Former DPM proud to be a moderate

Always a moderate and proud to be one - that's how Tun Musa Hitam describes himself. Till this day, the 80-year-old former Deputy Prime Minister does not hold back when it comes to hitting out at politicians who incite racial and religious tension. He states bluntly that only "bankrupt politicians" use race and religion to gain political mileage.

Looking relaxed at his Bukit Tunku home in Kuala Lumpur last Friday morning, Musa, who stepped down as DPM in 1986, offered the writer a cup of tea and suggested that we adjourn outdoors for the interview.

Once he got going, Musa addressed delicate issues relating to extremism and freedom of speech and shared his thoughts on how Malaysia can achieve great things - in politics or business - by being moderate and liberal.

Q: What does moderation mean to you, Tun?

A: First let me say this emphatically and very firmly - I have aways been a liberal and a moderate and am proud of it. I have been brought up from young until now as such.

My family, my parents, my elders brought me up that way, and in my more grown up days since I entered politics, my political party Umno adopted the stance of moderation from the early days that we gained Independence. But I don't know what's happening there now.

Secondly, as far as things against moderation, such as extreme views based on sentiments relating to religion and race, I have always said, and I am going to say this again - both have been hijacked by politicians.

Only bankrupt politicians use race and religion in promoting their cause and in trying to get political support. The third point is that I am very sad to note that during this particular instance in Malaysian history, it seems that the hijacking process is going on. And what's worrying, is that it is intensifying.

There seems to be a very clear-cut position where the moderates here condemn the extremists, and the extremists condemn the moderates. Sometimes, I hear very high-powered, responsible politicians say that moderation and liberalism are dangerous. I suspect they do not know what they are talking about.

Q: Are the lines between politics and religion becoming blurred?

A: When we talk about moderation and liberalism in the Malaysian context, in most cases it deals with race and religion.

Too many politicians want to become religious leaders and too many religious leaders want to be politicians. And that line has been vague.

Added to that is of course what seems to be a popularity contest based on their own perception and understanding of which side of the divide they want to be on, or support.

Within the context of politicians, I have been seeing a very strange phenomena where many, in order to project an image of religiousness, start learning quotations from the Quran and making themselves sound to be very learned.

Whereas they only learn these few sentences in order to impress people. This makes it very difficult because the non-experts are dealing with very complex issues yet trying interpret these things in a religious manner.

The essence of this all is that in Malaysia, because we are a multi-racial, multi-religious country, only if you are liberal and moderate will you be able to establish genuine linkages between one another.

Very early on in my political career I saw so many attempts for popular support using racial and religious issues.

I hate to use this example but I have to - the May 13 incident was the result of it all. But we were supposed to have learnt and corrected ourselves after that. Yet now, after so many years we seem to be back to the old days.

The basic ingredients are the same, the approach is the same, even the statements are the same in many respects. In the historical perspective, it brings a very eerie reminder of the bad old days.

Q: How do you feel when you see certain people igniting racial tensions - and getting away with it?

A: You see, we claim to be democratic. I think that within the last decade or so, we have improved from a very "tightly-held democratic system" to a much looser form of democratic practices. That, we must recognise.

(Former Prime Minister Tun) Abdullah Badawi opened up this country and the idea of broader tolerance and freedom and acceptability was launched.

What has happened since then is that democracy became more widespread, accepted and acceptable to the public - so much so, that the party in power nearly lost twice during the general election.

The strength of this openness was that everybody had the freedom. Which means that the real inner feelings, and all the prejudices, all the anger that had been pent over the years could now come out. And this explains the proliferation of all sorts of views, including extreme views on race and religion. That is the fact of Malaysian life that we have to accept.

The leadership now has a choice, they can either go back to the old days and say "shut up everybody, or else...." or, "well, you can say what you like". For now, the second choice seems to be thriving. This being so, we must accept the reality of diverse viewpoints.

So, you see how Perkasa seems to be thriving in its own way, and you also see a lot of other extremist groups also thriving, all these mostly expressed thanks to digital democracy.

But, as with life, there needs to be certain limits to freedom. Now I sound like an old conservative man who has been through it all. But it's true.

Freedom without limits makes you an extremist. Freedom with limits make you a moderate. But in order to limit it does not mean abolish or ban them - then you become an extremist. So it boils down to leadership.

So to answer the question, yes, extremists exist, but once boundaries are crossed, there needs to be firm action taken against these groups within the context of law, justice and equality.

Q: Politicians aside, how do you think race relations among Malaysians fare today?

A: On the plus side, I would like to say that all these years of paying attention to education in Malaysia has produced very positive results. First is that there now exists a relatively huge middle class among Malaysians that cuts across racial and religious lines.

This middle class is educated, capable of thinking for themselves and can assert their own judgment, especially in the context of the electoral process.

This is why you can see the ruling Government parties losing a lot of seats where there is a bigger middle class group. Secondly, I see that there is more acceptance of arguments, of exchanging views and of conversation.

There is less fear of expressing views, however extreme. So in the context of what The Star is promoting, I was very happy to see the statement made by the 25 prominent Malay personalities. To me personally, that was a very good symbolic statement made by them in that they triggered thinking, arguments and conversations. Then there were the responses, which I compliment also because they are not calling names. They are not arguing based on irrationality but arguing on an almost point-by-point basis. This was absent before.

I was the founder of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia. During my time, I held two inter-religious dialogue sessions. I brought all of them together. We spent morning up to lunch time together. An ustaz, a young vibrant man educated in New Zealand, came up to me and whispered "Tan Sri, (Musa was then Tan Sri) I must tell you, I have never in my life sat next to a Bishop and or any other religious leader.'

That hit me. It hit me really hard. The achievement was simply that they sat down together and talked. We need this conversation. I am so happy to see these conversations starting, well thanks to The Star, I must say.

So, never mind those who make personal attacks. These are cheap, senseless, illogical, irrational people whom you can just dismiss. I know it is easier said than done. But like the group of 25 Malays, people are already showing signs of leadership - without the influence of political elements.

Q: What do you think the Government can do to truly address extremism?

A: I have not seen many statements against extremism by the Government. The leaders themselves seem to be confused about whether they want moderation or want to be so-called "good Muslims" or "good Malays".

It seems to be all pronouncements which are meaningless.

Leaders are making differing statements, they seem to be having different viewpoints, clashing even. The party in power does not seem to be making its stand, particularly Umno.

Umno - I am still a member - was founded on the principle of moderation and liberalism because we wanted the nation to be one. Only moderation and liberalism will allow us to survive. This also includes democracy.

If you have democracy, you must also have a high level of tolerance to critics, however severe. So, what I am trying to do is appeal to both sides, don't just arrest them and hassle them. Use rationale and reasoning.

Many Malay leaders seem to be instilling fear among the Malays as though they are under siege.

As a result, they are also instilling a very serious inferiority complex among the Malays. This is misplaced. So many Malays are capable, yet everyday these groups are saying "you are inferior, you need protection" and "those superior people are attacking or threatening us".

How can you live like that? Even if they are attacking or threatening, why do you have to be afraid? You are well-equipped to face it and to be competitive. This siege mentality is dangerous. Those who are promoting it are doing it for their own agenda.

Q: What do you do in your free time these days, Tun?

A: I have an organisation, the World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF). It is now 10 years old. We were very low-key for a long time but now it has really become a world organisation, belonging to Malaysia. It is called "Islamic" but the acceptance of the WIEF among non-Muslim business people and governments from different parts of the world has been phenomenal.

Last year, for the first time in our history, the British invited us. It was held in London. The 10th anniversary was in Dubai in October. Over 3,000 business people came from all over the world.

Why? Although we are using the name "Islam" but by being moderate, tolerant, prepared to collaborate as world citizens in order to improve the livelihood of the ummah of the world.

We don't ask people what religion they are - we are the real practitioners of Islam. We are now being courted by the non-Muslim world. I just came back from Korea two days ago where we held a roundtable conference on Islamic finance, Islamic banking, the halal food industry and halal tourism.

The Koreans are interested in this. They see the benefits of collaborating with a so-called "Islamic" group. We just had the 14th forum. The 15th will be in Kuala Lumpur, the 16th in Jakarta and the 17th will be in Korea. Can you imagine, World Islamic Economic Forum in Korea?

I am very proud of this. It is our moderation, tolerance and acceptance of everyone that has brought us to where we are.