Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bar Council is legally RIGHT but politically WRONG


Was it within our “rights” as non-Malays to celebrate the Opposition’s victories on the night of March 8? Yes. But was it wise?

No. We all knew that it was politically “wrong” as the Barisan could use it to create a May 13 “emergency”. And so we stayed at home.

Was it within the Bar Council’s “rights” to hold an intellectual legal discussion about Muslim converts? Of course.

But was it wise? Knowing that Umno people were fanning the flames of Malay-Muslim insecurities? I doubt it.

Was it within Karpal Singh’s “rights” to comment about the Malay’s most sensitive issues – Islam and the Sultans – when he declared that the Perak Mentri Besar was legally “correct” to transfer the state’s Muslim affairs chief despite the Sultan’s displeasure? Sure.

But that was not a court case and I believe Karpal (whom I otherwise respect for his life-long political contributions) was politically “wrong” to stir the hornet’s nest then.

Was it within Karpal’s “rights” to warn PAS that they might be kicked out of Pakatan for secretly talking to Umno?

Well, excuse me, but since when was the Pakatan “owned” by DAP and PKR?

Why are we walking into Umno’s trap? We already know that their game plan is to stimulate decades-old Malay fears about “losing out” to the non-Malays. These are deep-seated fears, played up by Umno since 1946, of how the Malays may end up like the Red Indians of North America – swamped, and “losing their land” to the “pendatang” or immigrants.

These fears are not entirely amenable to “rational” debate. Even the PAS ceramah speaker, Mat Sabu, publicly asks his audiences, why oh why, despite revealing – for years - how Umno’s corruption and abuses have been cheating the ordinary Malays, do they STILL vote for Umno?

It’s like a sheer habit, deeply programmed by Malay society, ingrained from youth and perpetuated by the mass media that Umno = Malay Salvation. When people have been eating rice as their staple since childhood, you can’t suddenly ask them to switch to bread, no matter how many vitamins and minerals you say are in the latter. Getting people out of their comfort zones is a very tricky business.

To all the commentators of Malaysia-Today (many non-Muslims I suspect) who have been loudly cheering along to Raja Petra’s bashing of the Malay malpractice of Islam, yes we have every “right” to heap criticism, and we may even be intellectually “right” in our arguments, but we could be very politically “wrong” – especially in this sensitive transition period.

It’s one thing when a Malay with royal blood says it. But – like it or not – it’s quite another when we non-Malays say the same thing with similar vehemence. In fact, I can imagine a Biro Tatanegara guy using the comments as “proof” to brain wash Malay students that the non-Malays are against them.

Isn’t the Opposition about a “pakatan” of inter-racial co-operation, understanding and (dare I say it) love? Why is there so much hatred being flung about in the comments?

I wish we could have more of that comradeship as displayed by the younger Pakatan Perak state leaders as opposed to the acrimony of the old guard of Hadi and Karpal. It's amazing to hear Nizar speaking in Mandarin and Nga Kor Ming speaking about Islamic concepts.

And I admire the elegant, understated way Nik Aziz replied to Karpal’s blasting of PAS over the secret “Malay unity” talks. “Dia orang tua, saya pun orang tua. Kita hormat dia, dia pun kena hormat kita.”

Before we get overly carried away with the political tsunami of March 8, let’s not forget that the Malay swing vote to Pakatan was only 5%. Sure, many of the more well-exposed urban Malays this time voted against Barisan but what about the mass of rural Malay voters who read the racial incitement of Utusan Malaysia every other day?

And let’s never forget that whatever new Pakatan Federal govt we are hoping for can only come to power with Malay support. To alienate the crucial Malay fence-sitters now – by holding events such as the Bar Council public forum knowing full well that Umno’s agents are ready to create trouble - seems rather unwise.

In fact, if we remember, Raja Petra himself had written an article sometime in March or April to point out that the Malays themselves were ambivalent about the March 8 tsunami. About how many Malays had cast protest votes against Umno without quite expecting such spectacular Opposition victories. Well, everybody was surprised by the stunning results.

Suddenly, the Malays were faced with the prospect of Chinese Deputy Mentri Besar’s in Selangor and Perak. Suddenly, in a burst of newfound enthusiasm, Teresa Kok let slip in her blog that the FIRST big Selangor project was the huge pig farm. Suddenly, Lim Guan Eng’s remarks about abuses in the NEP were twisted to make it look like the Malays were under siege. Suddenly, the Malays seemed to face a shift of their staple diet from rice to bread.

In these circumstances, how do we expect the fence-sitter Malays to react? We can argue that, “rationally”, they should not THINK that way. But surely politics is more about perception and FEELINGS, not hard logical facts. Similarly, smokers may intellectually KNOW that cigarettes are bad, but hell, smoking FEELS damn good.

Sensing unease in the Malay ground, certain PAS leaders even saw it fit to secretly negotiate with Umno on the basis of “Malay unity” against, presumably, the non-Malays who seemed to be getting a bit too “uppity” and “kurang ajar”.

What I can’t understand is: given that many PAS members were upset about the merger with Umno, and knowing that Nik Aziz was struggling to manoeuvre within his party against it, why did Karpal choose his sledgehammer approach of literally “warning” PAS to get out of Pakatan? Was this non-Muslim “lecture” the way to convince the PAS grassroots to stay away from Umno? Or was it a grandstanding move to play “hero” to DAP supporters?

I realise I am conceding that we non-Malays are second-class citizens but then again, so what’s new? Will bulldozing our way and hitting a brick wall, like in the Bar Council forum, change that? It’s the male method to confront things head on, but if we want to do that, we had better bloody well make sure we have superior strength. Given the way Malaysian society is structured, are the non-Malays stronger?

The Bar Council can claim to have achieved a moral “victory” of being proved “right” against so-called Islamic “brutes”, but it is still a hollow, Pyrrhic victory which gives the converts’ families no new relief. And what if Umno decides to push through laws that are even more “unfair”?

Is it not better to yield (or at least appear to yield) and walk around obstacles with quiet negotiations? Is that not how women get better treatment, through the soft way?

By holding events like the Bar Council forum, we are merely pouring petrol on these underlying embers of Malay fears. With rampant inflation, crime, corruption and a global economic slow down, with all due respect to those few families caught in conversion situations, is this an issue we HAVE to push NOW? And jeopardise everything else? What are our priorties?

Why can’t we at least wait till the Pakatan govt comes into power? And then, after say two or three years, when our bigger problems have been settled, when the people of Malaysia (especially the majority Malays) can FEEL the benefits of a cleaner and better govt in their guts and soul, okay-lah, we can initiate a “slow talk” on these issues.

I don’t know if it’s because the lawyer types are fond of arguing court battles and having that “high” of being proved intellectually “right” (and hence superior?). Perhaps these same lawyer types, who live in upper middle-class or middle class urban comfort should also consider the needs of poorer urban squatters, factory/estate workers, Sarawakian longhouse dwellers, Sabahan schools with no electricity etc etc who urgently need the Pakatan to come in and stop the looting of this country.

There is a time and place for intellectual discussions over sensitive topics, and I humbly submit now (when Umno has created a Malays-under-siege situation) is certainly the politically “wrong” moment to engage in them.Like it or not, the non-Malays are a minority in this country. And the Malays know that, hence the enduring attraction of “Malay unity”.

The Bar Council forum has also pushed PAS into a corner and they had no choice but to demonstrate against it too, for how could they be seen to be “selling out” Muslim “rights”?

To be fair to PAS, they had already compromised by not emphasising their goal of an “Islamic state” in the last elections. They had agreed to co-operate on the common ground of fighting Barisan’s corruption and abuses.

Do we non-Muslims want to push them all the way to the wall and harp on the weakest point in the Pakatan co-operation - religion? Are we going for blood? Are we that stupid?

We are all Asians and we all want face. Reading the comments in Malaysia-Today about how the Malays are “insecure” and “can’t discuss rationally” etc etc, all I can say is, OK good-la, you know alreadeee... WHY SOME MORE YOU GO AND POKE these raw nerves?

All races have their strengths. I personally feel that the Malays are a more warm-hearted, easy-going, friendly and graceful sort of people – except in religion. The Chinese are hard working, great in business and disciplined - as their religion is money. The Indians are excellent with debates and they are heavily represented in speaking up for our rights as NGO/trade union activists, and yes, lawyers.

And we know the flip side of these strengths too, don’t we? When the Malays are too easy-going, when the Chinese become coldly calculating and when the Indians get overly argumentative.

I am in danger of over-generalising, but then again, when we crack racial jokes, why do we laugh? Because something rings true?

A Chinese friend who used to do marketing surveys told me: “If we go to a Malay housing area, they will have time to talk to us, occasionally they will even invite us for tea. But in a Chinese area, they usually can’t even be bothered to open the gate. Indians may start to debate and lecture us.”

Another Chinese woman swears that, “Malays are more romantic. Chinese are more practical but colder. Indian men are fun to talk to but, aiyo, too much ego.”

A Chinese press photographer says, “If we need help from strangers, Malays are usually willing to help us pose a bit to make our pictures look better. Chinese don’t want to `get involved’. Indians, even though we don’t ask them, will come running to be inside the photo.”

A Malay architect once told me, “The Malays like to talk about things in a graceful roundabout way instead of coming right out to ask for it. The Chinese are more direct and business-like.”

Are these racial stereotypes correct? I suspect many may agree that they are broadly true even though there will always be exceptions. And for the Malays, the BIG exception is when we touch the topic of religion.

So why don’t we non-Malays build bridges with the Malays based on the strong points that they have? Instead of harping on the hot buttons? The Pakatan is fragile and we urgently need “confidence building” measures. Thus the non-Malays should reciprocate the Malay’s natural friendliness and warmth, and understand their fears/insecurities, by making concessions here and there. Just as PAS has conceded on the Islamic State issue. Let’s all give each other more face-lah...

If there are any issues, “kita boleh cakap slow” later in a polite, graceful and “sopan-santun” Malay way instead of having public forums that look (or are made to look) like a confrontation. Politics is all in the perception.

We non-Malays should be aware that too much emphasis on legal “rights” may result in political “wrongs”. We should know who will be the loser then.

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