Putting a lid on the bigots in Malaysia

Putting a lid on the bigots in Malaysia
Loud and proud: Azrul describe himself as a Malaysian who believes in moving together for the future rather than harping on the past.

When the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (Jais) raided the Bible Society of Malaysia's office in Selangor and seized 321 copies of the Bible in Malay and Iban on Jan 2 and a group of angry Muslims wanted to march to a church in Klang in protest of their use of the word "Allah", Azrul Mohd Khalib just about had enough.

For him, this, coupled with the call by Perkasa president Datuk Ibrahim Ali a year earlier for Muslims to burn Malay Bibles with the word "Allah", were all ingredients for a potent confrontation.

The 38-year-old social activist felt this was not something that Malaysians wanted and he decided to "stand up and speak out".

Azrul wrote an open letter to the Sultan of Selangor expressing his concern over the confiscation of the Bibles. That letter was published in an English daily and shared online 96,000 times.

And on the Sunday of the proposed protest on Jan 5, Azrul and a group of like-minded Muslims went to "protect" the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Klang in case there were angry protesters.

He believes groups like Perkasa, Isma and the group that threatened to march to the church are a minority but because they are well organised, have "loud megaphones" and do not hesitate to scream and shout, they are very visible.

"These factions create 'phantom menaces' in order to justify their existence. They say Christians are proselytising to the Muslims but in every instance, they have failed to prove it," says Azrul, the convener for the Malaysians for Malaysia movement that was formed after the Klang solidarity gathering.

"If Malays themselves don't wake up to the reality that there is this minority trying to forward a very extremist, racist and bigoted agenda and if we remain quiet, it means that we are endorsing it and allowing it to happen.

"So we need to stand up for our fellow Malaysians. We need to be visible and vocalise what we feel so that other Malaysians can see that they are not standing alone when faced by these bigots and extremists."

The Penang-born Azrul spent four years of his primary education in Wales where his father, who is with the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi), was pursuing his PhD, and he continued his secondary education in Alor Setar when they returned to the country.

He then continued his tertiary education at Universiti Malaya, studying molecular biology, and later at UKM to pursue a masters degree in International Relations and Strategic Studies.

Azrul admits that his parents, who live in Bandar Baru Bangi - which he describes as a "Malay ghetto" and "very insular" - get all sorts of phone calls from people over what he is doing and jokes that they have probably disowned him already.

"Honest to God, I don't look at myself as a Malay or from a particular race.

"I consider myself as a Malaysian who believes in liberal and pluralistic views, and in moving together for the future rather than harping on the past, which is something the Malay community tends to do a lot of," he shares.

So is he one of those kacang lupakan kulit type who refuses to acknowledge his Malay heritage?

"No. But I will not use that as a tool to bludgeon other people. Today, at almost every opportunity, 'certain' people make use of it to demonstrate dominance (over other ethnic groups in the country) but I am not that kind.

"I see heritage as something we can celebrate together collectively rather than it belonging to one ethnicity," he says.

He finds it "funny" how the only culture Muzium Negara seems to celebrate is the Malay culture and thinks what the founding fathers actually had in mind was celebrating the different communities in such a way that it formed an "amazing tapestry of ethnic harmony".

When it comes to ethnic relations in the country, Asrul favours dumping the word "tolerance" in favour of "acceptance" because he says tolerance implies "barely putting up with the other" while "acceptance" is more wholesome, embracing and regarding others as equals.

Azrul is also concerned over what he sees as the "increasing encroachment of religion" into other spheres of life, including public health, over the past few years.

He used to work with the Malaysian AIDS Council and was the UN's country coordinator for HIV.

He says one of the things he noticed is how at Health Ministry meetings, religious officers from the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) or Jais are present and actively giving their input.

"Nothing can work unless these guys say it is okay. Rather than putting medical expertise, knowledge and evidence before any other consideration, we are now giving religion more stature than expertise, knowledge and evidence," says Azrul.

He believes this to be true of other ministries too and whatever the policy, it has to be "syariah compliant".

Adopting syariah rules onto secular policies, he fears, is marginalising the non-Muslims and telling them to swallow it or leave the country.

"We laughed at Kelantan when they had separate counters for males and females in supermarkets and segregated boys and girls in cinemas.

"But now you have a situation where suddenly, it is not funny anymore. (This is) because we know that Jakim has a blueprint for Malaysia to adopt the hudud law (Islamic penal code) and are working towards a Federal court equivalent for the syariah," he says.

Azrul looks back at Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's tenure as Prime Minister with a "certain amount of nostalgia" because back then, the administration was secular and the division between religion and administration was clear.

"But we have regressed to such an extent that now, some parts of society are wrought with insecurity," he opines.

He sees a lot of things being cloaked in religion to form a "buttress" to avoid accountability.

"We need to ensure that the instruments of the country are not compromised to such an extent that they suppress public debate and become exclusive and only the domain of a select few.

"Why is it that when you criticise or oppose a government policy or question something these days, it is being perceived as being anti-Malaysia or anti-Malay?"

Azrul has misgivings over the government's decision to retain the Sedition Act because it seems to be used to suppress contrarian views and is being applied subjectively according to "whims and fancies".

He would have a lot more faith, he says, if there were clear lines between Umno and politics in governance and the running of the country.

But for him, the recent Umno general assembly has shown otherwise.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who is Umno president, had in his presidential speech at the assembly announced that the Sedition Act would be retained. The decision was made after taking into consideration the views of the Umno wings, divisions, grassroots and NGOs.

Azrul finds it "alarming" that national policies are being decided at the Umno general assembly.

He says questions are being raised over double standards in the application of the Sedition Act and he wonders why some people like Umno's Datuk Mashitah Ibrahim and Perkasa's Ibrahim Ali seem to enjoy impunity from action.

At the Wanita Umno assembly, Mashitah, who is the Baling Umno Wanita chief, claimed in her speech that Islam and the Malays were under threat and cited an incident where a Chinese in Kedah purportedly burnt the Quran "page by page" during some prayers. The incident, however, turned out to be untrue.

"The same rules to justify inaction for them should apply to anyone else. As a Malaysian, I hate to think that our institutions are compromised to such an extent that people no longer have trust in the institutions," he says.

But why pick on Umno and not PAS or the other political parties?

Azrul admits he doesn't trust PAS either and that in a general election, he would be tempted to vote an Umno candidate over a PAS candidate. But he says he would still assess each individual candidate and the issues and policies he is standing for before making his pick.

"The reason I single out Umno is because the reality on the ground has shown Umno calls the shots in the country. National policies are crafted so much by Umno politicians that we need to be able to engage with them and hold them accountable," he says.

He thinks the Prime Minister has been talking and fighting for "some semblance of a moderate agenda".

"Never mind that it is vague at the edges but I feel we haven't given him enough support. Why are we not helping him articulate this vision? I am equally guilty of running him down, but we need to show that the moderate voices are out there so that he can fight back.

"The PM needs to hear from the people he expects to get support from. If he loses to the conservative right wing and hard core bunch, we are partly to blame. If we distance ourselves from the conversation and process, then somebody else is going to decide for us and it's going to be somebody we don't like."

But who on earth picked Azrul to speak up? It isn't like people voted him into office.

He says he has made a conscious decision to speak up.

"If you want to be able to shape the discourse, you are going to have to be part of that conversation.

"Decisions are made by those who show up. We need to ask ourselves: 'Do we need a new deal for Malaysia?'"

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