The Poverty of Riches and the Riches of Poverty

By Farish A Noor

As an aside to the academic work I normally do, last week I was given the opportunity to meet with Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the Spiritual Leader (Murshidul Am) of the Malaysian Islamic Party PAS at his office in northern Malaysia.

Despite the frail health of the man and his taxing schedule, we managed to pack in close to two hours worth of interview on tape and this will now be my headache for the next week as all of this information has to be transcribed for publication purposes.

One thing, however, struck me somewhere during the second half of our meeting. I remarked to the Ulama that his home was suprisingly similar to that of Ho Chi Minh’s in Hanoi, Vietnam, and that both he and the revered ‘Uncle Ho’ chose to give up their stately government mansions to live in humble wooden houses.

I also remarked to him that he was using the same cheap, plastic BIC ballpoint pen that I had seen him use when we first met in 1999. This occassioned a laugh and a smile from him, but it struck us both that these observations were far from pedestrian.

The truth is that for both revolutionary Islamic and Communist movements alike the world over, the democratic impetus and the drive for revolutionary politics was accompanied by a strong sense of disdain for worldliness, and a respect for a spartan way of life.

Whatever you may say about Ho Chi Minh, one thing you could never accuse him of was corruption and the easy life. The same applies to Nik Aziz as the spiritual leader of the Islamic party of Malaysia.

The same however cannot be said of the secular modernising elites of so many post colonial societies that rather quickly got used to the comfy life of the former colonial masters they condemned and demonised, so what gives?

As someone who studies the various modes of religio-political behaviour in the Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist worlds respectively, I am left with the rather simple conclusion that the ‘moral economy of the peasant’ that was talked about in the 1970s is as relevant now as it was then.

With the global economy in a tailspin and many an Asian economy precariously hanging in the balance, we already see the repeat of the mistakes of the past.

The list of errors and complaints sound surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly) similar to those that came to the fore during the asian crisis of 1998: indiscriminate credit expansion, contracts given to government contractors or those close to power, etc.

Time will tell whether this imminent global recession will see political heads roll as it did in 1998, when public protests brought down the governments of Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia, and rocked the political foundations of Malaysia too.

Then, it was apparent that the economic crisis was as much a political one as it was financial, due to the murky dealings of political fixers and the unfettered role of political parties and elites in so many Asian countries.

If this were to happen though, the credibility of religio-political leaders like Tuan Guru Nik Aziz will remain intact, for the man himself has nothing to lose in the first place.

Nik Aziz, above all, understands the meaning of the poverty of riches and the riches of poverty.

His wealth lies in his cultural capital as a pious man whose hands are clean. And in any case he has no luxury items to give up: After all, he still uses the same plastic BIC pen today that he used ten years ago!

  1. #1 by disapointed86 on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 6:46 am

    truely a humble leader..god bless..

  2. #2 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 7:17 am

    It would be generally true what Farish A Noor said about leaders of revolutionary Islamic and Communist movements having a strong sense of disdain for worldliness, and a respect for a Spartan way of life.
    Fidel Castro and wife Dalia lived in a two-house complex in western Havana. The
    living room of the main house was furnished with simple
    wood and leather sofas and chairs and Cuban handicrafts. The only luxury visible to visitors, said Fuentes, is a big-screen television that Castro used to satisfy his interest in foreign news reports and videos secretly recorded by Cuba’s intelligence services.
    Another example was Mao Tze Tung (or Mao Zedong)’s humble abode. This is what Henry Kissinger said : “ Mao’s house stood alone; it was simple and unimposing;it could have belonged to a minor functionary. No special security features were apparent.”

    Through the front door into a small sitting room opening into a wide hallway with a ping pong table. “Mao’s study, a medium sized room was across the hallway.Manuscripts lined book shelves along every wall; books covered the table and the flor; it looked more the retreat of a scholar than the audienceroom of the all-powerful leader of the world’s most populous nation. On my first few visits a simple wood frame bed stood in one corner; later it disappeared. Our first sight was of a semi-circle of easy chairs, all with brownish slipovers as if a thrifty middle-class family wanted to protect upholstery to expensive to replace….” [Reference: Page 1058 of Henry Kissinger’s book “The White House Years” published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson Ltd and Michael Joseph Ltd. in 1979].

    A big contrast with failed leaders like Robert Mugabe of ZimbabweThe controversial leader also has other luxurious residences.
    A 2003 report in The Guardian UK noted:

    “Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, is building a lavish palace costing £3.75m on the outskirts of the capital, Harare.

    Furnishings and security are expected to send the cost to more than £6m at a time when nearly half of Zimbabwe’s population is dependent on international food aid.

    Its sprawling accommodation includes 25 bedrooms with bathrooms and spas. It is three times the size of the president’s official residence, State House, and his adjacent offices.

    The mansion, located in the upmarket Borrowdale Brooke area, about 15 miles north of the city centre, is nearing completion. The construction company Energoproject, based in Belgrade, is building the palace.

    Mr Mugabe has built smaller mansions in Harare and Zvimba, his birthplace, as well a Chivu, the birthplace of his wife, Grace”.

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 7:21 am

    I guess if you really have got nothing to show by way of personal achievement, a luxurious and opulent mansion could give the illusion that you have something?

  4. #4 by Mr Smith on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 8:18 am

    Over the years I have observed the life styles of Malaysian leaders, most notably UMNO leaders, be they division heads, MPs or Ministers.

    They lead opulent lives, sometimes even grossly ‘indecent’ when we compared their mansions to the humble dwellings of those in their neighbourhood-the very people who put them in power.

    These leaders then keep reminding them “not the bite the hands that feed you” – a common UMNO refrain.

    Why is it necessary to buy a RM300,000 luxurious car, a RM 200,000 watch, a RM 200 shirt and a retinue of wives and mistresses etc, etc.

    Anyone who is close to God will realize that life is an illusion – “naked I came and naked shall I return” – but alas, these leaders think they will live to a 100 years and bring these wealth with them to hell.
    Their greed knows no bounds.
    And these are the ones who proudly claim to be defenders of their religion, race and country!!!

  5. #5 by Jimm on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 9:01 am

    only umno will do all evils to rakyat and get their own bangsa to feel good about their presence.
    who are the real fool ????

  6. #6 by kftang on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 9:31 am

    That’s the end result of corruption and those corrupted – the wrong-doers leading lives of luxury from their ill-gotten gains!

  7. #7 by ctc537 on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 10:46 am

    The most celebrated case is that of a local government official who built himself a palatial home in Kelang costing millions of ringgit years ago.

  8. #8 by winterman05 on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 11:27 am

    Dr. Farish,

    This is the MEASURE of the MAN NIK AZIZ. He does not just preach but also PRACTISE what he preaches. How manyleaders today lead a SPARTAN life like Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa? You can count with your fingers of one hand!

    MOST politicians say one thing— fighting for the PEOPLE, especially the POOR and the impoverished and the downtrodden—but once in power, they drive in luxurious cars, go a spending spree holiday overseas ( local scenes are not to their taste! ), pocket as much money as possible ( when can you get another chance to loot ? ) . So, VOTERS should look not at the lips of politicians but what they DO! Their deeds will say volumes! They are the professional trickers. Now that some Political Parties are having their elections, look at their DEEDS in the past!

    Are they trying to HOOKWINK the voters/ delegates again?Check out!

    S.H. Huang

  9. #9 by monsterball on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 11:33 am

    Yes Nik Aziz is a nice and simple man.
    But unfortunately…Kelantanese knows how to produce babies…and no opportunities to get jobs in that State.
    Thousands leave Kelantan….to seek jobs elsewhere…because the said State stay stagnant and no one wants to invest in that State….so no progress.
    Poverty is also in abundance.
    Lets not compare the way of life of Nik with Ho.
    Lets face facts..and make PAS…wake up to realities life…in Malaysia..not dreaming to be another so call pure and backward Muslim country.
    PAS must be realistic and practical..and stop playing race and religion politics…to compete with UMNO.

  10. #10 by rider on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 12:15 pm

    He is the Tok Guru, he walks the talk. I’ve compared his JKR numbered home to those of Badawi, Najib, Khir toyol and Zack mac derus and anywone who has done the same will consider it blasphemy if umno says they are closer to God.

  11. #11 by Loh on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 12:44 pm

    ///Nik Aziz, above all, understands the meaning of the poverty of riches and the riches of poverty.///

    But the government policies are based only on material gains and wealth. And worse, the volume of ewalth are subdivided by race and religion so that they can utilised the lies, the so-called statistics, to faciltate the creation of vote banks. Now we hear statements that people should not question social contract as enshrined in the constitution but the BN government is free to institute and implement policies which go against no only the spriit of the constitution, but the words as well.

    UMNO leaders know the wealth convered under the pretext of poverty.

  12. #12 by Saint on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 12:52 pm

    I was humbled when I met this great man many years ago.
    Allah is close to his heart.

  13. #13 by kftang on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 2:24 pm

    Where will we be in the hereafter, Hell or Heaven?
    The uncorrupted, good, honest, and righteous beings rise to Heaven;
    The corrupted, bad, dishonest and wrongful ones descend to Hell!

  14. #14 by Emily Pratt on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 2:42 pm

    India have Mahatma Gandhi

    Vietnam have Uncle Ho Chi Min

    Malaysia is even better; we have TGNA and Sdr LKS. We have these two outstanding leaders, sadly we Malaysian have not been able to tap their expertise to the max, instead we voted into power Scoundrel, Brigands, Men of Questionable Morals into the Corridors of Powers.

    Shame on us, shame on our forebears.

  15. #15 by daniel3k on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 2:45 pm

    ‘moral economy of the peasant’

    Dear Dr.Farish, is there also such a thing as the “moral economy of the sailor”?

    Picture the sailor who originated from the city ports. In his youth, he sees the many strange visitors from afar, stirring his imagination and egging him on for adventure. As he matures and takes to the see, his travels shows him the diversity of the world’s culture, the subjectivity of one set of moral over another and how in the right context, one set is more ‘right’ than the other.

    As he travels, he learns the art of trading, and the joys of risk taking. Every time he sets out to sea its a gamble on his life and on every port he might meet a new lover or just learn a new card game…

    So, on one hand the liberal, adventurous, free natured sailor, and on the other hand, we have the conservative peasant ant, who requires a small closed community to survive and work the land together.

    Just a theory…

  16. #16 by isahbiazhar on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 7:47 pm

    Tok Guru is a satisfied man and he does not need riches nor riches to make a man out of him.He is cool, placid,calm and vibrant when challenged.It is unfortunate that age is catching up with him and we see no one as near to him.; lovable and likeable.May the Almighty give him many more years of living experience.

  17. #17 by cemerlang on Saturday, 18 October 2008 - 11:25 pm

    Allah knows the hearts of all men and women.

  18. #18 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Wednesday, 22 October 2008 - 11:00 am

    /// Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, is building a lavish palace costing £3.75m on the outskirts of the capital, Harare. ///

    Jeff – did Mahathir contribute huge amount of expensive timber from Malaysia towards building this palace for his bosom buddy?

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