Rest in Peace, Islam Hadari

By Farish A. Noor

Observers of Malaysian politics both at home and abroad have already begun to write the political obituary of the country’s embattled Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. While the global economy goes into a tailspin and markets across Asia tumble on an hourly basis, Malaysians seem more engrossed in the country’s on-going political drama that has turned into a comical farce of near-epic proportions: The fate of Prime Minister Badawi hangs in the balance as rival contenders for the coveted post of leader of the UMNO party and Prime Minister of Malaysia come to the fore, ranging from his current deputy Najib Razak to even veterans like Tengku Razaleigh whom many had written off years ago.

To be sure, the immediate verdict on Badawi’s period of rule will not be a pleasant one. The picture that is being painted at the moment is that of a less-than-rosy canvas, and the list of Badawi’s failings is as long as it is impressive. The man who started with such promise, and who promised so much to the electorate, may well end up in the history books of Malaysia as the one who lost it all.

When he came to power in 2004 Badawi scored the highest mandate in the history of Malaysian politics. Not a single leader before him, not even the country’s founding father Tunku Abdul Rahman or Mahathir Mohamad, had ever managed to win such a huge share of the public’s votes. Yet following the elections of March 2008, he has earned himself yet another honour, this time being the leader who lost the most votes, seats and state assemblies in the history of Malaysia.

Badawi’s great promise (which turned into an even bigger disappointment) was his claim to be a reform-minded leader who seriously wanted to reform the institutions of power in the country. His attempts to deal with corruption, abuse of power by the police, lack of transparency in governance and the judiciary, all earned him the approval of the Malaysian public and managed – temporarily – to sap away support from the opposition parties too.

Yet by 2006 it became clear that Badawi had bitten off more than he could possibly chew and the signs of institutional inertia were plain to see: His reform gestures were not well met by the police in particular, whom for a long period were given a free hand to operate during the days of former PM Mahathir. Despite talk of anti-corruption, few cases of high-level corruption were brought to court (compared to neighbouring Indonesia where even high-ranking members of the Suharto family have been brought to book.)

But it is in the area of Islam, or rather normative Muslim religiosity, that Badawi failed the most. Badawi’s trademark project was the Islam Hadari programme that he hoped to launch in the country. ‘Islam Hadari’ was, from the outset, a state-sanctioned and state-sponsored exercise in social engineering, at a somewhat crude level. Its aims were simple: To open the way for a modern and relevant interpretation of Islamic laws and norms that would help galvanise society to think of religion in a dynamic and contemporary mode, in keeping with the modern age we live in. It promoted the notion of gender equality, and insisted that Islamic practice can and should be used as a vehicle for social advancement, capacity building and individual empowerment. The key ingredient in this formula was knowledge and exposure to new ideas.

Yet anyone with even the most shallow understanding of Malaysian society would realise by now that engineering a society and trying to make Muslims modern and progressive cannot ever be a top-down process, anymore than a slave master can teach his slaves how to be free. The prevailing values and norms of Islamic praxis in Malaysia, like in many Muslim countries today, remain conservative and even reactionary in many quarters.

Thus while Badawi the leader preached open-mindedness and called on his fellow Muslims to think and live in the modern age, he underestimated the extent to which his own efforts would be foiled by the very same conservative Muslims who manned the religious institutions of power in Malaysia’s vast Islamic bureaucracy. The irony of the situation was as pathetic as it was comical at times: Foreign scholars like Karen Armstrong were invited to conferences on Islam in Malaysia while her books were banned; and throughout the years of Badawi’s feeble leadership scores of other books on Islam and religion were banned as well. How, pray tell, does one open up the minds of Muslims when they are not allowed to read anything in the first place?

It has to be said however that Badawi was not entirely at fault here as he was attempting a reform of Islam while battling on several fronts. On the one hand he had to deal with an unco-operative Islamic bureaucracy that paid little attention to his own reform initiatives, some of which were indeed laudatory. On the other hand he also had to deal with opposition from the Malaysian Islamic party that took an even more conservative stand and whom simply dismissed Islam Hadari as a ‘deviant’ idea. Yet this is the same Islamic party that in 2001 valorised the Tabiban as ‘true Islam’ and their ‘brothers’. To make things worse Malaysia’s stifling race-based communitarian politics made it even more difficult for discussion on Islam to take place in the public domain without it bring racialised and used as a political toy by all the communitarian parties in the country.

Half a decade on, it would appear that Badawi’s days are drawing to an end, and with that Islam Hadari as well. In the years and decades to come, future historians may be kinder to Badawi who may be remembered as the man who tried to reform Malaysia but failed, and whose failure was due to the rot and inertia that had settled in the very same corridors of power that he walked. But perhaps the biggest loss for Malaysia in the long run will be the demise of Islam Hadari as a project that was never really understood, unfairly criticised, crassly instrumentalised and ultimately cast into the dustbin as just another item in the long train of baggage left behind in the wake of Badawi’s exit from power.

  1. #1 by DaveTheMan on Wednesday, 8 October 2008 - 6:59 am

    Mr Lim and Farish : u the man!

  2. #2 by pulau_sibu on Wednesday, 8 October 2008 - 8:38 am

    My condolence. Would he be the last BN and UMNO Prime Minister?

  3. #3 by ktteokt on Wednesday, 8 October 2008 - 9:07 am

    Be it Hadhari or Hadmalam, his time is definitely up!

  4. #4 by greenacre on Wednesday, 8 October 2008 - 9:15 am

    The passing of the baton may or may not take place but one thing is certain that is the race based race will continue unabated.

  5. #5 by docjitra55 on Wednesday, 8 October 2008 - 9:31 am

    Doc. you are too kind not to really mention that the exit of DSAAB is his own doing? He practices the same policy of his former mentor. He uses the hadaris’ principles just to blind the rakyat based on his islamic credentials. He went to do so many unjustified projects and some projects of mega scales that are of no benefit to the rakyat. He practices nepotysm, cronysm and so many other ‘isms’. Many leaders failed to live up to their promises due to having absolute power and that power tends to corrupt their mind. When your feeling is too big and your feet is not touching the ground, that is the beginning of power abuse. May the next malaysian PM be of substance but currently non is capable from the ruling government. Allah help Malaysia

  6. #6 by Godfather on Wednesday, 8 October 2008 - 9:33 am

    Who knows, maybe even Najis could come up with a new brand of Islam – marrying the conservatives with the capitalism espoused by Najis younger brother.

  7. #7 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 8 October 2008 - 9:42 am

    The fundamental precepts of Islam Hadari or Civilizational or Progressive Islam would include just and trustworthy government, freedom and independence to the people, cultural and moral integrity good quality of life for all and protection of the rights of minority groups and women – with compliments from Wikipedia.

    However the ruling coalition thrives and preserves its power from the opposite values, ie authoritarianism and suppression of dissent, communal politics and religious conservatism, which 20 years of TDM’s rule had also broadened down through rank and file of bureaucracy to sections of populace……

    It is therefore a contradiction : a political polity that has sucessfully survived 50 years based on racial and religious compartmentalisations of the people, taking a leaf from colonial masters to divide and rule just cannot put into practice or inspire universal love and respect, not even among its own members and supporters, let alone the general populace.

    Just like the other major reform touted : to have zero tolerance for corruption, which is a direct contradiction of the raison de etre of our politicians to enter politics – ie to have power in order to benefit and unfair gain over lucrative contracts, and from that moiney made, a part rechanelled back to buy support to perpetuate the system from which further riches could be made!

    Pak Lah’s reforms are non starters because of all these inherent fundamental contradictions.

  8. #8 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 8 October 2008 - 9:44 am

    The tragedy in this country is that where Pak Lah fails, Anwar and Pakatan Rakyat will do not better because here too the contradictions are apparent.

    How could Pakatan Rakyat take over on 916 to rid government of corruption when this take over relies on cross overs from the same BN kataks who joined and thrived so far in BN by reason of patronage and hand outs, and their reason for jumping ship is not because they disdain such practices but that they perceive they were not getting their fair share from godfather UMNO???

    The first thing they would ask Anwar is put money on the table then talk how and what positions they would get after PR took over; second question is can Anwar be trusted with credibility to deliver the goodies…..

    And if they were to be paid for succesful crossover and take over, wouldn’t PR politicians have to make back the money (when they’re in power) to replace those paid out???

    Again the other second contradiction of PR (same as Pak Lah) – how could PR replace the BN to bring forth better governance in terms of religious freedom, open mindedness and critical thinking when one third of its strength, so to speak, is derived from PAS whose unswerving objective is to seek political power in order to institutionalise its brand of conservative religion???

    No enterprises no matter how ennobled can succed in the face of basic contradictions outlined…

    Which opens the question that given the rotten state we’re in can any political coalition whether BN or PR be succesful in any meaningful reform by top-down process ???

  9. #9 by Toyol on Wednesday, 8 October 2008 - 10:06 am

    In 2004 Badawi had unprecedented support from the M’sian public. In 2008, he lost 5 states and 2/3 majority to the Opposition, also unprecedented!!! Just shows how transparent he was in his incompetence!

  10. #10 by k1980 on Wednesday, 8 October 2008 - 10:11 am

    email from Altantuya Shariibuu’s dad:

    I understand, Mr. Raja Petra has good personal character and has a good reputation and runs humanitarian activity.

    I understand that the below issues were directly connected with murder case of my daughter:

    – Who did arrange visa issue for my daughter while she visited in French?
    – Who was attending in the trip to French and what did they do?

    If it could make clear those issues, they would understand every thing. Why is there so much force and influence in the case? Because there was a serious issue. Thus they destroyed my daughter.

    Unfortunately, they pressed down Mr.Raja Petra’s statement. I think this issue needs to get attention from international human right organizations.

    He (RPK) shouldn’t be a victim of politic for justice. It would be justice if they release Mr.Raja Petra.

    As we are, all Mongolian worry for him and his justice, we lack of information on truth and situation.

    Mongolian citizen:Shaariibuu Setev

  11. #11 by wanderer on Wednesday, 8 October 2008 - 10:33 am

    For more than half a century, Malaysia survives of some sort as a ‘lucky country’, blessed with her raw resources. These blessings have not been fully utilized to the benefits of her citizens but, have resulted in building a corrupted administration. The corruption, has now gone to the core of the ruling govt. The whole system of governance needs to be overhauled. Do Malaysia has upright politicians, up to the task?
    With the present lot, never in another 50 years. Even, if Abullah tried, he will fail miserably. The blame cannot goes completely on one man, the PM. Tun M was not without blame. Should the leadership goes to Najib, are we suppose to see fantastic changes…high hopes!

  12. #12 by OrangRojak on Wednesday, 8 October 2008 - 12:23 pm

    Tabiban? They’ve banned cats now too? OMFG!

  13. #13 by monsterball on Wednesday, 8 October 2008 - 12:40 pm

    I have a strange feeling….Lim Kit Siang knows..Dollah will not resign….and poking fun at the road show …by UMNO…no work…as usual…always about themselves.
    Millions RM paid get this kind of government and all are exposed…because of wonderful internet.
    Imagine all those 45 years…and especially under Mahathir…..Malaysians depended solely on newspapers and TV informations.
    Now….we even see Razaleigh is saying UMNO is one hell of a corrupted party.
    Whee can you ever hear such a sly old fox talk so sincerely..until now.
    You mean…his eyes were blind…and suddenly..made to see…only recently… these few years?

  14. #14 by Yee Siew Wah on Wednesday, 8 October 2008 - 1:02 pm

    This is great news. Someone please dig real deep into this visa application issues. And broadcast to the whole world on this poor mongolian woman brutal murder.
    Deleting immigration records are very very serious offence. Only the No1 and No.2 man in governemnt can handle this.
    Some thing is real wrong here.
    The way this case being carried out now clearly demonstrates the mockery of our judiciary to the whole world. Nobody is interested in the court case now as everyone feel that justice will not be done. The verdict is clear.

  15. #15 by Loh on Wednesday, 8 October 2008 - 3:30 pm

    It seems that sodomy is more important than murder. The state will not accept the possibility of a doubt that sodomy did take place, but it was happy to allow doubts whether all the persons who had a hand in the murder of atlantuja are apprehended. Instead of opening up the murder case for more detailed investigation with information voluteered from alternate sources, the state chose to have finality in the case by silencing the messenger of information, through ISA.

  16. #16 by OrangRojak on Wednesday, 8 October 2008 - 3:46 pm

    A slight curve ball, perhaps, but on a theme of political ideology, government records, public accountability and the broken dreams of yesterday:

    I see the “but PR would be rubbish too” comments gathering momentum, and I have some sympathy for that point of view. While acknowledging that it’s easier to criticise than to do something, how would Malaysians feel about working on a free, open-source-government-software project?

    I know, I know, I’ve heard “work for free? got such thing mah?” before, more than once. I’m very fond of the saying “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself”. At worst, volunteered effort is an excellent test of how badly a person really wants change.

    My impression of Malaysian IT, and particularly government and GLC IT is that Mahathir’s dream didn’t make it into some sectors of Malaysian life at all. I don’t doubt for a second that Malaysia has the competency to achieve world-leading public sector IT. I’m not at all interested in why it hasn’t in some sectors. I think I could do a better job (of the IT), some of the comments on here make me think I’m not alone.

    If in some hypothetical dream world, let’s call it North Korea, some member of the Korean People’s Army found an OLPC, and showed wikipedia to their colleagues, and the news spread, and a mass of tree-hugging, long-haired, love-my-sibling North Koreans descended on Kim Jong-Il, interrupted him singing “I’m so ronery” and demanded a new North Korea, founded on love, tolerance, transparency, fast food and hip-hop, how would they make it work? Even if Kim didn’t empty the treasury on his way to his retirement mountain, and set fire to all the records, what machinery of government could the Korean People’s Love-in Party use to govern? It would probably be a very mellow, caring disaster, inevitably leading to the return of Kim n Krew at the first and last free and fair election.

    What I’m suggesting would be essentially a philosophical and academic adventure, with the hope that at least parts could be ‘spun off’ into public service IF any government of any nation should want them. At worst, it could be a device for testing ideas about government in a concrete way. Well, at least as concrete as anything on a computer could ever be said to be concrete. Also at worst, it could be a flagship FOSS (Free Open Source Software) project for Malaysia, restoring some of the glitter to Mahatir’s dream. If the project embodied ideas that are internationally regarded as ‘A Very Good Thing’, such as the UDHR, it could go a long way to helping with Malaysia’s international status as a free and fair society. OK so the last one is far-fetched if it’s just a philosophical exercise, but it would do Malaysia no harm if it appeared that some of its citizens were at least substantially sponsoring freedom and fairness.

    And if the Korean People’s Love-in Party came to power, their use of OpenGov v12.3.17 (Buatan Malaysia) could get them over the ‘not-fit-for-purpose’ machinery problem, while doing Malaysia’s international credibility some good. Possibly more importantly, it could act as a guarantee, through its open and transparent nature, that the Korean People’s Love-in Party were really doing their best with the resources that are on easily accessible public record.

    Such a project would NOT be a programming problem. It would need programmers, but more importantly, it would need legal advice, practical political input, translators, and most importantly of all, critical input from people who might be affected by how well the machinery of government works. That’s everybody.

    I realise this is almost a new topic, my apologies. I do often wonder, while reading all the political puffery: what substantial changes are occurring? And in case you head over to wikipedia to check out “open source government”, that’s not what I mean at all. What I’m writing about is an open source project to develop software for governments to use to demonstrate their transparency and support public accountability – that’s all.

    As for “where got such thing?” see Mark Shuttleworth. Free software advocate, second self-funded space tourist. The sky’s not even the limit, apparently.

  17. #17 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 9 October 2008 - 7:47 am

    Thanks OrangRojak’s for the ideas.

    This Open-source-government idea is direction in which more and more governments will move in the future.

    It is possible here perhaps way way in the future . We’re not backward, I read somewhere (Internet world stats) that there are some 14,904,000 Internet users in Malaysia as of June/07, a 59.0% penetration???

    To be sure, some present or future ministers will think of how to go in that future direction.

    The incentive will be not so much a commitment to Internet democratic processes but how they could make money from govt contracts for greater application of electronic and information communications technologies to government processes.

    However by way of baby steps, most of our ministers at present are still struggling to maintain properly a blog site, then they have to learn more about Open Source – we should not frighten them with mention of the word ” free ” as in open-source-government-software project – to ameliorate some of their doubts and concerns whether there are sufficient money making opportunities in such development methodology if introduced by them or their ICT savvy collaborators here…. :)

    At citizenry’s level our priority is still to play “catch up” on basic precepts of participatory democracy and Rule of Law before we could even think of concepts like eGovernment, eDemocracy or eCivil Disobedience…. Our icon of Blogsites as you know is presently defending his right to freedom of expression against a sedition charge, whilst serving time in Kamunting under ISA!

  18. #18 by OrangRojak on Thursday, 9 October 2008 - 3:27 pm

    Thanks for the reply Jeffrey, though I still find the 59% penetration claim as fantastic as the one levelled at one of your opposition politicians.

    Perhaps you’re right about the business-toxic ‘free’ tag, though in the trade it’s considered to have a meaning closer to ‘unencumbered’. Almost all of FOS software is available absolutely FreeOfCharge, but installation, integration, training and consultatancy is as expensive as any proprietary software. You have only to go to Dell’s online shop, choose a server and see how much they charge to supply it with an operating system that they can download for free.

    Your point about ideas of participatory democracy and Rule of Law is superior. Even if a Malaysian-wide community project generated an ‘off the shelf’ solution for local or national government to support participation, there is no habit or tradition to compel people to use those systems. eIncivility seems to be well advanced in Malaysia, but I regard this as a consequence of the NST and other incredible products.

    Does Malaysia have anything corresponding to a Citizen’s Advice Bureau? Do local MPs operate ‘surgeries’ (where people can talk to them face to face to explain their problems or concerns)? To me it seems one of the greatest hurdles Malaysia faces in ‘catching up’ is one of communication. Ironic, given the penetration figure you quote earlier, and Malaysia’s famous cyber projects. How can citizens know these concepts when they’re not even available, much less publicised?

    I know single examples don’t make a case (no need to mention extra judicial killing or suppression of investigations into arms deals, the UK has its ‘quirks’ too), but compare and for access to information about the law. There’s a link to the constitution in the middle of the page. Tai hao le! It takes you to another page with a link to the Constitution in the middle of the page. That one takes you to a commercial website (with PPC advertising!) that tells me the document doesn’t exist. How can citizens know the law when the government have misplaced it?

    What I really wanted to suggest is some charitable (see below) act on the part of Malaysians who can, to address the issue of participation in public life. It’s easy to say ‘somebody has to do something’, but when the people we expect to do it are not doing it, and they cannot be compelled, maybe we need to do it ourselves. OK, so I’m not Malaysian, but since my wife and children are, my desire to do something beneficial for Malaysia is not charity, it’s an investment.

    I think your icon could have had more support if there was more widespread awareness of alternative views and less fear of the unknown.

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