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Post-GE14: Is Democracy a Weapon for the Weak?

This is Part 2 of our report on Post-GE14 Conference: Making Democracy Deliver. Click here to read the Part 1. 

The second session focused on how marginalised communities in Malaysia have interacted with the democratic system in the past, and whether or not their voices can now be heard amidst new political configurations.

“We need to speak about democracy in a broader sense…because it goes beyond institutions. How do marginalised, unfamiliar, unheard voices engage in democratic processes?” asked moderator Imran Rasid, who is currently enrolled in a masters programme in Southeast Asian history at the University of Malaya.

The rise of orang asli voices

First to speak on the topic was Dr Rusaslina Idrus, senior lecturer and coordinator for gender studies at the University of Malaya, who shared her observations of the orang asli community, their struggles and how they have made their voices heard in Malaysia’s democracy.

While the orang asli – or orang asal, including indigenous peoples from Sabah and Sarawak – make up a collective 14% of Malaysia’s population, there is no shortage of issues facing their communities.

For starters, legal and economic problems range from disputes over land rights, displacement by large infrastructure projects, widespread poverty, poor quality education and a lack of basic infrastructure such as treated water and electricity, she shared.

“The disparity is very stark (considering how) some of these villages are not very far from the nearest town,” Dr Rusaslina said. She also highlighted the case of children who had starved and died in Pos Tohoi, Kelantan in 2015 due to a fear of facing punishment at school.

On top of that, cultural and administrative barriers such as politicisation of choosing leaders and bureaucratic structures have resulted in adat, or traditional customs being abandoned. There is also a lack of emphasis on the culture and contribution of orang asli to nation-building in Malaysia’s school textbooks, as well as a unconsciously internalised derogatory “mindset” that views the orang asli as backward, she shared.

Despite this, the orang asli communities have been active in protecting their land rights starting from proper legal channels such as their local councillors and relevant ministries.

“If these don’t work, they also use litigation and demonstrations to assert their rights,” Dr Rusaslina added, highlighting their participation in blockades even public rallies for civic issues such as the Bersih rallies.

Perhaps the most notable “weapon for the weak” that they have used is political representation in the 14th general election. Three orang asli candidates campaigned for seats in Peninsula Malaysia on polling day – namely Bob Manolan for PKR in Kemayan, Pahang, Nasir Dollah for DAP in Gua Musang, Kelantan, and Mohd Nor Ayat or Mat Nor for PSM in Cameron Highlands.

“None of them won a seat but their political participation was very important in providing visibility (for their communities),” Dr Rusaslina noted.

Based on her personal observations, she shared that while the majority of orang asli communities both in Peninsula Malaysia and Sarawak supported the status quo, younger members of the communities leaned more towards a change in government. In Sabah, wins of indigenous rights champion Jannie Lasimbang, her sister Jennifer, and activist lawyer Baru Bian in Selangor were seen as notable gains for orang asli communities.

While the Pakatan Harapan manifesto lists several targeted pledges for the group, it remains to be seen when and how these promises will be kept. One sign of progress ha been the engagement of previously ignored voices championing orang asli issues by JAKOA, the Department for Orang Asli Development, Dr Rusaslina said.

She advocated a four dimensional approach in approaching redress mechanisms to achieve greater equality for these marginalised communities, not only in terms of outcomes but also of access to equal opportunities in society.

This included redistribution of benefits, recognition of their rights, encouraging more participation in the wider community and transformation via both institutional and societal reforms.

“We need more inclusive democratic participation. It is time we address past injustices and put mechanisms (in place) to ensure that structural inequalities can be addressed,” she said.

Pondoks still relevant in Malaysia’s democratic narrative 

Badrul Hisham Ismail, programme director of IMAN then discussed the development and role of pondoks – independent religious schools – in Malaysia’s democracy.

Pioneered by graduates from religious schools in Patani and Jawa, these non-profit institutions mushroomed as religious and educational institutions in the early 20th century as more affluent villagers began sending their children to study in the Middle East.

A notable feature of pondoks is the high involvement from the local community in funding, building and engaging with these schools. “There is a very strong relationship between the pondoks and the local communities, which differentiates them from more exclusive modern schools,” Badrul said.

However, these religious institutions suffered several setbacks post-independence as state-funded religious and national schools began to emerge. On top of that, religious education was incorporated during amid the Islamisation wave in the 1980s, a development in which Tun Dr Mahathir was highly involved, Badrul pointed out.

“Because of that, pondok education became less mainstream and were somewhat trivialised by the wider Malaysian community. They also faced financial issues, as they were initially funded not only through charity but through the collection of zakat. After zakat collection was institutionalised, they did not have access to that funding source anymore,” he said.

Although several graduates of these institutions have gotten involved in politics, they are more party leaders than national figures that all Malaysians can relate to, Badrul added.

Despite this, pondoks currently continue to play a large role in very specific communities in Malaysia now, namely among rural and economically disadvantaged Malay Muslim groups. “For many rural Malaysians, pondoks are not just an alternative means of education but the only way they can get an education,” Badrul said. This is due to several reasons, which include the spiritual direction provided by pondoks, their role as remove schools for students who cannot catch up with the pace of education in national schools, and their capacity in providing education to the needy.

“A distinct element of pondok education is that it is a community-based approach. They aspire, whether they are able to or not, to produce a more holistic Malaysian citizen, proven by previous generations of graduates. The kitab Jawi curriculum also talks about what it means to be a citizen, the importance of being active in politics either as a voter or as a politician, the importance of paying tax, of defending the country,” Badrul said.

He then contrasted the waning political participation of Malaysian pondoks with their Indonesian counterparts. Known as pesantrens, members of such institutions are actively involved in politics and have staunchly defended state ideology and institutions, as well as promoted justice, democracy, citizenship and freedom of religion.

“This level of involvement was not just supported by the strength of the pesantrens, but public acceptance of Santris (their graduates) as leaders in democratic progress,” Badrul said.

Back in Malaysia, the results of GE14 showed that identity politics, especially political Islam, is here to stay. The success of UMNO and PAS in securing 70% of the Malay vote indicated that many Malays still vote along religious lines, he noted.

As such, it is important for Malaysia to ensure that religious platforms remain open so that the Malaysian public can engage and be involved in these communities.

“The question is not the role that pondoks can play in our democracy, but whether we as Malaysians provide space for these institutions to be part of the democratic process,” Badrul said.

Balancing Islam and religious minorities

Immediately after he learnt that Tun Dr Mahathir was Pakatan Harapan’s prime ministerial candidate for GE14, Dr Mohd Faisal Musa, research fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation, National Unviersity of Malaysia (UKM), revisited The Malay Dilemma, a book the fourth prime minister had written in 1970.

“After reading the book for the third time, I was convinced that Dr Mahathir was the one person who would be able to defeat Datuk Seri Najib (Tun Razak),” said Dr Faisal, who is better known to the public as Faisal Tehrani.

While many Malays may still disagree with the characterisation of their race as indifferent (acuh tidak acuh) and subscribed to old-fashioned religious views, Dr Faisal opined that Tun Dr Mahathir had harnessed this understanding of Malay attitudes in shaping his campaign.

He highlighted that Tun Dr Mahathir had, in a 2002 speech, opined that the only cure for the Malay dilemma is anajibn open mind.

“I believe that by working with DAP, PAS and his old foe Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Tun Dr Mahathir himself internalised this spirit of open-mindedness,” Dr Faisal said.

However, the one challenge the PPBM leader needed to overcome was a 30% swing in Malay voters to Pakatan Harapan, which was touted by analysts as the minimum needed by the opposition coalition to topple Barisan Nasional.

“From my perspective as a Malay Studies researcher, Tun Dr Mahathir addressed this by shifting the Malay community’s focus from the past to the present. He did this by highlighting damage that had been done to the country by the Barisan Nasional administration, more specifically under the leadership of Datuk Seri Najib,” Dr Faisal said. 

This, coupled with the Goods and Services Tax, were used to draw attention away from the fear instilled in many Malays of what they stood to lose if they did not vote for UMNO.

Tun Dr Mahathir also leveraged on another attitude he attributed to Malays in The Malay Dilemma – the tendency to run amok.

“And 30% of Malays did “run amok” by lining up for hours in extreme weather order to cast their votes. This was enough to change the government,” Dr Faisal said jokingly.

Despite this, three new challenges related to the Malay dilemma still face the country’s new democracy. These were feudalism, the risk that reformists may decide not to implement reforms after coming into power and problems associated with traditional Islam.

Dr Faisal chose to elaborate the last point as it is most concerns religious minorities. Traditional Islamists, he explained, do not believe in sovereignty of the people, or political equality, as religious scholars are always seen to be more knowledgeable than the masses.

“For example, Muslims considered more worthy of becoming prime ministers compared to non-Muslims,” he said. 

On top of that, religious traditionalists assume that it is the role of the government to enforce the doing of good and forbid evil according to Islamic principles. “When it comes to decision making, (they believe) religious teachings can and should be made law,” Dr Faisal said. The challenge is to make it understood that while religious commandments can be considered in law-making, they should be subject to public approval.

“This is the dichotomy between traditional and reformist Islam. I believe the fate of the religious minorities very much depends on who is next appointed to the committee of Jakm,” he said.

Dr Faisal opined Malaysia’s religious minorities such as the Christians and even Shia Muslims were openly supportive of a change in government for two factors: first, the Barisan Nasional government under Datuk Seri Najib was closely linked to the country of Saudi Arabia, leading to more hardcore approach towards Islam in in his administration.

Second, reports leading up to GE14 by human rights group Suhakam found that four people who had gone missing in recent years were subjected to ‘enforced disappearance’, suspectedly due to their religious leanings.

These minorities, he said, were hoping that a change in government would stem the rise of radical Islamisation  and offer them security to practice their own religions freely.  

* Special thanks to our volunteer rapporteur Samantha Ho for producing the 2nd part of our report. She is currently a journalist at The Edge.

Photographs  ©  Kalash Nanda Kumar