Anwar And Najib – Up Close and Very Revealing

by M. Bakri Musa

The side-by-side commentaries by Anwar Ibrahim and Najib Razak in the recent Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal illuminated a couple of salient points, in particular, the state of Malaysian journalism and the quality of our leadership.

Consider first Malaysian editors, specifically of the mainstream media. They missed the essential point that the best way to intelligently inform their readers is to present them with contrasting and opposing viewpoints, as illustrated by what The Journal did. Respect your readers’ intelligence and treat them like adults.

Bernama mentioned the Journal’s articles as a news item but referred only to Najib’s piece. Obviously the Bernama editors’ instinct was to please Najib and protect his image. They see themselves less as professional journalists and more as propagandists for the state. Their reaction was predictable.

That the cue from Bernama was quickly picked up by the other mainstream editors too did not surprise me. They are after all from the same mold. What grabbed my attention however, was what the Sun Daily did. I remember that paper as one that had the courage right from the beginning to be a tad independent, and its journalists less willing to genuflect to the powerful; hence its success despite its recent entry into the business.

The Sun merely reprinted Bernama’s piece, again with no mention of Anwar’s contrasting viewpoint. The Sun’s editors had access to both commentaries (they are available on-line) but chose to follow Bernama’s lead instead of their own editorial judgment. That reflects the challenges in maintaining journalistic integrity in an oppressive environment.

Then there is MCA-owned The Star. It did what cowards typically do: avoid the issue entirely. I am uncertain whether that is better than blatantly kowtow-ing to the emperor, as Bernama did.

As for The New Straits Times, an UMNO newsletter masquerading as a daily, its behavior too was predictable. It did not directly report on the two commentaries, presumably deeming both not sufficiently newsworthy. That however, did not stop its editor Syed Nadzri from penning an editorial effusively praising Najib’s literary contribution.

“In approach, tenor and presumably intention,” Nadzri writes, “their articles went in practically opposite directions from the start – the prime minister taking a conciliatory, disarming style, as against the opposition leader’s fault-finding digressions.” What Nadzri calls ‘fault-finding digression’ is Anwar’s trying to elucidate, understand and then educate us on the many daunting problems confronting the nation.

Towards the end even Nadzri’s residuum of journalistic ethics pricked his conscience a bit, for he admitted that Najib’s commentary was indeed a “rah rah piece,” adding, “What else could anyone expect?” Such low expectations!

It would never occur to Nadzri and the others to consider republishing both commentaries; they are of interest to all Malaysians. Or better yet, do what the Journal did, invite contributors with varying viewpoints. While the Journal is an avowedly conservative paper (its editorials leave little doubt about that), its Op-Ed pages routinely carry views from the left and right; likewise, its news coverage. The unabashedly liberal The New York Times counts among its regular commentators such conservatives as David Brooks. Unfortunately, the likes of Syed Nadzri are intellectually and professionally incapable of such a monumental shift in thinking.

In contrast to the mainstream media, the on-line portals Malaysiakini and Malaysia-Today chose a diametrically opposite tack. Malaysia-Today published both commentaries in full without any editorial comment. Its editors are confident of their readers’ intelligence to draw their own conclusions. If those mainstream editors wonder why their readership dwindles while those of Malaysiakini and Malaysia-Today soar, the answer is right there.

Top Billing For Anwar

The Journal gave Anwar’s commentary greater prominence; it appeared on top of the page. I agree with the Journal’s editorial judgment. By whatever criterion – persuasiveness, substance, clarity of thought, or most importantly, readability – Anwar’s piece clearly trumps Najib’s. No wonder those mainstream editors dared not carry both side by side; it would embarrass their patron!

Anwar exhorts us to rise above our parochial interests by recalling the great moments in our Islamic history where tolerance and acceptance of divergent viewpoints were venerated. Najib excuses our prejudices and intolerances on the grounds that those have always been part of human nature, thereby condoning if not encouraging those extremists with their “passionate” views.

Najib claims to be “appalled by the irresponsible and dangerous finger-pointing of a few politicians who put personal political interests … [and] try to score political points by hammering on sensitive issues.” He forgot that it was his Home Minister who started the mess with his needless bureaucratic intervention of a long-established practice. Talk about blatant pandering to the political base! Do not expect Najib to have second thoughts on that. Reflection, or for that matter taking responsibility, is not his strong suit.

Najib writes, “…[T]he values we hold dear – religious freedom, tolerance, peace and fairness—remain the bedrock of our nation.” Too bad he does not take that to heart. While Anwar excoriates Utusan Melayu, an UMNO-owned Malay language daily, for inflaming religious sentiments among Malays, Najib remains eerily silent. Many rightly perceive that as tacit endorsement and outright encouragement. One wonders just who is pandering to the ugly Malay mob.

Anwar invokes our Quran and traditions to push us towards our better selves; Najib was only too ready to dismiss and excuse those “extremists.” To Najib, the extremists, like the poor, will always be with us. There is not much that he could or would do.

The clarity of Anwar’s message was elegantly encapsulated in his very first sentence, “Malaysia has once again resurfaced in international headlines for the wrong reasons.” No one, not even Najib, could dispute that assertion. Anwar’s thesis sentence was crisp, clear and stated simply. It may be embarrassing to have that ugly reality exposed, but it would be a serious abrogation of responsibility for a leader not to address it, as Najib awkwardly tried to do.

It was difficult to ascertain Najib’s message; his essay was all over the place – mushy! This fits his leadership style: heavy on homilies, short on substance, and most of all, mushy. He would prefer that our ugly problems be swept under the carpet, to save the nation’s ‘honor,’ or at least his concept of it.

Through the Journal’s initiative we get to view our two leaders. In Anwar we have a leader in command of the situation, someone serious and fully cognizant of the dangers of fanning religious passions. He appeals to our better side to meet the challenges. In Najib we have an individual full of fluff, blissfully unaware of the fury he has unleashed, and totally incapable of handling the ensuing wreckage. He is, to borrow Nadzri’s less-than-elegant phrase, a “rah rah” leader, reveling in his (Najib’s) own Pollyannaish fantasy.

The Journal rendered a great public service to Malaysians in having these two commentaries freely available on-line. Its initiative also reveals the sad state of Malaysian journalism. I keep hoping that one day our media would learn something from the Journal and treat Malaysians as intelligent adults. I also keep hoping that one day we would have as prime minister someone who would treat us with respect and trust us with the truth. We deserve better than what we are being served now.

Muslims Have No Monopoly over ‘Allah’
Malaysia finds itself on tenterhooks because minority issues have been handled poorly.
By ANWAR IBRAHIM | Wall Street Journal

Malaysia has once again resurfaced in international headlines for the wrong reasons. Over the last two weeks, arsonists and vandals attacked 10 places of worship, including Christian churches and Sikh temples. Though there were no injuries and the material damage is reparable, the same cannot be said about the emotional and psychological scars left behind. After numerous conflicting statements from government officials, the underlying causes of the violence are still unaddressed. Malaysia’s reputation as a nation at peace with its ethnic and religious diversity is at stake.

Malaysia’s poor handling of religious and sectarian issues is not unique. The ill treatment of minority groups in Muslim countries is often worse than the actions Muslims decry in the West. I have called attention to the broader need in the Muslim world for leadership that demonstrates consistency and credibility in our call for justice, fairness and pluralism. These values are embedded in the Islamic tradition as the higher objectives of Shariah expounded by the 12th-century jurist al-Shatibi.

We have seen Muslims around the world protest against discriminatory laws passed in supposedly liberal and progressive countries in the West. Yet just as France and Germany have their issues with the burqa and Switzerland with its minarets, so too does Malaysia frequently fail to offer a safe and secure environment that accommodates its minority communities.

The recent arson attacks exemplify what’s wrong with the way Malaysia regards its non-Muslim citizens. The attacks were provoked by a controversy over the use of the word “Allah” by Malaysia’s Christian community, which numbers over two million, or about 10% of the population. In late 2007, the Home Ministry banned the use of the word by the Herald, a Catholic newspaper, and later confiscated 15,000 copies of Malay-language Bibles imported from Indonesia in which the word for God is translated as “Allah.” A Dec. 31, 2009 ruling by the Kuala Lumpur High Court overruled the earlier ban, asserting constitutional guarantees regarding the freedom of religion in Malaysia. Since then, an already tense situation boiled over, largely due to incitement by a few reckless politicians, the mainstream media and a handful of nongovernmental organizations linked by membership and leadership to the United Malays National Organization, the ruling party.

For example, Utusan Malaysia, the nation’s largest Malay-language daily—which is also owned by UMNO—has inflamed Muslim religious sentiments by accusing non-Muslims of desecrating the name of the “Muslim” God and alleging a Christian conspiracy to overrun this predominantly Muslim nation through conversion. I have seen these incendiary propaganda techniques used before, when politicians and demagogues exploit public sentiment to garner support by fomenting fear. Such tactics are useful diversions from embarrassing scandals ranging from controversial court decisions, to allegations of exorbitant commissions extracted from military procurements, to the theft of two jet engines from the inventory of the Royal Malaysian Air Force. This behavior has been exacerbated since the ruling party lost its two-thirds majority in parliament last year. UMNO is now desperately struggling to regain public support.

Few Muslims around the world would endorse the claim that we have a monopoly on the word “Allah.” It is accepted that the word was already in the lexicon of pre-Islamic Arabs. Arabic’s sister Semitic languages also refer to God as “Allah”: namely, “Elaha” in Aramaic, and “Elohim” in Hebrew. Historical manuscripts prove that Arabic-speaking Muslims, Christian and Jews have collectively prayed to God, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, as “Allah” for over 1,400 years. The history of Islam in Southeast Asia is known for its pluralistic and inclusive traditions, and amicable relations between Muslims and non-Muslims have been the norm for generations.

Muslim scholars outside of Malaysia thus find our “Allah” issue absurd and cannot fathom why it has sparked protest and outrage. Minority Muslim populations living in the West, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11, have diligently tried to remind the public that Muslims, Christians and Jews share common Abrahamic roots and ultimately worship the same God.

Local sensitivities have been aroused over this issue. They should be handled through dialogue and engagement. Instead of permeating a sense of insecurity or a siege mentality, Muslims must be encouraged to engage and present their concerns to the Christians in a constructive manner. The example of Muslim Spain is a moment in our history to which Malaysian Muslims should aspire. But efforts toward fostering a convivencia are not only found in the past. The ongoing “Common Word” initiative, a global effort launched in 2007 that captured the support of over 130 of the world’s most prominent Muslim scholars, has made historic progress towards building goodwill among Muslims and Christians to find ways to live in sincere peace and harmony. It is ironic that noble efforts such as these are being undone by the actions of Muslims themselves.

Malaysia’s international reputation has taken a beating since Prime Minister Najib Razak was sworn in last year. Despite his efforts to promote national unity, news about the caning of a young Muslim woman charged with drinking, the mutilation of a cow head in protest of the construction of a Hindu temple, ill treatment of Muslim converts who revert to their earlier faith and even the outlawing of the practice of yoga by Muslims have many at home and abroad wondering which direction Malaysia is headed under Mr. Najib’s leadership. There are already misgivings about governance, human rights, the rule of law and rampant corruption; Malaysia dropped 10 spots on Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perception Index, our worst showing in over 15 years. The vision of Malaysia as a peaceful and stable location for investment, tourism and migration is now in peril.

This matters most for Malaysians who have to contend with an increasingly polarized social and political landscape. Malaysia cannot afford to be held hostage by the vested interests of a few who manipulate faith and identity as a means to elicit fear for political and economic gain. This is old politics, and it has become clear that those who incite hatred are only doing so to prolong their monopoly on power. The majority of Malaysians reject this approach. They realize that overcoming the challenges we face—a stagnant economy, declining educational standards and rising crime—depends on our ability as a nation to internalize and make real the principles of fairness and justice to all.


Finding Unity in Malaysia’s Diversity
The government is working to resolve the ‘Allah’ issue and preserve a fair and open society.
By NAJIB RAZAK | Wall Street Journal

In contrast to the impressions left by some international reporting, in the hours and days after the recent vandalism of churches and other places of worship in Malaysia, the true spirit of our nation has shone through. Across religions and races, Malaysians have spoken with a unified voice in condemning the despicable acts of a few. Citizens have joined as one to assert that vandalism is never an acceptable way to express diverse views or resolve differences.

Many measures have been taken to counter this violence. Muslim groups volunteered to safeguard churches in their towns. Muslim social activists have written petitions to oppose these senseless acts of vandalism. Muslim civic groups are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Christians, Hindus and Buddhists to ensure that all people can freely worship as they wish. Christian and civic leaders have urged calm and interfaith dialogue; they are fully aware that those who perpetrated these acts do not represent the Muslim majority in Malaysia. I saw this first hand when I visited the Metro Tabernacle Church to meet with the pastor and to commit support for rebuilding.

Let us be honest in recognizing that religious beliefs are deeply held, and in the legal case currently pending related to non-Muslims’ use of the word “Allah” in Malay-language publications, there are passionate views on many sides. As a nation, we will work together to resolve this issue.

Malaysia is certainly not the first country where a few individuals commit criminal acts under the false pretence of supporting a particular religion. But I am determined that the vandalism of places of worship and arson at the Tabernacle in recent days—and the powerful response from everyday Malaysians—can be transformed into a moment from which we can learn.

We will bring the perpetrators to justice. But this will also be a time when we stand united as one people to unequivocally denounce violence and reaffirm that we remain committed to the national drive we call “1Malaysia.”

We must resolve to maintain a fair and open society where there is opportunity for all Malaysians to flourish. My administration is liberalizing ownership requirements in key sectors of our economy; encouraging foreign direct investment in an era of globalization; creating 1Malaysia clinics to provide access to health care; and extending educational opportunities to all Malaysians.

These reforms have sometimes been politically difficult. But they are important because the long-term health of Malaysia’s society and the economy can only be built on what unites us rather than what divides us. We will not waver from the pursuit of 1Malaysia. While there may be some who debate this approach, there is room for open discussion and consideration about how we realize this vision of a strong, fair nation.

Many Malaysians have been appalled by the irresponsible and dangerous finger-pointing of a few politicians who put personal political interests before Malaysia’s national interest. They try to score political points by hammering on sensitive issues. My government chooses a different path. We will reach out to all parts of Malaysian society in the coming days to foster open dialogue and work to resolve sensitive issues together.

While one church was damaged and others were vandalized, along with a Sikh temple and Muslim prayer rooms, the values we hold dear—religious freedom, tolerance, peace and fairness—remain the bedrock of our nation. The diversity of our population is the true strength of our country. Across races and across religions, this is the foundation upon which we will advance 1Malaysia. It represents a great challenge but, together, it can be our greatest achievement.

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Monday, 1 February 2010 - 10:15 am

    To be fair, Najib piece is poor simply because he has NO CLUE what to do and that is actually precisely the point. Najib is lost in terms of finding solutions to deal with the issues. Everything he has attempted although some have had some success, inevitably fail or regress back. In sports term, he has scored but the opposition have scored more or rather he has let the opposition scored more.

    Najib is actually a very predictable person despite all his attempts at Machiavellian manouvering. His original gameplan was to make a few bureaucratic changes that he was going to spin it in overdrive especially when the good times rolled around. The curious thing about his gameplan is that times are actually not bad and yet he is falling flat on his face.

    So now his gameplan is falling apart, Najib fall back will be to resort to Machiavellian and insidious means to get ahead. All the talk getting PR MPs to jump is an early part of the game. Depending on whether he realise that he is too slow to just resort to Machiavellian means, times will be interesting. For example, he can’t have the courts rule in Nizar favour in Perak, it will be disastrous. But the courts cannot blindly also rule against Nizar or the issues will spill over to other states. Jailing Anwar actually is difficult to tell if its a good idea because he could be creating a Martyr. If he does not realize these things that even if he does Machiavellian moves, he need creative solution of which he or his underlings are not capable of, he is in for a very very rude shock that will see him finished EVEN before he gets to GE 13…

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Monday, 1 February 2010 - 1:27 pm

    It’s not bcos NR has no clue, it’s bcos he has NO PRINCIPLE lah
    D Allah issue is really a NO ISSUE 1
    Like AI, NR just has 2 accept dat Muslims hv no monopoly over Allah
    NR n Umno B must accept this fact n d judgment of d judge/court
    NR n Umno B must explain this n b firm in asking all ppl 2 accept this fact
    Then we can all move on 2 consider other cases: corruption, murder, etc

  3. #3 by chengho on Tuesday, 2 February 2010 - 6:48 am

    Allah issue is not an issue if pakiam did not rock the boat .

  4. #4 by dagen on Tuesday, 2 February 2010 - 1:49 pm

    Allah is and was never an issue until umno turned it into one.

  5. #5 by dagen on Tuesday, 2 February 2010 - 1:58 pm

    “… there are passionate views on many sides. As a nation, we will work together to resolve this issue.” Jib said.

    Make no mistake about it folks. By we jib meant umno. So jib, umno will solve the issue huh? Might as well leave things to chengho. To him this is a small matter. The issue can be narrowed down to one little fella call pakiam. So get rid of him somehow rightaway and chengho believes the problem will then vanish, magically.

    Wot pharking stupid idiot, he is that umno kid!

  6. #6 by johnnypok on Thursday, 4 February 2010 - 4:27 am

    The nation is heading for a tough time ahead, and NR is only making things more complicated. TDM undergone 2 bypass. NR may not survive even the one, and may succumb to the sheer pressure of the muder case alone. Altantuya, TBH and Kugan creating havoc.

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