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Kidnapping and ant-Shiite rhetoric stirs Malaysian debate about Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Allegedly kidnapped, forty-three-year old Malaysian activist Amri Che Mat, a foreign exchange trader and mountain climber, has not been heard of since he went missing in November 2016.

An inquiry into his disappearance coupled with an assertion by Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, the mufti of the state of Perlis, that Malaysia’s miniscule Shiite Muslim community constitutes a national security threat are but the latest incidents that have raised concerns about the impact of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative strands of Islam.

Shiites in Malaysia, a country of 31 million, are believed to number 40,000. Shiism was banned in 1996, but Shiites are allowed to worship privately.

Mr. Amri’s black four-wheel-drive was found the night of his disappearance near a construction site with its windows smashed, a 55-minute drive from his home in Kangar, Perlis’ capital. Witnesses said his car was blocked by five vehicles when he was snatched close to his house.

Accused of adhering to Shiism, Perlis’ Islamic Religious Department, advised the state’s schools two months prior to Mr. Amri’s disappearance not to participate in programs managed by Perlis Hope, the charity co-founded by the activist. Perlis Hope was donating school bags and uniforms.

The charity, in testimony this month to Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission that is investigating the vanishing of Mr. Amri and three other activists, denied that it was associated with any one religious grouping.

Mr. Asri, the mufti, fuelled debate about creeping influence in Malaysia of ultra-conservatism with assertions earlier this week that Mr. Amri was a Shia, who practised mut’ah, a temporary marriage contract under Shiite religious law.

The mufti accompanied police who came to their house in 2015, according to Mr. Amri’s wife, Norhayati Ariffin, to question the activist about his Shiism, a strand of Islam that Mr. Asri denounces as deviant.

Speaking this week, Mr. Asri said Mr. Amri’s home was decorated with pictures of Shia imams. “The surroundings were similar to a Shia mosque in Iran,” he said.

The mufti denied assertions by Ms. Ariffin in testimony to the commission that his department may have been involved in Mr. Amri’s disappearance. “Maybe her husband has gone off somewhere. Maybe he has gone to Iran. Maybe he has gone to practise mut’ah in Thailand. How should I know?” Mr. Asri said.

The mufti asserted that the spread of Shiism in Perlis and neighbouring Thailand “could threaten national security.” He asserted that Perlis Hope was possibly seeking to establish a theocracy.

The disappearance and Mr. Asri’s remarks follow a string of events and government measures that have sparked renewed debate about what critics have dubbed the country’s Arabization.

Malaysia has long been a target of a long-standing, well-funded Saudi public diplomacy campaign that propagates Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism as an anti-dote to Iranian revolutionary zeal and Shiite ideology.

Saudi influence was further spotlighted by a scandal surrounding Malaysia’s state development fund 1MDB sparked by revelations that $700 million had wound up in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s bank account in 2013. Mr. Najib said it was a donation from the Saudi ruling family, rebutting allegations it was money siphoned from the fund he had founded and overseen. Malaysia’s attorney-general cleared him of any wrongdoing.

On a visit to Malaysia a year ago, Saudi King Salman inked agreements involving $10 billion of investment in Malaysia and the building of a King Salman Centre for International Peace to bring together Islamic scholars and intelligence agencies in an effort to counter extremist interpretations of Islam.

The centre would work as resource partners with the Saudi-financed Islamic Science University of Malaysia, and the Muslim World League, a Saudi-funded non-governmental organization that for decades served as a vehicle for global propagation of ultra-conservatism.

Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Malaysia has also been thrust into the limelight by Mr. Najib’s increased emphasis on Islam and close ties to the kingdom.

Malaysian defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein said this week that Malaysian forces would remain in Saudi Arabia ” for the sole purpose of providing humanitarian assistance and possibly contribute to rebuilding efforts in Yemen if required.” Malaysia had earlier refused to send troops to fight in the kingdom’s ill-fated military effort to counter Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The government recently backed a parliamentary bill that would allow the shariah courts wider criminal jurisdiction over Muslims in the state of Kelantan. Malaysian authorities last year banned two beer festivals against a backdrop of mounting hostility towards Shiites, atheist and gays.

Malaysia has also given refuge to Zakir Naik, a militant Indian Islamic scholar who has been banned from entering Singapore and Britain because of his advocacy of the death penalty for homosexuals and those who abandon Islam.

Malaysia’s sultans, in a rare warning cautioned last October that Malaysia’s stability was at risk from political Islam after attempts by two laundromats to service Muslims only were blocked by local authorities.

Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, the sovereign of the Malaysian state of Johor, in perhaps Malaysia’s starkest confrontation of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism last year denounced practices of Wahhabism and Salafism by calling on Malaysians to uphold their country’s culture and not imitate Arabs. The sultan decried what he described as creeping Arabization of the Malay language by insisting on using Malay language references to religious practices and Muslim holidays rather than Arabic ones.

“If there are some of you who wish to be an Arab and practise Arab culture, and do not wish to follow our Malay customs and traditions, that is up to you. I also welcome you to live in Saudi Arabia. That is your right, but I believe there are Malays who are proud of the Malay culture. At least I am real and not a hypocrite and the people of Johor know who their ruler is,” the sultan said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Southeast Asia

The Malaysian Model

Hareem Aqdas

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Prime Minister Imran Khan paid his visit to Malaysia later the last month, which was concluded as successful, endorsed by the Prime Minister of Malaysia- Mahathir Mohamad himself. The visit was planned for two days with the two prime ministers having a one-on-one meeting, followed by delegation-level talks. The visit provided an opportunity to further cement the existing friendly and cordial bilateral relations by enhancing economic, trade and commercial ties for the mutual benefit of the two countries. It has been a success in the view that it has been a way forward for the terminating of trade cooperation agreements between the two countries. At the end of the visit, the energy sector especially LNG, tourism, greater collaboration between high-tech industries in Malaysia and Pakistan, and possibility of Malaysian investment in Special Economic Zones were discussed.

Imran Khan was welcomed warmly by the Malaysian delegation on his arrival. The purpose of the visit was for Imran Khan to inspect analytically the Malaysian economic model as of how they have been successful in achieving a great economy, without the interruption of the West. Imran Khan with an intention of following the model Malaysia had adopted scheduled his visit. There is no qualm over saying that this decision is to be appreciated by the new government if they are successful in implementing in Pakistan whatever they learned in Malaysia. Malaysia by targeting on the direct social realities of their country has been able to achieve the zenith of economic and social success.

Malaysia has followed an indigenous economic model, basing their economy on purely autarky by developing products what their local conditions and society were in need indigenously rather getting the dictation from the western models of economy, without ever feeling the need of foreign assistance for their local expense decisions- the position where Pakistan lacks.

Malaysia has continued over four decades of brisk inclusive growth, declining its reliance on agriculture and commodity exports to become a diversified, contemporary and open economy. The profit of development have been extensive and the high levels of income inequity inherited at independence progressively reduced through a development model emphasizing impartial growth, including increased participation of the Bumiputera (ethnic Malays and indigenous groups) in the modern economy. Growth has been determined by a series of structural reforms and the country cultivated its complimentary geographical location on global trade routes to promote export-oriented industrialization and endorsing regional incorporation. This has facilitated the improvement of manufacturing, boosting growth, employment and yield by expanding access to global markets, capital, knowledge and technology.

Pakistan since its birth has been following the western model of economy where Pakistan does not decide what its economic needs ought to be, but the west decides what the Pakistani economy needs. This dependence on the west has lead Pakistan in having the detrimental economic situation it has today where the “Dollar” seems to be getting more expensive and the rupee, de valued, thus the economy crippling.

Socially, Malaysia stands as the only country globally that has in actuality criminalized war in their national law. The society has always been free from political turmoil since politics has been very stable for the country, unlike Pakistan.

It will be unfair if it is advised that Pakistan starts following the complete Malaysian model of economy since the politico-economic situation and history of both the countries have been very different, thus applying the exact replicated model will not be possible. Pakistan unlike Malaysia has been subject to political and economic instability, has witnessed change in policies, dealt largely with the menace of corruption, have had government that would reverse economic models of each incoming government to start anew etc. It was pointed out rightly by PM Imran Khan that if “Malaysia, with a population of 30 million people, has exports worth $220 billion, and we, with a population of 201 million people have exports worth $24bn, then clearly we are doing something wrong”.

A solution can be applied in the act that Pakistan rather relying on the West for its economic build up, shall shift its focus on countries with the similar background and a more tangible yet acceptable economic model as that of Malaysia and other Asian economic giants. Pakistan can try to learn from them and follow their economic models as a replacement of the West. Following a pattern of economic development of similar nations will be much easier to pursue, less exploitative and attainable compared to the unrealistic western models.

Pakistan should realize what their need is indigenously rather letting the west dictates it for them. The Western model has always been exploitative towards countries like Pakistan and this is the right time to abandon it and take other inspirations in view.

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Can disruption empower youth in politics? Interview with Malaysian Minister of Youth and Sports Syed Saddiq

Rattana Lao

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Bangkok – On a hectic Wednesday night, I rushed to the heart of Bangkok for an event hosted by Oxford Foundation and Talk Foundation. The audiences were debaters, students, and young politicians from leading Thai political parties eager to have a glimpse of ASEAN’s youngest Minister.

Eager to learn from his “success”.

A special guest was in town; it was a fireside conversation in the honor of Malaysian Minister of Youth and Sports, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman.

In the landslide election in May that brought Mahathir, a veteran, 93 years old, back to office, it was undoubtedly clear that youth voters were amongst the key component to that victory and Syed Saddiq was the player in that triumphant election.

Amongst all the techniques he used, he mobilized new millennials through social networks. With 1.5 million followers on Instagram, he told the audience how he used these online platforms for his political purpose.

Youth votes accounted for 41% of Malaysian electorates.

“On the eve of the election, we told everyone to watch Facebook Live at 10 pm. On that day, all Party members were garnering support through local places and online platforms to build up for the 10 pm Live. By 10 pm, we broadcasted Mahathir speech to the public.”

“The parents’ and grandparents’ generations were still with the current government. So, we relied on youth. We asked them to use their cell phones and they showed that to their parents.”

“It worked”.

When asked what can youth bring to politics, Saddiq seemed fixed that “disruption is the only way to go”.

“We need to disrupt, disrupt the old ways of doing things, disrupt old politics, disrupt corruption.”

“The lowering of voting age is the case in point where disruption is a successful technique to champion youth agenda.”

Malaysia has recently been successful in lowering the youth eligibility to votes from 21 years old to 18 years old.

He was not naïve, however. He went on to elaborate his points that one needed to “pick the battle”.

All politician do.

Saddiq gave an interview that it is important for youth to strategize their precious voices for things that matter to them. Saddiq was confident it was education, a better and fairer education system, employment, and good standard of living.

“I said time and again that the Ministry of Youth and Sports must work hands in hands with the Ministry of Education. The two issues are different, but intertwined”.

In a casual, meticulous, leather jacket, Saddiq won the crowd on that day with his wit and humor. Instead of talking top down and being patronizing, the young politician was vibrant with energy and optimism.

He was on point.

The night was straightforward and inspiring. A young man aimed high and succeeded. He brought a new face to the old politics of Malaysian longstanding cronyism.

Saddiq stood tall and high as an epitome of youth empowerment.

But youth in politics is nothing new. The 1970s in Thailand democratic demonstrations to topple military dictatorship, the Vietnam war uprising in the United States or the recent rounds of youth activism for debt, LGBT and sexual harassment as well as the Apartheid Disinvestment in the 1970s to 1980s saw youth participation in good numbers.

There is no debate on whether the young are powerful. Of course, they are. The power of the young is immeasurable and there is a lot youth can bring to politics.

But youth in politics must bring more than young faces in the old regime. Youth in politics requires a new way of thinking – disruption perhaps – but how to make it sustainable? Youth in politics demands us to take ourselves seriously and reflect respect in our opinion as something serious and accountable.

When talking about youth, most of the time, it is the case that the loudest and most privileged are the ones that get heard and make noise. How can the new system ensure all kinds of youth voices count?

This reminded me of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. If I could paraphrase the Broadway famous song:

“Do you hear the youth sing? Singing the song of angry men and women and gay and the poor? This is the song of young people who will not be slave again.”

To make politics work for youth, it must not be a rich boy game.

The fight has just begun. I wish you well.

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Southeast Asia

Letter to heaven: An eulogy to Luang Poo Boonyarith Bundito

Rattana Lao

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Luang Poo Boonyarith with a Pagoda in the Thai Forest

Everyone knows him as a great monk who was an exceptional teacher of meditation. From the royal family to a layman, Luangpoo Boonyarith Bundito was well loved and respected.

Luang Poo Boonyarith was a forest monk who ordained since the age of 31. Like forest monks before him from Luang Poo Mann Puritat to Luang Poo Chob Thannasamo, he followed a strict tradition of solitude. For decades, he traveled to the furthest parts of Thailand and remained there on his own. For at least 9 years, he lived by himself in the peak of a Karen Mountain in the Northern Part of Thailand.

“The karen has an innocent mind” he said in his meditation preaching.

In 1974, he was sent by Wat Bawornnivetviharn on a diplomatic mission to preach Buddhism in Australia. During more than 30 years of his tenure there, he built, strengthened and taught the beauty of mediation to foreigners and Thai alike.

An epitome of what a modern diplomacy is.

With his compassion and open-mindedness, he welcomed Christian, Jewish and Muslim into his temples to learn how to meditate, even though they were clear not to be Buddhist.

He was equally straightforward to them. “Meditation and Buddhism is intertwined and Buddhism is a religion, not a philosophy nor a lifestyle”.

Something that would kill the New Age followers.

I had the privilege of knowing him since I was nearly four years old, where he would stay at our house during his trips and sabbatical to Bangkok. Sometimes he stayed for a couple weeks, sometimes that would last for a couple months. At least for 20 summers, we were lucky enough to host him.

While his disciples came to our house to seek truth and find peace, for a 4 years old me, Luang Poo was my English tutor. Having been fluent in French, German and English, Luang poo was a great linguist who paid attention to details of grammatic rules and depth of meaning and complexity of the vocabulary.

He is an avid reader – with extensive collection of books on philosophy, history, maps, arts and great classics. His gifts for me involved pens and notebooks, collection of postcards from foreign lands I never been or books I had never heard of.

At the age of 16, he gave me Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. With the density of idea and complexity of vocabulary, I quickly returned it to him.

He insisted: “keep it, when the time comes, you will get it.”

I did. When I joined Thammasat as an undergraduate student, Brave New World became my favourite, inspiring reference to make a difference in a toxic society.

As I became more interested in graduate schools and had my eyes on the most prestigious scholarship in Thailand, the Anandamahidol scholarship under the royal patronage the late king Bhumibol of Thailand, our conversation became more intense, focused and intellectual.

We debated ideas. With his wealth of knowledge on world history, we would always talk current affairs and politics. Theories and concepts.

Who would have thought a forest monk would be on point on world political affairs?

Luang Poo continued to guide me through the hardship of graduate schools. We would talk on the phone on the books I read, the papers I wrote and the difficulty things were for me to conceptualise.

“Sati, Ninja, Sati.” Conscious that meant. He said, “one word at a time. Never skim”.

He loves dictionary so he taught and trained me to open up every word I don’t understand.

If you open his books, you will find scribbles on the sideline on the explanation of words he did not know or his interpretation of them.

As studying theories became more complex, that kind of attention to detail allowed me to be on point, concise and succinct.

He said however that a Buddhist is not a theorist. A Buddhist is a doer. Test the theories, he meant.

When I consulted him with the idea of creating UNITE Thailand, he was on board and gave me the most life changing advice to an idealistic me with heavily foreign influences.

“Forget the theories, forget democracy, forget Buddhism, make kids happy, as many as possible.”

We did.

Before the tragic day of the 14th of November 2018 where he parted this world for heaven, he has suffered severe health issues and complication for 7 years that he could not talk, move or eat by himself.

He was the educator who loved Thailand so much. The last sentence he ever said to me was “a great person is one with gratitude. We are indebted to this land, be good. Be kind. Be nice. Be helpful.”

Thailand loses a great monk who taught them Dhamma. I lost a grandfather who helped me through the intensity of life, who taught me to read, write and question, who taught me the beauty of life, the necessity to serve our society.

Enjoy heaven, Luang Poo.

I will always remember you.

Ninja.

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