Malaysian Youth Council president Saifuddin Abdullah said Mahathirís statement reflected his confidence in the growing maturity of the rakyat in accepting changes based on democratic practices.
Gerakan was so excited that one of its top leaders suggested that the Barisan Nasional form a single party to eventually replace all its component parties.
However, the Bahasa Malaysia mainstream media and UMNO leaders sent out a completely different and contradictory message, stressing that Mahathirís statement was part of the traditional UMNO politics of fear and blackmail to try to restore Malay support.
Mahathir repudiated Vision 2020 and the concept of a Bangsa Malaysia
Newly re-elected UMNO Vice President Tan Sri Muhammad Muhamad Taib said Mahathirís speech was a "warning" to the Malays to stay united behind UMNO.
Mohamad Taib had been proven right, for in his talk to some 500 Malaysians studying in Cairo a few days later, Mahathir as good as confirmed that his statement at the MCA General Assembly was designed primarily to arouse the fears of insecurity of the Malays to drive them back into the UMNO fold.
In Cairo, Mahathir warned that the Malays would lose their "ketuanan'' and see a non-Malay becoming a prime minister in Malaysia in future if they fail to continue efforts to be above the rest.
"If we become beggars in our own country and we call ourselves as 'tuan,' it brings no meaning. The supremacy must come from the strength of the Malays.''
Commenting on his remarks at the MCA General Assembly that the country will see a non-Malay holding the post one day, he said the Federal Constitution was silent on the prime minister's ethnic origin.
He said a non-Malay can only become a prime minister if the person was accepted by others, including the Malays themselves.
"But if the Malays themselves become so weak, poor, begging around and can be bought with money to support non-Malays (to become a prime minister), then at that time, a non-Malay will eventually hold the post.
"It is up to the Malays whether they want this or not. But if they can be bought that even their own race can be sold, then we might as well not have a Constitution.
"The Malays then can become slaves in their own country.''
Dr Mahathir said that when he spoke on the matter, it was based on reality and not sentiment unlike many others who talked based on sentiment only.
This is a most outrageous speech by Mahathir insulting both Malays and non-Malays.
Although the Malaysian Constitution provides that any Malaysian, regardless of race or religion, could become Prime Minister, I do not see a non-Malay becoming a Prime Minister during my life-time.
While accepting this political reality, non-Malays are very disappointed and hurt that the discussion of the hypothetical possibility of a non-Malay becoming a Prime Minister should be framed in the context of the non-Malays "corrupting" the Malays casting aspersions on the integrity, honour and dignity of both the Malay and non-Malay races if they do not continue to support UMNO and Barisan Nasional.
It is also most unworthy on Mahathirís part to imply that if the Malays stop supporting UMNO, then this could only mean that they can be "bought" and "even their own race can be sold", that they will become "slaves in their own country", "polish other peoplesí shoes" with the serious and spurious insinuation that the non-Malays would become the "slave-masters" and have their shoes "polished" by the Malays.
In expressing these sentiments, Mahathir had repudiated Vision 2020 and the concept of a Bangsa Malaysia as well as confirmed the worst fears that in the aftermath of UMNOís unprecedented electoral defeat in the last general election, the UMNO leadership would blatantly and unscrupulously be playing the racial and religious cards to entrench their power position - regardless of their cost to race relations or national unity.
If Mahathir can be so crude and reckless in playing the race and religious cards when there are still more than four years to the next general election, I shudder to think how race relations and national unity would suffer in the next few years and how the next general election would be even "dirtier" than the recent 10th general election which the Prime Minister had rightly forecast well before the polls as "the dirtiest general election in history".
The dirtiest general election
In the November 1999 general elections, it was the Barisan Alternative opposition parties which were preaching and practising national unity encompassing the diversity of races and religions in Malaysia, advocating the new politics which are issues-based rather than dominated by race and religion while it was the Barisan National ruling parties - which had ruled the country for four decades - which were sowing inter-racial and inter-religious distrust, suspicion and disunity, i.e. a throwback and regression to the communal politics of the 80s and before.
The Barisan National conducted a very dishonest campaign of fear and falsehoods, telling the Malays that DAP Plus PAS Equals Islam Hancur while warning the Chinese and non-Malays that a vote for DAP is a vote for PAS and an Islamic state where there will be no pork, no alcohol, no temples, no churches, no Chinese schools, no lipsticks for women, women will have to cover their heads, beautiful women cannot find jobs and that there would be the chopping of hands and feet.
The short nine-day campaign period, coupled with the virtual Barisan National monopoly of the mass media, both printed and electronic, did not permit the Barisan Alternative to expose the chicanery of the Barisan Nationalís self-contradictory dual propaganda line Ė on the one hand raising the spectre of the destruction of Islam among the Muslims while on the other, raising the spectre of the end of the cultural and religious rights and freedoms of the non-Malay Muslims arising from the one and same Opposition front comprising DAP and PAS Ė apart from other "fear" trump-cards such as the spectre of another May 13 riots, economic instability and no economic recovery.
By and large, the Malay voters did not take the bait in the 1999 general election but the non-Malays particularly the Chinese voters fell victim to this campaign of falsehoods and fear of the Barisan National, resulting in an outcome where PAS was the biggest winner in the Barisan Alternative, securing unprecedented electoral victories emerging as the largest Parliamentary opposition with 27 MPs and capturing the Terengganu state government in addition to Kelantan.
If the non-Malay voters had not been swayed by the Barisan National
campaign of fear and falsehoods, particularly over DAPís co-operation with
PAS and the Islamic state issue, and had given their electoral support
to the Barisan Alternativeís call for justice, freedom, democracy
and good governance, the political hegemony of the Barisan National
t could have been broken as
the Opposition was only 20 parliamentary seats short of depriving the Barisan National of its two-thirds parliamentary majority.
In the last general election, in Peninsular Malaysia there were 26 parliamentary seats which were won by less than 5% majorities and another 24 seats which were won by 5-10% margins. The Barisan Nasional won 29 of these seats and the Barisan Alternative 21. If there had been a 5-6% swing in favour of the Barisan Alternative in the last general election, and the Barisan Alternative had won all the 29 seats won by the Barisan Nasional, the Barisan Nasionalís political hegemony and parliamentary two-thirds majority would have been broken.
Can the Barisan Alternative continue with its leadership role to spearhead a new politics in Malaysia in the 21st century which eschews the traditional dominance of ethnicity and religion and becomes increasingly issues-centred to unite Malaysians regardless of race or religion to fight injustice, corruption, oppression and exploitation?
This will depend on whether Barisan Alternative can succeed in
laying to rest the two spectres which the Barisan Nasional
had tried to frighten Malaysian voters in the recent general elections,
that on the one hand, that DAP is anti-Malay and anti-Islam which wants
to see the destruction of Islam while on the other hand, that
PAS is extremist and fanatical and wants to end the
religious, cultural and political rights and freedoms of the non-Muslims in Malaysia.
If the Barisan Alternative can lay these spectres to rest and project in particular that the Political Islam represented by PAS is an Islam of tolerance and justice which is fully compatible with tolerance, democracy, open and accountable government and cultural pluralism, then its future is a bright and optimistic one.
But time is not on its side and the Barisan Alternative must learn, and learn fast, the lessons of the last general election.
New set of political attacks
The Barisan Alternative will have to debunk, in the shortest possible time, the baseless fears of the non-Malays that DAPís co-operation with PAS would lead to the denial of their cultural and religious rights and freedoms.
It will also have to allay their legitimate concerns and objections to an Islamic state, not because they are anti-Islam but because they will not be able to exercise their full citizenship rights in such a system of governance and their belief that a theocratic state, whether Islamic, Buddhist, Christian or Hindu would be inappropriate for a plural society like Malaysia.
In the last general election, the DAP in particular and the Barisan Alternative in general had learnt to their cost that it was not adequate for the Opposition parties in the Alternative Front to reach a common accord on a wide spectrum of subjects to achieve a just and democratic society, while controversial issues, such as an Islamic State are avoided or deferred.
There are issues like Islamic state which do not lend themselves to rational discussion and resolution, such as arguing that an Islamic State was not on the cards in Malaysia, as it would require a constitutional amendment requiring two-thirds parliamentary majority and that PAS on its own was fielding less than one-third of the parliamentary seats and could not on its own get one-third let alone two-thirds parliamentary majority. Such rational arguments were blown to the winds when baseless fears of a primordial nature, as having no pork, no alcohol, no temples, no churches, no Chinese schools, women have to cover up or will have no jobs, were drummed up by the National Front propaganda.
This will mean that the Barisan Alternative must begin to work on a
two-point agenda if the first multi-ethnic multi-religious opposition front
in Malaysian history is to be a viable and sustainable force to eventually
replace the Barisan Nasional in Malaysian politics:
Even if by the next general election, and this is a big IF, the Barisan Alternative succeeds in debunking the baseless fears of all the non-Malays about the erosion of their cultural and religious rights as no eating of pork, no temples, no churches, no Chinese schools, pretty women cannot find work, the Barisan Alternative cannot be assured that it was on safe and secure ground to win non-Malay electoral support.
By the next election, the Barisan Alternative and in particular the DAP must be able to counter a new set of political attacks by the Barisan Nasional, in particular its non-Malay component parties, painting PAS as representing a political Islam which is obscurantist, extremist, fanatical, oppressive against women and minorities, incompatible with democracy, human rights, political tolerance and cultural pluralism.
I will not be surprised for instance if in the next general election, for the first time in Malaysian history, the MCA, Gerakan and MIC would be actively using human rights campaign against the Opposition.
An example is the following Amnesty International statement which was
issued on 19th June 2000 protesting against "Increase in executions
and amputations" in Saudi Arabia, which said:
"Saudi Arabia applies the death penalty for a wide range of offences which, in addition to violent crimes, include some with no lethal consequences, such as sorcery and drug-related offences. Punishment by amputation is enforced in Saudi Arabia for offences mainly limited to cases of theft, for which the sentence is amputation of the right hand, and highway robbery, which is punished by cross amputation. Under international human rights standards the use of these punishments is contrary to the prohibition of torture and other cruel punishments."
There is an urgent need for the Barisan Alternative to develop a consensus, not only at the leadership level but involving the membership of all its component parties, on certain critical issues so that it could effectively counter this new set of political attacks by the Barisan Nasional, going well beyond the common manifesto "Towards A Just Malaysia" reached before the last general election.
Is PAS compatible with Democracy?
Even if the Barisan Alternative parties cannot reach full agreement on these critical issues, a consensus of how these issues would be handled would go a long way to counter the new round of Barisan Nasional political attacks on the Barisan Alternative based on the Political Islam of PAS.
The main issues which would be exploited by the Barisan Nasional propagandists in the new round of political attack on PAS would include:
(1) PAS not compatible with Democracy
That PAS is not compatible with democracy and is not really committed to the system of parliamentary democracy, but only believed in "one man, one vote, one time" and will use electoral politics to "hijack democracy" as power-sharing is just the strategy and mechanism to achieve the ultimate objective, the establishment of an Islamic State.
(2) PAS and Islamic State not compatible with pluralism
That in seeking to establish an Islamic State, PAS is trying to disenfranchise the non-Muslims who represent some 48 per cent of the population turning them into second-class citizens on account of religion.
(3) PAS incompatible with human rights
Example of amputations in hukum hudud as cruel punishments and violation of human rights and human dignity.
(4) PAS incompatible with cultural diversity
Example of ban of karaoke in Terengganu State and the traditional cultural performances like makyong and wayang kulit in Kelantan which are allowed to be performed for foreign tourists stifling artistic creativity.
(5) PAS oppresses women
Allegation that PAS rejects the principle of equality for women as womenís access to public office and public life are generally precluded and the proposed increase of male civil servant salaries to discourage women working in the civil service and denying women's freedom of choice.
(6)PAS incompatible with development and modernity
Allegation that PAS perceived development and modernity with westernisation and wants a return to the "pristine" Islamic past, with Kelantan and Terengganu as examples lagging in development.
As Barisan Alternative parties will be facing a ferocious onslaught by the Barisan Nasional on these and other related issues, there should be a greater understanding if not consensus on these questions so that the Barisan Alternative will not be caught offguard, unprepared and worst still, in a disarray.
The great debate - Power Sharing Islam?
Presently, there is a great debate raging in the Muslim world about the proper relationship of religion, politics and society, even in predominantly Muslim countries, like Iran which has a population with 99 per cent Muslims. Malaysia ranks 57th among countries in terms of the percentage of population who are Muslims, i.e. 52 per cent, and the political and social realities are completely different from the 32 countries with 90 per cent or more of its population comprising Muslims.
I believe such a debate is also going on in the Muslim community in Malaysia, including PAS.
Non-Muslims in Malaysia are following with intense interest such a debate as it would directly affect and impinge on their rights as full citizens of a democratic society and not as subjects of a conquered land.
Non-Muslims are interested not only in the great diversity of views on the relationship between Islam and democracy, human rights, cultural pluralism, secularism, women, minorities, etc. but would want to know whether PAS and the Barisan Alternative have an enlightened position on these subjects.
I am attracted by a paper presented by the prominent contemporary Islamic political thinker Rachid Al-Ghannouchi and exiled leader of Hezb al-Nahda (Party of Renaissance) from Tunisia entitled "Participation in a Non-Islamic Government" at an international symposium entitled "Power Sharing Islam?" in London in 1992.
Ghannouchi said that about one third of the Muslims in the world are minorities in the countries they live in, that is to say they have no hope in the foreseeable future of governing their countries in an Islamic way.
He said that the best option for such minorities is to enter into alliances with secular democratic groups. They can then work towards the establishment of a secular democratic government which will respect human rights, ensuring security and freedom of expression and belief, essential requirements of mankind that Islam has come to fulfil.
He referred to many Islamic communities or movements that exist in countries that have Muslim majorities but which happen to be ruled by dictatorships claiming to be Islamic or by dictatorships hostile to Islam. Such Islamic movements may not be able to reform the regime or change it alone.
Ghannouchi asked: Does the shari'ah (Islamic Law) object to cooperation and alliance between these movements and secular parties that also work and struggle to topple the dictatorships and establish secular democracies that would respect humans and guarantee their liberties? His answer: "No, not at all."
He then discussed a third possibility. The Islamic groups which exist in Muslim majority countries governed by dictatorships may be able to attract majority support from the public and establish an Islamic government. However, such a transition may incite hostility towards them from within their own country or from other countries, rendering the newly-formed Islamic government susceptible to oppression or other forms of pressures that may end with its collapse.
Ghannouchi said: "Is there any reason why such groups cannot agree or coordinate with secular groups in order to isolate the existing oppressive power and establish a secular democracy postponing the long-term objective of establishing an Islamic government until circumstances permit? Certainly, there is nothing against that."
Ghannouchi emphasised that the choice in this case is not between an Islamic government and a non-Islamic one, but between dictatorship and democracy.
He said: "A just government, even if not Islamic, is considered very close to the Islamic one, because justice is the most important feature of an Islamic government, and it has been said that justice is the law of Allah.
"Ibn `Aqil defined As-Siyasah Ash-Shar`iyah (Islamic administrative policy) as the actions which bring the people closer to good and distance them from evil, even if such actions were not advocated by the Prophet or revealed from the Heavens."
Ghannouchi pledged the adherence of al-Nadha - a movement intent on creating an Islamic republic in Tunisia - to democracy, the alternation of power through the ballot box and called on all other Islamist movements to follow suit in unequivocal language and even in formal pacts signed with other parties.
I have referred at some length to Ghannouchi's views on power-sharing of Muslims in a non-Islamic Government because of Malaysia's unique position, that although Muslims represent a slight majority of 52 per cent of the population, it is not conceivable that the majority of the electorate would support the establishment of an Islamic state, as this would be opposed by the non-Muslims as well as presently by over 50 per cent of the Muslim electorate.
Inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogues
Coming to the Malaysian context, is it possible for PAS to take the position that while it continues to be ideologically committed to the establishment of an Islamic State, it also accepts the political reality that in Malaysia's plural society, it is not a practical proposition and commits itself to the parliamentary democratic process as provided in the Constitution and the alternation for power through the ballot box.
Prominent scholar of Islam, Ibn Qayim Al-Jawziyah, had said: "Some scholars categorise government into shariah (law) and siyasah (politics) in the same manner as they categorise deen (religion) into shariah and haqiah (reality), or as some may categorise deen (religion) into 'aql (reasoning) and naql (tradition); but all these categorisations are wrong. Politics, reality, methodology and reasoning are all categorised into two classes: right and wrong. Shariah accepts and supports all that which is right and opposes and rejects that which is bad or corrupt. This is one of the most important and useful fundamentals."
Another area which needs to be dealt with is the status of non-Muslims and the implications of political pluralism. It has been pointed out that without a reinterpretation of the classical Islamic legal doctrine regarding non-muslim minorities as 'protected people' (jimmi), an ideologically-oriented Islamic state would be at best a limited democracy with a weak pluralistic profile as its ideological orientation would restrict the participation of non-Muslims in key government positions, and the existence of political parties representing a competing ideology or orientation, e.g. secular.
Here I must stress that by secular I do not mean anti-Islam, atheist or godless, but transreligion in a system of governance which upholds the spiritual and ethical values which are common to Islam and other great religions.
Perchance, I should mention another prominent Islamic reformer, Abdul Karim Soroush, a Shi'ite Muslim and a Persian from Iran. Dealing with the subject of secularism, he said that Arabic, the language of Islam, does not have a literal translation for this word. But the nineteenth century word elmaniya - meaning "that which is rational or scientific" - comes close. In this context, Soroush views secular not as the enemy or rival of religion, but as its complement. "It means to look at things scientifically and behave scientifically - which has nothing to do with hostility to religion. Secularism is nothing more than that."
The forum organized by PAS Malacca today is most commendable and welcome as there is an urgent need to promote inter-party, inter-political, inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogues to build greater inter-racial, inter-political and inter-religious understanding not only in the Barisan Alternative but also in in Malaysia.
There should be a conscious effort to promote inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogues throughout the country so as to reach as large a section of the population as possible, to promote a greater understanding among Malaysians of different races, religions and cultures, firstly, that the Political Islam represented by PAS has nothing to do with violence, extremism or fanaticism, that it is not oppressive against women and minorities, compatible with religious and cultural pluralism, respect for human rights and tolerance in general, that it espouses political liberalisation and democracy and secondly, that the secular governance espoused by the DAP is not atheist, anti-Islam, or anti-religion but trans-religion.
The inter-civilisational dialogue which has been initiated by the Alternative Front is most apt and in keeping with the times, as the year 2001 has been designated the UN Year of Dialogue among Civilisations by the General Assembly on the proposal of the Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.
Malaysia can be the microcosm for an inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogue to set an example of a political system where diverses races, religions and cultures can build a political architecture where there is justice, freedom, democracy, good governance in an environment of religious and cultural tolerance and pluralism.