“Compassion or Toleration? Two Approaches to Pluralism”


October 198, 2018

“Compassion or Toleration? Two Approaches to Pluralism”

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

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

 

De Tocqueville and the French exception


August 14, 2018

Liberal thinkers

De Tocqueville and the French exception

The gloomiest of the great liberals worried that democracy might not be compatible with liberty

 Print edition | Schools brief

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HE IS the most unusual member of the liberal pantheon. Liberalism has usually been at its most vigorous among the Anglo-American middle classes. By contrast, Alexis de Tocqueville was a proud member of the French aristocracy.

Liberalism tends to be marinated in optimism to such an extent that it sometimes shades into naivety. Tocqueville believed that liberal optimism needs to be served with a side-order of pessimism. Far from being automatic, progress depends on wise government and sensible policy.

He also ranks among the greats. He wrote classic studies of two engines of the emerging liberal order: “Democracy in America” (1835-40) and “The Old Regime and the French Revolution” (1856). He also helped shape French liberalism, both as a political activist and as a thinker. He was a leading participant in the “Great Debate” of the 1820s between liberals and ultra-Royalists about the future direction of France.

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In 1849 he served briefly as foreign minister (he died a decade later). He broadened the liberal tradition by subjecting the bland pieties of the Anglo-American middle class to a certain aristocratic disdain; and he deepened it by pointing to the growing dangers of bureaucratic centralisation. Better than any other liberal, Tocqueville understood the importance of ensuring that the collective business of society is done as much as possible by the people themselves, through voluntary effort, rather than by the government.

Tocqueville’s liberalism was driven by two forces. The first was his fierce commitment to the sanctity of the individual. The purpose of politics was to protect people’s rights (particularly the right to free discussion) and to give them scope to develop their abilities to the full. The second was his unshakable belief that the future lay with “democracy”. By that he meant more than just parliamentary democracy with its principle of elections and wide suffrage. He meant a society based on equality.

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The old regime was predicated on the belief that society was divided into fixed classes. Some people are born to rule and others to serve. Rulers like Tocqueville’s family in Normandy inherited responsibilities as well as privileges. They were morally bound to look after “their people” and serve “their country”. Democratic society was based on the idea that all people were born equal. They came into the world as individuals rather than as aristocrats or peasants. Their greatest responsibility was to make the most of their abilities.

Terror and the state

Many members of Tocqueville’s class thought that democratisation was both an accident and a mistake—an accident because cleverer management of the old regime could have prevented the revolution in 1789, and a mistake because democracy destroyed everything they held most dear. Tocqueville thought that was nonsense—and pitied his fellow blue-bloods who wasted their lives in a doomed attempt to restore aristocratic privilege.

The great question at the heart of Tocqueville’s thought is the relationship between liberty and democracy. Tocqueville was certain that it was impossible to have liberty without democracy, but he worried that it was possible to have democracy without liberty. For example, democracy might transfer power from the old aristocracy to an all-powerful central state, thereby reducing individuals to helpless, isolated atoms. Or it might make a mockery of free discussion by manipulating everybody into bowing down before conventional wisdom.

Sir Larry Siedentop, an Oxford academic, points out that Tocqueville’s contribution was to identify a structural flaw in democratic societies. Liberals are so preoccupied by the “contract” between the individual on the one hand and the state on the other that they don’t make enough room for intermediate associations which acted as schools of local politics and buffers between the individual and the state. And, he was the first serious thinker to warn that liberalism could destroy itself.

Tocqueville worried that states might use the principle of equality to accumulate power and ride roughshod over local traditions and local communities. Such centralisation might have all sorts of malign consequences. It might reduce the variety of institutions by obliging them to follow a central script. It might reduce individuals to a position of defencelessness before the mighty state, either by forcing them to obey the state’s edicts or making them dependent on the state’s largesse. And it might kill off traditions of self-government. Thus one liberal principle—equal treatment—might end up destroying three rival principles: self-government, pluralism and freedom from coercion.

Tocqueville feared his own country might fall into the grip of just such an illiberal democracy, as it had in the Terror, under Maximilien Robespierre in 1793. The French revolutionaries had been so blinded by their commitment to liberty, equality and fraternity that they crushed dissenters and slaughtered aristocrats, including many members of Tocqueville’s family. His parents were spared, but his father’s hair turned white at 24 and his mother was reduced to a nervous wreck.

He was worried about more than just the bloodshed, which proved to be a passing frenzy. The power of the state also posed a more subtle threat. The monarchy had nurtured an over-mighty state, as French kings sucked power from aristocrats towards the central government. The revolution completed the job, abolishing local autonomy along with aristocratic power and reducing individual citizens to equal servitude beneath the “immense tutelary power” of the state.

By contrast, the United States represented democracy at its finest. Tocqueville’s ostensible reason for crossing the Atlantic, in 1831, was to study the American penal system, then seen as one of the most enlightened in the world. His real wish was to understand how America had combined democracy with liberty so successfully. He was impressed by the New England townships, with their robust local governments, but he was equally taken by the raw egalitarianism of the frontier.

Why did the children of the American revolution achieve what the children of the French revolution could not? The most obvious factor was the dispersal of power. The government in Washington was disciplined by checks and balances. Power was exercised at the lowest possible level—not just the states but also cities, townships and voluntary organisations that flourished in America even as they declined in France.

The second factor was what he called “manners”. Like most French liberals, Tocqueville was an Anglophile. He thought that America had inherited many of Britain’s best traditions, such as common law and a ruling class that was committed to running local institutions.

Of liberty and religion

America also had the invaluable advantage of freedom of religion. Tocqueville believed that a liberal society depended ultimately on Christian morality. Alone among the world’s religions, Christianity preached the equality of man and the infinite worth of the individual. But the ancien régime had robbed Christianity of its true spirit by turning it into an adjunct of the state. America’s decision to make religion a matter of free conscience created a vital alliance between the “spirit of religion” and the “spirit of liberty”. America was a society that “goes along by itself”, as Tocqueville put it, not just because it dispersed power but because it produced self-confident, energetic citizens, capable of organising themselves rather than looking to the government to solve their problems.

Sleeping on a volcano

He was not blind to the faults of American democracy. He puzzled over the fact that the world’s most liberal society practised slavery, though, like most liberals, he comforted himself with the thought that it was sure to wither. He worried about the cult of the common man. Americans were so appalled by the idea that one person’s opinion might be better than another’s that they embraced dolts and persecuted gifted heretics. He worried that individualism might shade into egotism. Shorn of bonds with wider society, Americans risked being confined within the solitude of their own hearts. The combination of egalitarianism and individualism might do for Americans what centralisation had done for France—dissolve their defences against governmental power and reduce them to sheep, content to be fed and watered by benevolent bureaucrats.

Tocqueville exercised a powerful influence on those who shared his fears. In his “Autobiography” John Stuart Mill thanked Tocqueville for sharpening his insight that government by the majority might hinder idiosyncratic intellectuals from influencing the debate. In 1867 Robert Lowe, a leading Liberal politician, argued for mass education on the Tocquevillian grounds that “we must educate our masters”. Other Liberal politicians argued against extending the franchise on the grounds that liberty could not survive a surfeit of democracy. In the 1950s and 1960s American intellectuals seized on Tocqueville’s insight that mass society might weaken liberty by narrowing society’s choices.

More recently intellectuals have worried about the rapid growth of the federal government, inaugurated by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programme. Transferring power from local to the federal government; empowering unaccountable bureaucrats to pursue abstract goods such as “equality of representation” (even if it means riding roughshod over local institutions); and undermining the vitality of civil society tends, they fear, to destroy the building blocks of Tocqueville’s America. A recent conference, organised by the Tocqueville Society and held in the family’s Normandy manor house, dwelt on the various ways in which democracy is under assault from within, by speech codes, and from without, by the rise of authoritarian populism, under the general heading of “demo-pessimism”.

It is worth adding that the threat to liberty today does not stem just from big government. It also comes from big companies, particularly tech firms that trade in information, and from the nexus between the two. Gargantuan tech companies enjoy market shares unknown since the Gilded Age. They are intertwined with the government through lobbying and the revolving door that has government officials working for them when they leave office. By providing so much information “free” they are throttling media outfits that invest in gathering the news that informs citizens. By using algorithms based on previous preferences they provide people with information that suits their prejudices—right-wing rage for the right and left-wing rage for the left.

Today’s great rising power is the very opposite of the United States, the great rising power of Tocqueville’s time. China is an example not of democracy allied to liberty but of centralisation allied to authoritarianism. Its state and its pliant tech firms can control the flow of information to an extent never dreamed of. Increasingly, China embodies everything that Tocqueville warned against: power centralised in the hands of the state; citizens reduced to atoms; a collective willingness to sacrifice liberty for a comfortable life.

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Before the revolution in France in 1848, Tocqueville warned that the continent was “sleeping on a volcano…A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon.” Today democracy in America has taken a dangerous turn. Populists are advancing in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Authoritarians are consolidating power. The most pessimistic of great liberal thinkers may not have been pessimistic enough.

Read more on classical liberal values and thinkers at  Economist.com/openfuture

This article appeared in the Schools brief section of the print edition under the headline “The French exception”

Pakatan Harapan’s Islamic Discourse is UMNO’s except it’s hypocritical


August 10, 2018

Pakatan Harapan’s  Islamic Discourse is UMNO’s except it’s hypocritical

by S Thayaparan

http://www.malaysiakini.com

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Mujahid Al-Rawa: What value system are you talking about? One worse than UMNO’s? One that limits the minds of Malay Muslims with your religious dogma which you inherited from your previous affiliation  with PAS. –Din Merican

“Any religion-based state has a mission to limit the minds of its people, to fight the developments of history and logic, and to dumb down its citizens. It’s important to stand in the way of such a mentality, to deny it from continuing its mission to murder the souls of its people, killing them deep within while they are still alive and breathing.”

– Raif Badawi, 1000 Lashes, Because I Say What I Think

COMMENT | Pakatan Harapan – either by design, incompetence or maybe just a lack of imagination – is making the Islamic discourse in this country even more toxic than it already is.

Take the Islamic Development Department (Jakim), for instance. This is a religious bureaucracy plugged into every aspect of government. Why hasn’t there been any sustained effort by this so-called religious authority to combat corruption, racism and bigotry? Isn’t this the kind of Islamic moral police that Harapan alluded to when it comes to the religion of the state?

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DPM Dr. Wan Azizah–Are you for real, OR just a seat warmer or stand-in?

The pointless op-ed piece about Women, Family and Community Development Minister Dr Wan Aziziah Wan Ismail, penned by her deputy Hannah Yeoh and panned by Latheefa Koya, is an example of how the political elite attempt to cloud issues that they do not want to deal with.

In past articles, I have written about the tremendous pressure Muslim political operatives are under. I get it, I really do.

It should tell you something about mainstream Harapan dogma when people do not question why Latheefa’s position on the issue of child marriage, for example, is not defended, while the cautious – and I am being charitable here – position of the Deputy Prime Minister is embraced by the political elite who told us before the election that they would defend the secular position in this so-called Islamic state.

The removal of the photos of LGBTQ activists, who by the way were also part of the struggle against the UMNO regime, not only demonstrates the pettiness of the religious bigots in Harapan, but also the hypocrisy of their actions. How many Harapan political operatives met with activists (who were part of the LGBTQ discourse) as part of a grassroots rejection of UMNO?

De facto Religious Affairs Minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa’s double speak of the state protecting these people from a society that rejects them hides the fact that the bigots within Harapan believe that the more disenfranchised you are, the less political cost you incur.

Sooner or later, everyone becomes disenfranchised except the political and religious elites. Keep up the good work Charles Santiago and anyone else who public ally opposes these religious imperatives.

And no Mujahid, I do not want you to arrest them. I want you to keep your mouth shut about them, and instead create a counter-narrative that Harapan’s Islam is about promoting a first class education for your brethren, weeding out corruption in the political and religious class, ensuring the healthcare system is one of the best in the region, and ensuring a plurality of Islamic voices, so young people do not join extremist groups that pose a danger to the citizens of this country.

I have asked this question many times before, but how many times have past UMNO administrations made unilateral decisions which went against the perceived Islamic groupthink to garner votes from non-Muslims? How many times has the UMNO regime retreated from extreme positions to appease their BN non-Malay/Muslim partners?

Did they suffer – before May 9, 2018 – from a Muslim backlash? No, they didn’t. Why? because the majority of Muslims are content to follow their leaders instead of setting the Islamic agenda.

My last article was more about the hypocrisy of the opposition then any real political influence by a foreign power. Anyway, all of this is just a smokescreen. Three important issues have cropped up which point to the theoretic agenda of the Harapan state – far more important than a bumbling group from DC mucking about our country.

Syariah compliance

The first is the syariah-compliant guidelines for the private sector. What horse manure is this? Apparently, this was in response to the incident where some woman was sacked from her job for not covering up her aurat.

Let me get this straight. We have already had problems in the public sector where religious types dictated how we dress when we interact with the bureaucracy, and now, Harapan wants to impose its “guidelines” on the private sector?

I can just picture it. Private companies who want to do business with the government will suck up to the regime by adopting these guidelines. Some women will advocate for this guideline to be adopted by their companies to ensure that they are not discriminated against, and when there is push back from the company, the religious far right will get involved and Harapan and these bigots will be on the same page.

This is how it starts – innocently enough. Hidden behind a message of fairness is actually the tools for compliance. Guidelines eventually become dogma, and because they think people will not notice – most often they do not – they encroach into our public and private spheres uncontested.

Taxpayer-funded brainwashing

The second is the rebranding of the National Civics Bureau (BTN). I wrote about this here – “Okay, you may say, fine, reform BTN. Sounds simple, right? Has anyone stopped to think why this organisation is needed? Forget about what it is costing taxpayers, but why would there ever need to be a government agency instilling ‘patriotism’ in the civil service and students? Why would the state need to do this except to ensure that people are brainwashed into voting for them?”

People need to question why Harapan is accepting money from kids who break their piggy banks, but has the money to fund what is essentially a state propaganda organ, which would reach into every facet of public, not to mention private life? Do people not see the hypocrisy and danger of an organisation like BTN, revamped or not?

While some Harapan politicians have spoken up on this, the big guns are waxing eloquent about other senior leaders, promoting a third national car, or reminding the rakyat about how bad UMNO’s corruption scandals were. Not to mention the defence that Harapan made these promises not realising they could win has achieved some sort of legitimacy among the faithful.

NSC waffling

The third, and perhaps most important, is the waffling on abolishing the National Security Council Act 2016. All I can say is, you lying sacks of manure.

Before the election, Harapan, the then-opposition, was going on about how this act had effectively turned this democracy into an autocracy. Malay opposition politicians, including our current prime minister, said that this act further eroded the powers of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

In fact, Dr Mahathir Mohamad went so far as to claim that Najib Abdul Razak had given himself the powers of the Agong. Anwar Ibrahim mounted a legal challenge and later withdrew it. This is the most dangerous law this country has.

Now, these duplicitous politicians are claiming: “When it comes to security issues of the country, we will examine all aspects to ensure our country’s safety is not compromised.” Really? What changed? I mean what have you discovered about the security of the country that changed your mind on the utilitarian values of this act?

Did the Najib regime have good cause to table this act? Was the Najib regime aware of things that necessitated such an act that you were (then) ignorant of? Were all criticisms against this act unfounded? Based on ignorance and not fact?

Theocratic agenda

Let me be very clear. I say theocratic agenda because ultimately, religion is the foundation on which unjust laws and propaganda will be used in this country. This is the new virulent strain introduced into the Islamic discourse.

The goodwill Harapan has from its base clouds the discourse in an avalanche of apologia, or more often ad hominems. This adds to the virulence of the discourse, because people lose sight of the real issue and attempt to engage with the straw man arguments. This, of course, only strengthens the Malay far-right position.

The media is concentrating on the plethora of corruption scandals of the past regime, which subsumes other more important long-term issues which have long-lasting effects on the social and political landscape of this country.

Politicians, who before the election were bullish on institutional reform which involved the religious apparatus, now find it profitable to carry on existing narratives that worked so well for BN until the events of May 9. This, of course, is the most dangerous aspect of this new Malaysia.

I get that people do not think it is a big issue. But look back at the history of the country and see the cultural changes that took place. Do you really think corruption has done as much damage as the religious and racial imperatives of the Malay and non-Malay political class?

PREVIOUSLY

IRI ’interference’ poses no clear and present danger to M’sia


S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Naik and Mahathir–Pandering to UMNO-PAS Politics


July 11, 2018

Naik and Mahathir–Pandering to UMNO-PAS Politics

by Cmdr (rtd) S. Thayaparan

http://www.malaysiakini.com

“You perceive the force of a word. He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense… Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world.” – Joseph Conrad.

I think the reason why Zakir Naik is not deported – secret deal or not – is that the Malaysian government does not consider what he is alleged to have done in India a crime. They probably justify those charges as religious persecution against a beloved Muslim preacher. They probably think that anyone who disagrees with what Zakir Naik says is Islamophobic.–S. Thayaparan.

COMMENT | It is really a funny question, right? When I say “our” and there are people who were born here, like Letchumie Sinnan who has been given the run around by the bureaucracy for 20 years and been stuck in permanent resident limbo, while a demagogue, alleged money launderer and extremist sympathiser like Zakir Naik get feted by the political and social elite.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of Indians and Chinese who have to eke out a living and contribute to the economy but are not considered citizens of this country. Over the years, I have met and attempted to help – in my own small ineffectual way – dozens of Malaysians to get their MyKad. It is really galling to witness a religious hatemonger like Zakir Naik being defended by the political elite in this country of the Islamic persuasion, while so many – a legion, I would say – have no one to speak up for them.

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The fact there are Indians and Chinese in this country who are considered, for whatever reasons, permanent residents (if they are lucky) and the state wilfully refuses to recognise them as citizens, while Zakir Naik gets to spread his horse manure in comfort, is an insult for anyone who has served this country, either in the state security apparatus, in the teaching profession or whatever else capacity that has made this country what it is today.

Let me say this. I bet my last ringgit that all these Malaysians who have been denied their citizenship, who have been given the run around by the bureaucracy and who toil in menial jobs unable to get a foothold, I bet that they have contributed more to this country than the radicals like Zakir Naik. All those people I have attempted to help over the years display a profound love and loyalty to this county, even though they have been marginalised.

Someone like me often wonders, how could you love this country when it doesn’t even recognise you? How can you be loyal to this country when it has willfully abandoned you? We live in a great country is their common refrain. Yeah, a great country, where the likes of Zakir Naik get to say what he likes and (now) to be deported only if he misbehaves.

 

Tell me, what does “not creating problems” mean? What would it take for Zakir Naik to be kicked out of this country? What exactly is the threshold here?

We all know that Zakir Naik uses words to instigate, demean and mock other cultures and religions. We know that his words are meaningful to large sections of the Malay polity, even though they may not understand him. We know that he remains unrepentant since he has probably met with every Malay power broker of note in this country. So, what exactly does misbehaving mean? His kind of Islam is supposedly the antithesis of the kind of Islam Harapan wants to propagate. Or is it?

Kudos to P Ramasamy, the Penang Deputy Chief Minister II, for giving it his all when it comes to the extradition of Zakir Naik. What I want to know is why aren’t the rest of the Harapan gang coming out with a unified comment on this issue. Are the major power players in Harapan reserving comment? Are they too busy, thinking up ways of how not to spook the Malays?

Freedom of speech?

Every time I write about Zakir Naik, I get many emails from people – Malays – berating me for insulting this man. I sincerely do not get it. When I provide evidence – Zakir Naik’s own words – of the racist, bigoted and inflammatory speeches he has made, it is ignored. When I explain why non-Muslims would be offended by what he says about our religions, it is ignored or dismissed, as not understanding his intent.

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The Harapan Prime Minister is playing UMNO-PAS politics

When I attempt to provide an analysis of why, even if you were not religious, Zakir Naik’s words amount to incitement against secular democracies, I am told that he is an expert and thus qualified to speak about everything under the sun. Why do we need this man in our country? What possible service has he done for Malaysians that warrant the political elite to think of him as someone who is an asset to this country?

And here’s the thing, if there was freedom of speech like the kind Zakir Naik has for everyone, nobody would have an issue with him. But we have blatant double standards that border on malicious. It is the smirk which tells us that he can say things without consequences but the ‘kafirs’ have to take it.

The last time I wondered if Zakir Naik was a security threat, I got hate mail up the wazoo. Here’s what I wrote – “However, Zakir is a special case. In a time when the Islamist agenda in this country is taking new forms and the agenda is promulgated by new alliances, a preacher like Zakir who specialises in deepening already established cultural and religious rifts is a threat to national security.”

I get it. I see all these huge rallies, and the Malay/Muslim hegemons don’t want to be the Muslims who deported Zakir Naik to India. The country, which even our local preacher took a dig at in a poem which managed to insult the Hindu community, but he insisted was a personal letter to the Prime Minister of India. Nobody wants to be the pious Malay/Muslim political leader who said that Zakir Naik does not belong in this country.

Ramasamy hammers the point home when he reminds the Malaysian government that they deported Chinese Uighurs and Sri Lankan Tamils back to their countries of origin. What is the hold up with Zakir Naik? Why is he a special case?

You know what I think. I think the reason why Zakir Naik is not deported – secret deal or not – is that the Malaysian government does not consider what he is alleged to have done in India a crime. They probably justify those charges as religious persecution against a beloved Muslim preacher. They probably think that anyone who disagrees with what Zakir Naik says is Islamophobic.

Why is it, for some people, the beauty of their religion is only found in the vilification of other religions?


S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

The Struggle for Political Islam in ‘new Malaysia’


July 6, 2018

The Struggle for Political Islam in ‘new Malaysia’

Despite PAS’ electoral wins, the new government belies the cliches of monolithic Islamist politics.

There was a limit to playing identity politics during the 14th General Elections (GE14), but it’s now too simplistic to say there’s a “new politics” where race and religion no longer matter in Malaysia. Malaysia is not totally free from elements of Bumiputraism and Islamism, yet there are diversifications and transformations of discourses and practices in political Islam. And these changes will continue to shape and be shaped by political contestations in this “new Malaysia”.

Opposition party PAS and victorious Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition party Amanah are unlikely to cooperate in the name of Islam. Although both claim to be Islamic parties, their approaches are rather different. PAS is a more Malay-oriented Islamic party with its strongholds in Kelantan and Terengganu, while Amanah is a more cosmopolitan and reformist-inclined Islamic party with a support base in the urbanised Klang Valley. Such Pas–Amanah competition might be also framed as a contestation between orthodox versus moderate Islamism, Islamism versus post-Islamism, or political Islam 1.0 versus 2.0; of course, the realities are more much more complex than these differentiations. Hence, it is a mistake to claim that Malay Muslims in the Klang Valley are less “Islamic” than those in the east coast states, just because they did not vote for PAS.

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At GE-14, PAS won 18 parliamentary seats while Amanah secured 11 seats. However, the “Islamic voice” in the winning PH coalition also exists in its other component parties PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat) and even PPBM (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia), as there are leaders with ABIM (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia) and IKRAM (Pertubuhan IKRAM Malaysia) background in both parties. In short, PAS is no longer the only dominant force representing political Islam in Malaysia, as it’s facing strong challenges from other political parties and also NGOs with Islamic credentials.

Many Malaysians, including Malay Muslims, voted against Najib Razak and issues such as the GST and corruption in GE-14. Yet where these Malay protest votes go are configured by political orientations among Malay Muslims, depending on regions. In the southern states such as Johor, Malay nationalism is strong and PAS is not an important force. Hence the anti-Najib voters’ swinging to PH.

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Also Read here: https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/46227/THESIS%20pdf.pdf?sequence=1

But in the east coast states, PAS is strong on its own. After successfully denouncing Amanah and consolidating its hardcore supporters, the party ran extensive campaigns against the GST and corruption to attract anti-Najib voters. It may be inaccurate to claim that many Malay Muslims in Kelantan and Terengganu were voting for RUU355, a parliamentary bill proposed by PAS president Hadi Awang to enhance existing Syariah laws.

In the Klang Valley, potential PAS voters are much more diverse and sophisticated than those in the east coast. Aside from the PAS hardcore, there are also supporters of Anwar Ibrahim, ABIM, Ikram, and other Islamic movements. At GE14, the PAS hardcore stayed loyal yet others, especially those from ABIM and IKRAM, ran effective campaigns for PH, lending the coalition much-needed Islamic credentials. They have successfully persuaded many former PAS voters in the Klang Valley to vote for PH.

Many observers have focused on PAS’ winning Kelantan and Terengganu states on its own, attributing its victories to religious factors and describing PAS voters as a “moral constituency”. However, such analyses often wrongly suggest Muslims who have voted for PH are less “Islamic” and less concerned about “moral issues”. Many have also taken urban Muslim supporters of PH for granted.

Take the case of Sungai Ramal (formerly Bangi), a Malay-majority urban state seat in Selangor. By exploring how PAS and PH (represented by Amanah) competed to win over pious urban Muslim voters, by offering different approaches to political Islam, its results tell us more about the transformation of political Islam in urban Malaysia.

Like Shah Alam, Bangi or to be more accurate Bandar Baru Bangi (Bangi New Town) was an urban development project under the New Economic Policy (NEP) to increase the urban Malay population. The state assembly seat of Bangi, renamed Sungai Ramal in 2018, had previously been won by PAS in 1999, 2008, and 2013. Yet it was captured by PH in 2018. The main offices of ISMA (Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia) and HTM (Hizbut Tahrir Malaysia) are located in Bangi, while many ABIM and IKRAM activists also reside in this township.

Bangi is generally seen as a “middle-class Malay Muslim” township. It’s also known as “bandar ilmu” (“knowledge town”, where UKM and KUIS are located) and “bandar fesyen” (“fashion town”, where many Muslimah boutiques and halal eateries are situated). During the GE14 campaign, some Amanah leaders also called Bangi “bandar Rahmatan lil-Alamin”—an inclusive Islamic township which is “a blessing for all”.

After the controversial redelineation exercises nationwide by the Election Commission (EC), the state constituency of Bangi not only got a new name (Sungai Ramal) but also an increase in Malay voters, from about 66% to 80%. Such demographics might have indicated a higher chance for PAS to retain the seat or perhaps enabled UMNO to wrest the seat back. However, as I have observed during the election campaign, Bangi was a battleground between PAS (represented by Nushi Mahfodz, a celebrity ustaz) and Amanah (represented by Mazwan Johar, a lawyer and ex-PAS activist), given that UMNO was not popular among many urban, educated middle-class Malay Muslims.

In order to engage with its middle class and youth members, as well as to win over support from a broader set of pious Muslims, the PAS leadership in Selangor knows its religious credentials alone are not enough. Party strategists have introduced the idea of “technocratic government” (kerajaan teknorat), running events such as “town hall” meetings featuring the party’s youth leaders from professional backgrounds. But religious issues are still central to the PAS campaign. It fielded Nushi Mahfodz, a lecturer at KUIS (Kolej Universiti Islam Selangor) and a celebrity ustaz, as an attempt to win over pious voters. PAS also had certain controls over mosques, religious schools and kindergartens across Bangi.

But there were some uncertainties and dissatisfaction among PAS supporters during GE-14, and they posed challenging questions to party leaders over the campaign. According to PAS ceramah attendees I met, there were different levels of support toward the Islamist party. Some were hardcore PAS members, some were dissatisfied members considering voting for PH, while others who were unhappy with the party leadership still stayed loyal to the party. One of them used the analogy of a classroom: “the teacher might be wrong, but the textbook is always correct. We can criticise the teacher, but we can’t throw away our textbook”.

Pakatan Harapan was well aware it was not enough to campaign solely against the GST and corruption if it wanted to win over pious Muslim voters in Bangi. So it wasn’t a surprise that Amanah arranged a dialogue in Bangi during the GE14 campaign featuring Ustaz Nik Omar, the eldest son of the late Nik Aziz, the revered former PAS spiritual leader. In that dialogue, Nik Omar suggested that his father was not only fighting for the party (PAS), but also more importantly for Islam and for dakwah. For him, dakwah was an “Islamic outreach” towards the broader Muslim community and non-Muslims as well. Compared to “inward-looking” PAS, Nik Omar found PH a better platform for dakwah. In some ways, he carried the legacy of his father, emphasising the need to engage with broader societies while upholding an Islamic agenda.

But Nik Omar himself suffered a heavy defeat in Kelantan, where PAS hardcore supporters in the east coast were ideologically committed and highly loyal to the party. Yet Nik Omar played an important role in helping PH win over fence-sitter Muslim voters, especially in the Klang Valley. If Dr Mahathir Mohammad with his “Malay nationalist” outlook convinced some previously UMNO voters to switch their support to PH, Nik Omar with his “Islamic credentials” persuaded some previously PAS voters to swing their support to Harapan.

By hailing Nik Aziz as an exemplary Muslim leader in its elections campaign, Amanah emphasised social inclusiveness, working with people from all walks of life including non-Muslims. Yet, at the same time, it maintained certain conservative religious and moral viewpoints. For example, some of its leaders committed PH to not allowing cinemas and alcohol sellers in Bangi. In addition to Nik Omar, many ABIM leaders living in Bangi including its first president Razali Nawawi and fourth president Muhammad Nur Manuty also gave their support to PH candidates. A local PKR leader who ran one of the campaign offices was also from an ABIM background. The main campaign team for the Amanah candidate included youth activists from IKRAM.

As the results showed, a combined effort by Amanah, PKR, IKRAM and ABIM activists defeated the incumbent PAS candidate in this urban Malay Muslim-majority seat. The PH coalition won with 24,591 votes, with PAS securing 13,961 votes while UMNO only got 9,372 votes. As compared to the 2013 elections, there was a huge decrease in both PAS voters (dropping to 13,961 from 29,200 previously) and UMNO voters (to 9,372 from 17,362 previously). In other words, about half of previously PAS and UMNO voters swung their support over to Pakatan Harapan.

Various reasons contributing to this change of voting patterns include the possibility that a significant number of former PAS voters are also supporters of PKR, ABIM, IKRAM, and other Islamic organisations. They are pious voters who consider Islam as an important factor in their voting but they’re not loyal PAS supporters. At GE14, many of them indicated their acceptance of PH as an “Islamic alternative”. Despite that, PAS was still able to keep its 30% support base of Muslim voters in Bangi, suggesting that the Islamist party still has influence among urban Muslims in the Klang Valley. It might be premature to conclude that PAS is only a regional party with influence in the east coast and northern states.

The GE-14 result reflects the enduring influence of PAS and it remains one of the key players of political Islam in Malaysia. Yet at the same time, Amanah and PKR, and to a lesser extent, PPBM, together with IKRAM and ABIM, have offered a viable “Islamic alternative” for pious Muslim voters. Over the next few years, can PAS rejuvenate or expand its support base in the Klang Valley? Can Amanah make further inroads into the east coast states?

The competition for pious Muslim voters will continue to shape and be shaped by Malaysian politics. Anwar Ibrahim recently visited his comrade Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, while Nik Omar and some Amanah leaders have also made references to Erdogan. Some liberal Muslims have questioned the suitability of Maszlee Malik as the Minister of Education because of his perceived “Islamist” background, and he replied such critics by pointing out “being religious is not a crime”.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has stated his intention to revamp the federal government’s Islamic affairs bureaucracy JAKIM, leaving the room open for further competition among different Islamic groups in Malaysia. Such competition will also be configured by the engagement of Muslims from various backgrounds—from traditionalists to modernists, from secular-minded to Islamist-minded, from progressive to conservative. And there are the interactions with non-Muslim Malaysians to consider as well.

DUN Sungai Ramal(formerly Bangi) 2018Total voters: 54,961

Malays 80%   Chinese 9%

Indians 10%   Others 1%

2013Total voters: 53,268

Malays 66%   Chinese 19%

Indians 13%   Others 1%

BN-UMNO 9,372 17,362
PAS 13,961 29,200
PH-Amanah 24,591

Election results in the Sungai Ramal state seat (formerly Bangi) in 2018 and 2013 [data from https://undi.info]

Mahathir’s Bersatu– A Reformed UMNO?


June 25, 2018

Mahathir’s Bersatu– A Reformed UMNO?

by S. Thayaparan

http://www.malaysiakini.com

“We belong to a plural society and in this society, the Malay-bumiputera agenda must be carried out.”

– UMNO Acting President Dr. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi

 

COMMENT | Since I fancy myself as a sort of political Cassandra as opposed to a political Pollyanna, I am always interested in what former political prisoner Anwar Ibrahim has to say about Malay politics. His recent comments about how UMNO is not completely destroyed and has to reinvent itself has become a political Rorschach test for people who voted for Pakatan Harapan.

Image result for Najib Razak visits Anwar in Hospital

 

I wrote about this when Prime Minister (then) Najib Abdul Razak visited Anwar when he was recovering from surgery last year – “Despite establishment narratives that non-Malays – the Chinese specifically – seek to supplant Malay/Muslim power in Malaysia, the reality is that this could never happen. Why this is the case is beyond the scope of this article, but since Malay powerbrokers hold the keys to Putrajaya, the sight of Malay political opponents meeting always arouses speculation and yes, insecurity amongst the non-Malay demographic, especially those invested in regime change.”

Add to this, Najib’s telephone conversations with Anwar on the night of May 9, the seemingly never-ending public squabbles of PKR, the narratives of how Anwar “can’t be trusted”, the perception that PKR’s schism is the foundation for collusion with UMNO or PAS, and anything Anwar says is an invitation to vilify the former political operative who laid the foundation for the eventual takeover of Putrajaya.

Image result for Mahathir and UMNO

“It is no longer enough to remove Najib Razak from power. UMNO itself must be defeated”, Dr. Mahathir said. Will he  break up the political party he created in 1985 and abandon the Malay agenda he initiated when he first came to power in 1981 and held to the premiership for 22+ years?

I have always cautioned that this idea that UMNO and all it stands for is a relic of bygone Malaysia is foolish. Race and religious politics are sown into the fabric of Harapan with materials provided by the former UMNO regime. UMNO and PAS, and those that voted for them – comprising about 52 percent of the popular votes in GE-14 – are a formidable base which is currently being ignored by the numerous changes taking place in this country.

Let us forget about the narratives of a possible collusion by elements in Harapan and UMNO for a moment. Some folks have said that the people are the opposition. Great, but who do Malaysians vote for if Harapan does not live up to expectations in the Peninsular?

I doubt Chinese support for DAP will end anytime soon and since the “running dog” narratives take some time take root, it’s all good on their front. But if you are Malay, you got a “reformed UMNO” and PAS to choose from and this is where things get dicey real fast. By “reformed”, I mean an UMNO that is still entrenched in its ideology but with a new coat of paint to regain support from the Malays who voted against Najib.

Bridge between Bersatu and DAP

In all these think pieces I read online, it is PKR that is described as the bridge between Bersatu and DAP. In other words, the bridge between the so-called rural Malays and the urban Chinese. This, of course, is often portrayed as a class issue, but public comments from various Harapan leaders betray the reality that this is a race issue.

Bersatu was supposed to be the UMNO of Harapan – the linchpin for the new deal that would ensure that the races would cooperate in the old alliance way before the dark times of UMNO ‘ketuanan’ hegemony. It did not work out that way. UMNO still commands the Malay base and now PAS is slowly demonstrating that its outlier status is a political advantage in this new Malaysia.

Public comments from certain UMNO leaders – Khairy Jamaluddin for instance – of turning UMNO into a multiracial party could be post-traumatic stress from the recent elections. However, what he does represent even though the old guard of UMNO may not like it, is a leader who balances ‘ketuanan’ ideology with the pragmatism of compromise that is needed to win the cash cows which are the so-called “urban centres” that PKR is supposedly a bridge to. The UMNO meet-up will determine which forces in the party hold sway, of course.

It remains to be seen how exactly Bersatu handles the challenge of reforming the rural polities which was needed to take Putrajaya, or so we are told. And this also involves the greater need to reform the system where dominant race-based Malay power structures rely on to sustain them.

This is important because dismantling the architecture that enables the propagandising of race and religion is needed for the survival of non-Malay power structures in the long run.  Bersatu didn’t win this election for Harapan; it was a former UMNO grand poobah, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who did. Systemic reform without any thought or consideration to reforming structures that enable race and religious imperatives to remain entrenched  is foolhardy.

Take this lowering the voting age to 18 for instance. Great idea but I really hope Harapan strategists are discovering how deep the radicalisation process is when it comes to religious schools and the like. Young Muslims from these types of schools have to wait a few years before voting but 18 is just about the right age when the propaganda and religious delusions are still fresh in their minds and they want an avenue to express them. Not to mention, the years of indoctrination by a system created by the very person who has gained messianic status by true believers.

This is where UMNO or PAS could benefit more than a regime which has to compromise on its racial and religious imperatives – Bersatu – for the sake of the multiracial power-sharing formula that BN never paid much attention to. This, of course, is but one example of the fault lines that exist when making policy.

In all cases, deradicalisation should be central even in the more obvious of policy shifts. Is the Harapan regime up to this? Only time will tell, and there is only a small window of opportunity because personalities are old and the young blood is waiting in the wings.

So how do we combat the grand narratives of Malay supremacy in Harapan and UMNO and PAS? How do we ensure that these narratives are weakened over time? Here are some points to consider.

Decentralisation

Another Malaysiakini columnist Nathaniel Tan talks about regionalism. That is an important starting point I think. Federal power should be decentralised. This halts grander narratives of Malay and Islamic hegemony with local issues that could be dealt with state power. When people have a sense that their state governments can solve their immediate needs, there is no need to kowtow to federal power which brings with it forms of subservience that is detrimental to the democratic process.

This also should extend to local council elections. This brings communities together on issues of needs. If all politics are local, then people from communities rather than political parties determine what is important to them and this also safeguards against political interference.

More importantly, the media should be regional as well. Mainstream media news outlets shape the news often ignoring state level and local community level issues. This creates the impression that federal narratives – those that involve race and religion – are monolithic. This really isn’t the case. This is not something that the state governments or the federal governments should be involved with but rather independent regional media outlets, discussing local issues and ensuring that local politics remains in the forefront.

If you are really serious about people being the opposition – whatever that means – this is a good way to do it, further weakening the grand narratives of race and religion by concentrating on local issues which sometimes have nothing to do with what goes on in the urban polities.

In order to weaken racial and religious hegemony, it is important to diffuse power. The question has always been, is there a coalition willing to do this?

When people ask me who the clear winners are in this election, my answer is always PAS. What PAS has demonstrated is that it can survive definitely without BN and time will tell if it can survive without the Harapan regime. Mind you, the relationship between PAS and Harapan has not been as fraught as it has been with UMNO.

UMNO and PAS, and once the former gets their acts together, could turn out to be a formidable opposition, especially considering that sooner rather than later, Harapan will have to tackle issues concerning race and religion. We have witnessed a distinct lack of commitment among Malay power structures to buck the Islamic and Malay trend when it comes to voting on major issues involving race and religion. Will this change now that Harapan has taken federal power?

It is nonsensical to make the argument that UMNO needs to reform – become multiracial – when the there is a Malay power structure like Bersatu in Harapan chasing the same base. The great fear of UMNO has materialised – that is, the Malays are divided.

What people should be concerned with is the interactions between diffused Malay power structures in this new political terrain, and concomitant to this, the shape these interactions coalesce into.

 

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.