The Malaysian Insider
17 December 2015
A lot has been said about the recent Umno general assembly, especially the president’s speech as presented by Datuk Seri Najib Razak. Instead of making the usual commentary of my own opinions about its contents, I felt that a discourse analysis would have been more appropriate to shed some light on the matters that drew my attention.
A discourse analysis is when we look at the usage of language by particular parties and how the messages are being conveyed to intended audiences. Most of time, such methods are used to display the variety of approaches that authors take to portray certain ideologies. As a result, we learn that some ideas become more dominant than others. All because of how it is being articulated and who is the proponent of those ideas.
What appeared most central of all my observations in the speech was the wordplay of Islamism that has ultimately dominated the entire text. This should come as no surprise to most of us. After all, religion has been something that we have been obsessing over lately. Not just within the country, but globally as well, in the light of the escalating violence of Isis, the preposterous call for banning Muslims by Donald Trump and a severe refugee crisis in Europe.
All of this being a wake-up call for moderation, or the more scandalised word liberalism, to be greater promoted as a counter measure against religious radicalism.
It is important to highlight that the religious-political rhetoric that the prime minister has used in the span of his leadership has taken several U-turns – be it the backed out promise of abolishing the Sedition Act to rebranding of the internal security act (ISA) and now the National Security Council Bill. Most of all, we can see the clear deviation from his campaign of moderation individually, as well as within Umno.
Due to this, we are currently faced with quite a dangerous issue that is being reflected in the Prime Minister’s speech. The issue being a problematic “play-up” of politicised religion which suggests a reinforcement of extremist apologetics, denial of democracy and the anxious struggle of status quo preservation.
The tone of moderation in Najib’s speech still prevails when not heard and read in its entirety. In selecting only the crucial statements, mostly in connection with the economic crisis and popularity battle with the opposition, the religious vocation appears to be somewhat toned down.
Religious rhetoric is being placed on a pedestal and implies that such piousness is a testament to excellent leadership. In his speech, Najib emphasises the consultation of the Quran and to justify the value of certain attitudes such as uncompromising loyalty and spiritual vigour that are vital for the preservation of Umno.
With that, being based on the guidance of the ulama rather than his fellow counterparts. This might signify that the prime minister is not only experiencing a trust deficit with the public but also his own Cabinet (explaining the reshuffle).
“21. Thus, in the last few weeks, for my speech as president for the seventh time, I held meetings with various parties, especially the ulama (religious scholars), to gain insights, and advice.”
There has been an interestingly increased shift from Malay nationalism to the “Islamic struggle” in this particular speech. As much as the “pahlawan Bugis” championed his brute strength to battle out with the opposition – it remains as the final remnants of what used to be Umno’s symbolic stand for defending their exclusive concept of Malay, as Islam has become the new conquest.
“28. Coinciding with this responsibility, each time the general assembly comes, oftentimes two other questions are asked, whether the Umno president should be an ultra or pro-Malay only, and must be Islamic or not?”
Surprisingly, the answer to the question asked is still unsatisfactory, in fact – just too ambiguous. Instead, he made a peculiar, sudden shift to the fact he is leading a “plural society” but in such a concept, there is the estranged “other” for the non-Muslims of this country and the slight indication that it poses a challenge – the complexities that muddle up the ideological aspirations for an “Islamic state”, Malay interests and a plural society. Whether it can work together or not, remains a mystery as no solution was provided.
Moreover, a great contradiction lies with still proclaiming that Malaysia is still a democracy. Umno under Najib’s leadership retains a confused idea of what constitutes of democracy, when what they say speaks the complete opposite. This is displayed by the strangeness of loyalty being the most vital trait that tangles with the ideals of democratic leadership. In this, he makes a rather hard, concrete stand, almost with a sense of finality that most definitely makes assaults any attempt to question authority.
“57. Even in old Malay History, there was mention of loyalty, to the top leadership.
“58. It states that when called, we come, when asked to leave, we go. Such is the principle of loyalty.
“59. Therefore, Islam states that it is compulsory for us to obey the leaders.”
Everything that is being illustrated in Najib’s speech being within the framework of Islam. However, this brand of Islam remains unexplained and this is where the vile threat of this ambiguity lies. We are not made aware of what is meant by extremism or perhaps we should ask ourselves – is the lack of answer a sign of acceptance?
In the 2015 Orwell lecture, Dr Rowan Williams cites the distortion of language for the internalization of fascist authority as brought forward by George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”:
““Consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.” This is really just a symptom of a deeper malaise. Vagueness, mixed metaphor, ready-made phrases, “gumming together long strips of words”, pseudo‑technical language are ways of avoiding communication. And those whose interest is in avoiding communication are those who do not want to be replied to or argued with.”
Similarly, when examining the sentiments of the “non-confrontational” Umno president and his ways of a “gentleman”, we can see the thriving authoritarianism masked by a misunderstood flashing of the word “democracy”. As well as Islam that was once preached being “moderate” but does not appear to be so.
While the confusion prevails, it is this is very attitude whereby politics becomes the element to govern the greatest amount of dominance in the discourse of religion. Worst of all, is how the anti-intellectualism makes most of its influence by forcing the silence of other school of thoughts to be “deviant”.
Morbidly, it makes religious institution perpetuate anxiety in the identities of people and hence, to create a climate of fear. In which, the very same one that has created the fundamentalists the world is fighting hard against. – December 17, 2015.