Beware of meddling via soft power !


MEDDLING by foreign powers is an established phenomenon for as long as one can remember. They are not limited only to the Muslim countries and communities. For example, last year at the Seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama City, President Barack Obama indirectly admitted this when he publicly stated that the days of US interference in the affairs of Latin America were coming to an end. Reportedly, he said, “the days in which our agenda in this hemisphere presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity, those days are past”. Some traced this to as far back as the conquest of the Americas by the Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries especially after its so-called “discovery” by Columbus. Perhaps, the major difference is that there are many more Latin American leaders and populace who are more “resolute” than their Muslim counterparts in resisting any attempt to meddle.

More generally “colonialism” is one form of meddling that many parts of the world have experienced, and are still suffering from it. Malaysia is no exception, no denying that there are some benefits to be learnt from the process. But where it hits the “mind” is where it is more toxic to the extent that it can debilitate. Even long after achieving independence the “colonised” mindsets are still clearly felt whether at the level of the leadership or the population at large. The post-Merdeka generations are more vulnerable when they are shut out from the larger discourse affecting the future of the nation, ironically due to yet another form of “meddling” that left them disenfranchised. In the days of social media, the impact of this can be phenomenal, what with other contending parties that are more than eager to attract their attention, as we have seen recently.

Social media is an excellent platform for yet another form of meddling – soft power. Coined a few years ago, soft power describes “the ability to attract and co-opt using persuasion (mind-twisting) rather than by coercion, notably by bullying and arm-twisting (hard power). To the disenfranchised, soft power is said to be very appealing especially when “credibility is the scarcest resource”, as explained by Joseph Nye, who introduces the concept. In fact more recently, the term has expanded to include “changing and influencing social and public opinion through relatively less transparent channels and lobbying through powerful political and non-political organisations.”

Of the six factors that are often associated with enhancing soft power, education and culture seem to be pivotal. In other words, meddling can be carried out discreetly using these two dimensions. Indeed, Nye did suggest how higher education leaders might enhance American soft power by increasing international student and cultural exchange programmes. Viewed this way, soft power is a very subtle extension of the colonial process without even realising it. A case in point is when in 2007 the Rand Corporation in the US developed a “road map” for the construction of moderate Muslim networks and institutions “that the US government and its allies need, but thus far have failed, to develop clear criteria for partnerships with authentic moderates”. It therefore proposes “the building of moderate Muslim networks an explicit goal of US government programmes”.

More explicitly, it listed who the “moderates” are to be targeted according to priority, namely: liberal and secular Muslim academics and intellectuals, young moderate religious scholars, community activists, women’s groups engaged in gender equality campaigns, and finally moderate journalists and writers. It argued that “the US should ensure visibility and platforms for these individuals.” For example, to ensure that individuals from these groups are “included in congressional visits, making them better known to policymakers and helping to maintain US support and resources for the public diplomacy effort.” If these sound like “meddling”, it is because it is one – effectively disguised as “soft power”. It is without doubt, yet another attempt among many to continuously interfere and manipulate the situation from the perspective of the authors and the sponsoring institution. Despite this it is very sad if Muslims are oblivious to the sleight of hand, and succumb to the form of endless meddling. Only to realise that it causes more confusion and divisiveness among the community.

In the days ahead before Aug 31, it is incumbent upon us to deeply ponder what Merdeka means beyond the routine parade and march-past, flag-raising ceremony and singing the national anthem.

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, theSundaily

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that “another world is possible”. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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No room for an Islamic State (IS) and the racists in multiracial Malaysia


Let not the first brick be laid

THREE issues that have surfaced over the past week have terribly disturbed me and I am sure many Malaysians who are rational, reasonable and fair-minded feel the same way. More than that, these actions are slowly eroding the Malaysia that we know.

Minister in charge of Islamic Affairs Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom told Parliament that unilateral conversions are lawful and gua­ranteed under the Federal Constitution.

This writer does not know if Jamil understood what he was reading out, which was presumably prepared by an official, or if he had referred to the Cabinet papers or read up on the Federal Constitution.

There is a 2009 Cabinet directive on uni­lateral conversion and early this year, a five-member Cabinet committee on unilateral conversion also decided that no child can be converted to another religion without the consent of both parents.

The 2009 Cabinet directive also stipulated that children must follow the practised religion of the parents at the time of marriage in the event that one of them converts.

Surely Jamil must be aware of the committee because he is also a member. Among the others in the panel are Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Tan Sri Joseph Kurup.

The other members of the committee are Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Aziz, de facto law minister Nancy Shukri, and Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam.

Jamil and his officials cannot read the Federal Constitution – specifically the provision for conversion – in isolation.

The argument of the singular meaning for “parent” does not hold water as the Interpretation Act 1948 & 1967 clearly indicates otherwise; the term “parent” in Article 12 (4) must necessarily mean both the father and mother.

To construe otherwise would mean depriving, for example, a mother of her rights as a parent to choose the religion of her infant under Article 12 (4), if the father alone decides. In simple English, the Interpretation Act stipulates “parent” to mean plural, not singular.

The Interpretation Acts of 1948 and 1967, which generally apply to all Acts of Parliament, state that words in the singular shall include the plural. Therefore, the Constitution ought to be interpreted in like manner.

Jamil should also put himself in the shoes of other Malaysians, especially non-Muslims. He may be in charge of Islamic Affairs but he is also a leader of all Malaysians.

I don’t think Jamil will be a happy man if his spouse makes a decision without telling him, and we are not even talking about religious issues.

Lest we forget, the Federal Court has ruled that Hindu mother M. Indira Gandhi is allowed to challenge the validity of the unilateral conversion of her three children by her Muslim-convert ex-husband Muhammad Riduan.

The ruling is the culmination of the interfaith custody battle between Indira and Muhammad Riduan that began in 2009. They were married as Hindus and today, no one has been able to trace the whereabouts of Muhammad Riduan (formerly K. Pathmanathan), who had converted the couple’s three children – then aged 12, 11 and 11 months – to Islam without their presence or Indira’s knowledge, just six days before he obtained a custody order for all three in the Syariah Court on April 8, 2009.

Another big surprise last week was the Government’s decision to allow PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang to table a Private Member’s Bill in the Dewan Rakyat to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965.

On Thursday, it was at the bottom of the day’s agenda but it was prioritized by two Federal Ministers. It came as a surprise because PAS has brought the Private Member’s Bill four times since 1995, and has never succeeded. On Thurday, Hadi got this first step.

We can be sure that Hadi will repeat his mantra that the Bill only seeks to empower the Syariah Courts and it only involves Muslims.

When tabling the Bill, he said it seeks to amend Section 2 of the Act to state that the Syariah Courts will have jurisdiction over Muslims, and in the case of offences on matters listed in Item 1 of the State List under the Ninth Schedule of Federal Laws.

He said it is also to include Section 2A, which states that in the conduct of criminal law under Section 2A, the Syariah Courts have the right to impose penalties allowed by Syariah laws related to offences listed in the said section, in addition to the death penalty.

What Hadi is pushing for is unacceptable. We live in a plural society. Those who argue that the Syariah law is only for Muslims may have missed this point – can anyone in Malaysia guarantee that crimes would only involve Muslim criminals and victims?

Many kinds of criminal acts affect non-Muslims, including rape. If we follow what Hadi is preaching – we will have to find four male witnesses of repute to testify in a rape case. Women witnesses are not accepted and we wonder where we are going to find four men of good reputation in relation to a rape case.

If non-Muslims already find that judges in civil courts are reluctant to adopt a firm stand on the civil rights of the aggrieved non-Muslim party, we wonder how the Syariah Courts can defend the interest of non-Muslims.

There cannot be a parallel criminal justice system with Muslims and non-Muslims subjected to two different laws. This is not about Islam, as advocated by Hadi and PAS, but simple common sense. But of course, common sense is not that common in PAS but we hope there will be a sense of fair play from Umno, and not the agenda dictated by the likes of Jamil. Sometimes we wonder if Jamil is really from Umno or PAS.

The third disappointment must be a speech made by Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaacob, the controversial Rural and Regional Development Minister, who is well known for his communal remarks.

Last week, he reminded his listeners that Malays must unite to prevent non-Muslims from becoming Prime Minister because the Federal Constitution is silent on the racial origin of the top boss.

First of all, I cannot imagine any non-Malay aspiring to be the PM because, accept it, realistically it is not going to happen in my lifetime. It took 200 years in the United States for a black man to become president, even when the whites and blacks are mainly Christians and speak English.

But it is sad that in this age and time, Ismail is still looking inward and seeing things through his racist lens. Surely, he must have applauded when a Muslim became the first mayor of London, and for that matter, the first mayor in a big Western city.

Even in Jakarta, the capital of the world’s largest Muslim country, a Christian Chinese has been voted in as the city’s governor.

The non-Malays, especially the Chinese, are aware of their position as a minority in Malaysia. Politicians like Ismail should stop using phrases like “they” and “us” in his speeches, because we are all Malaysians.

What he has said serves little purpose, except to hurt feelings unnecessarily. A true mature Malaysian leader will talk about the strength of all Malaysians, regardless of their race and religion, coming together and not going separate ways.

As one lawyer put it aptly in his article, Malaysia is represented by at least 45% of the population who have faiths other than Islam. The important question one needs to address is the line between maintaining social stability and securing individual rights of religious practice and freedom of religion.

He further added, “this needs to be re-evaluated – where the politicisation of the Muslim rights over the non-Muslim citizens and fear mongering has had considerable effect in defining the parameters of the fundamental rights afforded to the citizen by the Constitution.”

Three months from now, Malaysia will celebrate its National Day. As we replay the old visual of Tunku Abdul Rahman raising his hand at Stadium Merdeka, let us not forget that the Alliance created Malaysia as a secular democracy.

Tunku would have been horrified at the thought of what Hadi and his PAS theolo­gians want to do with Malaysia.

He would have also reminded a few Umno leaders, who have no sense of history, that our Independence was made possible because of the unity of Umno, MCA and MIC, and that without Sabah and Sarawak, there would be no Malaysia.

So please think carefully of the hearts and minds of the rest of Malaysians who do not live in Kelantan and do not want to see Malaysia turned into an Islamic State. Let not the first brick be laid.

By Wong Chun Wai The Star

Wong Chun Wai began his career as a journalist in Penang, and has served The Star for over 27 years in various capacities and roles. He is now the group’s managing director/chief executive officer and formerly the group chief editor.

On The Beat made its debut on Feb 23 1997 and Chun Wai has penned the column weekly without a break, except for the occasional press holiday when the paper was not published. In May 2011, a compilation of selected articles of On The Beat was published as a book and launched in conjunction with his 50th birthday. Chun Wai also comments on current issues in The Star.

 

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Malaysia’s pragmatic patriot: friends with benefits


 

The South China Sea dispute. The global terrorism threat. Malaysia’s foreign policy is back in the world’s spotlight and it is exciting times for ISIS Malaysia’s Foreign Policy and Security Studies chief.

IN an article titled “Think tanks aren’t going extinct. But they have to evolve”, American scholar James Jay Carafano wrote that the capacity to do rigorous, credible research is “no longer sufficient” for think tanks to manoeuvre their ideas prominently into the policy debate. Instead, think tanks must learn to communicate “in ways that will allow their ideas to break through to decision-makers who are bombarded with information from all sides”.

In that regard, Elina Noor has proven to be a real asset to Malaysia’s premier think tank, the Institute of Strategic and Interna­tional Studies, or ISIS Malaysia. Her ability to articulate on complex and dynamic global affairs – such as major power relations, cyber warfare, terrorism and conflicts – in succinct yet jargon-free language has also made her a highly sought-after interviewee by the international media.

As a child, Elina wanted to be “everything”, from prime minister to fashion designer. Her parents, who ran a management consultancy firm, however, might have subconsciously put her on her career path by leaving the world news on television all the time when she was growing up.

“My parents would engage in lively debates about international affairs between themselves. As I grew older, I wanted to do law with an eye towards international law, specifically how war and conflict affect people.”

After graduating from Oxford University in the United Kingdom, she specialised in public international law at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This was followed by an internship at the Centre for Non-proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington DC, specialising in issues of weapons of mass destruction terrorism.

Essentially, she helped compile a database of terrorist groups with chemical or bioweapons capabilities by combing through secondary sources and obtaining intelligence from experts who had gone into the field.

Her days in the United States were cut short, however, by visa limitations. So, after nine months, she returned to Malaysia in 2001.

Her appetite whetted by her Washington experience, Elina joined ISIS Malaysia as a researcher.

Though formally positioned as a research organisation for nation-building initiatives, ISIS Malaysia was set up by former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1983 to serve as a crucial sounding board for the government on foreign policy and security issues.

In addition to research, ISIS Malaysia engages actively in non-governmental meetings between states, known as Track Two diplomacy, and fosters closer regional integration and international cooperation through forums such as the Asia-Pacific Roundtable.

Now, having risen through the ranks, Elina heads a team of eight in the Foreign Policy and Security Studies division.

As a claimant state in the ongoing South China Sea dispute, chair of the Association of South-East Asian Nations in 2015, and currently a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Malaysia’s foreign policy direction has drawn renewed interest at home and abroad.

Invariably, Elina is asked questions on Malaysia’s relations with China. Her answer is perhaps best laid out in an article she wrote, titled “Friends with Benefits: Why Malaysia can and will maintain good ties with both the United States and China.”

On the topic, Elina had explained: “Malaysia should or will be subservient to an awakening dragon, but the cost-benefit calculus militates against provoking it. Equally, Malaysia’s location and posture make it a strategic partner for China in South-East Asia.

“It is the mark of a mature and solid friendship when overall relations are not held hostage to single-issue disagreements.”

Elina had added that such overlapping claims in the South China Sea, “should not, if managed well, stultify cooperation between Malaysia and China in other areas of the relationship. For a developing country with high-income and knowledge-economy ambitions like Malaysia, the show must go on”.

Or to put it simply, Malaysia wants to be everybody’s friend. That’s always been the country’s foreign policy from the start, she points out.

On the other hand, this pragmatic approach has also enabled the country to punch above its weight in places where even superpowers fear to tread.

Elina’s other portfolio, cyber warfare and security, is expected to come further into the spotlight with recent headlines claiming that the so-called Islamic State extremist group in Iraq and Syria intended to abduct top Malaysian leaders, including the PM.

“Malaysia up to this point has handled terrorism very well,” Elina says.

Many attempts have been foiled in the past, she adds, and the police have kept it low-key.

“If you follow the issues closely, you’ll notice the police only started publicising their efforts in the run-up to Pota (The Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015), an anti-terrorism law passed by the Malaysian government on April 7, 2015 enabling the Malaysian authorities to detain terror suspects without trial for a period of two years.”

Part of this publicising had to do with the political selling of Pota, but there was a more legitimate, pressing reason: People were taking security for granted in Malaysia.

“Malaysians treat security like it’s not a problem. We often criticise the police but the military and Special Branch in charge of counterterrorism really know what they’re doing. The police have been very vigilant and I think they do good work but haven’t been given enough credit.”

After 14 years, she still enjoys her job because of the intellectual robustness but admits some world-weariness has set in.

Nevertheless, Elina remains motivated by the knowledge that a lot of good Malaysians on both sides of the political divide are doing good work for the country.

Pointing to a faded wristband she has been wearing for “donkey’s years”, the inscription reads: “Malaysia tanahairku (Malaysia, my homeland)”.

“Call me cheesy,” she says, “but I’ve never thought of removing it. Love for country might, but does not always, equate to love for government. I’m a sentimental patriot.”

By Alexandra Wong, China Daily/Asia News Network

Assalamualaikum: Islamisation of Malaysia


The role and impact of Islam in Malaysian politics

In his latest book, former law minister and current opposition party member Zaid Ibrahim explores the nature of political Islamisation and what it means for Malaysia. Photo: The Star/ Izzrafiq Alias

Assalamualaikum: Observations On The Islamisation Of Malaysia

Zaid Ibrahim is quite a character. Lawyer-turned-government-minister-turned-opposition-party-member, and he had time to head his own political party on top of that. That’s quite a CV. That’s someone worth having a teh tarik with.

For the time being, we have to make do with Assalamualaikum, his latest collection of essays exploring the contradiction between the laws of God and the laws of man in Malaysia. Subtitled “Observations on the Islamisation of Malaysia”, it gives a strong indication which side of the fence he sits on.

As with most books, it starts at the beginning, with a brief history of Islam in Malaysia. He focuses on some history in there, and says that Malaysia has now adopted “political Islam”, influenced by a Saudi Wahhabism style. He then contrasts this with practices and policies in other Muslim countries, some of which would also claim to be Islamic despite also seeming more liberal.

The impact of this politicisation is explored further in the second chapter entitled “Education, culture, economy”. It is a sober (some may say “cynical”) view about what happens when you mix religion and politics, and his points are fired as a broadside. “In Malaysia,” he writes, “Islamisation has been the main cause of the deterioration we have seen in our education standards.”

On the cultural transformation in Malaysia, he bemoans the loss of local cultures and festivals since they have been deemed “not Islamic”. He writes, “(Islamists in Malaysia) think that if Malays can remove all traces of the past and embrace Wahhabism, then their world will be truly Islamic. This is what Pol Pot in Cambodia believed too.”

The third chapter is on Shariah law in Malaysia and its apparent clash with the Federal Constitution. Being a lawyer, he delves into some detail in what he sees as a deterioration of the ideals laid out in the Federal Constitution, aided by the willingness of the courts to bow to their political masters (despite the theoretical separation of powers that exists). He posits that Islam has been used as a political tool, writing “it is clear that in Malaysia, the authorities have the power to use Islam as a means of controlling Muslims”.

By the time we reach the book’s conclusion, he presents a sentiment that could apply to any religion: “Islam is perfect, but humanity is not”.

As it is, this book gives a good overview of the role and impact of Islam in Malaysian politics, even if it is intrinsically biased. Unfortunately, in the same way that the author criticises some Islamists as being broad in their understanding but without much depth, Assalamualaikum doesn’t really give the reader great insight into its issues. Apart from some ideas in the chapter on law, things are just boldly stated and are expected to be taken at face value.

Perhaps this apparent brevity is understandable given that it is a collection of essays that cover many topics quickly. But what is truly unfortunate is that it feels like we have not been given the full benefit of the author’s political experience.

This is somebody who has stood on both sides of the political divide, and was even the Law Minister at one point. He would have been privy to a large number of internal debates on the issues and might even have helped shape policy.

From my experience working on projects involving government agencies, what most people understand of how public policy is formed is almost always wrong. What can seem callous and short-sighted is in fact usually tempered by a hundred factors – pressure from conflicting parties, horse-trading to gain benefits elsewhere, even sometimes just the accident of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Much happens out of view, and Zaid must have seen and argued about issues and policies. But he gives almost none of this away.

And when it comes to answering, “What next?” – when his experience would have counted for the most – he chooses not to say anything except to keep fighting the bad ideas and keep talking about the good ones. Apart from his encouragement to support Parti Amanah Nasional in the very last paragraph, there is nothing concrete about how to move forward.

Perhaps Zaid is silent about this because he feels constrained by decorum. Or the Official Secrets Act. Or because he has taken so many sides and seen so many contradictions, that the only opinion he can give with confidence is his own.

Perhaps this is not the last we will hear from him on the subject. I believe he has the eloquence and knowledge to better explain the state of Muslims in Malaysia than is shown in this book. I’ll happily take that, even if it is over a teh tarik.

Review by Dzof Azmi The Star

Zaid: We can be more moderate

Malaysia can be a Muslim country other Muslims can be proud of but first, that opportunity must be taken.

DATUK Zaid Ibrahim takes on critical questions with his latest book, Assalamualaikum: Observations on the Islamisation of Malaysia.

As promised in the jacket blurb, the former de facto Law Minister explores the nature of political Islamisation, its origins, its chief personalities, how it has grown and what it means for Malaysia.

Instead of introducing the religion’s true moral and ethical frameworks, he writes in the preface, Islamisation proposes “to replace them with harsh criminal punishments for Muslims whom the ulama regard as deviationists. Human rights and dignity suffer as a consequence.”

The founder of the largest law firm in the country told Sunday Star he doesn’t understand, for example, why the Syiah are ­treated as enemies of Islam and not proper Muslims, although they are allowed to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.

“I don’t remember Islam recognising all these categories,” he says. “A Muslim is a Muslim.”

And in the Quran, he points out, “there are a lot of verses about freedom of expression, which remind people that only God knows best. We must be humble enough to accept we can be in error.”

The only way to have a vibrant Islam is to allow an interflow of ideas, he says, but Muslims in Malaysia are not allowed to give public talks about religion without tauliah approved by the Federal Government.

“Even laws of Parliament can be questioned but you can’t do that with religious authorities,” says the lawyer with over three decades of experience.

And if there’s any action taken by any religious department or the syariah courts or there’s any violation of civil liberties or improper conduct, he adds, “the civil courts will not hear anything about it on the grounds that they have no jurisdiction”.

He lists the reasons cited: Islam is the official religion. Article 121(1A) of the Federal Constitution provides that jurisdiction of civil and syariah courts is separate. And the Constitution does say that Parliament can limit some of the fundamental liberties.

“Our Federal Court is no longer willing to look at whether those limitations are reasonable,” he adds.

Since Islam is a state matter, every state is allowed to legislate on Islamic matters but, Zaid says, “there is no common definition of what is unIslamic, what is hukum syarak”.

For example, Selangor and Penang have gazetted fatwa that smoking is haram and Selangor, Pahang and Penang have issued fatwa declaring Amanah Saham Bumiputra and Amanah Saham Nasional as haram.

“There is a lack of uniformity and yet these diverse personalities controlling the state can impact on your basic liberties and basic rights,” he says.

“There has to be precision and specific meanings. You cannot say it is whatever the authorities decide, because you also have a duty to protect the Constitution, human rights and dignity.”

Coming from Kelantan, Zaid writes about Puja Umor and Puja Pantai, which were later banned.

“If you want to insulate yourself against extremism and violence like Islamic State’s,” he argues, “you must allow people that freedom to cultivate and base themselves in their culture and tradition.”

He wrote the book, he says, in the hope of encouraging “an Islam which is kind, forgiving, compassionate, wants to live with everyone in peace and cares about the welfare of others and not only personal interest. That should be the guiding force of the country.”

If that kind of Islam shaped the laws, he says, “our laws would then become more open, liberal-minded and more inclined towards encouraging freedom of thought which is what Islam, at least in its golden years, is about”.

But so far, Malaysia has abandoned its chance to showcase a truly Islamic renaissance, Zaid believes.

“We could have built a moderate Muslim country other Muslims could have been proud of, but we have not taken that opportunity.”

By Santha Oorjitham The Star

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