DEC 30 — Part of my profession requires me to review books on Malaysia by other academics. I'm supposed to point out the flaws in their arguments. We Malaysians tend to be polite and don't say too much.
In general I like to read, so book reviewing is always a pleasure if the book is good. I was sent such a book recently by a friend in Singapore. It was sent to me some time ago but because I was busy, I did not start reading it until the Christmas and New Year break.
After reading the book "No Hard Feelings: A Reporter's Memoir" by Ismail Kassim, I have to rate it as a "must read" for 2008. Ismail was a Singapore Straits Times reporter in Malaysia for more than a decade before opting for retirement in the 1990s. He finally got round to writing his memoir in 2007 and the book came out in mid-2008.
I rate the book a "must read" not so much because his life is interesting but the chapter he wrote on Malaysia is truly the best description of present-day Malaysian politics to be published in 2008. If you have RM50 to spend (you know, just miss one coffee session in Starbucks), I urge you to buy this book.
The things he said about Malaysian politics are nothing new; it's the way he puts it together. I will not bore you any longer. The following are what I deem to be the most important passages from the book:
"To survive in Umno, you have to swim with the sharks and run with the tigers or you will be eaten up.” (p. 118)
"To those just starting on their rounds, let me add a word of caution when dealing with Malay politicians. Do not ever believe wholesale in their sweet words especially during the small talk after the interview. Some of them say it out of habit to make reporters feel at home. They do not usually mean what they say.” (p. 121)
"After almost ending up like the Red Indians in America, the Malays were still relatively generous in the run-up to independence in August 1957 to share the country with the non-Malays.
“To ask them to make further concession is impossible. The Malays will never give up their political dominance peacefully, and I have no doubt that a significant minority would rather see the country go up in flames, or even slide back to the Stone Age rather than to give up their power.
“I think the minorities especially the Chinese must come to terms with it. The fact is — judging from the present situation — the Malays as a community will not be able to compete in equal terms with the non-Malays in the near future. They will be overwhelmed in a free for all market.
“Of course as individuals, there are many Malays, in the past as well as at present, who could stand up against the best from anywhere in the world. Some Chinese have come to terms with this situation. You ask for what is possible.
“I remember years ago talking to CC Liew, then editor of the Malaysian Sin Chew Jit Poh, a quiet man with a long-term perspective. From several frank discussions that I had with him, he conceded that for the sake of the country's political stability, Malaysian Chinese would have to accept discriminatory treatment.
“I paraphrased his argument: We have no choice but to be patriotic and wait until the Malays feel that they are ready to give up their advantages.
“Of course, this is not fair, not ethical, and not consistent with the teachings of Islam. As a minority myself, I have always sympathised with the non-Malays especially the working class, who deserve a better deal.
“Positive discrimination in favour of Malays up to a point is understandable. Depriving bright and poor Chinese or Indians of places and scholarships in universities in favour of mediocre and relatively well-off Malays, however, goes against the rules of human decency.
"It does not take much for the government to ameliorate the situation on the ground and to make greater efforts at eradicating poverty irrespective of face. It only needs a little political will. Helping promising non-Malay students will also benefit the country and other Malays. It is not a zero-sum game.” (p. 132-133)
"After observing Umno politics, I can appreciate the difficulties of a party leader. It is like American politics; you need patrons and money to operate.
“A branch or divisional leader needs a slush fund to dip into if he is to survive. He has to attend funerals, weddings and all kinds of religious functions, but he cannot go empty-handed. He has to give an ang pow (financial contribution) commensurate with his status whether he goes or not. Contesting party posts needs money too.
“There is also a fundamental flaw in the Malaysian political system. Almost all the political parties are organised along racial lines and even the multi-racial ones are largely dependent on the support of a single community.
“The result is frequent racial posturing by ambitious politicians, eager to buttress their credentials as the champions of their respective ethnic groups.” (p. 144-145)
"In the March 2008 general election, Pas even stole a march on its rival. While it dropped the Islamic state from its electoral platform, Umno leaders like Najib kept asserting that Malaysia was a de-facto Islamic state, needlessly alienating the non-Muslims.
“The rivalry between them has only resulted in the enlargement of the country's Islamic establishment at federal and state levels, whose shadows have extended over aspects of life that are considered in other countries as being in the private domain.
“They now have the right to police public morals and enforce how Muslims should practice their faith. In fact, for years, many Malaysians have regarded Pusat Islam, which oversees the religious bureaucracy, as the Malaysian version of Vatican City.
“In the last year of my reporting life, I came across a piece of proposed legislation to empower the religious authorities to detain Muslims thinking of leaving Islam in special rehabilitation centres. I could not believe what I read, and images of religious persecutions flooded my mind.
“My fears became fact in 2007 when the authorities forcibly separated a Muslim woman from her Hindu husband and 18-month old baby, and detained her for six months. After her release, she complained of harsh treatment.
“Should we blame religious officers for over-zealousness, when they use force to make Muslims remain within the faith, or raid nightclubs, or break into homes to arrest unmarried Muslim couples suspected of khalwat? Should the blame fall on Umno leaders who have empowered them?” (p. 146)
"While on a visit to KL in early 2008, I read about a former religious teacher, a graduate of Al-Azhar, who received two years' jail for apostasy by the Terengganu Syariah Court. The sad fact is that more than a decade ago, she had served time for the same offence. Can you punish a person twice for the same offence?
“Sometimes, I think that some Malaysian Muslims seem to be obsessed with personal salvation.
“Religious programmes dominate the airwaves of government radio and television. Newspapers too carry all kinds of religious-oriented features and reports on the activities of the religious officials. Everywhere you turn, you see Islam writ large.
“What is the result of this enhanced religiosity? I have asked myself more than once. At the end of the day, when the drums stop beating, when the music fades, when the dust settles and all is quiet: Are Malaysian Muslims a more moral and upright community than say their neighbours down south or up north?” (p. 148)
"As a community, the Malaysian Malays are still in transition, moving from traditional, feudal mores to a modern, industrial one.
“As such, it is highly fractured, made up of many different groups with vastly different outlooks on life — the liberal urbane type, the feudal underling, the nationalistic kampung boy, the strict Muslim, the ignorant Muslim, and many composite figures. On the surface, they may look alike; inside, they are different.
“The problem is that Malay society is normally tolerant of indiscipline. They tend to forgive more easily because the priority is to preserve group harmony. As a result, efficiency suffers and cover-ups become part of life.
“Even in Singapore where Malays work together as a group, this approach to life is never far from the surface. There is a tendency to become over-familiar like in a big extended family, to call each other abang, adik and kakak. (big brother, little brother and elder and younger sister).
“Such practices have their positive elements provided all in the group are self-starters. Otherwise, such familiarity will initially breed complacency, then indiscipline, and finally results in mediocrity.” (p. 153)
"In 1998, Lee came out with the first part of his memoirs. With strong reactions from both Singapore and Malaysia, I too could not help joining in the fray by contributing a comment to the ST.
“My point, which did not emerge clearly, because I was still in the habit of pulling my punches, was that the two communities that had benefited the most from the separation were the Singaporean Chinese and the Malaysian Malays.
“The former got Singapore on a silver platter without even having to ask. The latter regained their pre-eminence in the pre-merger Malaya and, in addition, got resource-rich Sabah and Sarawak free.
“They should forever be grateful to the Tunku. No doubt, he was a playboy and had a weakness for whisky and horses, but like a good gambler, he had an instinctive respect for the odds:
“He knew that with Singapore in, there was no way the Malaysian Malays could continue their domination for long. Chop off the island and overnight, you resolve the problem in your favour. The odds turned overwhelmingly and permanently in the favour of the Malaysian Malays in a Malaysia minus Singapore.
“Therefore, instead of quarrelling at regular intervals and putting their respective minorities in a spot they should be grateful and try to work together as much as feasible.
“In this way, the Malaysian Chinese and Indian, and Singaporean Malay minorities will have the peace to work out a mutually beneficial accommodation with their respective majority communities.” (p. 188-189)
"When I was an undergraduate, Singapore and Malaysia were almost on par on many fronts. The exchange rate between the dollar and the ringgit was roughly the same, as were the journalistic standards, and so were the quality of students from the schools and universities.
”In just over three decades, Singapore has become a first-class nation, economically affluent, with strong institutions and a highly skilled, educated and resilient society.
“Except for registering strong economic growth in the years before the Asian currency crisis, Malaysia, on the other hand, has slid downwards on almost every other front. Both NST and Universiti Malaya have become shadows of their former selves.
“The judiciary is in a disreputable state, corruption has become much more rampant, and religious and political cleavages between the ethnic groups have deepened.
“Maybe it is not fair to compare the two countries, as Singapore is a tiny red dot, which presumably makes governing it a little easier. When compared to the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and other Islamic or Arab countries, it has perhaps not done too badly over the last few decades.
“There is a fair consensus on what is wrong with Malaysia. One is the creeping Islamisation of the country that has aroused fears among the non-Muslim minorities and even among some Muslims.
“The other is the affirmative policy called the NEP that has been devised to help the Malays catch up with the other communities. While it has helped to expand the Malay middle class, it has also — because of deviations and abuses at all levels — bred corruption and mediocrity.
“In the words of its critics, including many Malays, both have led to the undoing of Malaysia in general and the Bumiputera community in particular.
“If members from the ruling elite from Umno take advantage of the NEP to feather their own nests, how could they in good conscience act against the civil servants for forming syndicates and making money on the sidelines or stop influential Malays from demanding lucrative contracts, scholarships and places in universities for their children and promotions based only on racial consideration?
“If you are not above board in your dealings, chances are you will close an eye to misdeeds by others.” (p. 225-226)