Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Healing a wounded Malaysia

Healing a wounded Malaysia

By Cheong Suk-Wai

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 26 — Writer and social activist Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir eases the uninitiated into the world of HIV-AIDS by recalling a scene from the very first Star Wars movie in 1977. The hero Luke Skywalker ambles into a bar — to be greeted by 101 aliens of all shapes and sizes. “That strangeness and diversity,” Marina tells her audience, “is what will help you appreciate and understand AIDS.”

Marina, 52, is the eldest child of thes fourth and longest-serving prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and his wife, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Ali. A twice-married mother of three, Marina was the president of the Malaysian AIDS Council from 1993 to 2005. She says that stint has very much made her who she is today — “less sheltered” and “much more empathetic”.

She is now a dab hand at expressing her views by speaking publicly as well as in various media on Malaysia’s future, including in her 20-year-old bi-weekly “Musings” column in The Star newspaper, her popular blog RantingsbyMM.com and on Twitter.

Last Tuesday at her office in Bangsar Baru, Kuala Lumpur, she talked to The Straits Times about why Malaysian churches were fire-bombed earlier this month and what her countrymen needed to do to heal the ensuing wounds:

What’s behind this spate of church-burnings?

It seems, of late, that there has been a lot of infringement of sensitivity, (as if) such sensitivity is only on one side (and) others apparently don’t have these sensitive nerve endings... It’s not a religious problem. It’s a management problem.

What exactly is that problem?

It’s a lack of confidence in our own identity... It’s a matter of rights. And the government has to make that clear. Right now, it’s wishy-washy. All of a sudden East Malaysia can use the word “Allah”, and Penang and the Federal Territory (of Kuala Lumpur). And why? Because (these states) do not have sultans. If this was a religious issue, why does it depend on whether we have a sultan or not?

You have to wonder how they make policies in the first place. Is it just like: “Oh, whatever the whims and fancies”? Or is there really proper thinking (about) the implications? That, to me, is much more disturbing than the actual (Allah) issue.

Might this be a blessing in disguise because it has exposed the real Malaysia, warts and all?

Well, yes, in a way. But we also have to see a way out of it. We need to have hope! Otherwise, other people will think: “Oh, gosh, they’re useless!”

What do you see as the best way forward?

1: Make it clear to the people that the Catholic Church has a right to go to court (on the issue). 2: This behaviour of burning churches or any house of worship is criminal and un-Islamic.

I mean, I don’t know why they find it so difficult to say that it’s un-Islamic... (Instead) they’re saying: “Well, you can kind of understand people’s feelings...”

Cannot understand people’s feelings, lah! It’s a crime!

What happened to the Malaysia we knew?

We look to our political leaders for leadership, but of late they’ve been very poor examples. All this Ketuanan Melayu, waving kerises and all that, have not been good. I mean, whatever leaders do, we take the cue from (them). Although (there has been no) cue to (be) violent, it’s still like (all this kind of talk) means: “Oh, that makes it okay.”

That is dangerous enough.

It’s dangerous enough. And then March 8, 2008 happened (the Malaysian general election) and the government lost so many states. And obviously its reaction has been really rather immature. It’s almost like they cannot come to grips with it. And that has led to very irrational ways of being.

They’ve put a religious veneer on race relations, identity... So when you can’t fight on (the usual) grounds you take it up to God! We know where that has led people for centuries around the world.

Would you say there’s a tyranny of the minority.

Yes. But it is a minority that claims to be a majority. And they’re making arguments (on) my blog (that go): “We’re a democratic country, what. Majority rules!”

That’s not the (only) definition of a democratic country... It is also the duty of a democratic state to ensure that minorities have their rights. I mean, if the majority decides that we should kill the minority, is that also okay? Cannot, lah.

What have you learnt from comments on your blog?

What’s interesting about the Allah issue is that while there are strong feelings on both sides, (they have been) relatively respectful (in making their cases) and there’s genuine, heartfelt anguish that it has come to this. This... really shoots (down) the argument that these issues are too sensitive to discuss.

But aren’t some issues too sensitive — and incendiary?

I’ve said this 10 million times: There are no sensitive issues. Only whether you can handle them sensitively and justly — or not. And surely you can, unless you are the sort who stokes and pits one against the other for your own purposes.

How might Malaysia’s leaders win back Malaysians’ trust?

They’re playing the wrong hand. (The ruling) Umno looks more extremist than the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). This is why PAS is quite happy because if there’s an election, (Umno) will lose and PAS will win. And once it’s in, it can do what it wants, right? That’s the scary thing.

What about your father’s take on an Islamic state then?

My father is a very religious man in the true sense of the word in that he knows the rituals are not the be-all and end-all of religion. It’s how you live your life. And he is really all for people learning about their religion themselves and not leaving it to a few self-appointed gatekeepers to interpret everything for you. That’s why he was never popular with the ulama (learned religious persons).

Why did he speak of an Islamic state to win votes in the 1999 general election?

I can’t say I know the story. My father feels no necessity to share everything with his family... We talk generally but certainly, he doesn’t see it as a given that he should tell us. I’m not privy to a lot of things, that’s for sure.

But I have said to him many times, and he knows this... I said: “Be very careful... you’re doing this to compete with PAS.” And this is where we diverge...

He felt that was the way to go. And I said: “I don’t think so. You have to redefine what it means to be a good Muslim...” The trouble is (that) not everyone down the line has the same intellectual capacity as he to understand what it means and they tend also to believe in forms and rituals rather than principles and ethics.

Why has your brother (Deputy Trade and Industry Minister) Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir seem to have taken the side of the ultras?

He’s got advisers who are typical, telling him that this is the way to go. Sometimes when you’re in a political party — any party — you get cocooned and don’t know the sentiment out there. Well, he can say what he wants, there is room for diversity... But I’m concerned about the Facebook group that has his name on it. You could call it a hate group and he should not be involved in things like that. He’s a newbie in this, so (he’s) bound to make missteps.

If he asks you to help build peace, would you oblige him?

Yes, if it is completely politics-free and is community-based. I refuse to do any work for any political parties. I will not be used.

What about some top leaders who play down the recent church-burnings?

I know (they) are saying “Oh, it’s a small thing”. Yes, it’s a small thing, but it’s not due to them. They cannot take credit for it.

Who are the real peace-builders?

“People were giving out flowers in the street (and) tying ribbons with peace messages. And the government has no ideas. At all. None.

Is the Malaysian government hoping tempers will cool naturally?

That’s not leadership. You don’t lead from behind. You lead from the front.

What does it mean for 1 Malaysia?

(Burning churches) blows the whole concept out of the water. We are confused because mixed messages are coming at us. Which is it? What do you want?

Why do some leaders insist they are always right?

It’s a disease of people in power. I don’t think that even the opposition (Pakatan Rakyat coalition) is immune to that.

Why do Malays insist on majority rule only?

This is where we sometimes go from A to B, C or D, but we don’t go all the way to Z.

What is the strongest case for freedom of speech?

Some of these quite rabid Muslims are saying “No, no, no. Wrong, wrong, wrong”. But they finish with (a very positive) “salam (peace)”.

Why did you never join politics?

Whoever is going to stand against me is going to come up with, “Oh, she’s not Muslim enough, she doesn’t cover her head, da-da-da-da-da”.

Why should we not judge others?

The state has some duty to ensure that people are able to practise their faith in the right way. But it cannot see into your heart; only God can.

How did your father take his maiden attempts at blogging?

He was like, “You know what? I can say anything I want!” And I said, “Ya, ya, I’ve been telling you (that)”.

What about those who say you should “educate” your father on issues?

Look, my values all come from my parents. But how I choose to apply them... is my own choice, lah. — The Straits Times

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