Thursday, July 26, 2018

Unity in Diversity

The Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) has been in the news for the typical reason of possible national unity disintegration if it were to be recognized. While it is understood that the matter is complex and can’t be discussed in a short opinion piece, there are two main issues I would like to put the spotlight on.

The first issue brought up by Malay nationalists is the need to uphold or memartabatkan Bahasa Melayu. I do agree that as Malaysians, we need to at least have a basic grasp of Bahasa Melayu. But who are we kidding when we equate Bahasa Melayu with national unity? Sure, when we go to the mamak restaurant, workshop, or night market, we can hear Bahasa Melayu is the choice of language being spoken by the different races. But among (middle-class) neighbors, colleagues, or friends, I often hear English as the chosen language. Does it erode the affability among us? I don't think so.

As I have previously argued[1], language is not the make or break of national unity. We recognize Bahasa Melayu as the official language of the country, but it doesn’t mean we have to speak Bahasa Melayu in our daily life and it does not make us any less Malaysian if we choose English or any other language as our lingua franca. In fact, as a democrat, I am truly against the idea of imposing anything on anyone. When we force people to inherit an identity-marker that they are not comfortable with, it would lead to further frustration and dissent. To me, the feeling of being unwelcomed and unwanted for your choice of language is what would lead to national disunity. On the other hand, when people feel safe and secure to be who they really are without being discriminated against, there is a higher likelihood that they would carry the national flag with pride wherever they go.

The second argument is the need to learn our history. As a history aficionado, I will always support the importance of teaching and learning history. But as any other subject taught under our national school system, it is not the name of the subject that matters, but the learning outcome. What do our kids learn from their history class? I can safely say they learned nothing. It has even become cool to say that history is boring (which makes me a bore as well, perhaps). While I use to feel sad that my peers are so uninterested in the history of their own country, I now hold less grudge against them because, to be honest, our history class taught us nothing. It asks us to memorize some names and dates but avoided addressing the more important questions of “What do we learn from this?”, “How to avoid history repeating itself?”, and “Is there another interpretation of the same event?” These questions and the answers that follow will lead to further unity, not knowing the name of someone from a hundred years ago.

This brings me to my final argument, which is that as Malaysians, we need to move beyond superficiality as a nation. Being a Malaysian should go beyond speaking a certain language, going to a certain school system, or taking a certain exam. Call me an extreme liberal, but I truly believe it is time we speak of values when we speak of being Malaysian: tolerant, kindness, respect for the rule of law, respect for human rights, openness, etc. 

Identity is never fixed. The Malays today are not the same as the Malays from 500 years ago. We used to be divided along ethnic lines but now we call each other, simply, Malays. So why can’t the concept of a 'Malaysian' parallel this trajectory?



  • [1] Mohamad Shukri, S. F. (2017). The Role of Ethnic Politics in Promoting Democratic Governance: A Case Study of Malaysia. Intellectual Discourse 25(2), pp. 321-339

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Gloves On #PulangMengundi


This is going to be a short and sweet post.

As many Malaysians are more than aware with, we will be going to the polls on 9th May 2018, on a Wednesday. While my first reaction was frustration, my next reaction was acceptance and understanding. Since the past three years, the incumbent government has done everything in its capacity—all legal, yes, but still questionable—to ensure they would have a high possibility of winning the next election. Starting with Anwar Ibrahim’s imprisonment in 2015, to the gerrymandering in the recent redelineation exercise, to the dissolution of PPBM by the Registrar of Society, and finally holding the general election in the middle of the week.

The academic in me has a simple and straightforward prediction: BN will win the next general election. The numbers, the trend, the tricks, all allow BN to win, even if without a landslide. Add in all the goodies that have been announced just in the last few weeks, and you got a winning formula.

But there is an activist in me (although I have never participated in activism) that believe there is a chance that this final move of theirs would backfire. Sure, the logic of having the general election in the middle of the week is to suppress voter turnout. But let’s think this through. The BN supporters, while most of them live where they are going to cast their votes, are the complacent voters. The supporters of the federal opposition, on the other hand, are the partisans and ideologues who are mighty serious in their conviction for a need to have a better government. They are the ones who would make the trek home, rain or shine, weekend or weekday, to cast their votes. Furthermore, the supporters of the federal opposition mostly belong to the middle and upper-middle classes; it means that they are not short of resources to make the arrangement to go back to their kampongs. So, while there is no doubt that voter turnout would be low than the expected 85%, I believe there is a chance that a majority of that 85% would be made up of the opposition supporters. Therefore, I wonder if the incumbent government thought this last strategy through.  

A month from now, let’s see if the academic in me or the activist in me has the final laugh.

You can put on your gloves, so shall we.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

People Unite Malaysians

As most Malaysians are now probably aware, there is a brewing religious conflict on the eve of the 14th General Election. Yesterday, the Malaysian Religious Scholar Association, or Persatuan Ulama Malaysia (PUM), released a statement on its Facebook page warning the police that religious violence may occur if they continue the hunt for Mohd Ridzuan Abdullah and the daughter he abducted nine years ago.

I am very much aware that this veiled threat is merely a warning and not a direct call for violence, but the bigger question is, as a body supposedly representing Muslim scholars, what have you done with the platform that you are on to put the unrest to rest? Why was there no counter warning that we Muslims DO NOT condone any sort of violence? Why succumb to the terrorist threat? Have they not learned that you do not negotiate with terrorists? Furthermore, I found it hysterical that PUM wanted to warn PDRM, which has one of the best anti-terrorism units in the world, to be careful. PDRM does not need to be warned. They are multiple steps ahead in counter-terrorism. Learn. I fully applaud IGP Fuzi Harun for his commitment to the rule of law. His commitment and courage to bring justice to the people is what a leader is made of.

On a more important note, when are they going to learn that forcing people to do what they refuse to do is counter-productive? Case in point are their two eldest children who on the record have said that they can now proudly declare their Hindu identity despite the forced conversion by their father. To be honest, I am not entirely surprised by their statement. Who wants to be associated with a religion of a kidnapper and abductor. Someone who no longer respects the woman he married and bore him children? If that is the closest example of a Muslim to them, why would they want to be associated with him? There is no compassion, kindness, or gentle encouragement from someone who touts to be an all-important father. Sadly, no emulation of our dear Prophet SAW who embodied all these beautiful qualities.

What is so difficult to drill into our heads that the best dawah is your manners, and the best naseeha is your example. Because a religious identity on one’s identity card does not a Muslim make one. Sure, I can somewhat understand the argument that it is nearly impossible to be a practicing Muslim when one is living in a Hindu household. But I still beg to differ. There are so many cases of conversion TO Islam despite them being raised Hindu, Buddhist or Christian. Because faith is a choice. The National Registration Department does not decide one’s religious identity. To be a Muslim one needs to simply profess that there is no other god but God (yes, I use God instead of Allah because guess what, Allah means God in Arabic) and Muhammad SAW is His messenger.

Another thing that baffles me is the way we Muslims act as if we are above the law. By being Muslim, apparently we do not have to respect the rule of law. I guess that is why they want to have shariah law without understanding what is Shariah Law. They bring out the Quran and say they must abide no one and nothing else except what God has said in the Quran. May I ask, does the Quran talk about traffic laws? So, you can simply run a red light and get other people killed? The Quran talks about justice [2:188, 5:89, 4:58, 4:65, 4:92, 4:112], equality [49:13, 23:52-54] and freedom from being bonded [2:177, 2:221, 58:3, 90:8-20, 24:33]. And, as we all like to quote,

“There is no compulsion in religion” [2:256], and

“And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed, all of them together. So, will you (O Muhammad SAW) then compel mankind, until they become believers?” [10:99]

Do not take these two verses to mean that we should bow down and do nothing when attacked. We can continue our jihad of spreading the beautiful, loving and peaceful religion of Allah to all those around us. And we should continue to defend our religion if others are hostile towards us or our Prophet SAW. It just means that Islam in itself is enough. People’s heart would be inclined to it on their own. This is the tenet of liberalism. That is why I am never ashamed to call myself a liberal. And I will always maintain that Islam is a liberal religion.

I once read that if after all our sermons and dawahs there are still people who are against Islam, it is time to look into the mirror. It is not Islam, it is the messenger which is the problem, which is US. We FAILED to portray true Islam.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Perfect Proportion

Anyone who knows me knows that 2001 was a defining year in my life. In one horrible series of events, the course of my life was charted. I hated how my religion was hijacked when 19 people hijacked those airplanes. I hated how hate was so widespread. I hated how the world was divided between us and them. I hated how we flamed the fire further with more atrocious acts by those proclaiming to believe in the same God. I hated how all these hatred stem from ignorance. So, I decided to make it my lifelong profession to bridge this knowledge gap.

More importantly, during days when I would cry reading the news, I always told myself, God must have had a better plan. There must be a reason for these horrible events. The Most Merciful and the Most Gracious would not have left us downtrodden for so long. It is my belief that nothing happens out of vain. Even when I was a young girl, I saw how dialogue was opened. Conversation was started. Real understanding began to be fostered. Personally, I saw it in Pittsburgh. I was blown away by not only the acceptance of the community, but also by their eagerness to learn about Islam. On my first day of class, I knew change was coming.

Last week, I heard the news of the hijab Barbie manufactured by Mattel. We are talking about legitimate Barbie, real Barbie, and not a knockoff brand of a female doll. Mattel designed a Barbie wearing hijab in honor of Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first hijab wearing American Olympic medalist. And I cried. I am someone who appreciates pioneers and brand loyalty is very high to me. To know I no longer need to buy a cheap hijab wearing doll for my daughters is a huge relief. And I believe we were only able to get here through a slow process of understanding, tolerance, and the acceptance that Muslims in the West are no longer second-class citizens. Muslims are not just the doctors who live next door to you or the ones with a Shawarma shop down the road. Muslims have just as much aspiration to be acknowledged and celebrated as part of society. We are normal.

As I said, this is not something that came about overnight. I have witnessed over the years a growing number of portrayal of Muslims in Western media. Yes, it is not just Muslims; there has been an increase in diversity on television to include more minority groups. But as a Muslim, it is glaring to me when a show decided to put a hijab wearing character into the narrative matter-of-factly. I cry tears of joy every time. I can think of the ‘P&G Thank You, Mom’ commercial for the 2018 Winter Olympics and the banned Pepsi commercial starring Kendall Jenner. These are just some examples I can think of right now. But it is apparent that Muslims—usually presented by a hijab wearing female—are no longer alien and misunderstood. There is a new level of understanding on the belief and practices of 1.7 billion Muslims. For me, that is the most beautiful thing.

Of course, the world is not all rosy and peachy. Islamophobia is still there. Unfair discrimination based on religion is still there. Nationalists who think Muslims who are born in the West should go ‘home’ are still there. Yet, it is crucial for us to believe that for every person who hates us out there, someone is willing to take us in shelter. I have faith in humans. Who else am I going to turn to?


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Election of the Youth, by the Youth, for the Youth

Malaysia is facing a general election in the next few months as stipulated by the country’s constitution. There has been amped up efforts by the Election Commission, through its Election Academy, to get more youths to register as voters. These are all good measures in a democratic country. However, for years, there has been rumblings especially by the opposition, to make registration and voting compulsory.

While it sounds like common sense, there is a good argument against making voting compulsory. Firstly, in a liberal-democracy, the people should have the right to vote for the incumbent, the opposition, or not to vote at all. Usually, voters go out to vote as an expression of their political will. However, there may be a section of the population that is disillusioned by the political scene that their sense of political efficacy is affected. As a result, they could not even make up their mind who to vote for.

Of course, one can argue that as a citizen, it is their responsibility to decide on the future leader of our country. But another way to see it is that they may not feel that the opposition can do much anyway, so why bother rocking the boat. In this sense, by not voting, they are showing their support for the status quo. On another hand, if they truly want the current government to continue leading the country, the argument goes, they should make their voices heard. However, as disillusioned youths, maybe it does not matter to them who rules. Maybe, that should not be blown into a bigger issue.

These youths who do not have an established political attitude, may not make informed decision if they are forced to vote. Without interest in politics or the sense of political efficacy, they may vote based on the voting behaviour of their peers. How is that much better?

Voting should not be made compulsory. Let those who are politically aware do the hard work of comparing parties to choose the lesser of evils. If the youths feels their voices are not acknowledged, they may rise on their own, without mandatory registration or voting as it did in 2013 when 84% of voters went out to vote. This is relatively high among countries that do not have compulsory voting.

If we want the youths to vote, do not force them. Encourage them by letting them know that they are being heard. When the youths band together, they can move mountains. Or at the least, vote for young leaders as they did in Canada, France, Austria, and more recently New Zealand.