Malaysia Uncut

A Repository of Malaysian Stuff and More

Cries of the silent majority

by Zainah Anwar

Image from: Blogsmalaysia

NOW that the silent majority is speaking out in indignation at the racial and religious oratory at the Umno general assembly, political leaders on all sides of the Barisan Nasional are scrambling for damage control.

I am already meeting people who are planning to boycott or spoil their votes at the next general election. They can’t bring themselves to vote for the Opposition, neither can they bring themselves to vote for Barisan Nasional, the party they usually support.

Umno must realise that, for many moderate Malaysians, it has crossed the line. A party that has prided itself as the bedrock of centrist politics, that from its birth held an inherent belief in the politics of accommodation necessary for a divided society to survive, has presented an extremist face to Malaysians.

Many are now saying that what happened was the usual sabre-rattling of any race-based party when the members gather annually. But Umno, as the dominant party in the ruling coalition, must set the tone for moderation and reason, for a sombre analysis of the real challenges besetting the community and the party, especially at a time when nerves are frayed over the religious extremism shown by Islamist groups and their allies within the government. Instead, what the public got was a party display that turned friends into enemies.

The belligerent speakers at the Umno assembly thought they were reflecting “the mood on the ground”. They thought they could win support by presenting themselves as protectors of bangsa dan agama under threat. But among whom? For whom? Whose interests were they really protecting?

Instead of inspiring the nation, they have scared us. Non-Muslims are alienated, the moderate Malays are embarrassed and alarmed, and the Islamists that Umno so fears remain planted in the Pas playground — a Pas that is now trying to woo Yusuf Islam, the former Cat Stevens, to hold a concert in Kelantan to try to moderate its extremist image.

It is going to take more, much more than the prime minister’s closing speech, and subsequent assurances by others that the supremacist voices in the general assembly do not reflect the thinking of the Umno leadership, to calm the nerves of so many of us who want to live and die in this country.

The Umno politicians who felt they must display their Malay-Muslim machismo must know by now that they have actually misjudged “the mood on the ground”. The real mood on the ground remains rooted in the good sense and judgment of those who voted for the Barisan Nasional in the 2004 elections — for all that it promised and stood for with a change of leadership.

Umno must know by now that when it speaks, it does not address just its members. Its audience is the whole country. And foreign journalists, academics, diplomats, foreign governments and international organisations that study Malaysia and look to us as the model Muslim country.

The past one year has been a trying time as Pas and its Islamist allies in civil society and government joined hands to demonise and delegitimise those who stood up for fundamental liberties on issues such as moral policing, freedom of religion and discriminatory Syariah laws.

Instead of defending the Constitution they pledged to uphold, the international conventions their own party-led government signed, and even government commitments to end all forms of discrimination on the basis of gender, many Umno leaders retreated into silence, or bought into the sense of “crisis” and “siege” their political rivals engineered. Some even publicly joined the “race and religion under siege” wagon train over the past year.

When the Mufti of Perak announced that 100,000 Muslims have left Islam and another 250,000 are waiting to leave, the government took time to dispute the figures. Even then with little effect, as the “Islam DiHina” bandwagon had already reached mosques and surau nationwide to spread their inflammatory and provocative propaganda in order to engineer disorder.

When the Penang Global Ethics project aimed at promoting unity in diversity came under attack by the same Islamist supremacist groups, and then again at the Umno general assembly, no one in government had the courage to point out that this international campaign to promote religious understanding and harmony was based on an international declaration endorsed by the government. The original declaration launched at the 1993 meeting of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions was endorsed by two government representatives, the chairman of IKIM, Tan Sri Ahmad Sarji Abdul Hamid and the former director-general, Datuk Ismail Ibrahim. The Penang project was launched by no less than the governor himself, the head of religion in the state, and the chief minister.

And yet, when it was attacked, those who should have defended it vociferously were silent. While those who raved and ranted against the project as yet another attempt to undermine the supremacy of Islam set the agenda.

From the stillborn Interfaith Council to Article 11, liberal Islam, the Shamala, Moorthy and Lina Joy cases and purported thousands of apostates, to even the lowly ice-cream wafer, it was Pas and the Islamists who framed the agenda and defined what is Islamic, what is not, what poses a danger to the faith, what does not.

Where are the voices of reason in government who have the will to stand up against this onslaught? Why are they not on television, radio, in the mosques, to challenge the demonising and twisted propaganda that is undermining the nation’s social fabric? What alternative opinions are the Malays exposed to that could enable them to judge rationally and soberly whether indeed our interests are under threat? Perhaps if reason had spoken up, the mood on the Malay ground would not be so “restless”.

Only one side of the story dominated the public space, because those who represented the opposing view in civil society were gagged.

Was it any wonder that these Umno politicians thought the “mood on the ground” had shifted and they must rise to the occasion? Only to find they actually lost the ground.

Thus the current outcries of concern. But I am ever the optimist, believing in the innate good sense and pragmatism of  Malaysians who know that we have much to love and to live for in this blessed country, and we have much to lose if it all comes apart.

If the leaders cannot lead, then we, the people, will lead, and the leaders will follow.

The silent majority that speaks once every four or five years at the ballot box are beginning to realise that their silence is at Malaysia’s peril.

In the worst of times, the best of times can emerge. I am hearing many stories of Malaysians thinking and planning all kinds of actions to foster better inter-ethnic and inter-religious understanding, in small and big ways.

The opportunity is now as we enter 2007 to celebrate 50 years of Merdeka. The politicians, in and out of government, and the Islamists can decide whether they want to be with the rakyat in ensuring come Aug 31, 2007 we are in the mood to celebrate, or we are expending our time, energy and resources creating enemies and fighting imaginary threats from the likes of ice-cream wafers.

My friends are planning to start an “I am Malaysian first” campaign to build up to Merdeka Day next year. We want it to be a joyous and proud time where we celebrate the wealth and strength of our diversity, and build inter-ethnic bridges that politicians intent on using race and religion to polarise us cannot rend asunder.

Source: NST Online

Saturday, December 2, 2006 - Posted by | Commentary

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