Religion + politics = a messed up Malaysia

Mariam Mokhtar

WHAT would you do, if the light at the end of the tunnel was nothing more than the headlight of an oncoming train? This must be what many Malay politicians and the ulamas are thinking, because they stupidly used religion in politics, to get more votes. Today, Malaysia is a mess!

The race and religious baiting started in earnest, during the first tenure of Dr Mahathir Mohamad (1981-2003).

The Iranian Revolution swept across Iran at the end of the 1970s. PAS gained strength on this tide of Islamic resurgence.

Fearful of the rising influence of PAS on the Malays, Mahathir competed for their affections by making Malaysia more Islamic. His agent for an Islamic revival was Anwar Ibrahim, whom he plucked from Abim. We saw the new dress code, the ban on the use of certain words by non-Muslims, a meteoric rise of Jakim and the dumbing-down of English in schools during this period.

So, when the former cabinet minister known as the Iron Lady, Rafidah Aziz, told FMT in an exclusive interview that she “feared” for Malaysia’s future, because religion was used as a political tool, it precipitated three types of responses.

First. Why did it take her 40 years to express what many of us had been saying for four decades?

Those of us who were frank about the politicians who abused and mixed religion with politics were punished, threatened with the ISA, harassed or demoted. Others simply gave up the fight and left to find a country that would accept them as equals.

Dr Mahathir – Picture from The Star

During Mahathir’s first tenure as PM, the country had an unprecedented pace of development. Rafidah was a successful minister of International Trade and Development, a post she retained for over two decades.

Was she so focussed on attracting trade and foreign investment that she was unaware of what was going on at home? Or was there some other reason for her inability to see what most of us had observed? Mahathir ruled with an iron fist, but Rafidah would have made a good sparring partner. So what transpired?

Second. Rafidah has finally opened up and the reaction of many older Malaysians was, “Talk is cheap. She was a member of Mahathir’s team and was instrumental in growing the economy, but he allowed cronies to destroy the nation.”

Conversely, others would say, “Better late than never.”

All would agree that the views of a veteran politician, like her, would carry a lot of weight; but do the current crop of ministers and politicians care?

For decades, politicians were allowed to feather their nests. They were not punished for their wrongdoings such as corruption, abuse of power, material gain and using taxpayers’ money to benefit their family members and friends.

As no one was punished and made an example of, the message to other wannabe politicians was that entering politics was a means to gain power and amass a fortune. Why should they care about integrity and principles? Few of the previous leaders displayed these traits.

Third. Rafidah has spoken out, but what about her peers who lived through successive administrations? Do they disagree with her views? Have they not noticed the dangerous path Malaysia is taking? Or are they enjoying their retirement too much to notice or care?

What about the veteran civil servants of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s? They must have noticed the slide in governance, or have they been trained to obey orders and not create waves?

If truth be told, many of them will say, “What could we do? We tried but were told that our careers would be short-lived. So, in the end, it all boils down to “periok nasi” (rice bowl).

If these politicians and civil servants knew wrongs were being committed, such as using religion to win votes, why didn’t they have the courage of their convictions and resign? People of integrity will show that they cannot be compromised nor be bought.

If anecdotal evidence is to be believed, many civil servants were aware of what Mahathir was doing and did not agree with his methods. Just imagine the effect of scores of high ranking civil servants resigning en masse as a matter of principle. Mahathir simply bulldozed his methods, because no one dared to stand up to him.

In the interview, Rafidah said, “When religion becomes politicised, you veer off from the real tenets of the religion. You interpret religion according to your own whims and fancies to suit your purpose, your goals and your objectives. I worry about that, but it’s not new.”

Umno and a handful of impatient and greedy Malays started the religion and race superiority. Does anyone remember the BTN? The party nurtured a generation of Malays to view the non-Malays as a threat to their religion, their way of life and their existence.

Ironically, what Mahathir started in the 1980s, caused his and Umno-Baru’s downfall.

Some Malays will say, “nasi sudah menjadi bubur” (the rice has become porridge). This is a defeatist attitude.

Even porridge can be dressed up to become a tasty dish. There is hope, but we need to act now. Malaysia does not have to hit rock bottom before we press the reset button. We just need more straight-talking people to empower minds and make a difference.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of The New Sarawak.

This article first appeared in Malaysiakini