Asking the hard questions for Malaysia’s future

Saifuddin says we need to ask hard questions for Malaysia's future.

Saifuddin says we need to ask hard questions for Malaysia’s future.

By Pauline Wong

What is moderation, really? The word has been bandied about for quite some time now, but the meaning seems lost to many. Most importantly, how do we uphold this concept in order to see us through what is the most tense and conflicted time in our nation’s history?

In a recent interview with Global Movement of Moderates Foundation (GMM) CEO Saifuddin Abdullah, he said the way the country is headed seems to be going from bad to worse, and we need to start speaking out in the context of moderation.

He also reminds us that we need to start asking some really tough questions for our future, and it starts with the thorny issue of religion, which has sparked so many uneasy conversations going forward.

Yet if we do not start asking these questions, Saifuddin says, we will not be able to move forward.

What is moderation, first of all?

There are two parts to it. The first is the conceptual meaning, that is, when Prime Minister (Datuk Seri) Najib Abdul Razak first mooted the idea of GMM at the United Nations general assembly in 2010. Then, he (Najib) made reference to an Arabic term wasatiyyah — from the Quran, in Ayat 143 Surah al-Baqarah (2), which talks about the justly balanced community.

Justly balanced, means exactly that — for a Muslim, this means to balance what is today and what is in the thereafter, and many others, but what is more important is balancing between form and the substance.

How does one implement the concept of justly-balanced?

In our understanding, we have to see to moderation in everyday life, especially through policies and programme because this is where it affects people. By definition, Malaysians are moderates, otherwise we could have never survived as a young nation with hundreds of ethnic groups and numerous languages and religions, peacefully and harmoniously except for the past one or two years that we’ve seen people getting more adversarial with one another.

The ‘root’ themes, so to speak, are how to translate moderation in democracy and governance; in inclusive development; and in recognising the role of non-state actors especially civil society. What GMM is doing is counselling the govt especially the Prime Minister and advocating our message and how best to translate them into policies and programmes.

the way we interpret things and policy that should come.

For example, in upholding the supremacy of the Federal Constitution, how do you apply moderation to the position of Islam and the Malays — this is the most contentious of issues.

Article 3 speaks of Islam being the religion of the federation. But based on that article there are people now making arguments that because of that, Malaysia should be an Islamic state but there are also people who say Malaysia by definition, through the Constitution is a secular state.

So what is our position? Truth be told, we are not interested in that debate. We are more interested in telling Muslims to be good Muslims. But how do you become a good Muslim vis-a-vis Article 3?

Firstly, look at the teachings of Islam. The Quran says that if He wills, He could have created us as one, but He chose to create us into different tribes, and He asks us in another verse that we should know each other and not despise each other. So what does this mean? It means Islam celebrates diversity. So as a good Muslim, you shouldn’t be despising non-Muslims, rather, you should celebrate them — and it is more important than ever because Article 3 says so. Many verses in the Quran talk about how to treat the non-Muslims. In many verses it says you cannot make fun of other religions, and when you complement that with the prophet and his covenant with the Christians, you cannot then seize people’s Bibles! You cannot tell the Christians what to call their God. So if you take the position that “I have to be a good Muslim” then you wouldn’t have these kinds of things.

What about Article 153 — about the special position of the bumiputera?

Moderation here is understanding the reason behind that article, which is to only allow for affirmative action, but it doesn’t cover every aspect of life, in fact, it only mentions four areas, and even in those areas you must read it with other articles on equality before the law and non-discrimination. You must not read it as a standalone article.

For example, when people ask me why bumiputera have discount for buying houses: my answer is I have to ask developer. Maybe it’s a business strategy, and if the developer says yes, it is business strategy then well, I would say that’s alright t. Surely you have reasons and done your market research but if the developer says ‘I have to do this because this is part of special position of Bumiputera’ then I will say “Who said so?” Because Article 153 does not include housing. Somebody clearly over-stretched Article 153, and that is not moderation anymore; this using of 153 as justification for everything. I suspect this is maybe because on one hand, some people, because of the notion of Malay supremacy, it has trickled down to every level of decision-making, and that is a wrong world view. Maybe it is not done in bad faith — they are simply doing what is ‘usually done’. But you cannot allow it to go on. You are not doing justice to people, and second, you are allowing this wrong world view to prevail when it shouldn’t be there.

What is GMM’s approach?

GMM’s approach is trying to push for moderation in the lawmaking and decision-making process, but we are not privy to all laws. What we do is play a part in advocacy instead. Fortunately, I am a member of the National Unity Consultative Council, and within the NUCC we try to push certain policy reforms. For instance, on the supremacy of the Constitution, which we see as much needed because we see people misinterpreting, and over-stretching the Constitution, to make it do what it is not supposed to be doing.

And most importantly, we may be looking at sensitive topics, but we must ask the hard questions.

I always say we were better at moderation before — during the time of Tunku (Abdul Rahman). We have to ask the hard questions, to ask if somewhere along the lines we have derailed ourselves.

Sometimes it is not about making a new call, but about going to what we were, a realignment so to speak.

We are also looking into law reform, which will look at federal laws and state enactments, and yes, sometimes about Islamic law too.

The questions we need to ask are: how do you reconcile and improve, so that laws are properly written and adequately debated and consulted before it is presented. And, tougher still: Are all the enactments of Islamic law constitutional? In fact, I would go one step further to ask if the text of Syariah law (in our country) are Islamic in the first place?

What do you mean?

I give an example: Can the state actually govern personal sin? There are Muslim scholars who say, and I tend to belong to this school of thought — that the state cannot govern personal sin and cannot legislate personal sin, like whether a male Muslim should go to the mosque for fFiday prayers or not.

The state can legislate sins that affect others, for example, drinking alcohol. That is not unusual. Many secular states regulate drinking and driving, but personal sin that does not cause harm, like whether he prays or not or is fasting or not, you cannot legislate that because that is between him and God. And that is where it is very controversial because many state enactments will have to be removed.

And lets say u want to keep the enactments, fine, but how do you enforce it? Is punishing Muslims who don’t pray by parading them in a hearse really Islamic (like Terengganu where the Islamic religious authorities have imposed a punishment on Malays who do not attend Friday prayers)? That’s not moderation, that’s not what Islam is about.

How did we become like this?

I can only imagine one reason. On one hand you have some politicians, who are Malay Muslim having that kind of worldview, in that the supremacy of Malays and Islam must be protected and Islam must be propagated and upheld in a certain rigid way. Second, you have a group of Muslim scholars and officials especially people in charge of Islamic institutions who have the same kind of worldview. They may not really planning this together, but somehow they run parallel to each other and somehow they end up serving each other — they are not serving islam, they are serving each others’ standpoint and this is how we get to this situation. What we need is for politicians to be more open-minded and the scholars also. I believe part of being moderate is being able to understand and interpret Islam and the Constitution together, with the new realities of today. And this is where we are at a loss. We don’t seem to be able to balance it, either by design or default. My worry is if it is by design — these two groups that I spoke about somehow seem to be serving each other rather than serving Islam, which they are supposed to be guardians of, or the nation they are supposed to be leaders of. That’s very unfortunate. The only way forward then is to go back to the Constitution, make sure our laws are well codified and look at the way we formulate laws.

Do we need to get rid of these leaders? Do we need to drown them out?

We do, in terms of ideas and perspectives.

But how do we talk about ideas and perspectives if they won’t let you talk about it? People become so jumpy.

We just have to break some walls lah. (laughs). That’s why I like groups like the G25 speaking out, and the younger ones in many ways, either in forums and roundtables, print and online. We just have to move on. Sometimes it is a problem with both sides of the political divide. We see pockets of not-moderate standpoints and it applies both ways and that’s something not Malaysian. When you talk to older people, they will say that politicians those days were more mature about respecting each other. Politics was not so adversarial. It has became adversarial mainly because Islam is being made the scapegoat— when you use the ‘holier than thou’ argument, and this trickles down to all other kinds of conversations.

How important is leadership by example in this case? There is no one prominent leader right at the top, quashing all these extreme views.

I agree. But this is not about one person, but political leadership as a whole, it is like missing in action. And sometimes it is more in Putrajaya and sometimes it is both sides, and this is why its important the third force start speaking up — G25, for example.

People are often disappointed that Cabinet ministers and DPM and PM to stay silent. They are quiet when they are supposed to be speaking.

Yeah, we at GMM are worried. But we can say no more than that we counsel the top leadership to say something about what is happening because if you don’t, the worry is that things might get worse. And looking into the series of arrests by the police, it’s really getting from bad to worse.

What can we do?

People can take the initiative to take leadership in speaking up against all the extremist views, wherever they are coming from. Also, to do whatever that is needful in helping the situation. We at GMM are now running a project called Future of Malaysia. This is about getting a document coming from the people as to how the people’s aspiration for the future direction of the country. We have to start by making an honest evaluation of where are we today. Why do we find ourselves saying, “Eh, this is not the Malaysia I know”? We have to make a public call. We have to ask the question on what are real goals are. I’m sure the goal is not to win the next elections. Our goal is how to make Malaysia a great nation and a good society.

– The Rocket

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