A ‘Malay Malaysia’, but in what sense Islamic?

March 30, 2018

A ‘Malay Malaysia’, but in what sense Islamic?

by Anthony Milner


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The Najib government needs to win new legitimacy at GE-14 if it’s to juggle Malay, Islamic, and royal claims, amid a restive East Malaysia.

The government’s determination to focus on the Malay community is shrewd politics, but it also plays into a major transformation taking place in Malaysia, the consolidation of a specifically Malay Malaysia.

What exactly this Malaysia will look like is not certain, but there is a demand for a stronger Islamic role. The Malayisation process has been underway for decades, and is partly a matter of demographic change. At the time of independence (1957), Malays were only about half of the country’s population; today they are a clear majority in Peninsular Malaysia, and together with other indigenous peoples (the bumiputra, “sons of the soil”) make up over 68 per cent of the Malaysian total. Building a Malay Malaysia will entail reconsideration of the nation’s founding document.

The (Najib) government’s determination to focus on the Malay community is shrewd politics, but it also plays into a major transformation taking place in Malaysia, the consolidation of a specifically Malay Malaysia.–Milner

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The Future of an inclusive, secular and liberal Malaysian Malaysia is bleak.

At a glance, the constitution of 1957 displays the strong influence of the English-speaking world, with its Westminster parliamentary system and Australian/United States federal structure, and has been said to imply a “liberal-democratic order”. But the constitution also includes local formulations that over time have influenced Malaysia’s identity as a nation, and they all bear on the process of building a more Malay nation.

First, the “sovereignty, prerogatives, powers and jurisdiction” of the nine monarchs of Malaysia are stressed, and in a manner conveying (in the words of one prominent legal scholar) that the role of the monarch “far exceeds” specific “constitutional provisions” [fn1]. Second, “the Malays” are declared to have a “special position” in the country, and are assured a particular share of appointments in public service and educational opportunities. Moreover, the constitution names Malay as the “national language”. Third, although the constitution is sometimes seen as inaugurating a secular polity, and declares itself to be “the supreme law of the Federation”, it contains the potent but confusing statement that Islam is “the religion of the Federation”. Multiple monarchy, Malay pre-eminence, and Islamic priority: these features together help make Malaysia internationally distinctive. The meaning and significance of each element, however, continue to be debated.

Image result for Jamal Yunos and The Red ShirtsUMNO’s Jamal Yunos and his Red Shirts are endorsed by Prime Minister  Najib Razak



Following race riots between non-Malay (Chinese and Indian) and Malay Malaysians in 1969, the Malay character of the country was sharpened, with a greater stress on the Malay language and culture, as well as promoting Malay economic opportunities. In the 1980s the concept of “ketuanan Melayu”, often translated as “Malay dominance”, was enunciated. Besides UMNO, other organisations such as Perkasa (formed in 2008) and more recently the Red Shirts have played an activist role in promoting Malay rights. With respect to religious identity, Pas has long urged a greater role for Islamic doctrine in the legal system and Malay society generally. Particularly during the Mahathir administration (1981–2003), the government itself instituted policies to enhance the role of Islam, for instance through the creation of an Islamic bank and an Islamic university, and the strengthening of the role of Islamic courts.

Alongside the Najib administration’s emphasis on moderation internationally, something welcomed especially in Western countries, the domestic focus on gaining Malay support has encouraged less-moderate initiatives. In August a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department said atheists should be “hunted down” and returned “to their faith”. The government also appeared to assist the attempt by Pas to strengthen the Islamic criminal code (hudud) by empowering shariah courts to impose heavier punishments. A further move was the change in leadership of PM Najib’s Global Movement of Moderates, established to further the government’s moderation objectives. The new CEO (appointed in 2015), Nasharudin Mat Isa, formerly a PAS Deputy President, soon focused on how best to implement and explain hudud law in the country. “Malaysia being a Muslim state,” he said, “we can be a model of how that kind of law is implemented in a modern society.” Consistent with this appointment, the Prime Minister explained that moderation would now be pursued on the basis of shariah principles and insisted that “humanism and secularism as well as liberalism” were a “threat to Islam”.

Image result for Book Breaking the Silence: Voices of Moderation


The July 2017 banning of the book Breaking the Silence: Voices of Moderation, produced by a group of prominent moderate Muslims called the G25, also illustrated the changing religious climate. In Malaysia’s “constitutional democracy,” the book insists, the federal constitution is the “supreme law of the country,” and “any law enacted, including Islamic laws,” must not “violate the Constitution,” with its stress on such “fundamental liberties” as the “rights to freedom of expression and worship”. Among those opposing the ban, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) argued that the book’s contents were in line with PM Najib’s advocacy of moderation (wasatiyyah) in Islam.

There have been protests from the non-Malay partners in the ruling coalition about the government’s support for religious conservatism. “Malaysia is a secular country,” an officer of the Malaysian Chinese Association declared in March 2017, insisting that the federal constitution requires “defending all religions.” Faced with such views, in March the government backed away from actually sponsoring the hudud bill introduced by PAS. Despite such reversals, however, the momentum toward Islamisation is strong. In 2017, for instance, public whipping was introduced in Kelantan state; and Pahang state adopted the Islamic concept of diyat, which allows a victim’s family to influence sentencing involving the death penalty. Considering these initiatives, it is important to take note of polling that suggests strong support in the Malay community for religious conservatism. Furthermore, in the view of some Islamic activists, current religious initiatives merely follow a long history of burgeoning Islamisation, reaching back before British intervention in the 19th century.

The Constitution’s reference to Islam as “the religion of the Federation” is also increasingly highlighted—placed above the claim that the Constitution itself is “the supreme law”—and seen as a basis for arguing (as a former chief justice did this year) that “anything which is in contradiction to Islam is unconstitutional”. One matter clear in the Constitution is that the nine rulers are “the Head of the religion of Islam” in their respective states. The Conference of Rulers—which in late 2015, in the context of the 1MDB investigation, had questioned the “government’s credibility and integrity in administrating the country”—took an assertive stand on religious matters in October 2017. The Johor sultan had condemned a launderette for adopting a Muslim-only policy. Johor, he said, “belongs to all races and faiths” and is “not a Taliban state.” In response, a religious teacher who supported the ban on non-Muslims insisted that “we are a Muslim country,” and that in taking a stand he was “carrying out my responsibility to spread Islamic teachings.” The Conference of Rulers then stated its concern to protect “the harmony that currently exists within our multi-religious and multi-ethnic society.”


GE14: the polls, the money, the stakes

Ibrahim Suffian, Terence Gomez, Fadiah Nadwa Fikri and Amrita Malhi talk with Kean Wong about what’s at stake in Malaysia’s 2018 elections. 20 March, 2018



The Rulers were conveying that, despite being “heads” of Islam, and despite the King’s constitutional duty to “safeguard the special position of the Malays,” they consider themselves to be reigning over all their subjects, irrespective of ethnicity. The Constitution, in fact, refers to “rulers,” not “Malay rulers,” and there is a long record of Malaysian rulers speaking in an ethnically inclusive manner. Just what role the rulers might play in shaping a Malay Malaysia, however, will depend not only on their ability to attract non-Malay support but also on their skill in handling the increase in both Islamic and Malay nationalist demands.

If the Najib government fails to achieve a comfortable victory in the coming election, the task of accommodating and juggling Malay, Islamic, and royal claims—and also the growing demand of the East Malaysian states for greater autonomy—will be all the more formidable.–Milner

Malaysia is a society in transition. Malay ethnic demands, far-reaching Islamic aspirations, and royal assertiveness—each in its particular way challenges the liberal, secular structure that many saw being ushered in with the 1957 constitution. These concepts are all, however, embedded in that document—waiting, as it were, for future opportunity. If the Najib government fails to achieve a comfortable victory in the coming election, the task of accommodating and juggling Malay, Islamic, and royal claims—and also the growing demand of the East Malaysian states for greater autonomy—will be all the more formidable.

[1] Raja Azlan Shah, ‘‘The Role of Constitutional Rulers in Malaysia,’’ in F. A. Trindade and H. P. Lee (eds.), The Constitution of Malaysia: Further Perspectives and Developments (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1986): 89.

[2] Arfa Yunus, ‘‘Laws in Contradiction to Islamic Laws are Void, Says Former Chief Justice,’’ New Straits Times, March 25, 2017

This excerpt is from ‘Malaysia in 2017: Clever Politics, Deeper Transformation’, Asian Survey, Vol. 58, Number 1.

Book Review: Rebranding Islam: Piety, Prosperity, and a Self-Help Guru

March 26, 2018

Book Review:

Rebranding Islam: Piety, Prosperity, and a Self-Help Guru

James Bourk Hoesterey (Stanford University Press, 2016)

by Virginia Hooker
Image result for rebranding islam piety prosperity and a self-help guru
A biography of a highly motivated, calculating, and media-savvy performer and preacher

This book is a study of Abdullah Gymnastiar, who was born in West Java in 1962. He is, however, better known as Aa Gym (older brother Gym), the name he chose to launch his career as a preacher, then to develop it as a television personality, motivational speaker, and leader of more than 20 corporate business enterprises. His “performances” and unique religious self-help program “Manajemen Qolbu”, (Heart Management) or MQ, rocketed him to pop star status for millions of Indonesian Muslims during the first decade of the new millennium. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the Bali bombings, his sermons about self-help for modern Muslims, Islamic ethics, morality, and civic duty attracted the interest of non-Muslims as well as Muslims.

It was Aa Gym’s reputation as a supporter of “moderate Islam”, and his influence on several million Indonesians (or more), that drew him to the attention of the Cultural Section of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. In January 2007, they were organising an itinerary of people-to-people visits for members of the Board of the Australia Indonesia Institute (a second-track diplomacy initiative of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) and in it they included a lunch with Aa Gym at his headquarters in Bandung.

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As a member of the Board of the AII, I met Aa Gym, who welcomed us warmly and gave us a tour of his extensive and orderly mini-village, Daarut Tauhiid (Abode of the One). We had discussions about his work and the nature of Islam in Indonesia. He invited us to return at any time and stay in the motel-type accommodation included in the complex, where thousands of his followers came for spiritual retreats. We had expected Daarut Tauhiid to be bustling with those followers, but it was quiet except for a small group of women who chatted with those of us who spoke Indonesian. A further surprise was the presence of an American who accompanied Aa Gym and introduced himself as James Hoesterey, from the Department of Anthropology, University Wisconsin-Madison. Aa Gym was the subject of his PhD dissertation and he was nearing the end of two years of field research as participant observer of Aa Gym’s activities.

Rebranding Islam: Piety, Prosperty, and a Self-Help Guru is the result of those two years observing and interviewing Aa Gym, his staff, and his followers. Aa Gym was particularly hospitable and cooperative, Hoesterey told us, inviting him to live in Daruut Tauhid and including him in many of his trips outside Bandung. To update his material for the book, Hoesterey supplemented his dissertation fieldwork with later follow-up visits, the most recent in 2014.

When I met Hoesterey in late January 2007 he must have been concerned about the future of his research, because on 1 December 2006 a journalist broke the story of that year: Aa Gym, idol of millions of Indonesians, had secretly married a second wife. His followers, especially women, felt betrayed by Aa Gym—their adviser on all matters Islamic—who had presented himself as the loving husband of the beautiful Teh Ninih, who was a religious teacher in her own right and the mother of their seven children. His disillusioned followers expressed their condemnation by shredding pictures of Aa Gym, denouncing him and his second wife on social media, and withdrawing their support for his programs and his commercial enterprises. The full impact of Aa Gym’s polygamy on his career was not evident when the Australian Embassy arranged our visit, but when we met him, Hoesterey must have known that his dissertation would become an analysis not only of the rise of a religious superstar but also his fall.

In an expansive Preface to his book, Hoesterey describes how he came to study Aa Gym and summarises the broader aims of the book in these terms: “It is about how a popular-culture niche of Sufis and self-help gurus has managed to recalibrate religious authority, Muslim subjectivity, and religious politics in post-authoritarian Indonesia.” But even within this popular-culture niche Aa Gym had succeeded in differentiating himself from other religious celebrities. He was not a Sufi nor a pesantren– or madrasah-educated religious scholar. Through the course of the book, the reader comes to see him as a highly motivated, calculating, and media-savvy performer, who enjoyed the limelight and making money. The material in the book gives little information about Aa Gym’s interior spiritual life so the reader, and perhaps Hoesterey also, is left none the wiser about this vital aspect of Aa Gym the man.

Material for the book is drawn from sympathetic Indonesian biographies of Aa Gym, from Aa Gym’s autobiographical videos of his achievements, from interviews with those who know him, including some critics, and from Hoesterey’s daily observations and personal interviews with him. When I met Hoesterey at Daruut Tauhiid in 2007, it was clear that he enjoyed privileged access to Aa Gym and his family. In the Preface, Hoesterey acknowledges his debt to Aa Gym for his willingness to trust him and involve him in so many of his activities. Hoesterey writes, “I had become part of the road show—a small price to pay for the opportunity to travel with Aa Gym around the country. Much like his devotees, and perhaps like many other ethnographic encounters, my relationship with Aa Gym was marked by economic and emotional exchange.” (p.xv).

In the context of leadership derived from religious authority, one of the main themes of his book, Hoesterey’s description of the relationship with his subject as “marked by economic and emotional exchange” is revealing. Hoesterey is, after all, not a Muslim and Aa Gym is not his leader. It can be argued that there is an affective and economic relationship between them but it is not the same as that between Aa Gym and his Indonesian followers, for whom Aa Gym’s religious authority is relevant. In Hoesterey’s case the affective relationship does not have a religious basis. Rather, it stems from an ethical and moral obligation that resulted from Hoesterey’s need for information from and about Aa Gym. Indonesian moral etiquette places the recipient of hospitality, gifts, and friendship (all of which Aa Gym gave him) under an obligation to the giver and Hoesterey would have been aware of this expectation. When Hoesterey told Aa Gym he was writing an article about his “fall”, Aa Gym told him, “Please feel free to use any documentation you have, as long as you first consult your conscience.” Both were aware that these words came with the unspoken understanding of Hoesterey’s debt of obligation.

Similarly, the economic relationship was to Hoesterey’s benefit, as he himself admits. The information Hoesterey derived from his access to Aa Gym enhanced Hoesterey’s career as an academic, just as most academics benefit materially from the information derived from living subjects who entrust it to them. Hoesterey thus walks a tightrope between obligation towards and familiarity with Aa Gym and the objectivity required for academic research and analysis. In this reader’s estimation, Hoesterey’s affective and economic relationship with his subject has sometimes made him wobble on the tightrope, tilting him closer to Aa Gym and away from objective analysis. These wobbles are evident when he recounts some of Aa Gym’s self-revelatory remarks without further discussion, even when they can shed light on Aa Gym’s character and motives. For example, without establishing a date for the quote or remarking on its significance, Hoesterey writes, “‘Media are like water buffalos,’ Aa Gym once told me. ‘You just have to lead them by the nose ring.’” (p.155). The thinking reader might wonder what implications and consequences this attitude has for Aa Gym’s affective and economic relationships with all his contacts.

Hoesterey presents an engaging and perceptive account of how Aa Gym constructed his trademark “brand” of religious authority: through his trendy yet semi-religious dress (trademark turban, well-tailored white jacket and dark trousers); discourse (feel-good homilies drawing on the Qur’an, the example of the Prophet Muhammad, and Aa Gym’s own life stories); and the supportive advice that he delivered with humorous anecdotes and in a “soothing psycho-therapy tone”. Hoesterey describes Aa Gym’s approach to his religion as “Islam was not just a religion to be lived but also a product to be packaged and sold.” (p.35) For many Muslims the idea of making money from their religion is anathema, so not all Muslims would respond to the commodification of Islam, especially when it is for personal gain. As the work of Fealy and White, and other scholars has shown, however, millions of Indonesians do “buy” Islam and it was to this market that Aa Gym made his pitch.

Hoesterey provides an excellent overview of the products that AA Gym developed, trademarked and licensed, and delivered. These included his flagship MQ (Heart Management Program) presented through “nationally televised sermons, self-help books, and Islamic training seminars”; the MQ Blessings firm that produced and marketed food, drinks, clothing and personal items; and also the entire Daarut Tauhiid enterprise with its bank, restaurants, souvenir and other shops and spiritual tourism facilities, as well as TV production studio and publishing house. Over twenty businesses were listed under the organisational umbrella of the MQ Corporation.

At least 700 staff, all dependent on his brand for their livelihoods, met every Monday morning at Daarut Tauhiid to listen to a pep talk by Aa Gym. As well, a significant number of “trainers” found work under the Aa Gym brand, teaching people how to apply various pseudo-psychology and self-help (or as Hoesterey says, “self-engineering”) programs for which they charged substantial fees. For example, a pre-retirement entrepreneurship program designed for 200 Bank Mandiri employees brought in $US100,000, and other programs regularly brought in similar sums. Hoesterey describes how two skilled Indonesian executives working for Aa Gym designed a program that adapted elements from American positive psychology thinkers—including from Tony Buzan’s “mind mapping” and Edward de Bono’s problem solving techniques. These Indonesian super-trainers “consciously tried to find the Islamic textual resources that could support the science” so that the programs appealed to Indonesian Muslim corporate executives. (p.112). In Hoesterey’s words, “… Aa Gym and the Muslim trainers transformed scientific knowledge into religious wisdom and also re-packaged and promoted transnational scientific discourse through print, radio, television and training sessions.” (p.96)

I take issue with Hoesterey’s use of the word “scientific” to describe the information Aa Gym was appropriating and re-packaging under that label. At best that “knowledge” is pseudo or popular science. Hoesterey acknowledges this only in a footnote concerning the properties of “Hexagonal water”, properties “discovered” by the Japanese Dr Masaru Emoto. This “special” water  was promoted on the basis of its “hexagonal crystals” and their alleged miraculous powers. In fact, as Hoesterey’s footnote explains, hexagonal crystals are present in all water. Products such as these were endorsed by Aa Gym, promoted in seminars at luxury hotels, and sold by franchises using pyramid sales techniques.

The book does not address the scale and destinations of the profits made by companies under the MQ Corporation umbrella. There are references to Aa Gym seeking financial backers for his programs and Hoesterey notes that Aa Gym’s private wealth gave him the flexibility to finance his own initiatives if necessary. But there are no further details about that private wealth. Perhaps Hoesterey was unable to gain that information, but a full understanding of the Aa Gym phenomenon is incomplete without consideration of who benefitted from the financial benefits of the enterprises and how the profits were used.

Nowhere does Hoesterey clearly point out that Aa Gym and his backers are duping followers and customers by claiming products such as water with special powers have been scientifically tested for their properties. The claims that the Aa Gym brand makes for its products are sometimes misleading, or worse, fraudulent. If the Islamic terminology designed to “Islamise” the products were to be stripped away, those products could be evaluated using the secular criteria of performance and value for money. Those selling the products might be charged with misleading advertising and forced to return money to their customers. The Qur’an condemns fraudulent dealings, but law enforcers seem reluctant to apply the usual norms of trading to “religious” products. It is an indication of the hubris of Aa Gym and his backers that they believed they could sell anything under their brand and escape investigation of their claims.

It was not, however, his commercial enterprises, but Aa Gym’s own behaviour that brought down his corporate empire and undermined the credibility of his religious authority. The Indonesian media broke the story of Aa Gym’s secret second marriage at the beginning of December 2006. Hoesterey does not comment on the coincidence of timing between Aa Gym’s active campaigning in support of anti-pornography legislation (and his star performance at a public hearing about the legislation in February 2006) with his decision to marry a second wife. The polygamous marriage must have happened around that time or soon after. The coincidence would not have escaped his followers, and his public professions of piety and morality compounded their perception of his hypocrisy and insincerity.

Hoesterey’s analysis of the Aa Gym “brand” emphasises that it depended totally on the support of Muslims who acknowledged his religious authority. He refers to those Muslims variously as “followers”, “admirers”, “disciples”, or “devotees”. He rarely refers to them as “consumers”, “customers” or “clients”, even though he describes their relationship with Aa Gym as one based on “economic and emotional exchange”. Hoesterey’s summary of Aa Gym’s “fall from grace” describes it as the “economic and affective exchange relationships between a preacher-producer, corporate consumers, and fickle devotees”. This description does not acknowledge that the “fickle devotees” had been groomed by Aa Gym and his trainers to “consume” the Aa Gym brand in order to become better Muslims. A vocal number of those Muslims felt let down and duped by their leader’s personal behaviour, so perhaps “fickle” more appropriately describes Aa Gym and his self-serving interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunna.

What does the Aa Gym phenomenon—the rise and fall of  a celebrity preacher—tell us about Islam in Indonesia? Hoesterey has used an anthropological lens and focused it to one individual. He argues that Aa Gym had “an ephemeral sort of religious authority” that was deliberately crafted to differentiate him from “conventional Muslim clerics” and that what brought him down was “the insincerity of publicly performed piety.” This is one set of conclusions derived from the Aa Gym focus. If we turn the lens onto his followers, other issues come into focus. They revolve around Indonesia’s Muslim “followers” or “religious seekers”. In general we can say Indonesians are “joiners”—particularly joiners of religion-based groups. The largest are, of course, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah but there are many others, particularly at regional levels. What proportion of their members also became followers of Aa Gym and similar celebrities? And if so, what did he offer that their “home” groups did not? And how many of the Aa Gym followers were first-time followers, or had followed other figures previously? It should not be too difficult to find answers to these kinds of questions. Whatever the details, using Hoesterey’s account of the Aa Gym phenomenon we can deduce that among contemporary Indonesian Muslims there are many who seek mainstream Islamic knowledge, guidance on how to apply it in their technology-savvy lives, and reassurance that its content and presentation is up to date, or to use Hoesterey’s term, “hypermodern”.

Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah offer programs in areas like Islamic psychology, domestic violence, entrepreneurship, leadership, social justice, and disaster relief but clearly there remain unmet needs. The Aa Gym phenomenon shows that enterprising marketers are continually working to identify those unmet needs. Their method is then to select a trendy pseudo-scientific template and fill it with content perceived to be Islamic. The sales team and teams of trainers and promoters can then spring into action backed by one or several of Indonesia’s corporate billionaires. If the seekers and followers go for the product, politicians will also lend their support to its promoters.

Hoesterey’s study includes many examples that indicate the age-old Indonesian creativity for syntheses between local and global influences is alive and thriving. He pays less attention to local West Javanese influences on Aa Gym’s expression of Islam. He does mention Imaduddin Abdulrahim’s training programs and campus outreach movements during the late 1970s and early 1980s, but does not refer to Rifki Rosyad’s very useful overview of the Islamic resurgence among Bandung’s young Muslims during that period including descriptions of the training sessions in Salman Mosque. Perhaps even more relevant to the honing of Aa Gym’s performance style is Julian Millie’s research into the techniques used by popular preachers in West Java.

Hoesterey’s book will be welcomed as a text for anthropologists, and not only those who study Islam in Indonesia. All readers will find this analysis of the rise, fall, and return of a honey-tongued preacher and entrepreneur intriguing. They will also find that its approach and carefully assembled materials provide the basis for lively debate, discussions, and gendered readings of Aa Gym’s attitude to women.

Virginia Matheson Hooker is Emeritus Professor and Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. She retired as Professor of Indonesian and Malay in January 2007. Her research has focused on Islam in Southeast Asia, literature and social change in Malaysia and Indonesia, and Indonesian political culture. Her most recent book, co-edited with Associate Professor Greg Fealy, is an award-winning sourcebook on contemporary Islam in Southeast Asia.


Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak is about to steal an election

March 9, 2018

Stop, Thief!

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak is about to steal an election


Image result for Najib Razak The Thief

Despite being embroiled in various scandals, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak is about to “steal” the upcoming 14th general election by rigging the system, The Economist reported.

In an article titled “Stop, thief! Malaysia’s PM is about to steal an election”, the weekly British magazine said Najib feared that most voters would not vote BN to power again if given a choice.

As such, the report alleged that Najib is “taking their choice away” by means of gerrymandering and malapportionment, among other tactics. It cited the 1MDB scandal, in which US authorities say billions of ringgit have been misused, as the main point of argument.

“In most countries, a government that allowed US$4.5 billion to go missing from a state development agency would struggle to win re-election. If some US$681 million had appeared in the Prime Minister’s personal account around the same time, which he breezily explained away as a gift from an unnamed admirer, the task would be all the harder. An apparent cover-up, involving the dismissal of officials investigating, or merely complaining about the scandal, might be the last straw for voters. But in Malaysian elections, alas, voters do not count for much,” said the hard-hitting write-up.

Najib has denied any wrongdoing with regard to 1MDB, and has been cleared by the attorney-general of any misconduct.

The Economist further cited BN holding on to power despite losing the popular vote to the opposition in the 2013 general election, thanks to the “shamelessly biased drawing” of constituencies, which allowed BN the “ill-deserved victory” of securing the majority of seats in Parliament.

Read more: BN still at slight advantage with EC’s new proposal, says don

“Faced with the risk of losing power, the government is rigging the system even more brazenly. Parliament will soon vote on new constituency boundaries. The proposed map almost guarantees Najib another term, despite his appalling record,” the article said.

Rigging the election

The report then went on to explain the process of gerrymandering and malapportionment, which would favour the ruling coalition. It noted that “the practice (malapportionment) is so unfair that it is illegal in most countries, including Malaysia, where the constitution says that electoral districts must be ‘approximately equal’ in size”.


The report added that the federal opposition also had the odds stacked against it in the form of the “supine” media, as well as the police and judiciary, which seemed “more interested in allegations of minor offences by opposition figures than they are in the blatant bilking of the taxpayer over 1MDB”. It also pointed to the alleged “open violation of the constitution” by the Election Commission (EC).

The Economist also said that the latest federal budget was seemingly aimed at “buying the loyalty” of civil servants, by pledging to dish out a special bonus just after the likely date of the election.

Ultimately, the report concluded that a rigged electoral system trumped other biases, as it “robbed” Malaysians’ votes of meaning.

Tilting the playing field

Image result for Wong Chin Huat

If Najib Razak is poised to win GE-14, Malaysians make sure he is denied 2/3rd majority in Parliament. We need a very strong opposition to prevent him from creating an Islamic State under Hudud Law. The man will do anything to stay in power including making a deal with the PAS devil.

In another brief piece titled “Tilting the playing field”, The Economist also spoke to Penang Institute’s political analyst Wong Chin Huat (photo), who likened gerrymandering to “politicians choosing voters”, as opposed to an election, where voters choose politicians.


“Malapportionment – the creation of seats of wildly unequal size – worries critics most. This involves packing urban and minority voters, who tend to support the opposition, into highly populated constituencies, while the largely rural and Malay backers of the BN occupy depopulated provincial seats,” the report said.

It noted that an opposition MP thus needed more votes to win an election than one from the ruling party. As an example, it highlighted BN winning 60 percent of seats in the 2013 general election, despite receiving a minority of votes, and attributed its win to this tactic.

Read more: Know the power of your vote

The article also noted gerrymandering added to the problem. In the case of Malaysia, the report said, “This involves redrawing constituency boundaries to pack opposition voters into a few seats, while ruling-party supporters form a narrow majority in a larger number.”

The Economist said that the EC had initially produced maps for state assemblies that appeared to sort voters into ethnic ghettoes. “The revised versions, although less racially divisive, remain partisan,” it noted.

“Concentrating opposition supporters in the one seat should more than double the incumbent’s winning majority, but makes it harder for the BN’s critics to compete next door,” said the article.

It quoted former Bersih chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah lamenting the EC turning a deaf ear to grievances voiced by the opposition against such exercise, and the equally “little hope” of winning such cases in the courts.

Postal votes, and including voters with non-existent addresses in the electoral roll, were also cited as means of rigging the election.

Despite Najib “showering voters with handouts”, including 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M) and civil servant bonuses, The Economist said that “the government’s zeal to diminish voters’ say in the election suggests it does not have total faith in its ability to win them over”.

From The Economist

Image result for The Economist Logo

Malaysia’s PM is about to steal an election

American officials say he already stole millions from taxpayers

IN MOST countries a government that allowed $4.5bn to go missing from a state development agency would struggle to win re-election. If some $681m had appeared in the prime minister’s personal account around the same time, which he breezily explained away as a gift from an unnamed admirer, the task would be all the harder. An apparent cover-up, involving the dismissal of officials investigating or merely complaining about the scandal, might be the last straw for voters. But in Malaysian elections, alas, voters do not count for much.

Under any reasonable electoral system, the coalition running Malaysia would not be in office in the first place. The Barisan Nasional, as it is known, barely squeaked back into power at the most recent election, in 2013. It lost the popular vote, earning only 47% to the opposition’s 51%. But thanks to the shamelessly biased drawing of the constituencies, that was enough to secure it 60% of the 222 seats in parliament.

This ill-deserved victory, however, occurred before news broke of the looting of 1MDB, a development agency whose board of advisers was chaired by the prime minister, Najib Razak. America’s Justice Department has accused him and his stepson, among others, of siphoning money out of 1MDB through an elaborate series of fraudulent transactions. Much of the money went on luxuries, it says, including paintings by Picasso and Monet, a private jet, diamond necklaces, a penthouse in Manhattan and a gambling spree in Las Vegas. In February Indonesia seized a $250m yacht that the Americans say was bought with Malaysian taxpayers’ money. Authorities in Switzerland and Singapore have also been investigating.

Mr Najib denies any wrongdoing—and of course he has loyal supporters. But his administration has not tried very hard to clear things up. Only one person has been charged in connection with the missing billions: an opposition politician who leaked details of the official investigation after the government had refused to make it public.

All this is unlikely to have improved Mr Najib’s standing with voters. Yet an election must be held by August. Faced with the risk of losing power, the government is rigging the system even more brazenly. Parliament will soon vote on new constituency boundaries. The proposed map almost guarantees Mr Najib another term, despite his appalling record.

How to rig an election

One trick is gerrymandering, drawing constituency boundaries so that lots of opposition voters are packed into a few seats, while ruling-party supporters form a narrow majority in a larger number. Lots of this goes on in Malaysia, as elsewhere: the new boundaries put two opposition bastions in the state of Perak into the same seat. Gerrymandering is made even easier by another electoral abuse called malapportionment. This involves creating districts of uneven populations, so that those which support the opposition are much bigger than those that back the government. That means, in effect, that it takes many more votes to elect an opposition MP than it does a government one. The practice is so unfair that it is illegal in most countries, including Malaysia, where the constitution says that electoral districts must be “approximately equal” in size.

Nonetheless, the constituencies in the maps proposed by the government-appointed election commission range in size from 18,000 voters to 146,000 (see article). The Barisan Nasional controls all the 15 smallest districts; 14 of the 15 biggest ones are in the hands of the opposition. The average Barisan seat has 30,000 fewer voters than the average opposition one. And this is the election commission’s second go at the maps—the first lot were even more lopsided.

Unfortunately, the electoral boundaries are not the only way in which the system is stacked against the opposition. The media are supine. The police and the courts seem more interested in allegations of minor offences by opposition figures than they are in the blatant bilking of the taxpayer over 1MDB and the open violation of the constitution at the election commission. The latest budget seems intended to buy the loyalty of civil servants, by promising a special bonus to be disbursed just after the likely date of the election.

But these biases, as bad as they are, are not the same as fiddling constituencies. As long as the electoral system is fair, Malaysians will be able to judge the government and vote accordingly. But a rigged system will rob their votes of meaning. That is the point, of course. Mr Najib may be venal, but he is not stupid. He fears that most voters would not return him to office if given a choice, so he is taking their choice away.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Stop, thief!”

Will Malaysia’s Islamization Change Course?

March 9, 2018

Will Malaysia’s Islamization Change Course?

Pundits are betting that Prime Minister Najib Razak will win Malaysia’s upcoming election. To end the Islamist one-upmanship in which the country has been mired in recent years, the opposition – now allied with Najib’s predecessor and former mentor Mahathir Mohamad – must win one-third of the seats in parliament.

PENANG – Malaysia is just a few months or even weeks away from its most contentious election in decades. Mahathir Mohamad – Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, whose rule ended in 2003 – is, at 92, working with opposition figures he once repressed to prevent his former protégé, the controversial Prime Minister Najib Razak, from securing another term. But breaking the 61-year winning streak of Mahathir’s former party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), will not be easy.

In fact, the pundits are still betting on Najib, with one pollster predicting that the incumbent could regain a two-thirds parliamentary majority, enabling him to amend the constitution. Mahathir has just a few months to change the political dynamic, by leading the opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), and replacing the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) with his new party, the Malaysia United Indigenous Party (PPBM), as the primary alternative to UMNO.

While the PAS has only about 15% electoral support, it has managed to push the UMNO to implement elements of its nationalist-religious agenda. A strong enough showing by PH in the next election, however, would expose the PAS as politically dispensable, potentially freeing Malaysia from a toxic game of Islamist one-upmanship.

The impact of that game should not be underestimated. In recent years, religious intolerance has been on the rise in once-secular Malaysia. For example, the Arabic word for God, Allah, widely used by Arab and Indonesian Christians, is now reserved for Muslim use only. More alarming, the Home Ministry has banned a wide range of books, from the Indonesian translation of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to the writings of the Islam-friendly Western scholars John Esposito and Karen Armstrong.

The rise of a strict and exclusivist Islam in Malaysia reflects international trends and domestic dynamics. Ethnic-majority Malays – who were marginalized during colonial times, but now enjoy constitutionally guaranteed preferential treatment in the economy and education – must, by definition, be Muslim. The persistence of their favored status hinges on the UMNO’s political dominance, or so UMNO claims.

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Woman in Full Burka and Niqab Sits Next To Young Teen in Head Scarf, Genting Highlands, Malaysia

While early UMNO leaders were anti-clerical, the party’s success in eliminating its leftist and liberal rivals left PAS as the face of the Malay opposition. When the modernist Mahathir came to power in 1981, Islamism became the PAS’s most effective ideological weapon against the UMNO.

And, indeed, the PAS leader, Hadi Awang, then a young and charismatic cleric, advocated a radical stance, labeling any Muslim who supported the UMNO an “infidel,” because the UMNO government had supposedly “perpetuated the colonial constitution, infidel laws, and pre-Islamic rules.” Hadi’s message helped to create a deep divide between the two “kinds” of Muslims, to the extent that villages would have two mosques, two cemeteries, and two clerics to lead prayers and officiate at ceremonies.

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Prime Minister Najib Razak is taking Malaysia back to the Stone Age and that is why he must be denied 2/3 rd Majority in Parliament in GE-14

But where Hadi did the most damage was in undermining the legitimacy of Malaysia’s post-colonial state and social structures. When Malaysia was under British rule, it faced mass immigration of ethnic Chinese and Indians, and the emergence of a Christian native minority on the island of Borneo.

From a Muslim nationalist’s perspective, pluralism – together with secularism and democracy – were colonial impositions. Full decolonization would demand restoration of the dominance of Islam and Muslims. According to this narrative, the Ottoman Empire offers a model of segregated, unequal, but peaceful co-existence of multiple ethno-religious communities. Minorities lived autonomously in their “millets,” not as equal citizens, but as “dhimmis” (protected minorities).

Having once championed the establishment of a full-fledged Islamic state, the PAS now demands at least expanding Sharia law and elevating the status of the Syariah court system, which now has limited jurisdiction over Muslims’ personal and family matters, to that of the civil courts. As the PAS’s brand of Muslim religious nationalism has increasingly overridden the UMNO’s Malay ethno-nationalism, these goals have gained the support of a growing number of Muslims.<

While not known to be religious, Mahathir shrewdly co-opted Hadi’s more charismatic and visionary contemporary, Anwar Ibrahim, in 1982 to spearhead the UMNO’s own Islamization projects. From Islamic higher education to Islamic banking to religious bureaucracy, Mahathir and Anwar stole the PAS’s religious thunder – that is, until the UMNO split. In 1998, Mahathir imprisoned Anwar, who had tried to replace him. After that, the PAS absorbed many of Anwar’s followers, expanding its influence from its stronghold in the north to the entire country.

Since the 2013 election, when Najib lost the popular vote but clung to power, thanks to electoral gerrymandering, he has worked to bring Hadi on side, for example, by facilitating the potential introduction of harsh hudud punishments (mandated by God under Islamic law) for crimes like adultery, drinking, and apostasy. It was a Machiavellian masterstroke that not only drew the PAS out of the opposition coalition, but also led Hadi to defend the scandal-plagued Najib.

The PAS has announced plans to contest about 60% of parliamentary constituencies. This may siphon Malay votes from PH, giving the UMNO many narrow victories. If the turnout among Malays is low, PH will suffer more than Najib, who could end up winning more seats with even fewer votes than in 2013

As for the PAS, its continued political relevance hinges on eliminating the threat posed by Mahathir and its own splinter party, Amanah, formed by pro-Anwar moderates. If Mahathir cannot secure one-third of the seats in parliament, the PAS can claim that it is indispensable, even if it loses every constituency. In such a scenario, no Malay opposition leader would dare denounce the PAS’s Muslim nationalism. The UMNO, despite its electoral victory, would have even less of the moral courage needed to block the PAS agenda.

If Mahathir does secure one-third of the parliament, Malaysian politics will undergo significant changes, even if the UMNO remains technically in charge. If Amanah can supplant the PAS as the main Islamic party, the trend toward religious extremism would likely be reversed. And if the PPBM is established as a rival defender of Malays’ favored status, the UMNO would lose its monopoly on the issue, making Malay politics more competitive.

So far, Malaysia’s nonagenarian comeback kid has been making inroads in many UMNO and PAS constituencies. But Malays alone will not decide the outcome of his battle with the PAS and Najib. As many marginal constituencies are ethnically mixed, low turnout among non-Malays may help the PAS – and hurt Malaysia.

Wong Chin-Huat is a political scientist at the Penang Institute in Malaysia.


Fareed Zakaria: Trump has drawn three red lines that are bound to be crossed

February 5, 2018

Fareed Zakaria: Trump has drawn three red lines that are bound to be crossed

by Dr, Fareed Zakaria


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NEW YORK — President Trump’s State of the Union speech mostly ignored the world outside of America. He made a few tough statements on things like the Iran deal and Guantanamo and described (accurately) the evil nature of the North Korean regime, but he said very little about his foreign policy. This masks a more dangerous reality. The Trump administration has in fact, either accidentally or by design, laid out aggressive markers in three different parts of the world — three red lines — without any serious strategy as to what happens when they are crossed.

The first is with North Korea. Trump and his top officials have asserted that the era of “strategic patience” with North Korea is over. They have ruled out any prospect of accepting North Korea as a nuclear state and believe traditional deterrence will not work. The president has specifically promised that North Korea would never be able to develop a nuclear weapon that could reach the United States. Meanwhile, CIA Director Mike Pompeo says Pyongyang is “a handful of months” away from having this capability.

Image result for State Department Victor ChaDr.Victor Cha is a Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Washington DC and served as Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.
Image result for State Department Victor Cha

So what happens when that red line is crossed? What would be the American response? Victor Cha, a seasoned expert who was expected to be the nominee for ambassador to South Korea, explained to the administration that there really is no limited military option, not even a small strike that would “bloody” the nose of the North Korean regime. For this frank analysis, he was promptly dropped from consideration for the ambassadorship.

Cha simply raised the fundamental problem with the Trump administration’s approach. It has outlined maximalist goals without any sense of how to achieve them. In response to North Korea’s new capabilities, would Trump really rain down “fire and fury” and “totally destroy North Korea”?

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Trump has done something similar with Iran. He has announced that he will withdraw from the nuclear deal if Congress and the European allies don’t fix it. The Europeans have made clear they don’t think the pact needs fixing and believe it is working well. In about three months, we will reach D-Day, when Trump has promised to unilaterally withdraw if he can’t get a tougher deal.

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Were Trump to unilaterally abrogate the accord, the Iranians have several options. They could pull out themselves and ramp up their nuclear program, which would mean the Trump administration would have to deal with another North Korea, this time in the Middle East. Or Iran could simply sideline the United States, keep adhering to the deal, and do business with the rest of the world. Most likely, Tehran would make the United States pay a price by using its considerable influence to destabilize Iraq, which is entering a tumultuous election season.

The third arena where the White House has talked and acted tough without any follow-on strategy is Pakistan. The administration has publicly branded that country a terrorist haven and suspended military aid on those grounds. This is an entirely understandable impulse, because the Pakistani military has in fact been supporting terrorists and militants who operate in Afghanistan, even against American troops, and then withdraw to their sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan. As then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen noted in 2011, one of these terrorist groups “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.”

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Demonstrators shout slogans in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital during a protest in Peshawar, Pakistan Dec. 12, 2017.

But being right is not the same thing as being smart. Most experts predicted that Pakistan would respond to the American action in two ways: First, by pursuing closer relations with China, which can easily replace the aid. Second, the Pakistani military would ratchet up the violence in Afghanistan, demonstrating that it has the capacity to destabilize the pro-American government in Kabul, throw the country into chaos and tie down the U.S. forces that are now in their 17th year of war. And that’s what has happened. China immediately voiced support for Pakistan after the American announcement. And in the last two weeks, Afghanistan has suffered a spate of horrific terror attacks.

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Thomas Schelling, the Nobel-prize winning scholar of strategy, once remarked that two things are very expensive in international affairs: threats when they fail, and promises when they succeed. So, he implied, be very careful about making either one. President Trump seemed to understand this when his predecessor made a threat toward Syria in 2013, and Trump tweeted, “Red line statement was a disaster for President Obama.” Well, he’s just drawn three red lines of his own, and each of them is likely to be crossed.

Fareed Zakaria is a columnist for The Washington Post and host of Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN.

Indonesia’s Rising Fundamentalism Gets Uglier in Election Year

January 18, 2018

Indonesia’s Rising Fundamentalism Gets Uglier in Election Year

by Dewi Kurniawati


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Indonesia’s Islamic Owls

On December 12, hundreds of Islamists protested outside Facebook’s headquarters in Jakarta, accusing the social media giant of discrimination for blocking pages operated by hardline groups that allegedly inflame religious tensions.

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Habib Rizieq, spiritual leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI)

The protesters, many dressed in white and including members of the extremist Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), marched to Facebook’s offices demanding that they remove the blockage, accusing Facebook of Islamophobia in posters they carried and waved.

In December last year, a photo showing a piece of an agreement paper signed by several heads of local neighborhood Muslim units in Tangerang district purportedly listing several “Do’s and Don’ts for Non-Muslims” went viral through Facebook this week, steering yet another brouhaha through Indonesia’s netizens.

Among other things, according to the signed agreement paper, non-Muslim religious groups should be barred from having congregations at home, not allowed to invite preachers, and must bury their deceased within 24 hours, a teaching that is close to Islamic traditions.

Within hours however, the outrage over social media was “answered” by higher authorities who amended the agreement, saying it had not been “discussed, or approved” by them in its original form.

These scenes of various provocations and propaganda based on religion seem to be pouring straight through Indonesia’s political atmosphere after a tough presidential election in 2014 that delivered Joko Widodo, a Muslim moderate, to the presidency. Throughout the campaign, religious and ideological sentiments were used against him by supporters of his opponent, millionaire businessman Prabowo Subianto, a former Special Forces general and onetime son-in-law of the late strongman Suharto.

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Prabowo Subianto with Aburizal Bakrie

These same religious and ideological sentiments intensified against Basuki Tahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian universally known as “Ahok” during the gubernatorial election in February, which political experts describe as “the rise of Islamization in Indonesia.”

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Basuki Tahaja Purnama aka  Ahok

Ahok’s election campaign galvanized the country’s conservative base, with some religious groups preaching that Muslims shouldn’t vote for “non-believers.”  He was mischaracterized during a speech as having blasphemed the Quran, a charge that was widely disseminated prior to the election and played a major role in his defeat by Anais Baswedan, an ethnic Indonesian and Muslim even though he was considered arguably Jakarta’s most effective governor by far.

Months after the election, the Police arrested three leaders of an organized fake news syndicate known as Saracen that poured hundreds of thousands of bogus hacks onto the Internet, inflaming public opinion against Ahok, who was jailed after the election on the blasphemy charges. Worldwide human rights organizations have objected to Ahok’s imprisonment, calling it a political travesty.

According to research by the Wahid Institute, a moderate research center on Islam, in mid- 2017, as many as 11 million people are willing to take radical action. The data is based on survey results on radicalism and intolerance by the agency. The survey was conducted with 1,520 respondents using multi stage random sampling. As many as 0.4 percent of Indonesia’s population had committed what they called “radical” acts, while 7.7 percent said they would act radically if possible.

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 Jenny Zannuba Wahid, Director of the Wahid Institute


“That means 600,000 people have acted radically and 11 million people want to, including residents of Jakarta and Bali,” said Jenny Zannuba Wahid, Director of the Wahid Institute, who explained that economic disparities and hate-filled lectures are responsible for the development of radicalism in Indonesia.

Unfortunately, many political observers believe that the use of religion-based identities will continue during simultaneous regional elections this year as well as the 2019 presidential election, where Jokowi, as the President is known, will seek re-election.

This perception is fueled by the fact that Jokowi’s administration seems to be “waging war” against radicals, religious critics say. That perception has grown after he decided to disband the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) last year. HTI has been open about wanting to establish a “Khilafah” – a caliphate or Islamic state under former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. That has gained ground with the state originally turning a blind eye to their open movement.

However, in mid-2017, the government decided to disband them for conducting activities that contradict the state ideology Pancasila, which counsels five principles of moderation, as well as the principle of a unitary state of the republic of Indonesia.

The Law and Human Rights Ministry officially revoked HTI’s status as a legal entity on following the issuance of a regulation in lieu of law (Preppy) on mass organizations. It was the first group to be disbanded under the controversial regulation, which grants the government the power to disband any groups it deems to be anti-Pancasila.

The Perppy has sparked concerns over potential violations of the right to assemble as it grants the government the power to disband mass groups without due process.

The Head of the State Intelligence Agency, General Budi Gunawan, described Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia as a transnational organization that aims to replace the state of Indonesia in a written statement, an apparent reference to its similarity to the Islamic State, which sought to establish a caliphate in the Levant and was defeated by Russian, American, Syrian and Iraqi forces. It has since been disbanded and its brutal adherents have fled back toward their home countries.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has issued a radiogram after the dissolution of HTI by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, warning Indonesians to be aware of the possibility of violent activities carried out by former HTI members and their supporters. Local officials are also required to ban all activities that HTI may undertake.