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NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.

“If this law is passed, it will be a black day in Malaysia.”

Standing two rows in front of me, N Surendran, the Member for Padang Serai, held the floor defiantly. I nodded my head solemnly. At that point, a feeling of frustration had overcome me. Not only because such a critical bill was being bulldozed through without proper consultation and engagement, despite its huge ramifications on civil liberties and human rights, but also because, seated on the opposition benches, there was very little we could do to either stop or delay it.

I glanced at the clock behind the speaker. By the end of the day, two previously repealed draconian laws would return to haunt Malaysia. How did we come to this?

From transformation to regression

Dato’ Sri Najib Razak’s reign as prime minister began with all the trappings of a grand reformer. In an attempt to unite a divided nation, he proffered the pseudo-national slogan of “1Malaysia,” defined by his official website as “a belief in the importance of national unity irrespective of race or religious belief.”

Najib also articulated a fresh economic agenda, dubbed the New Economic Model (NEM), in which he proposed a clear departure from the racially charged New Economic Policy (NEP) of the last four decades. In this paradigm shift, state monopolistic practices and race-based discrimination was set to be replaced by market liberalisation and needs-based affirmative action in favour of the poor.

Underpinning both the 1Malaysia concept as well as the NEM was an important keyword: “transformation”. This keyword has since manifested into a host of government initiatives such as the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) and the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), through which Najib’s transformative reforms were converted into actionable projects and policies.

Najib’s euphoria, unfortunately, was not to last. Barely three years on, transformation has descended into regression. Today, 1Malaysia remains nothing more than a brand for subsidised sundry shops, mobile clinics, affordable housing schemes, budget menus and even textile retailers, while the NEM has given way to a rehashed NEP in the form of the recently announced Bumiputera Economic Empowerment Agenda (BEEA).

What is most tragic, however, is the unabashed about-turn by the Najib Administration over laws allowing for detention without trial.

In 2011, Najib led a hyperbolic charge to dismantle two existing legislations that provided for detention without due judicial process, i.e. the Emergency (Public Order and Crime Prevention) Ordinance (EO) and the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA). This represented a giant leap forward towards greater civil liberties and respect for human rights in Malaysia, considering the fact that both laws have been much abused over the years as a tool of political intimidation, often against legitimate political opponents.

Announced via live telecast to a nationwide audience and proudly reiterated in the international fora, Najib was adamant in presenting himself as a champion of liberal reforms. In an interview with the BBC, he even promised that having “removed the Internal Security Act and the Emergency Ordinance… detention without trial is history in Malaysia.”

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister’s notion of history has proven to be rather myopic. In the last week, Malaysians have witnessed the official end of Najib’s reform agenda, as the Government ushered in the return of the EO and the ISA through amendments made to the Prevention of Crime Act (PCA). This law may carry a different name, but every controversial provision has been retained – indefinite detention without trial, presumption of guilt, and prohibition of legal recourse, with the only significant difference being the replacement of the arbitrary powers of the Home Minister with an equally arbitrary three-man “Prevention of Crime Board.”

A campaign of justification

What is most galling about the entire exercise is that the law had been passed without much public resistance. Besides the usual opposition-led protests, some comments by political and social activists, as well as a strongly worded joint statement by the Bar Council, the Sabah Law Association and the Advocates Association of Sarawak, there was no sustained hue and cry following the tabling of the bill (though there now appears to be growing remonstration after the fact).

This was accomplished largely due to a cleverly planned campaign of justification. While, less than a year ago, the Government could not stop singing praises about its own successes in combatting crime through its GTP initiatives, the official tone took a divergent turn following unfavourable results in the 13th General Election, which hawks within the ruling party blamed on the Government’s increasingly liberal stand.

Shortly after the election, the media began to report a flurry of criminal activities, including a worrying spate of organised violence involving firearms. At one point, during the festive season mid-year, gun murders became a daily affair. Although most of the victims were themselves criminally linked, there was no doubt that the public had been persuaded that violent crime had spiralled out of control.

That was when the Home Minister seized upon the opportunity to suggest that the sudden surge in crime was due to the repeal of the EO and the ISA, as it effectively meant that thousands of ex-detainees had been set loose to roam around the country, presumably causing havoc.

This scenario, which soon became the police’s official line, appeared to be believable. In truth, however, there was no empirical evidence to suggest the correlation, a fact admitted to by the Attorney-General himself.

Instead, crime statistics from the Home Ministry revealed that incidences of armed gang robberies and armed robberies declined significantly (by 65 per cent compared to the year before) in 2012, which is the year immediately subsequent to the abolishment of the EO and ISA in December 2011.

Nevertheless, with public sentiment aroused, the Government launched a campaign dubbed “Operation Cantas Khas”, which saw nearly 12,000 criminals arrested and over 400 weapons confiscated over a one-month period.

Thus, having successfully constructed a climate of fear, the PCA amendments were introduced as the next logical step in the war against crime. Never mind that the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act already provided for limited detention without trial with judicial review in cases involving national security, or the fact that there was never any proof linking ex-EO or ISA detainees to the sudden spate of violent crime, or that structural inefficiencies had been singled out by many including the 2005 Royal Commission of Inquiry report for police failures in combatting crime. The PCA, it was suggested, was the tool that would solve the intractable crisis of crime in our country.

As a result, the draconian provisions of the EO and the ISA are now available once again in the guise of the PCA. While the Government has promised that it will not be used against political opponents, history has proven otherwise, as many members of the opposition benches would readily testify.

If 1Malaysia and the NEM provided the basis of Najib’s first term in power, then the BEEA and the PCA should give us a clear indication of what to expect in the years to come.

Thus, Surendran’s proclamation in Parliament was only half-right. The passing of the bill at 1.00am on 3 October 2013 did not merely signal a black day, but in fact the beginning of black times ahead for the nation.

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NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.

The most basic form of democratic decision-making is the exercise of majority rule, a binary concept whereby the option that gains more than half the votes is chosen. However, this simplistic model, in use in most legislatures throughout the world including ours, can easily lead to majoritarianism, or simply put, the “tyranny of the majority”.

In such a situation, particularly in the absence of legal safeguards, political minorities risk the danger of being oppressed, be they minorities of race, gender or class. This is especially relevant to a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society such as ours, comprising of various ethnic groups co-existing alongside the majority Bumiputeras (most of whom are Malay-Muslims), which make up over 50 per cent of the population.

Such a delicate ethno-religious situation thus requires a kind of democracy that is more intuitive and just, which not only serves the wants and needs of the majority, but which also protects the rights and needs of the minorities. This balance is critical and must be maintained in order to provide the necessary space and opportunities for every citizen to achieve their optimal potential and ambitions.

In other words, the state must ensure the provision of social mobility. This goes beyond merely providing the required space and infrastructure, and then allowing nature to take its course. Such a liberal concept is problematic because it is unfair insofar as the world is unfair.

I refer here to the issue of income inequality. It has been traditionally accepted that inequality is a natural by-product of economic growth because healthy competition and meritocracy would result in unequal outcomes. After all, it makes sense that those who work harder and smarter than the rest would reap more benefits compared to those who aren’t as competitive. In short, income inequality reflects a well-functioning market economy.

However, recent empirical evidence produced by mainstream research has pointed out that income inequality may not be sustainable as far as long-term economic stability and growth is concerned. This is because income inequality will invariably result in the gross concentration of wealth at the top, and consequently weakening effective demand at the bottom. As we have seen in recent times, this may translate into loose monetary policy and unsustainable debt as the masses at the bottom struggle to keep up.

At the same time, income inequality also creates a vicious cycle of disenfranchisement as quality education, healthcare, economic opportunities and ultimately social mobility begins to edge further and further away from the reach of the masses. In other words, not only do the rich get richer, the poor will get poorer, both materially and socially.

Hence, the role of the state is extremely important in rebalancing inequality through income redistribution, not only to ensure the welfare of the people, but also to facilitate growth. The macro concept is simple enough – the healthier the population, the more educated they are and the more they earn, the stronger consumer demand becomes and the more sustainable the economy will be. For proof of concept, one only has to look at the Scandinavian model which has produced strong, resilient economic growth through equitable income redistribution.

Now, coming back to the Malaysian situation. We currently suffer from one of the highest levels of income inequality in the region. With a GINI coefficient of 0.4621, our income gap is the widest Southeast Asia. The bottom 40 per cent of Malaysian income earners earn a total of 14.3 per cent of total income while the top 20 per cent commands nearly half or 50 per cent.

Thus, while it is not difficult to argue for the need for some kind of redistributive policy, it is not as simple as one would think given the complicated nature of Malaysia’s polity, ethnic diversity and colonial history.

Post-1969, the Malaysian government recognised the need to address vast socio-economic inequalities that were apparent along racial lines, whereby the Bumiputeras, despite being the majority, only owned an equity share of 2.4 per cent of the economy, compared to the dominant Chinese, which made up the bulk of the capitalist class. Faced with a situation that would unlikely correct itself owing to the general lack of qualifications and social capital amongst the Malay populace, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was devised to address this gap.

The NEP entailed a two-pronged approach, namely: (1) the eradication of poverty regardless of race; and (2) the restructuring of society to eliminate the identification of race with economic function. The former took the form of rural development and poverty eradication programmes while the latter manifested as positive discrimination in favour of the Bumiputeras via education and employment quotas, government procurement policies, as well as corporate equity requirements on publicly-listed firms.

After two decades of the NEP, poverty was successfully reduced from 49.3 per cent in 1970 to single digits today. Local ownership of corporate equity also increased at the expense of foreigners while the Bumiputera share grew tenfold to about 20 per cent according to official data.

However, critics point out that while the NEP managed to lift a significant portion of our population out of the poverty trap and create a sizable and urbane Malay middle class, it has over the years also been used and abused not only to enrich a small elite class of Malay capitalists, but also as a tool of patronage.

Under the guise of the NEP, privatisation, property ownership, corporate listing requirements, senior public positions, and even education opportunities were captured and monopolised by those in power – all made kosher by the standard line of “helping the Malays”.

As a result, a handful of Malay millionaires and billionaires were created while the average Bumiputera remains trapped with little prospect of social mobility. According to the Federal Government’s New Economic Model, the bottom 40 per cent of Malaysian households earn an average household income of RM1,500 a month, with the Bumiputeras making up close to three-quarters of this number.

While inter-ethnic inequality has indeed been reduced, the intra-ethnic gap has widened by leaps and bounds. State monopoly capitalism now pervades, while the private sector is increasingly crowded out. In short, the NEP’s intended purpose of addressing poverty and increasing Malay participation in the economy has given way to corruption, cronyism and abuse of power for the benefit of the ruling capitalist class. This has occurred principally because of the racialised nature of the affirmative action policy, which allows special entitlements based solely on one requirement: race.

Hence, what is needed is not the dismantling of affirmative action, but a reorientation of the policy from race-based to needs-based. This will ensure positive discrimination not in favour of a certain race, which has been easily abused, but instead in favour of those who truly require support and assistance.

In particular, attention must be focused on the marginalised, such as the Orang Asli, the Bumiputeras of Sabah and Sarawak, other ethnic and religious minorities, and those in the lower income groups, in order to help them compete and in turn contribute towards the development of our nation.

We also need an economic agenda that recognises the problem of income inequality, and seeks to alleviate it by empowering those at the bottom, providing them with health, education and economic opportunities, regardless of race.

Most importantly, any kind of affirmative action must be implemented in a transparent and accountable manner, so as to reduce the scope for corruption and cronyism.

In this pivotal moment of our country’s development, it is critical that we embark on a new, inclusive national policy that is able to target and support the most vulnerable in our society. The failure to address this successfully will render any economic development meaningless, as its benefits will be invariably reaped by a select few.

After all, as Nelson Mandela once wrote, “a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones”.

NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.

Selama 56 tahun, rakyat Malaysia tanpa gagal menyambut satu perayaan yang cukup besar maknanya. Perayaan yang mengingatkan kita betapa berharganya nikmat hidup dalam keadaan bebas daripada cengkaman penjajah.

Dalam pada itu, umum juga menyedari bahawa penghayatan sambutan kemerdekaan bukan sekadar menggantungkan bendera kecil di kenderaan masing-masing, berdiri tegak di dalam pawagam semasa lagu Negaraku dimainkan atau berhimpun menunggu percikan bunga api pada detik 12 tengah malam.

Sebaliknya, kemerdekaan adalah sesuatu usaha pembinaan negara bangsa yang berterusan. Kemerdekaan bererti bahawa setiap anggota masyarakat memiliki hak dan tanggungjawab bersama untuk menentukan corak dan masa depan negara ini. Kemerdekaan bererti bahawa pilihan rakyat menjadi pilihan keramat. Kemerdekaan bererti bahawa setiap insan yang bergelar rakyat dimartabatkan dengan kehidupan yang bermaruah dan peluang untuk menikmati berkongsi kekayaan negara ini.

Namun, walaupun sudah lebih setengah abad kemerdekaan, rakyat makin hidup dalam ketakutan dengan kadar jenayah yang kian meningkat. Hak demokratik pula tercabul apabila pilihan rakyat yang lantang dalam pilihan raya umum tidak berjaya diterjemahkan kepada realiti.

Kesenjangan pendapatan pula makin melebar sehingga negara kita mencatat Pekali Gini (Gini Coefficient) yang tertinggi di Asia Tenggara dan antara yang tertinggi di Asia. Begitu gentingnya jurang antara yang kaya dan miskin, akibat kerangka ekonomi kapitalis kroni yang menguntungkan segelintir elit serta kerabat mereka, sementara 40 peratus rakyat terbawah terpaksa hidup dengan pendapatan purata RM1,500 sebulan seisi rumah.

Yang paling teruk, keharmonian dan kesepaduan antara kaum dan agama makin terancam. Saban hari media arus perdana menyajikan rakyat dengan sentimen-sentimen ekstremis perkauman dan agama, seolah-olah kebencian itu merupakan sifat fitrah masyarakat kita. Apakah yang sudah terjadi dengan matlamat Bangsa Malaysia? Harapan mulia yang pernah diimpikan kini lemas diselubungi dendam kesumat gara-gara politik sempit dan pemimpin dangkal.

Justeru, kita memerlukan pembaharuan yang ketara dalam kancah politik negara kita. Politik lama – politik perkauman dan agama, politik kebencian dan ketakutan – sudah jelas gagal dan perlu dibelakangi. Yang diperlukan adalah keazaman politik baru, iaitu politik bertunjangkan dasar, yang menggalakkan perdebatan serta berjiwa besar. Sekiranya pemimpin politik kita sanggup melakukan perubahan ini, nescaya matlamat Bangsa Malaysia boleh dicapai.

Kita juga memerlukan kerangka ekonomi baru yang mampu mengagihkan kekayaan dengan lebih saksama. Bantuan sosial, pendidikan dan juga ekonomi harus diberikan – tetapi kepada mereka yang perlu dan bukan kepada mereka yang bergelar kroni. Ini tidak akan tercapai selagi sistem ekonomi berdasarkan perkauman tidak dapat diganti dengan sistem yang menyasarkan golongan yang paling memerlukan bantuan tanpa mengira kaum dan agama.

Akhir sekali, kunci kepada pembinaan Bangsa Malaysia terletak dalam sistem pendidikan. Pada masa kini, sistem pendidikan yang seharusnya menyatukan rakyat tampaknya semakin jauh daripada sasarannya. Menurut laporan awal Pelan Pembangunan Pendidikan Malaysia 2013 – 2025,  enrolmen murid bukan Melayu di Sekolah Kebangsaan (SK) hanya 6 peratus manakala enrolmen murid bukan Cina di Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina (SJKC) mencapai 12%. Statistik ini seolah-olah menyatakan SJKC lebih bersifat “kebangsaan” berbanding SK dari segi komposisi kaum. Sudah tentu, ia juga menonjolkan kegagalan kerajaan untuk menjadikan jurusan Sekolah Kebangsaan sebagai pilihan utama masyarakat.

Oleh itu, sudah tiba masanya kita memikirkan kembali bagaimana untuk mengembalikan fungsi pendidikan sebagai pemudahcara perpaduan nasional tanpa mengabaikan kepentingan mana-mana pihak.

Bagi saya, satu-satunya cara adalah melalui proses disentralisasi dalam sistem pendidikan. Saya percaya, kita harus mengagihkan tanggungjawab dan peranan utama dalam pendidikan kepada pihak-pihak berkepentingan (stakeholders), yakni ibu bapa, guru-guru, murid-murid serta masyarakat tempatan.

Sejauh mana yang mungkin, campurtangan politik harus dielakkan. Ini kerana secara lazimnya politik itu menjadi punca segala masalah, sepertimana yang sudah berulang kali kita alami sepanjang sejarah kita (memori yang paling segar kes PPSMI yang dilaksanakan semata-mata untuk memenuhi kehendak seorang pemimpin).

Sesudah 56 tahun bergelar Merdeka, besar harapan saya agar 56 tahun yang akan datang tidak akan menampakkan kegagalan impian dan harapan nenek moyang kita yang telah banyak berkorban demi mewariskan negara yang megah, maju dan saksama.

Maka, janganlah kita sia-siakan usaha mereka. Sebaliknya, marilah kita meneruskan agenda kemerdekaan dengan mengukuhkan lagi batu asas kenegaraan kita dan mendirikan rangka ekonomi, siasah dan pendidikan yang teguh bagi penjalinan Bangsa Malaysia pada suatu hari kelak.

NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.

A climate of fear and tension appears to be gripping the Muslim world today – not only in the ever-conflicted Middle East, but even here in Malaysia. In recent months we have seen an increasing zeal on the part of the authorities, certain politicians and right-wing groups. The gross overreaction in the handling of issues such as the surau in Johor, the “dog lady” video incident, the use of the word “Allah”, and the growing persecution of minorities such as the Chinese, the Christians and the Shias, have revealed uncharacteristic fanaticism. Since when have we become such an intolerant society?

The worst part is that most of these sentiments do not assume any rationality. Take the virulent stance against the Shias for example. During one of the terawih prayers that I attended in the recent holy month of Ramadan, a popular cleric had been invited to deliver a tazkirah or sermon. In his sermon, the cleric nonchalantly informed us all that the Shias were not really Muslims, and that they worshipped a different religion altogether. I thought this extreme view was perhaps an isolated one, until I read that the Kedah state government is planning to gazette a fatwa that will effectively treat Shias as deviants.

Now, if Shias are deviants and regarded as non-Muslims, why do we invite them every year to participate in our annual Tilawah Al-Quran competition at the Putra World Trade Centre? In fact, since 1961, nine Iranians (read: Shias) have won the men’s recital competition. Furthermore, why is Iran accepted as a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)? What about the thousands of Iranian students that we are willing to accept as students in our universities every year?

Obviously, there is more to it than meets the eye. I believe that this sudden surge of bigotry and hawkish posturing has more to do with local political manoeuvrings than cultural fault-lines. It is no coincidence that certain political leaders have adopted extremely hard-line stances just as their internal party elections loom around the corner. From now until October, I suspect we will see a proliferation of instant Malay-Muslim heroes. The only question is whether a keris will be brandished this time around.

In the same vein, a lot of what is interpreted as “sectarian tension” between Sunnis and Shias in the Middle East could also very well be a manifestation of geo-politics and the competition for power and influence, in particular between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

After all, as Duke University professor and Iranian exile Mohsen Kadivar astutely commented during his recent visit to Malaysia, the Sunni-Shia divide is 14 centuries old. After 1,400 years, no amount of fighting can change what happened. What happened, happened. Whether it was right or wrong, it happened. That is no longer the issue. Therefore, the conflict manifesting in the Middle East today is not really a quarrel over a historical event, but rather a struggle over influence and power in the region. Seen in this light, the couching of the conflict in sectarian or religious terms is merely a convenient label to justify the actions of the power-hungry. After all, who can argue with God?

Secularism as a safeguard against abuse by the state?

It is relevant to be aware of how popular opinion and perspectives can be shaped by political agendas, not only in interpreting the dynamics of conflict but also in discussing social and political philosophies such as secularism. This term has become highly contentious in our country, mainly because different communities understand it differently. For the minority non-Muslims, secularism is what they believe to be the foundation of our state – a guarantee of their freedom to express themselves and practise their beliefs without undue interference by the state.

However, the majority Malay-Muslims have an altogether different view. They are inherently suspicious of the term and believe it to be antithetical to the Islamic deen, or way of life. This is mainly due to the fact that their understanding of secularism is largely shaped by the Turkish experience of Kemalism and the Iranian experience under the Pahlavi Dynasty. This influence is pervasive because most religious knowledge in Malaysia is derived from post-Islamic Revolution scholars and literature. As such, the thought of secularism brings to mind the trauma of statist governments that suppress religious expression.

Now, while the regimes of Atatürk and the Shah can be considered harsh forms of secularism, it must be noted that they were both authoritarian regimes. In contrast, democratic models of secularism are far more moderate, such as that exists in India, Europe and the United States. In effect, secularism is not a definite concept and can take on various manifestations, ranging from the extreme to the liberal, depending on the nature of its implementers.

Broadly speaking, secularism in the political context is meant to denote a separation of religion and state. It is not to be confused with the secularisation of society. In fact, far from suppressing or casting aside religion, secularism as a concept of state can arguably provide greater respect for religion.

For example, an ideal secular state would respect freedom of religion and ensure that all religions can be practised without state interference and control, and instead be accorded assistance and support from the government. In India, for example, the government has for decades been subsidising the airfare of Muslims going on the Haj pilgrimage.[1] And we are talking about a secular country with a majority Hindu population!

Implemented well, a democratic secular state would also protect and allow greater space for discourse on cultural matters. This will allow civil society to flourish and contribute to the enlightenment of the populace. At the same time, cultural decentralisation will also be allowed to take its natural course – something that is relevant to our country. As we know, Malaysia is a federation of states in which Islam, alongside land and local government, is designated as a state matter. As a result, states may and do differ in opinion on various matters in the religion, thus allowing localised context and idiosyncrasies to exist.

For example, different states have differing opinions on the legality of practising yoga, the poco-poco dance, smoking and even investing in Amanah Saham unit trusts. Now, whether right or wrong is a matter of opinion, and should ideally be debated by a mature civil society. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in Malaysia. Not only do we have very little room for discourse, we are now seeing things start to go wrong when overzealous officials attempt to implement opinions as laws set in stone and then go on to persecute those who question them as criminals.

In short, state capture of sociological identities rarely results in positive outcomes. As we have seen in Malaysia and elsewhere in the world, race and religion are too easily hijacked and abused as tools for political gain and convenience.

To avoid this, we need to entrench certain “secular” safeguards in governance, provided they conform to democratic norms, in order to not only protect against state abuse of race and religion, but also to facilitate healthier discourse and development via civil society. The absence of such safeguards will allow room for those in power to impose their will in an arbitrary and self-serving manner.

After all, if history has proven anything, it is that whatever the ideological nature of the conflict, be it over race, religion or even class, the underlying pattern of power politics always remains the same.


[1] This practice is currently being phased out and will be replaced by a new model of imposing premiums on well-to-do pilgrims in order to cross-subsidise the poorer ones.

NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.

Jika perkembangan media Melayu mutakhir ini diperhatikan, sifat-sifat kewarasan, keberkecualian dan kesusilaan sudah jelas tidak wujud.

Sentimen perkauman bagai menjadi kelumrahan media Melayu zaman sekarang, baik di kaca mata televisyen ataupun dalam media cetakan. Nyata trend yang sempit ini sedang diterajui oleh media-media kawalan Umno, khususnya Kumpulan Utusan Melayu.

Sejurus selepas pilihan raya umum ke-13, Utusan Malaysia dengan tidak segannya telah mempersoalkan “Apa lagi Cina mahu?” melalui tajuk berita utama, manakala tabloid Kosmo! yang dimiliki kumpulan yang sama telah meluahkan muka depan yang tidak kurang provokatifnya, yakni, “Pengundi Cina bersikap talam dua muka”.

Seperti biasa, fitnah diterbit sebagai fakta dan tohmahan menjadi bahan ulasan para pengarang. Pengundi kaum Cina dipersalahkan atas kemerosotan keputusan pilihan raya Barisan Nasional, meskipun hujahnya tidak logik ― bagaimanakah mungkin golongan yang merangkumi lebih kurang satu suku populasi negara boleh memberikan 51 peratus undi popular (53 peratus di Semenanjung) kepada Pakatan Rakyat?

Jelas, kemenangan undi popular Pakatan Rakyat membuktikan bahawa gabungan parti tersebut telah menerima sokongan yang padu daripada segenap masyarakat Malaysia ― namun hakikat ini langsung diabaikan oleh media kawalan Umno yang tidak ingin menerima kenyataan.

Agenda perkauman kemudian telah diteruskan dengan seruan Awang Selamat, iaitu suara hati lembaga pengarang Utusan, untuk memboikot syarikat penerbangan Air Asia ekoran kritikan seorang pegawai kanannya, Azran Osman-Rani, yang telah mencemuh akhbar Utusan kerana bersifat rasis.

Dan jika itu tidak mencukupi, Utusan kemudiannya menyiarkan kenyataan Perkasa yang menyelar Azran sebagai “bongkak” dan “lupa diri”, serta “mengingatkan” Azran agar tidak sesekali “menyentuh” Utusan Malaysia kerana akhbar itu merupakan satu-satunya wadah yang mempertahankan hak orang Melayu di negara ini, seolah-olah segala kejayaan Azran adalah hasil daripada jasa-jasa akhbar tersebut.

Aduhai, malangnya nasib bangsa sehingga perisai perkauman terpaksa menjadi pelindung kepada umat Melayu. Agaknya, tanpa “perlindungan” daripada wira-wira bangsa seperti Utusan dan Perkasa, tidak mungkin Melayu dapat berjaya atas usaha gigih sendiri ― inilah sebenarnya sikap yang memperlekehkan dan merendahkan martabat bangsa!

Keadaan ini bukan sahaja sangat mendukacitakan, tetapi amat memalukan, khususnya apabila Utusan Malaysia pernah pada suatu ketika dahulu menjadi tonggak dan peneraju kepada suara masyarakat Melayu yang bebas.

Mungkin ramai yang telah lupa peristiwa tahun 1961 apabila pekerja-pekerja Utusan, termasuk tokoh kewartawanan seperti Said Zahari (yang ketika itu Ketua Pengarang), Usman Awang (kini Sasterawan Negara), serta barisan penulis dan wartawan seperti Abu Zaki Fadzil, Awam-il Sarkam, Salleh Yusof, Tajuddin Kahar, Zailani Sulaiman, Rosdin Yaakub dan lain-lain telah melancarkan kempen mogok.

Tujuan mogok tersebut adalah untuk membantah pengambilalihan Utusan oleh Umno yang tidak senang dengan sikap akhbar itu yang kritikal terhadap pemerintah dan pro kepada masyarakat terbanyak.

Akhirnya, 50 tahun kemudian, kekhuatiran Said Zahari, Usman Awang dan para pekerja Utusan pada zaman 60-an yang mahukan Utusan kekal bebas daripada campur tangan politik, sudah pun menjadi kenyataan. Malah, Said Zahari dan Usman Awang tidak mungkin dapat bayangkan betapa corotnya kualiti kewartawanan akhbar yang pernah menjadi perjuangan mereka.

Akibatnya, Utusan sudah hilang wibawa di mata orang Melayu, khasnya golongan kelas menengah seperti Azran yang sudah lelah dengan politik perkauman dan fitnah. Jika tidak kerana langganan kerajaan melalui jabatan-jabatan, agensi-agensi dan anak-anak syarikatnya, Utusan tidak mungkin mampu bernyawa, apatah lagi apabila ia seringkali didapati bersalah oleh mahkamah dan dipaksa untuk membayar ganti rugi kepada mangsa-mangsa fitnahnya (Lim Guan Eng dua kali, Karpal Singh, Khalid Samad, Azan Ismail sebagai contoh-contoh yang terbaru).

Hakikatnya, Utusan yang dahulu menjuarai suara masyarakat terbanyak sudah menjadi alat politik parti konservatif kanan yang ketandusan ilham dan gagal merangkumi gagasan politik baru yang berteraskan idea. Yang paling malangnya, “usaha-usaha murni” Utusan serta puak-puak haluan kanan ini sebenarnya tidak memajukan, malah memperbodohkan bangsa sendiri.

Pada saya, keadaan Utusan Malaysia pada hari ini adalah tragedi yang sangat besar kepada warisan akhbar Melayu. Jalan keluar daripada kemelut ini hanya satu ― media massa di negara kita harus dibebaskan.

Pengalaman di negara-negara lain yang telah beralih daripada media terkongkong kepada media yang bebas telah menunjukkan bahawa akhbar-akhbar yang berpendirian sempit dan berhaluan ekstrim seperti Utusan Malaysia tidak dapat bersaing dan akhirnya akan berhadapan dengan dua pilihan: tukar pendirian atau tutup kedai. Yang berjaya adalah mereka yang mampu memenuhi kehendak pasaran untuk kewartawanan yang lebih objektif.

Jika warisan akhbar Melayu hendak diselamatkan dan kewibawaan dikembalikan, jalannya adalah melalui pembebasan media.

NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.

If the prime minister’s strategy is to wear everyone down by keeping the whole country in constant anticipation of an election “around the corner”, then he has at least succeeded in one thing during his four years in office.

Malaysians have been waiting for the dissolution of parliament for more than two years now. We’ve heard every prediction, every possible nomination-polling day combo, along with every corresponding rationale. In the last few weeks, dissolution rumours have intensified so much that a new one would make its rounds on a daily basis.

None have of course come true. Every predicted date has come and gone. Last week, we witnessed for the first time in history the automatic dissolution of a state assembly – Negeri Sembilan – with Pahang set to go next week. Yet there is still no sign of a General Election.

In any case, it really doesn’t matter anymore. Najib’s joker in the deck had always been his prerogative to call for a snap election – and there were opportunities aplenty over the last two years when the opposition would really have been caught unprepared. However, this late into the game, the element of surprise has all but disappeared as parliament is due to dissolve automatically at the end of this month.

Whatever Najib’s reasons are for delaying the polls, it is very clear what he intends to do in this final lead-up. In the last few weeks, the prime minister has been criss-crossing the country making announcement after announcement of gifts and goodies for nearly everyone possible.

Most notably, government servants across the board were treated to a pay rise while a salary rationalisation exercise for armed forces and police personnel was hastily implemented and backdated to the beginning of the year. This is in addition to two other salary increments that the 1.4 million-strong civil service is due to receive this year.

Besides direct government servants, 40,000 employees of federal agencies also received good news in the form of improved perks such as a new pension fund, a provision for fixed allowances and gratuity for retirees, and the streamlining of EPF contributions.

And then we have bonuses galore for the staff of various government-linked corporations such as POS Malaysia (RM500 bonus for all employees, additional insurance coverage for their families and free laptops for their children), Telekom Malaysia (RM500 bonus for all 26,000 employees), Permodalan Nasional Berhad (an extra month’s bonus and RM1,000 in the form of unit trusts for children of employees) and Petronas (RM1,000 “token of appreciation” for all 4,000 employees).

And this is on top of the latest round of RM500 hand-outs to seven million low-income households and individuals courtesy of BR1M 2.0. I believe it is safe to say that this is the most amount of money ever spent in a single election campaign.

Unfortunately for Najib, this desperate “Santa Claus” strategy, coupled with the inordinate delay in calling for the polls, has only reinforced the perception that his government is on the verge of losing power. Everywhere from mamak shops to hotel lounges, the general consensus is that the prime minister is postponing the dissolution for fear of losing. Whether such a hypothesis has any basis or not does not matter – the perception is a pervasively negative one.

Some rumours on the ground even go so far as to suggest that Najib is planning to suspend elections indefinitely, citing conspiracy theories revolving around the use of the Lahad Datu insurgency as a pretext for declaring a state of emergency. This is of course an unlikely prospect, but the fact that such whispers seem to grow louder as every day passes speaks volumes of the people’s confidence in the prime minister.

Meanwhile, it also doesn’t help that the grand old man of Malaysian politics himself has made known his own annoyance by declaring in no uncertain terms that were he still in power, the General Election would have been called last year.

To compound Najib’s predicament, this unusual delay has now descended into ridicule in the online and social media circles. Sarcastic Twitter hashtags and Facebook posts are now a dime a dozen, as everyone cannot resist making fun of the dissolution that never seems to come.

Whatever Najib’s rationale for delaying the polls may be, it cannot possibly overcome the surge of negative popular perception that has built up as a result of his indecisiveness. It has now become a running joke, and with automatic dissolution less than a month away, Najib has basically lost whatever legitimacy he has ever had, notwithstanding the fact that the he is a prime minister without his own mandate.

That said, it is worthwhile to note that this delay that we are witnessing, while unprecedented in Malaysia, is not wholly uncommon in the Westminster system on which we are based. In the history of the British parliament, only three times has a peacetime government left it until within a month of automatic dissolution before calling for elections.

The three governments in question were those of Alec Douglas-Home, John Major and more recently, Gordon Brown. All three cases saw embattled prime ministers who inherited governments in decline after prolonged stints in power (three terms in the case of Douglas-Home’s and Gordon Brown’s governments, and four in the case of Major’s). All three elections ended in defeat for the incumbents.

The lesson to be learnt from the British experience is that dragging an expired and besieged government into polls does not usually end favourably. Especially when the electorate has been dragged along for too long.

So when will the Thirteenth General Election be? It really doesn’t matter anymore.

NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.

“I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” – Muhammad Abduh

Not too long ago, a young Malaysian political leader got herself into a spot of controversy for suggesting, essentially, that there is no compulsion in religion. Such a seemingly innocuous statement was immediately sensationalised by the media, following intense pressure from vocal conservatives.

Until today, I find it strange that someone should be castigated for simply repeating a fundamental truth espoused by none other than the Holy Quran itself.

And even more recently, there has been a fierce debate over the name of God – who can use it, who cannot use it, and whether it should be banned or prohibited for use by certain communities – as if the name of God can be monopolised or owned by anyone. So heated did this debate get that it soon culminated in vitriolic threats to burn the Bible.

I suppose all this fuss and overreaction is a reflection of how intellectually immature our society is, despite our economic progress. It is indeed sad to note that the state of religious, especially Islamic, discourse in Malaysia has been reduced to banal arguments over lexical semantics, dress codes, moral policing, punitive laws and the constant regulation of everyday life, from what we can eat to what we can say.

It also doesn’t help that Islam is highly politicised in our country, with two dominant factions claiming ownership over the religion. Historically, religious contest is usually manifested by a tension between conservatism on the one hand and reformism on the other, as was the case between the Kaum Tua and Kaum Muda movements during the first half of the 20th century.

Today however, the Islamic debate in Malaysia is no longer between revelation and reason or between taqlid and ijtihad, but simply over who has more right to control the religion.

And worse, the politicisation of Islam has turned it into a convenient front for ethno-religious hegemony, through which the competing factions both project a vision of state dominance through the institutionalisation of what in their minds is a monolithic religion. The quarrel is not over whether Malaysia should be an Islamic State but over who can better govern an assumed Islamic State.

And so Islam in Malaysia is divided by two opposing views which differ in form but carry the same substance – both intend to impose a narrow set of values on the larger society, both suppress differing opinions and both are antithetical to reason and enlightenment. Somehow, the maqasid or higher intention of Islam – to achieve social justice, equality and solidarity – has been lost along the way.

Hence the need for a third, though certainly far from new, way. The reformist spirit of Muslim intellectuals such as Muhammad Abduh and, closer to home, Syed Sheikh Al-Hadi, needs to be revived. Theirs was the spirit of reasoning, of questioning, of not accepting something simply because “it is so”. Theirs was the spirit of true islah, or reform.

In this context, the Islamic reform movement has some parallels with the Protestant Reformation of 16th-century Europe. As such, some have even coined the term “Islamic Protestantism” as another label in reference to Islamic reformism or modernism.

And in similar vein to its Christian counterpart, Islamic Protestantism is not a protest against scripture but in fact against the manipulation of religion as a tool of enslavement, against the abuse of religion as a means to suppress intellectual progress. And just as Martin Luther and his cohorts remonstrated against papal dominance, so too does the Islamic reform movement challenge the subjugation of religion by a self-serving class of clerics that have installed themselves as gatekeepers between God and the ummah.

But however it is called, be it Islamic Protestantism or Islamic reformism, it does not entail the advocacy of any “new” ideas on Islam. If anything, it merely encourages the rediscovery of the true values of, in the words of Iranian historian Hashem Aghajari, a “rational, scientific (and) humanistic Islam”.

In other words, it provides an escape from dogmatism and the mindless debates about whether this or that should be banned. Instead, it focuses on understanding that progress and knowledge are values that are not just compatible with Islam, but also once the domain of Muslims.

Today, there are nearly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, yet only two have won Nobel prizes in the sciences (one in physics and one in chemistry). In contrast, the Jews, who are outnumbered by a hundred to one by Muslims, have produced 79 science Laureates. And perhaps the best depiction of the state of Muslim intelligentsia is the case of the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, which reportedly has three mosques on campus (with another one in the works) but not a single bookshop.

This is of course in direct contrast to the scientific progress of the Muslim world between the eighth and 13th centuries, during which much knowledge was pioneered in the fields of medicine, mathematics and physics. Without a doubt, the foundations laid by Muslim scholars such as Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and many others would later have a profound influence on European philosophy.

Though the Islamic Golden Age has been confined to history, it is certainly not impossible to reengineer another Islamic renaissance, so long as there is a substantial commitment to integrate scientific and worldly knowledge with core Islamic values such as justice, freedom and equality. For as long as Muslims remain fettered by the rigidity imposed by “Islamic authorities” and the pseudo-clergy class, the ummah will continue to be left behind.

That said, there is now an undercurrent sweeping the Muslim world. Some have termed it a “spring” while others call it an “awakening”. However one calls it, there are now signs that Muslims are beginning to rise to reclaim their space under the sun. In Egypt, a former engineering professor now sits in the presidential office while Tunisia is now led by the prominent Islamist intellectual Rachid al-Ghannushi. These countries now join Turkey and Indonesia as other examples of burgeoning Muslim democracies.

As freedom and democracy begin to take root in the Muslim world, so too, it is hoped, would the pursuit of knowledge and the thirst for scientific progress be revived amongst Muslims.

As for us in Malaysia, still consumed by doctrines that brook no dissent and the domination by two sides of the same repressive coin, sitting idly by is not an option. If we are to achieve the ultimate goal of true islah, then protest we must.

NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.

The diminutive old man waved his arms energetically as he explained his favourite recipe.

“After neutralising the chicken with ginger, I steam it to cook the meat. At the same time, I heat up the oil. And then…,” he pauses for effect, “Just when the oil is hot enough, I send the chicken into thermal shock.”

Habibie the engineer-cook smiled satisfyingly. His use of technical jargon in describing a recipe was characteristically endearing of the man. “Voila! And that is how you prepare the best chicken in the world – golden on the outside, white on the inside.”

I was at a loss for words. Had I not known any better, I would never have figured this humble, passionate and grandfatherly man to be the former head of state to nearly a quarter of a billion people.

One is immediately put at ease in the presence of BJ Habibie, third president of the Republic of Indonesia. Ever ready to regale his surrounding company with a tale or three, Habibie’s greatest strength is perhaps his ability to seamlessly weave together his multiple facets – scientist, technocrat, politician and now, elder statesman.

The former president was in town to deliver a speech at the Penang Institute’s invitation, during which he talked of aeroplanes (his pride and joy – the N-250 turboprop), pluralism (a celebrated concept in Indonesia but a foul word in Malaysia), love and respect (for country, culture and community), and what he thought was the greatest gift that the Chinese gave to Indonesia – the Islamic religion (long before the Arabs came, we were told).

However, no political leader is without his detractors, even one as genial as Habibie. I had expected his visit to elicit some critique and even the odd disparagement, but I was utterly shocked by what can only be described as a vengeful, intemperate and grossly personal attack by former Malaysian information minister Tan Sri Zainudin Maidin in his column on a national daily.

Without mincing his words, Zainudin labelled Habibie a “dog of imperialism” in a stinging piece that also likened the former president to a pair of “scissors in Suharto’s fold”, as well as a “traitor to the Indonesian race”. Habibie, he opined, is to blame for the “political chaos” that has enveloped the country on the count of the fact that Indonesians are now “split” into 48 political parties.

The shallowness of Zainudin’s arguments is not even worth pointing out. Exactly what is wrong in having 48 political parties in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country of 240 million people separated into 33 provinces spread across 17,508 islands? Is freedom of association not an expression of democratic rights? I suppose it would be asking too much to expect an ideologue from the very party which frowns upon freedom of assembly and speech to grasp the fundamental precepts of democracy.

In his article, Zainudin also cynically attributed Habibie’s short reign in office (one year and five months) to his decision to allow a referendum for self-rule in East Timor, presumably under the weight of Western pressure.

In other words, is Zainudin suggesting that Habibie is a traitor and imperialist stooge for giving a long-oppressed people the right to choose their own government? By the same token, would Zainudin also suggest that Palestine should not be allowed self-rule? Or that Malaysia should not have been granted independence because it would have been treacherous to the British monarchy to do so?

The fact is that the East Timor referendum remains one of Habibie’s proudest achievements. To his mind, he had righted a wrong. Historically, East Timor was not even a Dutch colony and should not have been part of Indonesia. Hence, to lay claim to the land was, in Habibie’s own words, akin to colonising them.

Zainudin, though, is correct on one point. Democratisation and decentralisation are indeed Habibie’s greatest legacies. After all, it was under his short-lived presidency that sweeping reforms were made, including the lifting of restrictions on the formation of political parties, the unconditional release of political detainees, the provisions for press freedom and the setting of a two-term limit for the presidency. Even more significantly, it was also by his decree that the terms “pribumi and “non-pribumi” were abolished from all official circumstances.

One can only wonder whether Malaysia would ever see such transformational reforms.

Having said that, it is also true that no one is perfect. Certainly, it is worth to note that Habibie himself had been a party to Suharto’s iron-fisted rule for over three decades, even if it were in a mostly technocratic role.

One can also say that he did not go far enough as president, but considering that he had come into office at a most tumultuous time, with an economy in free-fall, riots in the streets and a rebellious military descending upon him, it is not difficult to imagine that a lesser man would have yielded.

But not Habibie. For when the moment of history was thrust upon him, he did not disappoint. And that is the measure of the man. If he is to be likened to a dog, then let him be remembered as the hound who championed freedom.

Zainudin, on the other hand, has been revealed to be of a completely different pedigree. His legacy will forever be cemented by this salacious attempt at cheap propaganda.

Nevertheless, I daresay he has committed political hara-kiri, for not only has UMNO lost the support of moderate and sensible Malaysians, Zainuddin’s latest gaffe may have ensured that they will also lose the support of their phantom voters.

NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.

The official name of our country ― the Federation of Malaysia ― denotes that we are a federation, a political entity that is typically constituted by a union of partially autonomous or self-governing states united under the umbrella of a central government.

A federation is also often defined in contrast to another political structure ― the unitary state. In such a system, the state is governed as a single, politically-contiguous unit with the central government as the supreme arbiter of power.

As opposed to a federation, in which the division of power is constitutionally entrenched, subnational authorities within a unitary state can only exercise power that is delegated (and which can be abrogated) by the central government.

In the case of Malaysia, though we are in theory and structure a federation, we are in practice more akin to a unitary state, with power over areas such as utilities, public transport, public housing, social welfare, education and even religion being regulated and controlled by the central government. This has led a few political observers to somewhat oxymoronically label our country a “centralised federation.”

I would go one step further to say that not only are we a centralised federation, but in fact a “super-centralised” one. This is because even within the federal government, power has been increasingly consolidated under one office ― the prime minister’s.

For example, the federal budget for 2013 reveals an allocation of RM14.6 billion (nearly RM18 billion if every commission or department is included) for the Prime Minister’s Department, while our country’s most developed state, Selangor, recently announced a total state budget of RM1.6 billion for 2013. In other words, the budget for the Prime Minister’s Department alone is big enough to run nine Selangors or 13 Penangs (RM1.1 billion budget for 2013).

This trend has been on an incline. Five years ago, in 2008, the prime minister (then a different one) had a much smaller budget at RM6.9 billion. In the course of one term alone, the figure has doubled.

In terms of staffing numbers, it was last reported in 2010 that the Bangunan Perdana Putra employed 43,544 people. In contrast, US President Barack Obama runs the most powerful office in the world with a whopping 468 staffers in the White House (as of 2012).

This irrationally disproportionate allocation of resources is the result of an increasing super-centralisation of power. Today, public transport is no longer run by the Transport Ministry but in fact by the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) which falls under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Department.

The same goes for public housing which is now spearheaded by Perumahan 1 Malaysia (PR1MA), another Prime Minister’s Department agency, even though we have a Housing and Local Government Ministry.

Even our national early child care and education programme is implemented by the Prime Minister’s Department and not, as one would think, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry (although technically they now share the same minister).

In total, there at least 52 agencies under the Prime Minister’s Department, including the Attorney-General’s Chambers, the Election Commission, the Education Service Commission, the Judicial Appointments Commission, the Department of Statistics, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, and even Parliament. And this list does not even include government-linked companies directly controlled by the prime minister.

Therefore, to say that we need to decentralise our system of governance is to make a gross understatement. Not only is it utterly inefficient for the central government to manage what are essentially local services such as public transport, waste management, welfare, housing and some would say even education and healthcare, but what’s worse, the last few years have seen the systematic emasculation of many key functions of various federal ministries through a sinister usurpation of powers by the super-ministry known as the Prime Minister’s Department. Let us also not forget that the current prime minister also concurrently holds the portfolios of Finance as well as Women, Family and Community Development.

Clearly, power needs to be rationally dispersed, not only within Putrajaya but more importantly to the state and local levels where appropriate. Legal, political, fiscal and administrative decentralisation is needed to ensure operational efficiency as well as to prevent the dangerous concentration of power at the centre.

At the same time, decentralisation will also better fulfil the democratic rights of the people by empowering their state and local authorities. In the current system, state governments are helpless in so many regards, as not only are they starved of financial resources (in 2011, Penang received only RM152 million in total federal grants despite contributing billions in tax revenue), it is also beyond the powers of a state government to make simple improvements in areas such as public transport and education.

It also doesn’t help when most development grants are disbursed directly to federal agencies at the state level instead of to the state government. In some cases, such grants are arbitrarily distributed along political considerations.

For example, the heritage conservation grant for Penang is managed by a federal government entity while the same grant for Malacca is given directly to the federal-friendly state government. And to top it off, state governments can only borrow money with federal approval. Hence, Sarawak is able to raise billions while Penang can only watch in frustration.

Finally, decentralisation will also foster competition at subnational level. To illustrate this point, I like to use the Indonesian example. After nearly half a century of authoritarian dominance, the fall of Suharto in 1998 led to a sudden dispersal of authority in what is now termed as “big bang decentralisation.”

The devolution process in Indonesia was a furious one, involving the abrupt transfer of substantial resources and decision-making responsibility from an omnipotent central government to elected authorities at provincial, regional and city levels.

What followed, besides an initial chaos, was the cultivation of competition between sub-national regions. Governors and mayors now have more control over public services and direct accountability requires them to perform if they want to keep their jobs.

The result has been nothing short of a dynamic growth model that has seen the prospering of many sub-national cities, each relishing the fact that they are now in control of their own destinies.

Simply put, a rationally decentralised system is one that adheres to the basic principles of empowerment, accountability and sharing of responsibility. Not only would a properly decentralised structure encourage greater competition, productivity and creativity amongst the various states in Malaysia, it will also allow the central government to focus on national policies rather than waste their time resolving issues such as the collection of garbage, the running of child care or controlling buses by remote control from hundreds of kilometres away.

Of course, it would be overly optimistic to expect the present federal government to understand this as they have never had to run a state government whilst in opposition. However, I can at least assure that the future federal government will definitely be committed to the ideals of decentralisation.

NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.

I have to admit that I am not really big on titles and honorifics, though I certainly have appreciation for the traditions and institutions behind them. That said however, I can be quite a stickler for correctness.

I always try, wherever possible, to address or pronounce people’s names correctly. After all, it is the least we can do to respect an individual. As a result, I am often vexed whenever I hear the many mangled ways names like Yves, Zegna, Gullit and Solksjaer are pronounced.

And of course, being Malaysian means that my compulsion for correctness is tested on a nearly daily basis, due to the myriad of titles and styles that our class-obsessed society has to deal with. After all, as they say in our country, throw a stone and one is bound to hit a Dato’. Or a Datuk. Now, which exactly is it?

This quandary is a common one that perplexes many Malaysians – what on earth is the difference between Dato’ and Datuk? The answer is really quite simple (okay, maybe not that simple). They are both different and the same.

Technically speaking, Dato’ and Datuk are both spelt and pronounced the same way in the Jawi script. The problem actually arises from its Romanisation. Yet if it is a simple matter of transliteration, then they should logically be interchangeable. However, this isn’t the case because there are some semantic nuances involved as well.

For sake of correctness, Dato’ actually denotes a title awarded by one of the nine Malay Rulers, while Datuk is typically a title awarded by the Agong or his Governors in the other states. Be that as it may, one would not find this difference in the local newspapers, which use Datuk regardless of origin. This is because the press, for sake of uniformity, uses a standardised spelling. Presumably so as not to confuse, though I am tempted to say that it probably works to the contrary.

Now that the difference between Dato’ and Datuk is clear, can we assume that it is the same case between Dato’ Sri and Datuk Seri? Not quite, as it turns out. This is because Dato’ Sri is only conferred by the Sultan of Pahang, while the other eight Rulers award Dato’ Seri. The equivalent award from the Agong or a Governor would of course be Datuk Seri. Hence, we have Dato’ Sri Najib Razak and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

Unfortunately, it does not get any simpler for women. The title used for awardees of the fairer sex is usually the same as their male counterparts – either Dato’ or Datuk, though an exception arises when the honour is bestowed by the Sultan of Selangor, in which case it becomes Datin Paduka. The latter, however, should not be mistaken for the wife of a Dato’ Paduka from Perlis.

It is slightly less complicated for wives, as they are generally called Datins across the board, regardless of whether their husband is a Dato’ or a Datuk. That is, unless the husband received his Dato’ship from Terengganu, in which case the Datin would then be called To’ Puan, a title that is not to be confused with Toh Puan (the wife of a Tun).

Subtle differences also exist in the case of the hereditary royal titles of Tengku and Tunku. Like Dato’ and Datuk, the Jawi form of these two titles are exactly the same. Similarly as well, they also carry different traditions. With some exceptions, Tunku is generally used by heirs of the royal houses of Kedah, Johor and Negeri Sembilan. The other royal houses use Tengku, except when they use Raja or Syed.

Now that we have the Datuks and Tengkus sorted out, we shall discuss honorary styles. A Datuk is given the style YBhg (Yang Berbahagia) while a Tengku is styled YM (Yang Mulia). But of course the most recognisable style to most Malaysians would have to be YB (Yang Berhormat), which is accorded to members of the federal and state legislatures. Generally, people do not face many problems with the use of styles, except when it comes to translating them into English.

The conundrum that arises is one of context. The question is, should the styles be mere transliterations or should they follow the correct British usage? Seeing as we are members of the Commonwealth, I would argue for the latter. In which case, ordinary MPs and state assemblymen in Malaysia should not be addressed as The Honourable, as such a style is not used by British MPs. This is a popular misconception arising from the way British MPs use the phrase “the honourable member” as a courtesy when addressing each other in Parliament. In actual fact, a typical British MP is simply addressed as, for example, Mr John Smith MP. It is a solecistic mistake to append the style The Honourable as a direct translation or replacement of the Malaysian style YB.

In our local context, The Honourable as a style is actually only reserved for members of the Federal or State executive, such as Ministers and Executive Council members, as well as Senators and judges of the High Court and above.

Furthermore, and this is where most people get it wrong, our Prime Ministers or Chief Ministers should not be referred to as The Right Honourable, which is a style that is only confined to members of the British Privy Council. So while the British Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, by virtue of their membership in the Privy Council, are styled The Right Honourable, our own Prime Minister and Chief Ministers should only carry the style The Honourable. This problem derives from our egregious attempt to translate YAB (Yang Amat Berhormat), which is the Malaysian style for PMs and CMs. If so, then the translation should correctly be The Most Honourable rather than The Right Honourable.

This article is not meant to be exhaustive, as it would take a whole tome to explain the proper usage of every Malaysian honorific. I have merely listed some of the more common misunderstandings associated with the various titles and styles used in our society.

And so to cap it off, for the benefit of anyone who may have to emcee an official function or write a letter to a multi-titled individual in the near future, the basic guideline for order of styles and titles in our country is thus: honorary style, professional rank, royal hereditary title, federal title, state title, non-royal hereditary title, Doctor (of medicine or philosophy), Haji or Hajjah, before finally, the least important bit of all in the Malaysian scheme of things, the poor fellow’s name.

But if one finds that it is too difficult or cumbersome to remember how who should be called what, then one merely needs to know this general rule of thumb: when in doubt, just call them Dato’. Or Datuk.

Zairil Khir Johari

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