by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Star 19 October 2012

The attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai, the internationally-recognised young campaigner of female education in Pakistan’s Swat Valley where the Taliban denies girls from attending school, was of course heinous and cowardly, as the UN Secretary General described. In Malaysia, the “foreign-funded, subversive liberals” have condemned the twisted Taliban decree, while there is silence from other, sometimes loud Muslim groups. Reassuringly, in Pakistan itself, public opinion towards the Taliban has descended to the extent of open anger on the streets, and journalists reporting this anger are being threatened. Internationally, donation drives to support the cause of girls’ education in Pakistan have accelerated.

Children’s and women’s rights campaigners present this case through their respective lenses, but there are many more Pakistani citizens of all demographics who are being denied their rights because of the continued interventions of the Taliban in daily life. Apart from shootings, whippings and beheadings, economic activity has dwindled. The naturally beautiful Swat Valley – supposedly described as “the Switzerland of the former Empire” by Elizabeth II (former Queen of Pakistan) – once drew tourists from afar, but today hotels and shops are deserted, and much of the local population has emigrated from war-afflicted Northwest Pakistan. While it may be inconceivable to us that anyone would support the Taliban, on the other side there is corruption, a failure to ensure law and order and the alleged tacit approval of US drones (that although have killed many militants have also hit innocent civilians).

There was an opportunity for our government to extend assistance to Malala, like offer an air ambulance (as did the United Arab Emirates) or treatment at one of our state-of-the-art hospitals we tout for medical tourism (the United Kingdom beat us to it). Still, it’s gratifying to read that many in the international community still regard Malaysia as a model Muslim country: not just because of our still relatively peaceful inter-religious relations but also because of our international role. Back in 1971 Malaysia provided the first Secretary General of the OIC, and recently the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed a Malaysia-brokered peace deal: a diplomatic triumph we should be proud of.

We should also note our pre-Merdeka record, where female education features prominently, with the oldest girls’ school, Convent Light Street in Penang, established in 1852. Earlier this month Dato’ Seri Najib Razak, as Minister for Women, Family and Community Development provoked outrage when he said that there is no need for a women’s movement in Malaysia because “women had the right to vote from the start”: well, it would have been inconceivable to deny women the vote in 1955! I wonder if he mentioned Siti Wan Kembang, the queen regnant of Kelantan-to-be in the sixteenth century, the queens of Pattani in the seventeenth, the female Undangs of Johol in the eighteenth and Tunku Intan, Regent of Negeri Sembilan in the nineteenth, besides the continuing practice of matrilineal inheritance to this day.

Tunku Intan’s grandson Tuanku Muhammad strongly supported female education, with four girls’ schools opening in Negeri Sembilan by 1910, while the Malay Girls’ College was renamed after her great-granddaughter Tunku Kurshiah who had done much to uplift the status of Malaysian women and men, establishing the Muslim Women’s Welfare Council and helping to fund Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Merdeka mission to London. Long before she became the nation’s first Raja Permaisuri Agong courtesy of her husband’s election as Yang di-Pertuan Agong, she was nominated to be Tunku Ampuan of Negeri Sembilan by the Penghulus of the Luak Tanah Mengandung – the title of the state’s queen consort is not automatically bestowed.

But instead of invoking the achievements of Malaysian Muslim women in defending the rights of girls like Malala Yousafzai, some in our bureaucracy are more interested in creating a federal Ministry of Islam, supposedly to defend the sanctity of the religion in Malaysia. As any good patriot will know, this is in fact unconstitutional and treasonous: for it is the Malay Rulers who are the Heads of Islam, and have been from the moment Maharaja Durbaraja II became Sultan Mudzaffar Shah I of Kedah in 1136, a scenario repeated three centuries later in Malacca. Indeed, this proposal represents nothing less than the usurpation of an ancient responsibility and the further centralisation of power in this frayed federation of ours. If they succeed, they will no doubt propagate their own interpretations in every area of life, including education. Sure, their attitude towards girls’ schools might not be as medieval as the Taliban’s, but it might not be as enlightened as Tunku Kurshiah’s either.

When hopefully Malala Yousafzai recovers, perhaps TKC could offer her a place?

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Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS

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