by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail 25 September 2015

When it comes to the statements of politicians, some level of inconsistency is to be tolerated. We appreciate that they want to appeal to different people at different times and places – not just sections of their electorate, but also their own party leaders (who, depending on the electoral system, might be even more important to one’s future career prospects). Given a long enough period of time, we might accept that they have the right to change their mind on certain issues.

We also appreciate that the media is prone to some level of misreporting or exaggeration, and that news editors and influential social media users have their own biases and might want to put some people in a good light and others in a bad light. Some years ago it might have been very easy to get away with large amounts of distortion, but in the age of social media, videos of offending (and offensive) statements being uttered can quickly go viral. The ongoing debates between US presidential hopefuls battling for their parties’ nominations provide many such examples, but Malaysian politicians too offer ample material.

Even when caught redhanded saying something deemed negative, they squirm around to mitigate the damage. They try to argue that words were selectively quoted out of context, or that they were joking. Another popular excuse is technological wizardry: the email was fabricated, the photograph was doctored, that’s someone else’s voice in the recording. No doubt such digital sabotage is a weapon used by political opponents, but the testimony of witnesses or the complainant’s willingness to clear their name in court also serve to test the truth behind such incidents. For diehard loyalists, the truth is irrelevant: any excuse is sufficient to believe or disbelieve anything in order to match with their interests.

Politicians with some competence and honour might try and rationalise statements according to a certain set of principles regardless of who their audience is. They will will be able to convey an idea or policy in different ways and appeal to a diverse set of voters. Or they might even protest or resign if they can no personally justify the actions or policies pursued by their leader or party. However, if they have committed past transgressions (or can be made to look as if they have), they may be blackmailed into toeing the line. Competence, honour and utmost integrity are therefore essential characteristics for anyone who wishes to remain honest throughout a political career – and this is before we get into considerations like ideological convictions and policy preferences.

Unfortunately Malaysians would be hard-pressed to mention any politicians who fit this description. As we have seen in recent times, even those who we might have thought to be competent, honourable and clean have caused disappointment in an environment dominated by concerns over corruption, the state of the economy and the independence of our public institutions.

In recent weeks many conferences and forums have touched on the role of religion in our country, too. Many of the central questions are recurring ones: the extent to which Malaysia is a secular or Islamic state, the possibility of hudud being implemented, the extent of jurisdiction of the Syariah courts, and so on. Excerpts from the Reid Commission reports are quoted, pivotal moments in constitutional history are referred to, and the opinions of former Prime Ministers are retold. Such issues will only be resolved when we recreate a widely shared consensus in what our national narrative is – which, as I have repeatedly argued, will require inspirational leadership, a restoration of public confidence in institutions and a reform of how we teach history and citizenship.

But there is another pernicious aspect to the deliberate mixing of religion and politics: the unashamed distortion of the tenets of Islam itself in order to justify political objectives. There are of course some things that not all Muslims agree on, which is why we have different mazhabs and seek the opinions of learned scholars in trying to address them. But to say that Islam could possibly accept any form of racism is abhorrent, and a greater insult to the dignity of the religion than some other purported offences of late. The public response was mighty (though not from state institutions) and now it is claimed that the remarks were “quoted out of context” – indeed, “sarcastic”.

During Aidiladha, Muslims from nations and tribes who have come to know one another unite in remembering Prophet Ibrahim’s sacrifice. In doing so, they know that it matters not if they are an Arab or a non-Arab, or whether they have white skin or black skin. What matters in their individual relationship with the Almighty is their piety and righteousness.

Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS

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