narrative of his success would have us believe that he built it from ‘a fetid swamp’ (to quote Greg Sheridan in The Australian a few days ago) and we know full well that this is just plain wrong. He and his colleagues had a lot of valuable material to work with: much of it a legacy of British rule (e.g. the administrative system, the Naval Base and English as the lingua franca); some a gift of nature (such as the port); or the luck of geography (being on the Straits of Malacca, near a rising East Asia).

We complain about a long list of seemingly unintended consequences for those who have been left behind by Singapore’s success or crushed by the dominant elite, and we rightly fear that many of these consequences are not as unintended as they appear at first glance – that they are, in fact, implicitly intended and explicitly accepted as part of the deal.

Yet I cannot think of a single critic who denies his record as a successful builder and who doesn’t feel obliged to put on record some recognition of his achievements. I just wish that those of his devotees who know better could find the honesty to recognise his failings so that more casual followers of public affairs would have a chance of reaching a more balanced perspective.

With this preamble behind me, I would now like to reproduce an interview I did with Zarina Hussain of the BBC last week, a few days before Lee died. Zarina used half-a-dozen sentences of the interview in a piece titled ‘How Lee Kuan Yew engineered Singapore’s economic miracle’, which was published on the BBC website, but most of it has not been reported. I have just tidied up some of the grammar.– Associate Professor Michael D. Barr from the School of International Studies, Flinders University is the author of ‘The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence’ and ‘Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs behind the Man.’

Tun Dr. Mahathir: Lee Kuan Yew and I


March 27, 2015

Tun Dr. Mahathir: Lee Kuan Yew and I

by Tun Dr. Mahathir Bin Mohamad@www.malaysiakini.com

COMMENT No matter how friendly or unfriendly we are, the passing away of a man you know well saddens you. I cannot say I was a close friend of Kuan Yew. But still I feel sad at his demise.

Kuan Yew became well-known at a young age. I was a student in Singapore when I read about his defence of the labour unions.

I first met Kuan Yew when I was a member of Parliament in 1964 after Singapore joined Malaysia in 1963. We crossed swords many times during the debates. But there was no enmity, only differences in our views of what was good for the newborn nation. He included me among the ultra= Malays who was responsible for the racial riots in Singapore. Actually I never went to Singapore to stir up trouble. Somebody else whom I would not name did.

The Tunku attended the inaugural meeting of the PAP and was quite friendly with Kuan Yew. He believed Kuan Yew was a bastion against Communism. But when the PAP contested in the Malaysian elections in 1964 with Malaysian Malaysia as its slogan, Tunku felt that the PAP’s presence in Malaysia was going to be disruptive for the country.

When I became PM in 1981, I paid a courtesy call on Kuan Yew. It was a friendly call and he immediately agreed to my proposal that Malaysia and Singapore times which had always been the same should be advanced by half an hour. I explained that it would be easier adjusting our time when travelling as we would fall within the time zones fixed for the whole world at one hour intervals.

I am afraid on most other issues we could not agree. When I had a heart attack in 1989 and required open heart surgery, he cared enough to ring up my wife to ask her to delay the operation as he had arranged for the best heart surgeon, a Singaporean living in Australia, to do the operation. But by then, I had been given pre-med and was asleep prior to the operation the next day.

My wife thanked him but apologised. She promised to ring him up after the operation. She did the next evening.
When he was ill, I requested to see him. He agreed but the night before the visit, the Singapore High Commissioner received a message that he was very sick and could not see me.

Still when he attended the Nihon Keizai Shimbun annual conference on the Future of Asia in Tokyo, which I never failed to attend, I went up to him at dinner to ask how he was. We sat down together to chat and the Japanese photographers took our pictures promising not to put it in the press. I wouldn’t mind even if they did. But I suppose people will make all kinds of stories about it.

Now Kuan Yew is no more. His passage marks the end of the period when those who fought for independence led their countries and knew the value of independence. ASEAN lost a strong leadership after President Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew.


DR MAHATHIR MOHAMAD is a former prime minister of Malaysia.

Mr. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak: End your silence on what really matters.


March 27, 2015

Mr. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak: End your silence on what really matters.

by Scott Ng

In this open letter, the writer tells Najib he can reclaim leadership by preventing Malaysia’s destruction at the hands of extremists.

 COMMENT
najib-on-hududOur dear leader, Prime Minister Najib Razak, you are no stranger to controversy. Every time something happens that requires your attention, you famously remain silent for what could be considered an inordinate amount of time. Often enough, the excuse of your weak mandate is given when asked why you don’t act.

Indeed, as a sitting Prime Minister who failed to secure a two-third majority in Parliament for the ruling coalition, you can be considered politically weak to some extent. In your mismanagement of our country’s socio-political landscape, we have seen extremism mushroom like never before. It has driven a wedge between us Malaysians, with battle lines being drawn everyday by NGOs like ISMA beating their chests over Malay-Muslim rights, innocent store managers crucified by government Islamic bodies, the return of authoritarian abuse of the law, and even thought policing via social media.

If there was ever a time for strong leadership, it is now. Even as the ship sails on in stormy waters, you can still salvage your situation, given the new-found support you have received from more than 150 Umno division heads and the component parties of Barisan Nasional. Despite your loss of public support, you now have been given a mandate by the coalition in hope that it will give you the clout to properly govern the country.

Najib and RosmahSir, you now have political capital and support in your hands. You’ve come down hard on the opposition, and I am not so much of an optimist to hope for that to change any time soon. Your attacks on Pakatan Rakyat may be reprehensive to some, but we recognize that it is part and parcel of the game of politics, especially here in Malaysia.

So, rather than attempt to have you change your mind on Pakatan, I suggest this instead: use your power and authority fairly, and go after those who threaten to derail the peaceful lifestyle of Malaysians, who threaten our unity and harmony with the assertion of an extreme, puritan agenda that ignores the spirit of our Federal Constitution.

Sir, you have sat back for too long and allowed the extreme elements of our society free rein to terrorize the people with threats of what should happen if they believe their rights have been maligned, with no thought for the protections provided in the Federal Constitution. Some of these elements come from your own party.

I am not condoning your detention of opposition figures under laws like the outdated Sedition Act, but there is a need to also silence the extremists who have for too long rampaged against what it means to be Malaysian.

We have come to a very dangerous precipice as a country, and only you as our Prime Minister, as the leader of our country, have the authority to pull us back from the brink of self-destruction.

Direct Challenge

Under your watch, the heinous Islamic State has begun to take root, and more established extremist groups like the Hizbut Tahrir have become emboldened enough to say we should forsake the democracy upon which this country is founded. This is a direct challenge to you as the democratically elected leader, and you should not stay silent any longer.

Silence them before they destroy us all. Prime Minister, you now have that mandate in your hands, even if it was not handed to you by the people. In acting against the extremists in our society, you will have the people’s mandate because whenever we read the headlines in this day and age, we become a little more scared to step out of our houses, or to step foot into certain parts of town. We have sealed our mouths because now even the most innocuous statement invites vitriol and even death threats.

This is not the Malaysia you or I grew up in, and you know it. In fact, this Malaysia pales in comparison with the golden hope that we were just after Merdeka, or even at the height of Mahathir’s less-than-benign reign. We are better than this, and the first show of courage must come from you, Prime Minister. You must step up and say enough is enough, and the people will join their voices to yours.

Sir, you have craved the people’s approval for the longest time, resorting to what your critics say are blatant bribes to win the hearts of the people. It is far easier than that to gain approval. Show us we can believe in you to save us from the galling rise of fundamentalist extremism, which twists the tenets of peaceful religions to suit a twisted narrative of us-vs-them that is tearing this country in half.

Now is the time to act. The heated socio-political-economic situation of our country is a pot that is boiling over, and only you can do something about it.

I implore you Sir, be our leader at this time, when we need a leader most. You can change the course of history and reclaim the narrative of this nation so that it can again become the keystone of your “global movement of moderates”, which remains an inscrutable proposition for as long as you allow the extremists in this country to hijack the national narrative.

Now is the time to be the leader you wish to be. How you will be remembered may well reflect on how you handle this situation. Will you preside over a nation torn by chaos and strife, a nation where those who grew up side by side fight to the bitter death over skin colour, over ideology, over religion? Or will you be the one to overcome the odds and unite us against the greatest threat to our way of life?

How you will be remembered is in your hands, Prime Minister. If you must come down on the opposition, show us fairness and come down hard on everyone who threatens the peace of this nation, who challenges the Federal Constitution, who gives a bad name to Malaysia. If you will not, you risk being remembered as someone who, like Nero of Rome, fiddled away while his country burned to the ground. Be our Prime Minister, Najib Razak, and

Ask our Government to serve us


March 24, 2015

Ask our Government to serve us

by TK Chua@www.freemalaysia.com

I belong to a generation that is familiar with John F Kennedy’s call to his countrymen to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” More than half a century has passed since that call, but I think it still resonates with many of us.

But today I want to be “unreasonable” and “defiant”. I want to ask what Malaysia (read the government) can do for us, the ordinary Malaysians.

We ordinary Malaysians have done much for the country. We are hardworking, enterprising, law abiding (in fact, quite docile actually) and we pay our taxes. We live frugally, save up, educate our children, and bring in foreign exchange earnings. We open up new growth areas, build new factories and townships as well as generate income and wealth. We do charity whenever we can. We never hesitate to help when disasters or calamities strike. We support and participate in programmes initiated by the government to the extent that we can. We play by the rules.

Now it is the government’s turn to do its part. What can the government do for us?

Najib and RosmahFirst, I want the government to provide us leadership – yes, true leadership, not incompetent, “silent” and autocratic leadership. We want leaders with vision for public duties and services, not leaders whose preoccupation is to form GLCs and sign another procurement contract or MOU. We want leaders whom we can revere, not fear; love, not loathe; and cooperate, not act only when compelled. Have we had one such leader lately? Is there one leader in Putrajaya who is like Joseph, the Premier of Egypt during the Pharaoh’s era (since many of our politicians are so “pious and religious”, I thought this example is most appropriate)? We demand that leaders spend more time and effort administering, less on matters concerning the afterlife.

Second, I want this country to provide us security and protection from crimes and harm. Citizens of this country have no right to bear arms. We therefore demand that the police do their job. Control, investigate and prosecute all crimes committed quickly and professionally now. Malaysians do not deserve to live under constant fear of robberies, burglaries, snatch thefts, rapes and threats of rape as well as murder.

Third, we demand that the government manage and protect our livelihood. We want the government to protect our savings by managing inflation and the value of our ringgit responsibly. We demand that the value of our compulsory savings in EPF is preserved when we retire ten, twenty or thirty years down the road. Otherwise our EPF contributions would be just another form of tax on our income.

We demand that our quality of life is maintained through sustained preservation of the ringgit’s value. We demand that the government rip apart monopolies, dismantle crony capitalism and provide a level playing field for all. We demand that actions be taken now; we don’t want mere promises and words.

Fourth, we demand that the government contain our fractious race relations and deal with religious extremism sternly and quickly. There is no need for posturing and pretending. The authorities should know who the real culprits and instigators are. There should be no double standards and condoning of the culprits and instigators.

We demand that this country be administered fairly and justly and without fear or favour. We accept there are issues which are sensitive. But we demand that we are given the democratic space to discuss at least the implementation of these issues without harassment and interference. We must allow the contest of ideas. Otherwise, it is dogmatism and authoritarianism, which will eventually send this country into oblivion.

Fifth, we want the government to concentrate on the business of government. Please, it is not the business of the government to be involved in beef supply, property development, buying and operating hotels and restaurants all over the world, buying and selling energy assets or be a hedge fund manager putting money in offshore banks. All these, the private sector can do better.

We demand that the government give us good governance, provide us with competitive schools, efficiently run hospitals and public transport and ensure that our environment is clean and sustainable. We demand that the government manage our water resources and our habitat with care and utmost urgency.

Sixth, we demand persistent and consistent enforcement of laws, rules and regulations for the good of the majority. Good laws without firm and fair application will not make a good society. Just look at violations on our roads and highways, illegal and haphazard parking (now even along main roads), haphazard house renovations, uncollected rubbish, clogged drains, filthy eateries, pests and stray dogs and cats running around and illegal hawking and littering. Just look at the number of illegal immigrants in the country and their pervasive impact on our society. We have the most bloated civil service in the world and yet the usual excuse for lackadaisical enforcement is lack of manpower. No, it is not due to lack of manpower and resources. Enforcement agencies ought to know the real reasons why they are ineffective and not productive. We demand that they buck up and fix it now.

We can make more demands, but that should be enough for now.

T K Chua is an FMT reader.

With a firm belief in freedom of expression and without prejudice, FMT tries its best to share reliable content from third parties. Such articles are strictly the writer’s personal opinion. FMT does not necessarily endorse the views or opinions given by any third party content provider.

Hudud Law Again


March 23, 2015

Hudud Law Again

by Kassim Ahmad

Kassim AhmadSome Muslims pride themselves for upholding what is called the hudud punishments. Do they really know what they are talking about? They think it is God-ordained law. Are they right? They should remember the lessons of history.

Did the Jewish Prophet Moses bring the religion of what is now known as Judaism? The answer is: No. Did Prophet Jesus, also a Jew, bring the religion of what is now known as Christianity. Again the answer is: No. Did Prophet Muhammad, an Arab, bring the religion of Sunnism and Shi’ism? Again the answer is: No.

Human history is littered with errors that came to be accepted later as “facts”. We are not talking of small errors. We are taking of big ones. That explains the rise and fall of nations. One author has described this historical evolution as “recurring, multilinear, yet ascending.” That means on the whole we are progressing, but the line of progress is not ascending linear, but multilinear, sometimes ascending, sometimes descending.

Let me cite just one authority, Prof. Mohammad Hashim Kamali. This paragraph is taken from his book, Punishment in Islamic Law: An Inquiry into the Hudud Bill in Kelantan (Kuala Lumpur: 2000) is very telling: “When we compare the Quranic usage of hadd (in the sense of limit) with the use of this term in fiqh, we notice that a basic development has taken place, which is that the term hadd has been reserved to signify a fixed and unchallengeable punishment that is laid down in the Quran or Sunnah. The concept of the ‘separating or preventing limit’ of the Quran is thereby replaced by the idea of fixed punishment.” (p. 46)

There you have another example of a major error made by great scholars. That is precisely why the Quran warns us of idolizing leaders or scholars. We could be kind if we chose to pardon them by saying that it was their understanding, or their ijtihad, which must be reviewed by the next generation.

The term hududu’l-Lah (God’s boundaries) occurs in the Quran 14 times, none of which refer to fixed punishments, as understood by some Muslim jurists. One scholar opined that, “The unchangeability of the hadd punishement is supported by the interpretation of the Quranic verse: ‘These are the limits of Allah. Do not transgress them.’” (2: 229) The verse does not actually mean what he says it means.

Let us take some of the so-called hudud punishments. Cutting of the head for apostasy, when the Quran advocates complete freedom of belief, some 1400 years ahead of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; stoning for adultery, cutting of the hand for theft are three of the six or seven of the so-called fixed punishments propounded by Muslim jurists. Take note these run counter to the fundamental teachings of the Quran.

Take note also that the divine order to our courts is to judge among people with justice. (See Quran, 4: 58) Surely God Who decrees upon Himself mercy (Quran, 6: 12) cannot enact such archaic and barbarous laws.

It is to be remembered that Muslim jurists of the four schools differ much in their views. We need not go into them. We should take note that these punishments are taken from the Torah. They creep into the so-called sunnah/hadith, or Prophetic traditions, i.e. traditions ascribed to Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad’s name is so great among Muslims that anything said to originate from him is sacrosanct.

We should also note that the Quran has two dimensions, the historically bound, and the universal. The historically bound will be surpassed when the historical context no longer prevails. They will pass over into the universal. The two universal principles are: equal punishment, and merciful punishment. The first means punishment equaling the crime, and the second means lightening the punishment, up to and including pardon. We can see that the two universal principles have been imbibed into all modern civilized societies.

The final and unchallengeable proof that there is no such thing as the hudud fixed punishments is that they are nowhere mentioned in the Medina Charter promulgated by Prophet Muhammad himself when he migrated to Medina.

Take note that Brunei has already declared that it would practise hudud punishments. However, it did not reveal that Brunei royalty is exempt from them.

It is good to hold firmly to our religion, but do not dispense with our reason when doing so. Fanaticism is out of the question. God has forbidden belief to those who not use their reason. (See Quran, 10: 100) We should be able to confront the opponents’ arguments with better arguments. Otherwise, we should make adjustments to our religious beliefs. That is the only reasonable thing to do. Only then can we arrive at the truth. Truly the truth is God. Only then can we be at ease with our inner selves and enter into God’s kingdom. That is Paradise, the ultimate and supreme happiness.

KASSIM AHMAD is a freelance Malaysian writer.

 

The Curse of The Obsession With Single-Issue Politics by M. Bakri Musa


March 23, 2015

The Curse of The Obsession With Single-Issue Politics

by Dr.M.Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California (received via e-mail)

bakri-musaWe Malays are obsessed – and cursed – with the single-issue politics of bangsa, agama dan negara (race, religion and nation). We have paid, and continue to pay, a severe price for this. Our fixation with those three issues detracts us from pursuing other legitimate endeavors, in particular, our social, economic and educational development. Perversely and far more consequential, our collective addiction to bangsa, agama dan negara only polarizes us.

We, leaders and followers alike, have yet to acknowledge much less address this monumental and unnecessary obstacle we impose upon ourselves. The current angst over hudud (religious laws) reflects this far-from-blissful ignorance. With Malays over represented in the various dysfunctional categories (drug abusers, abandoned babies, and broken families), and with our graduates overwhelmingly unemployable, our leaders are consumed with cutting off hands and stoning to death as punishments for thievery and adultery. Meanwhile pervasive corruption and endemic incompetence destroy our society and institutions. Those are the terrible consequences of our misplaced obsession with agama.

If we focus more on earthly issues such as reducing corruption, enhancing our schools and universities, and on improving economic opportunities, then we are more likely to produce a just and equitable society. That would mertabatkan (enhance the status of) our agama, bangsa dan negara on a far more impressive scale.

Make no mistake, if we remain marginalized or if we fail to contribute our share, then it matters little whether Malaysia is an Islamic State or had achieved “developed” status, our agama, bangsa dan negara will be relegated to the cellar of humanity. Our hollering of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy) would then be but a desperate and pathetic manifestation of Kebangsatan Melayu (Malay Poverty).

A Historical Perspective

For the first half of the last century, our fixation was, as to be expected, on nationalism. Our forefathers were consumed with the struggle to be free from the clutches of colonialism, and the right to be independent. With merdeka a reality in 1957, the obsession then shifted from negara to bangsa, from merdeka to bahasa (language). Today with Malay language specifically and customs generally accepted as the national norms, our mania has now shifted to agama.

While our passion for negara and bangsa had a definite and definable endpoint (independence and Malay as the national language respectively), what is the goal with our obsession on agama? ISIS Malaysia? And as for entry into heaven, only Allah knows that.

We have forgotten, or are unaware in the first place, the price we paid for our earlier obsessions. Consider our nationalistic fervor of yore. While we Malays were consumed with treating the colonialists as white devils and fighting them, non-Malays seized every opportunity to work with and learn from them. In our smugness and misplaced sense of superiority we asserted that we had nothing to learn from those colonials and outsiders, blithely ignoring the obvious evidences to the contrary, just like the Japanese before the Meiji Restoration.

What has umno achieved Bakri M

As a result when independence came, non-Malays were much more equipped to take full advantage of that fact while we Malays were still consumed with endlessly shouting merdeka and rehashing an established reality. A decade later we found ourselves marginalized while the non-natives were busy taking over opportunities left behind by the British. Then like a wild boar caught in a trap of its own making, we lashed out at everyone and everything, with ugly consequences for all.

It took the brilliance and foresightedness of the late Tun Razak to first of all recognize the underlying pathology and then craft an imaginative and effective remedy.

As for our struggle for independence, let me inject a not-so-obvious observation. Our merdeka came less from the battles of our jingoistic warriors, more from British realization that colonialism was no longer chic. Indeed it became an affront to their sensibilities. I would be less certain of that conviction had our colonizers been the Chinese or Russians. The Tibetans and Chechens will attest to that.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the British for another reason. They cultivated sensible leaders amongst us and dealt harshly with the radicals. Consequently we were blessed with post-independent figures like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak while spared the likes of Sukarno and Ho Chi Minh.

Had we been less arrogant culturally and instead learned from the British, we would have been able to give full meaning to our merdeka. There was much that we could have learned from a nation that ushered in the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Age.

Folly of The National Language Obsession

The May 1969 race riot should have taught us the obvious and very necessary lesson that we must prepare our people well so they could make their rightful contributions and not be left behind. It did not. Instead we shifted our obsession, this time to language. Bahasa jiwa banga (Language the soul of a race), we deluded ourselves.

With that we sacrificed generations of precious and scarce Malay minds to the altar of the supremacy of Bahasa. We also squandered what precious little legacy the British had left us, specifically our facility with English. Imagine had we built on that!

Yes, Malay is now the national language, a fact affirmed by all. Less noticed or acknowledged is that while non-Malays are facile with that language they are also well versed in others, in particular English. Not so Malays, with our leaders eagerly egging on our fantasy that knowing only Malay was sufficient.

DPM MalaysiaWith English now the de facto language of science, commerce and international dealings, not to mention the language of global consumers especially affluent ones, our Malay-only fluency is a severe handicap. We are lost or ignored abroad, or even in Malaysia within the private sector. Again we are being left out because of our misplaced obsession.

The sad part is that we are only now just recognizing this tragic reality. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyyddin (who is also in charge of education) was stunned to learn that our students fared poorly in international comparisons. He is still stunned for he has yet to come up with a coherent solution.

Our Current Delusion with Religion

Judging from the current obsession with hudud, we have learned nothing from our earlier follies with bangsa dan negara.

Faith is a personal matter. This is especially so with Islam. Our Holy Book says that on the Day of Judgment we would be judged solely by our deeds. We cannot excuse them based on our following the dictates of this great leader or the teachings of that mesmerizing ulama. Islam is also unique in being devoid of a clergy class. There is no pope or priest to mediate between us and Allah, or a prophet who died in order to expiate our sins.

The now vociferous and overbearing ulama class imposing itself upon us is a recent innovation (bida’a) in our faith.  As is evident, this obsession with hudud does not bring Muslims together. Far from it! Hudud also creates an unnecessary chasm between Muslims and non-Muslims. Islam should bring us together.

To Muslims the Koran is the word of Allah, its message for all mankind and till the end of time. That is a matter of faith. While hudud is based on the Koran it is not the Koran. The present understanding of hudud is but the version interpreted by the ancient Bedouins. It is the handiwork of mortals, with all its imperfections. We should not be bound by it but be open to more enlightened readings of the holy book.

We paid dearly for our earlier obsessions with race and nationalism. What would be the price this time for our fixation with religion? Look at the Middle East today. Ponder Nigeria with its Boko Haram. Contemplate being under the brutal ISIS, the messianic Talibans, or the puritanical Saudis.

We have yet to recover from our earlier follies with nationalism and Bahasa, yet we blithely continue making new ones with our current obsession on religion. The mistakes we make this time could well prove irreversible.

Dispense with this public fixation with religion. Instead focus on adil and amanah (justice and integrity), the tenets of our faith. We cannot be Islamic if we are devoid of both. This should be our pursuit, from eminent Malays to not-so-eminent ones, from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

If our leaders do not lead us there, then dispense with them and pursue our own path forward. Unlike the earlier colonial era, this time there is no superior power except for Allah to guide us find and groom enlightened leaders. We are on our own. As per the wisdom of our Koran, Allah will not change our condition unless we do it ourselves.

Dr. M.Bakri Musa’s latest book, Malaysia’s Wasted Decade 2004-2014. The Toxic Triad of Abdullah, Najib, and UMNO Leadership, has just been released. It will be available soon at major online outlets like Amazon.com.