Advice for Young Muslims

December 4, 2016

Advice for Young Muslims: How to Survive in an Age of Extremism and Islamophobia

Although Ambassador Omar Saif Ghobash wrote this letter to his sons and also intended it as advice to Young Muslims, I hope it is read by  Najib Razak and Hadi Awang, and other UMNO and PAS leaders and our politically motivated ulamas like Harussani Zakaria and others in our religious establishment.  They should develop an attitude of “attitude of openness to ideas and possibilities”.

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The Najib Administration wants to grant this fugitive from India, Zakir Naik, who is radicalizing Young Muslims, a Malaysian citizenship. Something is not right here. What example are we setting to the rest of the world?–Din Merican

The Ambassador said he wanted his sons “…to discover through observation and thought that there need be no conflict between Islam and the rest of the world. I want them to understand that even in matters of religion, there are many choices that we must make. I want my sons’ generation of Muslims to realize that they have the right—and the obligation—to think about and to decide what is right and what is wrong, what is Islamic and what is peripheral to the faith”.  Let us not pollute our young with dogma and injunctions (fatwas) that retard progress. –Din Merican

Source: Foreign Affairs – Published by the Council on Foreign Relations

By Omar Saif Ghobash

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His Excellency Omar Saif Ghobash was appointed UAE Ambassador to the Russian Federation in 2008. He began his career in the UAE Mission to the United Nations; founded Dubai’s first international contemporary art gallery; is a trustee of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction; and sponsors the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation in memory of his father, the UAE’s first Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. He is a trustee at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London and the Emirates Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi.


Saif, the elder of my two sons, was born in December 2000. In the summer of 2001, my wife and I brought him with us on a visit to New York City. I remember carrying him around town in a sling on my chest. A few days after we got back home to Dubai, we watched the terrible events of 9/11 unfold on CNN. As it became clear that the attacks had been carried out by jihadist terrorists, I came to feel a new sense of responsibility toward my son, beyond the already intense demands of parenthood. I wanted to open up areas of thought, language, and imagination in order to show him—and to show myself and all my fellow Muslims—that the world offers so much more than the twisted fantasies of extremists. I’ve tried to do this for the past 15 years. The urgency of the task has seemed only to grow, as the world has become ever more enmeshed in a cycle of jihadist violence and Islamophobia.

Today, I am the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia, and I try to bring to my work an attitude of openness to ideas and possibilities. In that spirit, I have written a series of letters to Saif, with the intention of opening his eyes to some of the questions he is likely to face as he grow ups, and to a range of possible answers. I want my sons and their generation of Muslims to understand how to be faithful to Islam and its deepest values while charting a course through a complex world. I want them to discover through observation and thought that there need be no conflict between Islam and the rest of the world. I want them to understand that even in matters of religion, there are many choices that we must make. I want my sons’ generation of Muslims to realize that they have the right—and the obligation—to think about and to decide what is right and what is wrong, what is Islamic and what is peripheral to the faith.


Dear Saif,

How should you and I take responsibility for our lives as Muslims? Surely, the most important thing is to be a good person. And if we are good people, then what connection could there be between us and those who commit acts of terrorism, claiming to act in the name of Islam?

Many Muslims protest against and publicly condemn such crimes. Others say that the violent extremists who belong to groups such as the Islamic State (or ISIS) are not true Muslims. “Those people have nothing to do with Islam,” is their refrain. To my ears, this statement does not sound right. It seems like an easy way of not thinking through some difficult questions.

Although I loathe what the terrorists do, I realize that according to the minimal entry requirements for Islam, they are Muslims. Islam demands only that a believer affirm that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger. Violent jihadists certainly believe this. That is why major religious institutions in the Islamic world have rightly refused to label them as non-Muslims, even while condemning their actions. It is too easy to say that jihadist extremists have nothing to do with us. Even if their readings of Islamic Scripture seem warped and out of date, they have gained traction. What worries me is that as the extremists’ ideas have spread, the circle of Muslims clinging to other conceptions of Islam has begun to shrink. And as it has shrunk, it has become quieter and quieter, until only the extremists seem to speak and act in the name of Islam.

We need to speak out, but it is not enough to declare in public that Islam is not violent or radical or angry, that Islam is a religion of peace. We need to take responsibility for the Islam of peace. We need to demonstrate how it is expressed in our lives and the lives of those in our community.

I am not saying that Muslims such as you and I should accept blame for what terrorists do. I am saying that we can take responsibility by demanding a different understanding of Islam. We can make clear, to Muslims and non-Muslims, that another reading of Islam is possible and necessary. And we need to act in ways that make clear how we understand Islam and its operation in our lives. I believe we owe that to all the innocent people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who have suffered at the hands of our coreligionists in their misguided extremism.

Taking that sort of responsibility is hard, especially when many people outside the Muslim world have become committed Islamophobes, fearing and even hating people like you and me, sometimes with the encouragement of political leaders. When you feel unjustly singled out and attacked, it is not easy to look at your beliefs and think them through, especially in a public way. Words and ideas are slippery and can easily slide out of your control. You may be certain of your beliefs about something today, only to wake up with doubts tomorrow. To admit this in today’s environment is risky; many Muslims are leery of acknowledging any qualms about their own beliefs. But trust me: it is entirely normal to wonder whether you really got something right.

Some of the greatest scholars of Islam went through periods of confusion and doubt. Consider the philosopher and theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, who was born in Persia in the eleventh century and has been hugely influential in Islamic thought. His works are treasured today, but during his own lifetime, he was so doubtful about many things that he withdrew from society for a decade. He seemed to have experienced a spiritual crisis. Although we don’t know much about what troubled him, it’s clear that he was unsure and even fearful. But the outcome of his period of doubt and self-imposed isolation was positive: Ghazali, who until then had been esteemed as a scholar of orthodox Islam, brought Sufism, a spiritual strain of Islam, into the mainstream. He opened up Islamic religious experience to spiritualism and poetry, which at that time many considered foreign to the faith.

Today, some of our fellow Muslims demand that we accept only ideas that are Muslim in origin—namely, ideas that appear in the Koran, the early dictionaries of the Arabic language, the sayings of the Prophet, and the biographies of the Prophet and his Companions. Meanwhile, we must reject foreign ideas such as democracy, they maintain. Confronted with more liberal views, which present discussion, debate, and consensus building as ancient Islamic traditions, they contend that democracy is a sin against Allah’s power, against his will, and against his sovereignty. Some extremists are even willing to kill in defense of that position.

But do such people even know what democracy is? I don’t think so. In fact, from reading many of their statements, it is clear that they have little understanding of how people can come together to make communal decisions. The government that I represent is a monarchy, but I feel no need to condemn proponents of democratic reform as heretics. I might not always agree with them, but their ideas are not necessarily un-Islamic.

As extremist ideas have spread, the circle of Muslims clinging to other conceptions of Islam has begun to shrink.

Another “foreign” practice that causes a great deal of concern to Muslims is the mixing of the sexes. Some Muslim-majority countries mandate the separation of the sexes in schools, universities, and the workplace. (In our own country, most public primary and secondary schools are single sex, as are some universities.) Authorities in these countries present such rules as being “truly Islamic” and argue that they solve the problem of illicit relationships outside of marriage. Perhaps that’s true. But research and study of such issues—which is often forbidden—might show that no such effect exists.

And even if rigorous sex separation has some benefits, what are the costs? Could it be that it leads to psychological confusion and turmoil for men and women alike? Could it lead to an inability to understand members of the opposite sex when one is finally allowed to interact with them? Governments in much of the Muslim world have no satisfactory answers to those questions, because they often don’t bother to ask them.


Dear Saif,

You have been brought up in a household where women—including your mother—are strong, educated, focused, and hard-working. If someone suggested to you that men are somehow more valuable or more talented than women, you would scratch your head. But when I was your age, the sermons that I heard at mosque taught that women were inherently inferior. Men were strong, intelligent, and emotionally stable—natural breadwinners. Women were appendages: objects to be cared for but not to be taken seriously.

That view of women persists in parts of the Muslim world—and, in fairness, in many other places, as well. It is certainly not the only possible view of women afforded by Islam, but it is a powerful belief, and one that enjoys a great deal of political, legal, and financial support.

I am proud that your mother and your aunts are all educated and work in professions that they chose. Doing so has hardly stopped any of them from raising families and taking care of their husbands—the roles demanded by conservative readings of Islamic texts. The women in your life defy the strict traditionalist view, which presents women as fundamentally passive creatures whom men must protect from the ravages of the world. That belief is sometimes self-fulfilling: in many Muslims communities, men insist that women are unable to face the big, wild world, all the while depriving women of the basic rights and skills they would need in order to do so.

Other traditionalists base their position on women on a different argument, one that is rarely discussed openly, especially in front of non-Muslims, because it is a bit of a taboo. It boils down to this: if women were mobile, and independent, and working with men who were not family members, then they might develop illicit romantic or even sexual relationships. Of course, that is a possibility. But such relationships also develop when a woman lives in a home where she is given little love and self-respect. And all too often, women are punished for such relationships, whereas the men involved escape censure—an unacceptable inconsistency.

This traditionalist position is based, ultimately, on a desire to control women. But women do not need to be controlled; they need to be trusted and respected. We trust and respect our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, and our aunts; we must provide the same trust and respect to other women. If we did, perhaps we would not witness so many cases of sexual harassment and exploitation in the Muslim world.

Saif, I want you to see that there is nothing written in stone that places Muslim women below Muslim men. Treating women as inferior is not a religious duty; it is simply a practice of patriarchal societies. Within the Islamic tradition, there are many models of how Muslim women can live and be true to their faith. There are Muslim women, for example, who have looked into the origins of the hijab (the traditional veil that covers the head and hair) and have concluded that there is no hard-and-fast rule requiring them to wear it—let alone a rule requiring them to wear a burqa or a niqab, which both cover far more. Many men have come to the same conclusion. Islam calls on women to be modest in their appearance, but veiling is actually a pre-Islamic tradition.

The limits placed on women in conservative Muslim societies, such as mandatory veiling, or rules limiting their mobility, or restrictions on work and education, have their roots not in Islamic doctrine but rather in men’s fear that they will not be able to control women—and their fear that women, if left uncontrolled, will overtake men by being more disciplined, more focused, more hard-working.


Dear Saif,

You will inevitably come across Muslims who shake their heads at the state of affairs in the Islamic world and mutter, “If only people were proper Muslims, then none of this would be happening.” I have heard this lament so many times. People say it when criticizing official corruption in Muslim countries and when pointing out the alleged spread of immorality. Others say it when promoting various forms of Islamic rule. The most famous iteration of this expression is the slogan “Islam Is the Solution,” which has been used by the Muslim Brotherhood and many other Islamist groups.

It’s a brilliant slogan. Lots of people believe in it. (When I was younger, I believed in it wholeheartedly.) The slogan is a shorthand for the argument that all the most glorious achievements in Islamic history—the conquests, the empires, the knowledge production, the wealth—occurred under some system of religious rule. Therefore, if we want to revive this past glory in the modern era, we must reimpose such a system. This argument holds that if a little Islam is good, then more Islam must be even better. And if more Islam is better, then complete Islam must be best.

The most influential proponent of that position today is ISIS, with its unbridled enthusiasm for an all-encompassing religious state, or caliphate. It can be difficult to argue against that position without seeming to dispute the nature of Islam’s origins: the Prophet Muhammad was, after all, not only a religious leader but a political one, too. And the Islamist argument rests on the inexorable logic of extreme faith: if we declare that we are acting in Allah’s name, and if we impose the laws of Islam, and if we ensure the correct mental state of the Muslim population living in a chosen territory, then Allah will intervene to solve all our problems. The genius of this proposition—whether it is articulated by the fanatical jihadists of ISIS or the more subtle theocrats of the Muslim Brotherhood—is that any difficulties or failures can be attributed to the people’s lack of faith and piety. Leaders need not fault themselves or their policies; citizens need not question their values or customs.

But piety will take us only so far, and relying entirely on Allah to provide for us, to solve our problems, to feed and educate and clothe our children, is to take Allah for granted. The only way we can improve the lot of the Muslim world is by doing what people elsewhere have done, and what Muslims in earlier eras did, in order to succeed: educate ourselves and work hard and engage with life’s difficult questions rather than retreat into religious obscurantism.

I don’t want that to be the case for you and your generation. Dialogue and public debate about what it means to be an individual in the Muslim world would allow us to think more clearly about personal responsibility, ethical choices, and the respect and dignity that attaches to people rather than to families, tribes, or sects. It might lead us to stop insisting solely on our responsibilities to the ummah and start considering our responsibilities to ourselves and to others, whom we might come to see not as members of groups allegedly opposed to Islam but rather as individuals. Instead of asking one another about family names and bloodlines and sects, we might decide to respect one another as individuals regardless of our backgrounds. We might begin to more deeply acknowledge the outrageous number of people killed in the Muslim world in civil wars and in terrorist attacks carried out not by outsiders but by other Muslims. We might memorialize these people not as a group but as individuals with names and faces and life stories—not to deify the dead but rather to recognize our responsibility to preserve their honor and dignity, and the honor and dignity of those who survive them.

In this way, the idea of the Muslim individual might help us improve how we discuss politics, economics, and security. If you and other members of your generation start looking at yourselves as individuals first and foremost, perhaps you will build better societies. You might take hold of your fates and take hold of your lives in the here and now, recognizing that there is no need to return to a glorious past in order to build a glorious future. Our personal, individual interests might not align with those of the patriarch, the family, the tribe, the community, or the state. But the embrace of each Muslim’s individuality will lead to a rebalancing in the Islamic world in favor of more compassion, more understanding, and more empathy. If you accept the individual diversity of your fellow Muslims, you are more likely to do the same for those of other faiths, as well.

Muslims can and should live in harmony with the diversity of humanity that exists outside of our faith. But we will struggle to do so until we truly embrace ourselves as individuals.

UMNO’s past, present and future

December 1, 2016

UMNO’s past, present and future

UMNO have adopted a number of radical measures that has destroyed the spirit of consultation with component parties that BN had preserved for 6 decades.

 By Lim Sue Goan


With the spirit of democracy and rule of law retrogressing, the country’s international reputation suffering a major setback and under the gloom of a sluggish economy, UMNO’s General Assembly this week is set to be immersed in a much worse atmosphere than a year ago when the RM2.6 billion political donation scandal first came to light.

IN 2015, UMNO had yet to sack Muhyiddin Yassin while former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had not to set up his own party. UMNO today is in a much more difficult situation.

The party has been established for seven decades now, and in the past, even in the face of any major crisis, the party would never abandon the urban and middle voters or antagonize civil society. Moreover, the party’s past leaders never condoned violence and thuggery.

UMNO was strongly against PAS, and the delegates would hit out hard at the Islamist party. But today, these two parties are working together and the focus of this year’s debates is expected to be “grand unity for the Malays and Muslims”.

This year’s assembly is expected to target its firepower at Mahathir because of his betrayal of UMNO.

That  said, the “political legacy” left behind by Mahathir is still very much enjoyed by UMNO  today. The party’s dilemma today could be attributed to a host of historical and political cultural factors, and everyone from top down is culpable.

Some say UMNO has become so powerful that BN– MCA, MIC, Gerakan and others– itself is being marginalized, and racism appears to be the natural political pathway for the coalition party should take.

This is because racist politics in the very end can only rely on  an insecure base for survival , betraying the principles of democracy and alienating tself from civil society, and in so doing putting the country into a real mess.

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As the backbone of the BN administration, UMNO.  The party must take the initiative to deal steadfastly with the brewing political, economic and democratic crisis, not perpetuate it. Unfortunately, the party is now slanting, and UMNO members need to save it first before it can take on the challenges ahead and lead the nation.

Undeniably, as the 1MDB and MO1 issues get increasingly heated up, the BN mechanism has already been rendered irrelevant.

Take the RUU355 to expand the jurisdiction of shariah courts for example. UMNO leaders never consulted its component parties before giving PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang  the green light table his private bill in May.

To hold on to power, UMNO has decided to adopt a number of radical measures that have destroyed the spirit of consultation and cooperation that BN had preserved for so many decades, thereby dwelling a severe blow to the country’s moderate image.

Members of BN’s component parties are unhappy with what’s taking place under their noses, and this does not augur well for a united BN to face the upcoming general election.

UMNO’s fortress is the vast rural Malay hinterland while other BN component parties must still face urban and young voters. The detention of BERSIH 2.0 chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah under the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma) has dealt a fatal blow on the electoral prospects of other BN component parties. Economic hardship in the coming year, on the other hand, could undermine the party’s hold on the rural Malays and the other marginalized folks in Sabah and Sarawak.

Without changing its style of governance and restricting its members’ out-of-control actions, UMNO is poised to put itself in a very precarious position.

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UMNO’s cooperation with PAS is also a highly risky game because this will only radicalize the Malay Muslims. In the long run, UMNO itself will be playing the PAS tune.

Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin has said that out of 687 tertiary students interviewed, some 133 or 19.5% subscribe to the philosophy of Islamic State.

As a matter of fact, UMNO must adhere to the Islam Hadhari concept of former PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in order to stem the advances of  Islamic radicalism.

On the economic front, owing to the resistance from the party’s right wing, it is getting increasingly difficult for PM Najib to push ahead its NEM and economic transformation agendas. The economy will only slide further in the absence of new policies, reforms and liberalisation. The dramatic fall of the ringgit now should set off the alarm bells, too.

We cannot wrap ourselves inside the cocoon of antiquated thinking if we as a nation want to move forward. An example is the refusal by the Federation of Peninsula Malay Students (GPMS) to recognise the UEC certificate. Our competitiveness can only be lifted if all our talented people are accepted into the mainstay of this country irrespective of race and religion.


Indonesia: Questioning our pride as a democratic, tolerant and peaceful nation

November 6, 2016

Indonesia: Questioning our pride as a democratic, tolerant and peaceful nation

by M. Taufiqurrahman and Kornelius Purba

COMMENTARY: Questioning our pride as a democratic, tolerant and peaceful nation

Marching on: Muslims march along Jl. MH Thamrin during a rally in Jakarta on Friday. Around 100,000 Muslims took to the streets on Friday demanding the prosecution of Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama for alleged blasphemy. They called on the police to immediately detain Ahok. (JP/Wendra Ajistyatama)

We have long prided ourselves as the world’s third largest democracy after India and the US, and the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. The international community and global media outlets often describe Indonesia’s version of Islam as peaceful, tolerant and moderate.

We boast that violent, intolerant and radical Muslim groups are very small in number and influence. We believe that the country’s two major Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, are the legitimate standard-bearers of Islam in Indonesia.

We like to think that we are a pluralist society, a nation built on a foundation that disregards skin color, ethnicity and faith. We submit to the belief that we, as Indonesians, cling to the idea of “unity in diversity”.

On Friday, we woke up to the disturbing reality that we haven’t progressed very far from nativism and tribalism.

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“If they are too rich, too corrupt and too lazy – we just fire them,” the Governor of Jakarta says. His views on management are simple: sack bad employees, ...

The November 4 rally has exposed some of the ugliest parts of our politics, where skin color, ethnicity and faith become weapons to attack political rivals. With the presence of incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama, a Christian and a Chinese-Indonesian, it is easy to see and hear the racist undertones in the political campaigns of his rivals. While the demonstration proceeded peacefully, at least until the evening, it was shocking to see some protesters shouting horrifying phrases such as “kill Ahok”, or displaying posters reading: “Wanted: Ahok, dead or alive”.

Where were the leaders of NU and Muhammadiyah on Friday?Where were the leaders of the major political parties supporting Ahok’s reelection bid?

The mass protest was led by people widely known for their dislike, if not hatred, of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Indeed, the hard-line Islam Defenders Front (FPI) led the rally, and lead the anti-Ahok movement.

FPI leader, Rizieq Shihab, an Indonesian of Arab descent, seems to have a personal grudge against Ahok, because the Jakarta governor is the only state official in the country who has the guts to demand that the central government dissolve the FPI.

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In the lead-up to Friday’s rally, scores of Ahok’s political rivals put Jakarta’s gubernatorial election in the context of a “holy war”, or crusade against an infidel, with people such as former Muhammadiyah chairman Amien Rais (above) urging Muslims not to vote for Ahok because he is a dajjal (a kind of anti-Christ).

Earlier this week, while flanked by a number of policemen, a protester, dressed in full Islamic garb, made a long speech and offered to give Rp 1 billion (US$76,900) to anyone who could kill Ahok if the incumbent governor visited certain areas in West Jakarta. Shortly after the speech, Ahok was forced to flee from a neighborhood in Rawa Belong in a public minivan after a group of protesters started to taunt him and demand that he leave the area where he was campaigning.

On Friday, protesters hung a massive banner reading “Hang Ahok Right Now” from a pedestrian bridge near Gambir Station. And the saddest part of this whole episode is that more than 100,000 people bowed to this violent rhetoric and showed up for the November 4 rally.

The Jakarta election should be about the programs that the candidates are proposing to solve the myriad of problems plaguing the capital, from severe traffic congestion and pollution to garbage collection problems, reclamation controversies and housing for the poor. But since the campaign period began in mid-October, we have heard nothing but calls for Ahok to drop out from the race on allegations that he insulted the Quran. And nothing fires up the political base of Ahok’s rivals more than allegations that he insulted Islam.

The rivals of Ahok, who will certainly reap huge political gains if Ahok drops out of the race as a result of Friday’s rally, certainly share some of the blame for fanning primordial sentiments to get what they want.

All of us, however, should take responsibility for allowing such sectarian sentiments to grow and fester in our democracy.

We have been complacent for too long, happy to think that the movements against Ahok, and those groups responsible for acts of intolerance and violence in this country, are only fringe groups who matter little in politics.

On Friday, we were proved wrong. These groups now hold the keys to the Jakarta gubernatorial election and, probably, the success or failure of our experiment in democracy.

The sharp-tongued Ahok often provokes anger for his direct manner. However, it is hard to deny, even for his most hostile foes, that under his leadership, Jakarta has progressed and improved.

But the allegations that Ahok’s programs are beneficial to the middle and upper-income class of people, many of whom are Chinese-Indonesians and non-Muslims, and harmful to lower-income citizens, are also not totally baseless.

It is a brute reality that there are Muslims who do not want to have a non-Muslim leader. Many Muslims complain that they are a majority in this country, but a minority in terms of economic access.

It is also understandable that many non-Muslims fight as die-hard supporters for the reelection of Ahok because for a long time they have felt, rightly or wrongly, that they are second-class citizens in this country.

Some of them even believe that Jesus sent Ahok to save Jakarta, and later, if elected president, Indonesia. No one can touch Ahok because God will not allow anyone to harm him, their thinking goes.

The leaders of mainstream religious or political organizations are out of touch with the social and political reality. They belittle the role of small organizations such as the FPI.

Is this because they are too afraid to confront the intimidation and intolerance of the FPI and their ilk, or because Indonesia’s mainstream leaders actually agree with these small groups?


Malaysia in the dumps

October 22, 2016

Malaysia in the dumps on account of Najib’s racist politics and bad economics

by Greg Lopez

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Malaysia has been governed by the same ruling coalition (Barisan Nasional) since independence in 1957. This coalition provided capable leadership to address the four cross-cutting issues that enabled high and sustainable growth. But the Najib Razak administration appears not only to be faltering in managing these challenges but is actively undermining these achievements to remain in power.–Greg Lopez

Malaysia’s leadership troubles could provide a valuable lesson for other middle-income countries on the importance of effective leadership to sustain long term growth. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has denied allegations of corruption made by The Wall Street Journal. But can a leader and his administration that has been rejected by the electorate drive long term growth?

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In May 2008, the United Nations Commission on Growth and Development issued a report that attempted to distil the strategies and policies that produced sustained high growth in developing countries. It is clear from the report that politics and leadership are key to successful development. In particular, there are four cross-cutting issues that good leadership delivered: promoting national unity; building high quality institutions; choosing innovative and localised policies; and creating political consensus for long-run policy implementation.

Malaysia is among 13 nations (Botswana, Brazil, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malta, Oman, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand) that the report identified as having sustained growth rates of above 7 per cent for 25 years or more. These 13 countries had five strikingly similar characteristics: they fully exploited global economic opportunities; they maintained macroeconomic stability; they mustered high rates of savings and investment; they let markets allocate resources; and they had committed, credible, capable governments.

Malaysia has been governed by the same ruling coalition since independence in 1957. This coalition provided capable leadership to address the four cross-cutting issues that enabled high and sustainable growth. But the Najib Razak administration appears not only to be faltering in managing these challenges but is actively undermining these achievements to remain in power.

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The Wharton educated Playboy

At the 13th Malaysian general elections, the Barisan Nasional coalition only managed to secure 47.4 per cent of the popular vote while the opposition coalition secured 50.9 per cent. This is the first time that the ruling coalition has lost the support of the majority of Malaysians. Najib took a presidential approach to the election and committed to spending an estimated US$17.6 billion of targeted development pledges and 1 Malaysia Programs. So it was a shock when the majority of Malaysians opted for a ragtag coalition that included an Islamist party and a socialist party led by a discredited leader.

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Malaysia’s Rosie Mansor, not Rosie O’donnell

Malaysia’s Najib’s popularity had been on a downward trend, from a high of 72 per cent in May 2010 to below 50 per cent in January 2015. But the series of damaging allegations has not only damaged his reputation irrevocably, it has also cemented a negative perception of the government. The majority of Malaysians no longer look favourably upon their government and its institutions. The most recent survey — polled in October 2015 after Najib admitted receiving a US$700 million ‘donation’ into his private bank account — found that 4 out 5 Malaysians were unhappy with the current government.

More damaging perhaps is the fact that only 31 per cent of Malays — the bedrock of support for the United Malays’ National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition — were happy with the government’s current performance. The fall among Malays is drastic. It stood at 52 per cent in January 2015 and had never gone below 50 per cent since the independent pollster Merdeka Centre began tracking this data in February 2012. More Malaysians are also of the opinion that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Significantly, this change in sentiment began in the beginning of 2014, several months after the 13th general elections.

In response, Najib has taken several measures to protect his leadership position. These measures have further undermined Malaysia’s national unity, institutions and policy process.

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Najib and Hadi–Malaysia’s Political Laurel and Hardy

Despite the rhetoric of being the leader of all Malaysians, Najib has actively pursued a ‘Malay and Islamic’ supremacy strategy. And he has cosied up with UMNO’s mortal enemy, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party. The rise of fundamentalist Islam — as in the rest of the world — is a threat in Malaysia. But Najib has sought to bolster his credentials by appealing to conservative Muslims. This has empowered and emboldened the conservative Islamic elements within Malaysia.

Policy making and implementation have been insulated from public scrutiny since the government of long-serving former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed. But under Najib it has even been insulated from scrutiny by the cabinet, let alone the parliament. All major decisions are made by the prime minister and implemented through a hybrid organisation within the Prime Minister’s Department.

Despite Najib’s active pursuit of policies that are detrimental to Malaysian foundations, his economic track record appears to be sound. Malaysia could become a high income country by 2020. Yet Malaysians remain unimpressed by Najib Razak.

Institutions are not built in a day and the impact of Najib’s measures on Malaysia’s longer term growth prospects remain to be seen. For now, other countries caught in the middle-income trap should closely observe the developments in Malaysia.

Greg Lopez is a lecturer with Murdoch University Executive Education Centre, Western Australia. His research interests are in the interaction between states, societies and markets in the ASEAN region.


Malaysia’s Troubled Religious Ties

October 13, 2016

Malaysia’s Troubled Religious Ties: A Case of Muslim Hindu Relations

by Dr. Syed Farid Alatas

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Although Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country, the understanding of many Malaysians since independence in 1957 was that the minority religions and races ought not to be made to feel threatened that they would not be able to maintain their respective identities and promote their cultures. This understanding was based on the belief that there was sufficient political and cultural space for all religions and cultures to thrive while Islam continued to be the state religion.

The belief in the possibility of harmonious co-existence between the different communities in the country has recently been shaken due to the assertion of a more exclusivist Muslim identity among the religious and political elite. This has affected Malaysians’ perceptions of the state of ethnic and religious harmony in the country. A case in point is the relations between Hindus and Muslims in the country. Recent incidents involving Hindus and Muslims serve to heighten fears that Malaysian harmony is gradually being eroded.

The decades of peaceful co-existence between Hindus and Muslims are slowly giving way to a more intolerant stance taken by some Malays in which a Malay-Muslim identity is stressed at the expense of non-Muslims, sometimes resulting in the denigration of their ethnicity and religions. For example, in June this year, Malaysians were shocked to learn that in the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s (UTM) Islamic and Asian Civilisations module, derogatory remarks were made about both Hinduism and the Sikh faith.

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What was so insulting about the content of the module was that the lecturer claimed that Islam had introduced civility to the lives of Hindus in India. It was also said that Hindus preferred to be “dirty”, and that it was only Islam that had taught Hindu converts to Islam the importance of cleanliness. Although UTM conducted a probe and subsequently terminated the service of the offending lecturer, it was astonishing to many that such content could be taught at a university. The UTM fiasco was not the only example of bigotry against Hindus. There were five cases of Hindu temples being vandalised in recent months in Perak and Penang. While these are all isolated incidents, they have led many to wonder if this is the beginning of the onset of mistrust and intolerance between Malaysia’s different racial and religious communities.

Muslims in Malaysia should think more about who their Hindu countrymen are. One way to do so is to acquaint themselves with the writings of Abu al-Rayhan Al-Biruni, a Muslim scholar who was an authority on the religions of India. Born in 973 in Khwarazm in what is present-day Uzbekistan, Al-Biruni was in the court of Mahmud Ghaznavi (979-1030), the ruler of an empire that included parts of what is now known as Afghanistan, Iran and northern India. Al-Biruni travelled to India with the troops of Mahmud and lived there for years, during which time he mastered Sanskrit, translated a number of Indian religious texts to Arabic, studied Indian religious doctrines and wrote several books and treatises, including the Kitab Fi Tahqiq Ma li-l-Hind (The Book of What Constitutes India).

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He refrained from making value judgments about other religions from an Islamic perspective. He was very conscious of the need to present India as understood by Indians themselves. In order to do so, he quoted extensively from Sanskrit texts. His objective was to study the religions of India in order to bring the two communities closer together. He states that the reason for embarking on his research on India was to provide Muslims the essential facts they would need when they encountered Indians and wished to discuss with them aspects of Indian religion and culture.

Al-Biruni considered such dialogue with Indians as crucial as it would create more understanding on issues about which Muslims remained very vague, as far as their understanding of Indian religions was concerned.

It was also his view that the Indians believed in a single god, by which he meant the same god that is worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims.He was the first scholar, in the Muslim world as well as the West, who approached the study of Indian religions objectively and avoided treating the Indians as mere heretics.

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Malaysia is generally speaking a harmonious society. But, the political developments of recent years, which have seen an unhealthy development of identity politics in the form of, among other things, reckless statements made by politicians, religious leaders and educators, threaten to upset the current harmony that informs our society. This will potentially affect Hindu-Muslim relations.

The worrying trend in Hindu-Muslim relations suggests that there is clearly a need for dialogue between the Hindu and Muslim communities of Malaysia. The purpose of this dialogue would be to examine the commonalities in values, beliefs and culture that exist between Hinduism and Islam and to reaffirm the commitment that the two communities have to peaceful co-existence.

It is vital, for the sake of maintaining mutual respect and tranquillity in this country, that the political and religious leaders continuously speak out against bigotry and violence in the name of religion. Muslim leaders have a particularly greater responsibility in view of the fact that Islam is the religion of state in Malaysia. This means that the Muslim political and religious elite should not merely tolerate the presence of non-Muslim minorities but actively protect their rights and property.

The writer is an associate professor in the departments of sociology and Malay studies at the National University of Singapore.

S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2016, with the headline ‘Malaysia’s troubled Muslim-Hindu ties’. Print Edition |


On the Last Honest Man in UMNO

October 4, 2016

Thayaparan on The Last Honest Man in UMNO

What this really means is the success and failure of this country depends on how the Malays decide to play the game. The terrible truth is that it is not the non-Malays who are playing a rigged game but the Malays. The sooner the majority of Malays figure this out, the better for the country.–Thayaparan

by Cmdr. (rtd) S. Thayaparan

Sometimes a man wants to be stupid if it lets him do a thing his cleverness forbids.”

– John Steinbeck, ‘East of Eden’

I have no idea why political analysts have jumped on Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s response to a question by Sinar Harian. Did anyone actually bother reading the two articles where the UMNO veteran held forth on a variety of issues?

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Both articles were interesting because it gave a brief glimpse into the political reality of this country and the agitation in the Malay polity concerning the two major parties that supposedly represent their so-called interest.

Of Razaleigh I have earlier said, “Razaleigh, of course, always nurtured the perception that he was the last honest man in UMNO, a prince who reluctantly found himself consorting with thieves.

“Ku Li, as he is fondly known as, has the remarkable ability to engender goodwill from certain sections of the general public by disassociating himself from the excesses of UMNO even though he contributed to the very culture he claims to despise.”

The Sinar Harian articles are littered with his distinctive pose of being ultimate insider and reluctant outsider.

To recap, the answer that got some analysts all a tither was in response to this question, “Ramai tak puas hati dengan Umno dan PAS. Dikatakan sekarang ini bangsa Melayu ini tidak berada di tempat yang sepatutnya dan usaha menyatukan dua parti Melayu perlu dilakukan?” (Many are dissatisfied with UMNO and PAS. It is said today the Malay race is no longer in a place that it should be, and efforts to unite the two Malay parties need to happen?)

Razaleigh’s response begun with an acknowledgement of the dissatisfaction on the part UMNO and PAS supporters – “Rasa tidak puas hati tu memang ada dalam kalangan sesetengah orang yang jadi ahli fikir atau yang fikir keadaan masa depan orang Melayu dan Islam. Banyak tidak puas hati dengan cara PAS memimpin sekarang ini. Banyak tidak puas hati dengan cara UMNO dipimpin sekarang. Itu memang jelas. Itu sebabnya wujud pelbagai puak parti serpihan, kata orang, daripada UMNO ataupun PAS” – and then a dismissal and acknowledgment of the propaganda that a divided Malay community would mean the ascension of the DAP as a political hegemon, which was spun as a question of its own.

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The Game these UMNO Brats Play

However, the reality is that Razaleigh knows that the game is rigged. When questioned about the chances of the opposition winning in the next election, he conceded that it was a possibility if there was a common platform but without the support of PAS, the chances were slim. Indeed, he acknowledges that solely partnering with DAP will not mean the keys to Putrajaya but what is needed is a coalescing of Malay power structures to vanquish the UMNO hegemon.

However, the more we peel away the rhetoric, we come to understand that voting and democracy are merely parlour tricks in the Malaysian context. Forget about the gerrymandering or redelineation exercise, this idea that the game is not rigged that we are in democracy is ludicrous.

Read what Razaleigh says about not underestimating the establishment – “(Bagaimanapun) jangan memandang rendah kepada kerajaan kerana mereka ada kuasa, ada televisyen, radio, duit dan media. Mereka juga ada alat-alat risikan dan sebagainya. Media dia lebih tahu pada kita. Dia tahu kita belum tahu lagi. Sama ada dengan kekuasaan itu, parti yang berkuasa akan kalah saya tidak tahu.”

Here is an establishment politician admitting that the state controls nearly every avenue of expression and uses its intelligence services as a means of securing political victory. In any functional democracy, this would be verboten but here in Malaysia and perhaps South-East Asia, this normalizing of authoritarian measures as a means of political victory and a tool of economic and social stability is considered par for the course.

Devoid of any principled politics

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Playing the Race and Religion Card for Regime Survival

And while I did not find the so-called “question” troubling, I do think that Razaleigh’s spin on money politics is indicative of why the political terrain is devoid of any sort of principled politics.

When he says, “Dalam isu wang, pilihan raya perlukan (wang). Suka atau tidak suka, itu tidak menjadi masalah curah duit banyak macam mana. Semua orang nak menang pilihan raya. Tidak ada nak bertanding hendak kalah,” I would say that nearly every politician I have met – establishment and opposition – has sublimated this idea and justified it as a means of achieving a greater good.

While UMNO practices money politics in its own crude and blatant way, increasingly the opposition is resorting to this to achieve their political goals. Indeed, jailed political leader Anwar Ibrahim warned of this in his letter from prison – “…the idealism which once fired PKR appears to have been doused by the lustre of power and funds”.

Indeed, when commenting on the letter I wrote, “Rich men with money are always hedging their bets. The average opposition supporter would be shocked by who funds whom. Plutocrats who are routinely mocked on in the comment sections of Malaysiakini and the other ‘alternative’ news (sic) sources, have always been amenable to funding potentially powerful power structures. Money politics isn’t just an UMNO thing.”

The real theme of the Razaleigh interview – ignoring the spin about how governance has only a small impact on the economy or how so-called security bills are there to protect us from foreign interference – is how politicians like him can never truly abandon UMNO because to do so would mean jumping off the gravy train.

This is not to say that politicians who have abandoned UMNO have the country’s best interest at heart. It merely means that they at least have the courage to stand up to the UMNO hegemon. Ultimately, standing up to the UMNO hegemon is the first step is acknowledging that the Malay community is evolving.

(I want to qualify this statement with this caveat from another article – “chasing the Malay vote using the dogma of UMNO is amplifying mistakes instead of rectifying them and ultimately a progressive Malaysia is better than one merely led by a political party using the same old UMNO dogma.”)

The great irony is that the “Malays”, because of how the game is rigged and how the opposition operates, are truly the masters of this land. As the ever-reliable political observer Dr. James Chin said, “It is not possible for a non-Malay victory, under any circumstances.”

What this really means is the success and failure of this country depends on how the Malays decide to play the game. The terrible truth is that it is not the non-Malays who are playing a rigged game but the Malays. The sooner the majority of Malays figure this out, the better for the country.