He has fought against the “liberal” label bestowed to him by well-meaning observers to describe his decidedly un-conservative stand on controversial matters. These days, Khalid Samad prefers to call himself an Islamist. He tells The Rocket’s Chung Hosanna why.
It’s noon on a Tuesday when I meet Khalid Samad in the Parliament lobby and the sun wont stop shining in through the shades as he greets me with an affable grin. His gaze is steady, his suit impeccable. A miniature hands-free mobile headset perpetually sits on his left ear. He looks nothing like the PAS caricatures that, lets face it, the mainstream media paints and most people swallow wholesale.
Islam has been misunderstood, he tells me. “For the large part, people still have a stereotypical picture of a person who is Islamic as somebody who is very extreme, dogmatic, and uncompromising,“ his clipped English bears faint traces of an accent, perhaps acquired from his student years in the UK.
He paints a different picture for me of a brand of Islam that is tolerant, inclusive, and pragmatic. Khalid says, while there are uncompromising principles in his religion, there is also room for flexibility, taking into consideration the realities and limitations in society.
The Kelantan-born laments that many Muslims today feel that if they come into power, they should go on a rampage of clamping down and punishing certain acts.
Khalid explains that change is not something that can be imposed overnight. “It must engage with reality and manage change in a way which is acceptable and conducive for society.”
He emphasizes on the need to explain PAS’ stand and propagate the positive values upheld in Islam. “A more natural and eco-friendly kind of approach, if you will,” he says, with a laugh.
Despite hailing from an Islamic party oft-perceived as conservative, Khalid’s stand on several recent inter-religious and inter-racial conflicts have been anything but conservative.
He has publicly supported the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims, saying that “Islam is not the property of the Malays or Muslims only.” By way of explanation, Khalid adds that Islamists believe that Islam is for all humanity.
Last year, the engineer condemned 12 protestors in Shah Alam who infamously dragged a severed cow-head in protest, he criticised the sentence of a RM1,000 fine as not harsh enough.
When PM Najib’s aides insisted on the removal of crosses from a Christmas tea party hosted by the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Khalid called it “blatant act of religious intolerance”.
Most recently, he reportedly challenged Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to prove how bumiputera discounts on luxury properties would help poor Malays.
Such opinions have endeared Khalid, the MP for Shah Alam, to many right-thinking Malaysians who shun extremism and value his willingness to speak up for what they feel is “common sense”.
Still, the former ISA detainee insists he is no liberal. “Islam itself has liberal characteristics,” he clarifies. His views have sometimes landed him in hot soup with his party, even once leading to a six-month suspension in January 2010. I asked if his views are supported by PAS.
He points out that despite not being one of the top 18 elected by the Muktamar to the Central Committee, the party leadership still appointed him as a member of the Central Political Bureau. “This is proof that my line of thinking is not contrary to the Party’s direction and views,” he says.
Ironing out differences
Khalid maintains that there is room for dissent in a Party like PAS. He is no stranger to dealing with conflict within close quarters. His elder brother is former UMNO minister Shahrir Samad, while his elder sister was at one time a radical socialist and former ISA detainee.
By the time he came of age politically, Khalid says that his family was better able to handle divergent choices with no major friction.
The lessons he learnt from those experiences stood him in good stead when it came to working together with coalition partners with different views.
Above all, he advocates working on common goals while striving for mutual understanding. “If we stick to the principle of consensus I don’t think we can go wrong,” he says.
Although PAS espouses an Islamic worldview and DAP is a secular party, Khalid believes there are shared universal values that make the partnership work. Common goals include ending corruption, upgrading the education system, good governance, and nurturing a younger generation with ideals.
There are far more general objectives that all Pakatan parties agree on than specific issues that they differ on, Khalid says.
He admits that there are challenges, including being able to communicate with all parties without pre-conceived ideas and prejudices. The father of four says the solution is to put aside personal agendas for the good of society at large.
“Everyone is interested in making sure that there is national unity, economic justice and a higher increase in democratic values and practices,” he says.
Under UMNO, Malays lose out the most
Since 2008, PAS has gained increasing acceptance among non-Muslims, many are now willing to vote for PAS. If the roles were reversed, would pro-PAS voters accept the DAP, I ask him.
“Is this a trick question?” he laughs, then pauses to think. Realistically, Khalid says, the answer to my question is that it would be difficult at the moment.
When DAP candidates are up against MCA or Gerakan, votes from PAS-supporters are assured in most cases, he explains. The challenge lies in getting the Malay community to vote for a DAP candidate over an UMNO candidate.
Khalid says that while the DAP has come a long way, news of its successes have not reached the grassroots. He blames this on media control.
“Even though Penang Malays conclude that they are better off under DAP/PR, many Malays (from other states) are not aware of this…. because they are still reading Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian which reinforces the belief that Malays are left behind in Penang,” he says.
Khalid believes that media freedom is essential for attitudes to change. He adds that only a Pakatan federal government would be willing to unshackle the media.
He uses the word “lockdown” to describe UMNO imposed controls on the Malay population and by extension, the Malay-language media.
“When you think about it, the Malays are actually the ones who lose out the most under UMNO. They are completely subjugated.”
After 54 years under UMNO’s administration, Islam has been politicized and its principles diluted, he says. For the sake of political gain, UMNO equates Islam as the ‘right’ of the Malays. Religion has been used as a weapon to gather support among Muslims to defend their political leadership.
In comparison, he points out that the Chinese press is relatively freer from government control, as UMNO was more interested in ensuring their stranglehold over the Malays.
“UMNO was pleased to allow MCA and DAP to jostle for power, since it strengthened UMNO’s position. For the Chinese community, its schools, temples, and media is relatively freer. The Indian community is somewhat different,” he said.
Given the relatively greater degree of media freedom, non-Malays have greater political exposure than just government propaganda. Even though there are still various attempts to maintain the stereotypical image of PAS in the Chinese community, to a large extent this has not worked.
As a result, Khalid believes that most non-Malays are so fed-up with UMNO that as long as PAS portrays a more tolerant and just image, they would be willing to give PAS a shot.
Pakatan’s success in Selangor
Khalid says he is proud of the performance of the Selangor state government since Pakatan Rakyat took over administration in 2008.
He cites the improvement in economic management, social policies, and financial assistance to religious and vernacular schools as areas where the PR government has done well. In particular, he singles out the freeing of the mosques and suraus from political influence.
“In the old days, UMNO would dictate who would be the mosque chairman and khatib (friday prayer and hari raya payer leader), now the people are allowed to elect the candidate of their choice. This curbs the use of mosques as a political platform.”
Khalid notes that before PR introduced the new quota system for appointment for local councils, Councillors hardly interacted with the public. Now, each local council is in charge of a Resident’s Association and they meet with locals regularly to handle their daily issues. This is a major breakthrough, he says.
The Selangor PR government has emphasized on social welfare programs and targeted assistance such as free water, cash bonus for senior citizens and newborns, and financial assistance for students.
Since these programs were implemented, the state government now has more information on the demographics of Selangoreans according to age, financial standing, disability, etc. Armed with this information, the state government is better able to manage the wealth of the state to benefit the different groups of people, Khalid says.
“In the final analysis, the public should understand that the government is elected by them and should service them. The government should be concerned about the displeasure of the rakyat and not the other way round,” he says.
A recent poll showed that 59% of Selangoreans support PR. Khalid says while it is difficult to accurately predict the results with a simple straw poll, he takes it as an indication of support. As the state government continues to toil at what they do best, he hopes that the growing support will tide PR over to achieve victory in the federal level. –The Rocket
“We are an increasingly enlightened nation. We believe that every individual within the nation wants the same things. They want justice, they want to be treated with respect, they want their rights to be recognized, they want to be part of the nation, they want to contribute to the development of the nation.” –Khalid Samad at the 2011 Malaysia Student Leader’s Summit.