by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail  20 February 2015

The recent loss in our country’s political space of two giant personalities, whether through incarceration or death, has triggered a series of reactions which can broadly be grouped as being short, medium and long-term in horizon.

Firstly, the immediate reaction of people: saddened family members proclaimed a continued fight for the cause – defined as justice, Islam, hudud, or simply changing the federal government – naturally translated into a promise for further political action.  Thousands of people assembled as a show of solidarity, whether vocally demanding retribution or solemnly saying goodbye.  Emotions have run highest amongst those who professed solidarity with both political leaders (despite the friction between their two parties in recent times).

However, the motives of some individuals (purportedly in praise, in criticism, in galvanisation, in commiseration) have been questioned, condemned, seized upon, reckoned more to be indications of their own Machiavellian political calculations.  These counter-reactions themselves stem from inbuilt biases which can make it difficult to remain politically neutral: if you express no sympathy you are deemed to endorse a government conspiracy, if you express too much you risk being labelled an opposition supporter.  On social media I have come across the most meticulous attempts by prominent but non-political personalities to show just the right amount of sympathy, lest impassioned discussions ensue amidst posts normally about fashion, sport or music.

The medium-term reaction is provided by the analysts and commentators remarking on what all this means for the political landscape in the next few years.  This is the examination of the winners and losers, and the opportunities that have been created for politicians on all sides.  The next generation within the party hierarchies will inexorably take greater charge, but which particular individuals will reach the summit?  What forces – within the wings, the parties, the coalition, even across the political divide – will prevail?  And who are the dark horses that might suddenly emerge (or re-emerge) into the fray?  I certainly have heard many unusual and forgotten names being bandied about.

However, it’s not just politicians and their parties for whom dynamics have affected, especially in the case brought about under Section 377B of the Penal Code.  Other national institutions have been subjected to great scrutiny over their conduct (as of course they should be at all times), and accusations of complicity between institutions have become more widespread, triggering angry and unprecedented responses.  The judiciary, like any other national institution that has emerged as a result of our history and constitution, has its own direct relationship with the Malaysian people.  Their confidence in this institution does not need to be regulated through the commendations or cajoling of another one.

At least, that’s the way it should be in a country where the concepts of separation of powers and rule of law are respected both by citizens and the people occupying those institutions themselves.  The late Sultan Azlan Shah said it beautifully at the eleventh Tunku Abdul Rahman Lecture in 1984: “the rules concerning the independence of the judiciary are designed to guarantee that they will be free from extraneous pressures and independent of all authority save that of the law.  They are, therefore, essential for the preservation of the rule of law.”  A solid understanding of the essence of this quote should be a requirement of anyone in public office, and this education should start in schools.

By the same token, the distinction in the roles and responsibilities of specific persons involved in our judicial system generally and through the course of specific cases – from the Attorney-General’s Chambers and the deputy public prosecutor to the judges themselves – are not consistently well understood either.  This too should be remedied so that some of the currently strongly held opinions are better grounded in fact.

Lastly, commentators are also writing about the long-term legacy that the individuals will leave on the country’s politics.  This too is inevitably influenced by the writers’ own political preferences.  Which narrative will emerge as the state-sanctioned version decades from now?  That will depend on which actors will triumph – for strong personalities will continue playing the lead role in Malaysian politics.

There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but there is a risk that loyalty to personalities will trump loyalty to principles.  When we at IDEAS identify with Tunku Abdul Rahman, we do so while linking his words and actions to our nation’s foundational principles which we believe should be strongly and commonly shared by all citizens.

The loyal supporters of Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Allahyarham Dato’ Bentara Setia Tuan Guru Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat too will associate their heroes with the principles they professed, and that is why they will continue fighting until they consider their champions vindicated.

Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS

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