Fear-mongers drown out genuine issues

28/11/2006 The Sun

Fear-mongers drown out genuine issues
by Azmi Sharom Kuala Lumpur

It would be an understatement to say that the just-concluded Umno General Assembly has caused a great deal of concern among right-thinking Malaysians, regardless of race. The language by many of the delegates was disgraceful. Although the prime minister did make conciliatory gestures in his closing address, the fact remains that not one of the Umno delegates, with the exception of Markiman Kobiran, publicly said anything against such behaviour. This to me indicates that such thinking is reflective of the thinking of the rank and file and that is worrying. This is not some fringe group we are talking about here, this is Umno and it is the ruling party.

However, let us look upon the positives. I remember many years ago in sunny England, talking to a South African friend and we both agreed that the thing about apartheid era South Africa was that at least you knew exactly where the racism was, unlike in Britain where it was more insidious. The same can be said in our situation now, the blatant bigotry and the racism have risen to the surface. It is there in plain view and should now be dealt with.

The language used in the general assembly was the language of war and death. Blood was a recurring theme and there was even a call to “use the keris”. Now, no matter what Hishammuddin Hussein might say about the keris being merely a symbol, it is still a weapon and the imagery of him being asked to use that weapon is quite simply one of violence.

When there is talk of war and threats, the purpose is to frighten. And the purpose of frightening people is so that they, in their fear, will turn to a saviour. The fear is that of the non-Malay (and some “traitorous” Malays of course) and their ever-present threat to Malay privileges and Islam. The saviour naturally is Umno. A point not only made by the delegates but also by the RTM presenter covering the general assembly. Therefore, it must surely be true.

But let us first see whether this fear is justified. Just as the American and British public should have demanded more firmly from their governments “where are those weapons of mass destruction that is going to destroy us?”, we the people of Malaysia, particularly the Malay people of Malaysia, should be asking “where is the threat to our constitutional privileges and the religion of Islam?”

Rights vs privileges

Firstly, let’s examine the issue of Malay privileges. Incidentally, it is not “Malay rights”. There is no such thing as a racial “right” to be given special treatment. And that is not me being argumentative, it’s the Constitution. You won’t find “Malay rights” in the supreme law of our land, instead, you will find terms such as “special position” of Malays. The difference is more than semantics. A right implies something inalienable. A privilege on the other hand is a benefit, presumably given to those who need it. It is inconceivable that discrimination, whether affirmative or not, can be considered a right. It is in direct contradiction with that most fundamental of true rights, equality among all human beings.

This privilege was made a fundamental part of the Constitution to protect the Malays from being overwhelmed economically, administratively and politically from the immigrant ethnic groups of the time. In return those groups were given the protection and security of citizenship. This is our famous social contract.

How is this constitutional provision being threatened? By people merely questioning it? Is that a threat? Have questions become a threat in this country? What the delegates did not bother pointing out to the people of Malaysia is that for such privileges to be taken away would require a constitutional Aamendment that would need the two-third support of the Dewan Rakyat, the Dewan Negara and approval from the Conference of Rulers. Hardly likely, no matter who is in government. So why is there such a fear?

‘Threats’ to Islam

With regard to the threat to Islam, again, it is merely fear mongering. A so-called danger is the matter of apostasy. The official numbers of converts out of Islam is miniscule and a large percentage of those are for people who had to embrace Islam because of marriages which have since failed. Shafee Muslims are given every single opportunity to practise their faith in this country and their perpetually delicate sensitivities are guarded to the point of comedy. For example, when was the last time you saw a pig on the cinema screen? So again, my question remains, where is the threat?

The so-called threats are made up based on narrow-minded thinking and untruths. For example, the Konrad Adenaur Foundation programme in Penang where people are brought around on a tour of various houses of worship is apparently a serious threat. How can it be? Unless your faith is so weak that the visiting of a temple would turn you into a Hindu. The idea of such programmes is to emphasise the peaceful and neighbourly intent of all religions. And what is wrong with that? Are these so-called “defenders of Islam” saying that only Islam promotes such values? If that is the case, all other religions must surely be solely about evil practices. Only the most bigoted can possibly believe that.

The Interfaith Commission is another handy bogeyman. The IFC is not an NGO or an organisation of any kind; it was a proposed statutory body. The purpose of this body was to provide a forum where interfaith issues could be discussed and advice given to the relevant bodies in the event of conflict. It was not a judicial body with authority to make binding decisions. It can in no way usurp the jurisdiction of the syariah court, the civil court or even the penghulu court.

But the Malay press painted a different picture. The IFC was going to emasculate the syariah court and it was going to encourage and enforce the conversion of Muslims out of the religion it seems. Either the writers of such slander did not read the Constitution of the proposed IFC or they did and they decided to just write what they wanted anyway. Besides, the idea has been all but scrapped and for it to work it needs to be passed by Parliament. I don’t think that this is going to happen. So what we have here is delegates raising the ghost of the IFC as a threat when in fact it never was a threat and having been shelved by the Umno-led government, it’s effectively dead anyway. How much simpler can this be put? There was no threat.

In the face of such bigotry, I am reminded of Akbar Shah, the greatest of the Moghul emperors. He protected people of all faiths and protected the freedom of worship for all. And he encouraged debate and communication between religions as well. It’s a good thing that this man, the leader of one of the greatest Muslim empires ever known, was not Malaysian because he would have probably been branded a threat to Islam.

Genuine issues ignored

All this fist-waving and calls to arms is sad not only because it shows the unacceptably ugly reality of prejudice in our country, but more importantly, by raging against imaginary dangers and shooting at shadows, time is wasted and genuine issues are not being properly debated. Even the prime minister bemoaned the fact that the true threat of corruption was not discussed in any depth.

And why was the issue of the wastage of public funds not discussed? For example, the spending of millions of public money to send Malaysian astronauts to space to play batu seremban. Supposedly it is to encourage interest in science. Perhaps it would have been better to debate whether this will promote interest in science or maybe, just maybe, using the money to build proper science labs in government schools, would be a better option.

And if the issue of apostasy has to be debated, instead of vicious calls for punishment (as if cruelty is going to make one’s religion more endearing), maybe the debate should be why are those Muslims who are converting out of Islam so disillusioned? When looking at a problem, the first port of call should be oneself. It’s a lot harder than pointing accusatory fingers quivering with rage at others, but ultimately more meaningful.

Issues such as the Asli (Asian Strategic and Leadership Institute) report must be studied with cold reason and not emotive screaming. It is of vital importance to know the truth and that means looking at works from independent bodies like Asli. It is important because we need to know what is working and what is not in order to make sure we do not head towards economic and social meltdown.

It is the future of Malaysia that we should be concerned about and honest discussions about what we can do to secure that future is what we need to hear from the so-called leaders of the country. Not the scoring of cheap shots and not the obtaining of political mileage from appealing to the lowest and basest instincts of man. If we are not mature enough to rationally examine what this country truly needs, and more importantly, if the leaders of the nation are not mature enough to do this, all of us, Malays, Indians, Chinese, indigenous peoples, all us ordinary Malaysians, we will suffer.