Could Malaysia be a credible leader for the Muslim world? This is not a pipe dream. Neither is it an idealistic or unrealistic New Year’s resolution. It is my deep conviction as well as a perennial hope.
It is glaringly obvious that Malaysia is one of only a handful of Muslim nations left which could take on a regional leadership role. But how, and most importantly, why?
The idea of the “Muslim world” should be clarified.
First, it has become politically necessary to acknowledge its existence. A plethora of geopolitical narratives have mushroomed lately, suggesting that Islam “causes” people to do things. There are hardly any influential 21st century narratives suggesting a Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Zoroastrian “world”.
Second, these “things” that Islam causes people to do are interpreted as recalcitrant and resistant to modernity. Examples in Malaysia abound, such as child marriage, female circumcision and hudud law. In the global context, jihadists and propagators of the Islamic state have been declared primitive, evil and barbaric.
Third, the international discourse (as in Malaysia) implies that the Muslims need to be handled with “kid gloves”, sometimes force, to prevent ignition into violence.
This “Muslim world” idea is a real geopolitical construct, albeit created by imperialist polities embodied in the US and other western geopolitical traditions.
Nevertheless, the Muslim world has serious problems when it comes to clearing its name. The failed role of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is a case in point.
At the 2017 extraordinary summit of the OIC in Istanbul, the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas had been declared “sad, woebegone and useless” by the media in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Jordan.
Equally reprehensible is the absence of a combined condemnatory voice against the atrocities in Yemen and the brutal Jamal Khashoggi murder. Unity, peace and harmony seem to be out of reach in the Muslim world.
There are two forces tugging at this chaos. On the one hand, the hegemonic behaviour of leading powers, such as the US (Middle East), China (Uighurs) and Russia (Ukraine), perpetuates the notion of a belligerent, proselytising and war-mongering Muslim world.
On the other hand, there is too much bickering and focus on intangible and unimportant issues within Muslim leadership. This makes it impossible to articulate a united stand against such imperialism.
So what should Malaysia’s leadership role entail? The answer lies in understanding the following: social and economic backwardness in Muslim societies; political dishonesty among Muslim leadership; and a moral hypocrisy among Muslim elites.
These are traits characterising large segments in most Muslim societies, including Malaysia.
These are not, however, endemic in the theology of Islam or in the practice of early 7th century Muslim society. It is an aberration of modern political Islam.
How then could Malaysia lead if we, too, are guilty of these three morally-degrading impulses? Let us look at a few Malaysian societal “infections”.
The first is social and economic backwardness. Our education policy is at crossroads. To date, there has been an overflowing of criticism about religious indoctrination in schools.
Last month, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad said an overhaul of the school syllabus is needed to reduce the current focus on religious studies.
Spending seven 30-minute periods a week on religion is overkill, when compared to just four for mathematics and three for science.
Students should study religion (not only Islam), and religious philosophy, instead of spending seven periods a week learning “how to recite prayers” and the rituals of Islamic practice.
Even though Mahathir says Malaysians are backward because there is no emphasis on mathematics and science, I will go a step further because the analysis is incomplete.
Religion per se is not the cause of backwardness. Prolific sociologist Robert Bellah studied 16th century Tokugawa Japan. By investigating the rules, behaviour and ethical system of the Japanese Samurai class, he discovered that knowledge appreciation, learning, diligence, extravagance-avoidance, commitment and perseverance (all of which are fundamental to Islam) form the basis of the Japanese value system.
Bellah also pointed out that the Samurais took control of economic and business activities of Japan, which forms the basis of Japan’s current economic success.
It is a definite probability that a Samurai-like curriculum does not exist in the Malaysian school system.
The second disease that has plagued Malaysia for decades is political dishonesty. Malaysia has become well-known for her untrustworthy political elite, a culture which lacks integrity and shame, and leaders who have egos as big as the circumference of the earth.
The new Pakatan Harapan government is struggling to redeem Malaysia’s image though, but there are elements of this seeping through the patched-up cracks left by the former government.
The discourse of money politics and nepotism is very much alive. Coalition party division heads were recently accused of soliciting contracts for business deals. They did not have the gall or tenacity of character to go through an open tender to acquire jobs and contracts.
This dirty culture of prerogative devoid of merit may be the most important fact seriously challenging Malaysia’s “new-found democracy”. Like the rest of the Muslim world, Malaysia has a steep uphill trek in order to overcome backwardness.
The third conundrum is moral hypocrisy. I am sure we all recall the famous Dr. Nur Farrah Nadia Najib’s 2014 neanderthal statement that Malaysia can be a high-achieving nation, with the men leading the workforce and the women staying home to raise their children and play house.
A week ago, on December 27th, 2018, Malay-Muslim group ISMA launched their “Malaysia Negara Islam” campaign, to recognise Malaysia as an Islamic state. These two developments are indicative of a growing hypocrisy among Muslims in Malaysia.
On the one hand, we bellow out statements of how compassionate, tolerant, logical, egalitarian and peaceful Islam is.
On the other hand, we want to ostracise 50% of Malaysia’s population (women) to the greasy tiles of the kitchen, and have no qualms about subjecting non-Muslim citizens of Malaysia to the syariah laws of an Islamic state.
A handful of Muslim leaders and intellectuals share a profound collective despair about the Muslim world. The spirit of logic, reason and science is now as dry as the desert.
The Muslim world is being increasingly threatened by the imperialistic dominance of superpower chess games.
We desperately need the intervening moves of a knight. It is time for Malaysia to step up her foreign and defence policy priorities.
The Muslim world views Mahathir as a bold Third World Leader. Hence, Malaysia has renewed opportunities to act as an ideological glue.
The on-going crisis in Yemen needs a credible voice like Malaysia. But so far, Malaysia has merely whispered occasional superficial motherhoods.
If we have any moral conscience, Malaysia would persist to negotiate with key players such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Mahathir commands the adoration of many Muslim leaders. It is time to talk, act and make a serious impact.
Domestically, the impact would be positive.
More loyal and committed friends will recognise the integrity of Malaysia’s leadership. This could be a long-term investment in patriotism back home. Patriotism can serve as an antiseptic for our current deteriorating socio-religious sentiments.
Last year’s Jamal Khashoggi murder is another frustrating example of how Malaysia continues to “play safe” on the international stage.
Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah’s “see the big picture” comment merely brushed aside the global implications of such a brutal murder. For the Muslim world, the heinous crime is a colossal embarrassment.
So far, “peaceful” Malaysia has not made it her moral obligation to bring the Muslim world out of the quagmire that Saudi Arabia’s cheque book diplomacy has gotten us into.
It is time for Malaysia to destroy the web of naiveté and apprehension. It is neither unrealistic nor suicidal for a small nation like Malaysia to challenge the Saudi tactic of wielding oil wealth to buy loyalty.
An uphill task but worth the struggle to achieve a solution to a massive social and ideological crisis facing the Muslim world.
On the security landscape, Malaysia is considered an emerging middle power. This status is based on her geostrategic position and leadership capabilities. Malaysia as a middle power should step up to lead in this quest for a positive and progressive Muslim voice.
In order to legitimise this, our domestic governance strategy must adhere to democratic values.
Only then will the rest of the Muslim world see that the PH government has what it takes to be a trustworthy and objective leader.
This is my New Year’s message for all Malaysians. Look beyond our pristine shores. Be aware of the strategic setting that Malaysia commands, as the gateway to the Indian Ocean Region and beyond.
We must be knowledgeable of Malaysia’s potential as an emerging middle power. Just as how we demand transparency in domestic politics and governance, so must we demand transparency when it comes to Malaysia’s position on foreign and security policies.
Be critically-aware of defence spending and the deployment of personnel and hardware to war zones.
Last but not least, use this knowledge to develop deeper patriotic feelings, because if we feel proud of Malaysia as a leader and credible regional power, we have a better chance at bridging our other domestic political, economic and socio-religious shortcomings.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of VOC.
Author: Sharifah Munirah Alatas