The Rocket caught up with Dr Azmi Sharom, Associate Professor at University Malaya’s Faculty of Law to pick his brain on the state of the nation and its diverse people. Everyone’s favourite lecturer also tells us why Pakatan is so crucial to the country and even throws in a Power Rangers analogy!
What is “sensitive” today and why?
Race and religion are deemed sensitive, even though they should not be because the way I see it, discussions on these topics have been not along the lines of “Malay people are bad” or even that Islam is bad, per se. We’re not talking about a bigot running around threatening to burn a religious book or whatever.
That’s not what people want to discuss; they want to talk about the issue of the special position of the Malays and natives of East Malaysia. When people ask these questions, they are not trying to be nasty; they are just wondering about the exact position of Islam in this country. Where does the religion stand and what is the relationship between Islam and the other faiths in the country?
When it comes to the Malays special position, they are not questioning the position itself but rather the implementations surrounding it. So why is this sensitive? There will be some who become furious with me; “How dare he question Article 153!” But I’ve never questioned 153 (pertaining to special position of Malays and natives) and I don’t think anyone in the public eye has ever really questioned it.
Neither has anyone questioned Article 3 (Islam as the religion of the Federation) although it remains strange that a federation can acquire a religion. But no one is questioning the fundamentals. But the discussions are made sensitive by those who want to maintain the status quo where the power lies in the hands of a few. That is why such topics are declared ‘sensitive’. It also doesn’t help that many Muslims in this country are so lacking in confidence about their faith.
They seem to be very shaky in the strength of their religious convictions. How on earth does a non-Muslim speaking in a surau threaten Islamic faith? It is ridiculous (referring to Serdang MP Teo Nie Ching who was recently slammed by some quarters for speaking at Surau Al-Huda). This is a matter made sensitive by those who want to maintain their grip on power.
The Malay ruling elite, for instance, wants to prevent people from discussing Article 153 because if we discussed it, we would see that its implementation favour but a few. The religious authorities do not want us to discuss Article 3 because it would take away the power to dominate the religious discourse from them.
We are aware that academic freedom is curbed dramatically in Malaysia with classrooms banned from touching on many topics. As a lecturer, how do you deal with this?
I have never had any problems in saying what I need to say in the classroom, so I think it is a matter of the other lecturers deciding to stand up and say what needs to be said. As long as it is academically sound, they should be able to do and say what they feel is necessary. So in a way, it is up to us to reclaim our classrooms. As long as our discussions are academic in nature, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be stopped from speaking.
But it happens because academics here are so used to following orders and being frightened. Strictly speaking, if the Vice-Chancellor or ministry tries to fool around needlessly with what we teach in our classrooms, the entire academic community should be up in arms to defend the accused lecturer. But we don’t, and this is the real problem. It’s not really about the government and the laws; yes, they are oppressive, but we have not taken the necessary steps to stand up for ourselves either. So the problem is two-fold.
For example, a few years ago, the government introduced “Aku Janji” (compulsory document for all civil servants to pledge loyalty to the government) and in any other country with an academic body that has a sense of pride, we would have gone on strike or refused to sign it. But in light of how Malaysia is, PEKAUM (University Malaya Academic Staff Union) knew that anything as dramatic as a strike would scare off the majority of people.
So instead, we drafted a letter of protest for people to sign and submit together with the “Aku Janji” form. The protest letter outlined that they were signing the form under economic duress for fear of losing their jobs and that they were not signing away any of their constitutional rights.
This was a mild form of protest and still, only about a dozen people took it up, out of a campus of 2,000 staff. We had actually gone on road shows to the various faculties to explain the importance of this protest to them. So we are cowards, and if the powers that be mess with us, it is our own fault.
Many have said that our academic institutions are producing young adults who lack critical thinking skills. Are there other factors involved?
I think the quality of our academic institutions is only partly related to the lack of critically-thinking young people. When I was a student, I hardly attended lectures anyway; that’s how most students are. In that sense, what happens in the classroom isn’t the most important aspect of a young person’s quality.
However, having a bunch of lecturers with various views who are free to express their points, that is important as it broadens your mind to the possibility of alternatives. So the lecture theatre does affect you and that is the responsibility of educators but for a young person at university, their life on campus also has a huge impact on them.
In terms of being stifled, this is where it occurs, more so than during lectures. Their lives on campus don’t allow them to explore themselves fully which then retards their growth in many ways. Much of this can be attributed to the Student Affairs departments whereby every single head of the department has to be UMNO-friendly. So the basic governance of students’ lives on campus is already skewed in favour of one group.
They get the authority from the University and University Colleges Act (UUCA) which was passed during the time of the New Economic Policy (NEP). The UUCA gives the university the right to control the lives of its students, so there is no self-governance on the part of our youth.
At the end of the day, most students are apathetic because that is the nature of youth – they have other priorities on their list. But for the few students who are interested in expressing their views on key issues, it is crucial that they have that space as this will affect the others around them. Awareness grows through osmosis so they should at least have the possibility, which is now being denied.
In light of much emphasis on national unity, you’ve stated that “diversity in ideology is more vital than the idea of unity”. Why is this a more important goal than unity?
Without friction of some sort, you cannot have development. Take our modern work benefits of paid leave or medical coverage. These advantages for workers resulted from the clash between communism and capitalism. The two ideologies came together and without them, we wouldn’t have this benefit today.
This is why there is a constant need for diversity. That example was of economic diversity but the same applies to politics and religion. Also, one size does not fit all which is why even within one faith, there has to be diversity. In the words of (former Indonesian President) Gus Dur, “Islam ini warna-warni.” (“Islam is multicoloured.”) The same applies to other religions too.
For this reason, unity must not mean uniformity; instead, it should be a conviction that every one of us belongs here in this country. There should also be certain basic ground rules which people adhere to. That’s all it should mean – it is a minimal kind of idea. It should not be confused with “Kita semua sama,” (“We are all the same,”) because that is not what it should be at all.
How useful are civil society efforts such as Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM)?
A body like SABM is extremely important because it has a very un-NGO vibe. The NGOs such as SUARAM, HAKAM, AWAM and so on are more strident in their activism while SABM takes a more laid-back approach. Thus, they can appeal to those Malaysians who may not want to be so strident but still want to voice their frustrations.
SABM provides a platform for the Malaysian who isn’t keen to be too radical. Their approach is very simple and the objective of empowering people to think about the issues is a clear one. They also provide a safe space for people to gather, have fellowship and be reminded that we are not alone. If the SABM idea spreads to other groups of people who begin to gather in small groups and discuss these vital issues, it would be very helpful for communities.
Do you see your perspective as the voice of the majority of Malaysians?
Sometimes it does feel like my views are in the minority. But there is nothing radical about my views; what is radical about acceptance or compassion or human rights? These are fundamental ideals but I’m painted as a radical. It goes to show just how bad the indoctrination in this country has been that something humanist can be seen as dangerous.
That is how people have been brainwashed into thinking there is a race war going on, when there isn’t. People have also been taught to think that there is such a thing as racial superiority and that it is acceptable. When that has been pounded into the people over the years, they believe it is the truth. But what happens in this country is an aberration and what myself and some others are saying should be the actual norm yet we are seen as the radicals.
It is difficult to battle this because the accepted thinking is so warped that humanist thought then becomes a hard sell.
What made you grow up without believing in racial superiority, etc?
There was nothing really special about my childhood, as far as I can tell. I did leave the country at a young age (to live in England) and that helped me to look at the country from the outside in, perhaps also because I was a minority over there.
But at the end of the day, why do we need such an epiphany to realise that if I like to be treated nicely, so would everyone else? What’s so difficult about realising that? You don’t need to have some special experience to understand this, surely?
What role does Pakatan play in turning around the state of things today?
Pakatan is of vital importance and this cannot be stressed enough. It is indispensible despite the few bad apples which each of the component parties have. Pakatan is crucial on two counts; one, it has succeeded in proving that it can govern in the states that it has won and that life goes on even when there is a change of government. So now the people can see it is not about who governs, but who governs best.
Secondly, Pakatan has put into the minds of Malaysians the belief that change can happen. That psychological jump is huge; this is the closest that we’ve come to forming a new Federal government. If you look at the number of votes, we actually had a new government (in March 2008) if there hadn’t been so much gerrymandering.
This is crucial; Pakatan has to win and cannot just think in terms of being an Opposition anymore. It has to do what it takes to win, which means it has to sort out the various internal problems because the public can see these and will wonder what is going on.
The people of Malaysia deserve a different government because we deserve a true democracy. We need to have a two-party system with changes occurring regularly and peacefully because it will improve a lot of things. Our civil service will develop because their feudal ties to one group will be broken. As it stands, they do not understand that the civil service is a power unto itself. They have their own ideals and principles which they have to stick to regardless of who is in power. But when the power does not change, we see feudalistic behaviour of civil servants who think they are the servants of UMNO.
It is important for Pakatan to feel the responsibility of power and for the people to feel that they have the power to remove governments from Putrajaya if need be. In that sense, Pakatan is the most important element in the country right now.
Where does DAP fit within the framework of Pakatan?
All three component parties have to truly believe in Pakatan as an entity unto itself. Using the Power Ranger cartoon as an analogy, there is a green Ranger, a red Ranger and a blue Ranger, each with its own skills. But when they become robots, they then combine to become a giant Power Ranger robot. Their individuality has to give way to something larger.
So the three Power Rangers have to think about the good of the giant robot as opposed to the good of their own robots. Currently each party focuses on different issues, with DAP taking the lead on economic issues, PAS on Islamic affairs and so forth. But this is not really good as it does not lead to a common ideology. So for instance, DAP can accept that certain Islamic principles are fine; it does not mean we have to become an Islamic state, but we can absorb certain principles into our governance. There is a need to speak in the language of compromise. -The Rocket