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Friday, December 30, 2011

Do we care or are we just bystanders?


Are we committed to making sure that the law-makers do not abuse the trust we place in them? Or are we simply bystanders who hope the problem will go away?
COMMENT
The average Malaysian has much to moan about; rising commodity prices, corruption, the economy, crime, poverty, unemployment, drug abuse, debt, failed projects, family breakdown, increased public spending.
We might believe that the whole world has its eyes trained on us and is aware that our democracy is being eroded, or that our civil liberties are under threat or that we have a semblance of a police state.
Sadly, these Malaysians are naïve. The truth is that no one out there cares or bothers.
So what if Malaysia’s Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is cause for concern? So what if there is an outflow of several billion ringgits from the country which robs us of funds for growth and prosperity? So what if some people drop dead at the foot of buildings or die of “sudden death” when in police custody? So what if corruption denies the average Malaysian a better standard of living?
Obama, Cameron, Merkel, Sarkozy, and a host of other leaders have their own problems to deal with. If we want to be rid of the problems that beset us and our nation, then the solution lies with us. Not with the superpowers, not with the G-8 nor with the BRIC nations.
Some westerners cannot even place Malaysia on the map. Some Americans think we live on trees and a few Europeans praise our ability to “tame” jungles, when they drive past our neat rows of rubber and oil palms in the estates.
Malaysians are increasingly becoming critical of the west and its media. News on Malaysia is only carried by western media when there are scandalous revelations about a public figure, royalty or something that tarnishes the image of Islam.
On the whole, Europeans view Malaysia as a prime tourist destination with sandy beaches, lush jungles and a haven for good food. But hidden underneath the veneer of calm and multi-ethnic integration, is a dangerous mix of rising racial and religious strife. Only the calm exterior is exposed to the foreigner.
The astute expatriate who has lived and worked in the country only becomes aware of the dangerous undercurrents, if he ventures away from his privileged existence.
Obedient Wives Club
When the “Obedient Wives Club” (OWC) was formed, Muslims in Malaysia were made to look ridiculous. Its explicit sex manual raised eyebrows and created salacious interest.
Comparisons with the Kama Sutra, allegations of illicit sex and subservient wives, caused the withdrawal of the book. The OWC denied having strayed from the teachings of the Quran. In earlier years, these same people had caused sensational headlines with the formation of “The Polygamy Club”.
In 2008, a Muslim woman who was caught drinking beer in a beach resort catapulted Malaysia into the spotlight. Kartika Dewi Seri Sukarno’s life was torn apart when she was detained by the religious police and would have received a public caning but for the intervention of a Sultan.
Kartika’s life was scrutinised by the world’s media, her marriage fell apart under the strain, and she had to abandon her life as a nurse and a model, in Singapore, where she was living.
In another incident, a teenage model, Manohara Odelia Pinot allegedly ran away from her husband, in a dramatic escape in Singapore. The American Embassy was involved and western media ecstatically listed the troubled life of the young teenage wife of a Malay prince.
Manohara had run away whilst visiting her father-in-law, the former Sultan of Kelantan as he was being treated in a Singapore hospital. Scandals in the royal household were divulged in foreign newspapers, and caused much delight, abroad.
Tension is on the rise
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, is no stranger to controversy. In 1998 he had been tried for corruption and sodomy. He was jailed for corruption but the sodomy charge was overturned. In 2008, a former aide accused him of sodomy, again.
On both occasions, Anwar said it was a conspiracy by two prime ministers of Malaysia, to end his political career. On Jan 9, 2012, the judge’s verdict for Sodomy II will be announced. This is expected to attract worldwide media attention.
Protesters in the recent July 9 “March for democracy” by Bersih 2.0, an NGO calling for clean, free and fair elections, were met with a violent response by the Malaysian police. Bersih 2.0 tarnished the reputation of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. Najib had been hounded in London when on an official visit. The normally placid Malaysians had placed Malaysia on the map.
One overseas Malaysian asked, “Is the world’s media taking note because the Arab Spring seems to be spreading east? Or are they interested because Malaysia is also a Muslim nation?”
The belief is that despite widespread human rights abuses in Malaysia, western nations tend to overlook these because Malaysia is a moderate Muslim nation and can be used as a friendly buffer against fundamentalist and extremists countries like Iran.
Civil society groups in Malaysia have warned that tensions in the public are rising to dangerous levels because of human rights violations by the authorities. Meanwhile, the opposition claims of rampant corruption and injustices have caused sections of society to turn against the government.
Recently, Najib said he wanted to make Malaysia, the “best democracy in the world”. When repressive laws like the Internal Security Act (ISA and the Emergency Order (EO) Act were repealed, the western media praised the PM for his attempts at reform. Very little was said of the alternative laws that were enacted.
When Najib tabled the Peaceful Assembly Bill (PAB) in November, the constitutional right of Malaysians to freedom of assembly was curtailed. The western media picked this news up only because the Bar Council had organised a protest against the PAB.
We are responsible for our current problems. We allowed our politicians to get away with breaking the law. Were we committed to making sure that the law-makers did not abuse the trust we placed in them? Or were we simply bystanders who hoped the problem would go away?
Mariam Mokhtar is a FMT columnist.

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