by: Wan Saiful Wan Jan

This is an the transcript of the speech delivered by Wan Saiful Wan Jan, Director General of Malaysia Think Tank London, at the Ibn Khaldun Seminar on 18 December 2007, at Menara Integiriti, Institut Integriti Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. The theme of the seminar was “Islam: a Blessing to Malaysians?”.

To start with, let me tell you a bit about Malaysia Think Tank London. We are relatively young classical liberal think tank. Our focus in on policy issues and we try to use classical liberal values to produce policy proposals. Based in London, we started our operations last year. I lead the senior management team and we are supported by an International Advisory Board. We are now looking into the possibility of opening a KL office, and we are planning a series of events beginning from February next year in Malaysia.

The topic tonight is not an easy one. I know the publicity of this event explicitly links me with PAS but I am not speaking for PAS. I represent myself in this forum.

Majority – minority relationship

Let us start with a scenario.

Having lived in the country for many years, a group of ethnic minority wants to contribute to making the country stronger and more prosperous. They decided to speak up and contribute proactively to ongoing debates on policy matters by presenting the views of their ethnic group to policy-makers. Among the things they asked for was for the majority to treat them as equals, and to allow them to practice their religion freely.

How did the majority community respond? They responded by saying that the ethnic minority group:

may have hostile agenda
is ungrateful and divisive
does not respect the majority community
is trying to change the socio-demography country
does not respect the feeling of the majority

One politician said that the ethnic minority group is a minority population and should not try and punch above their weight in changing the country’s culture or policy.

Where do you think the above took place?

It could easily have happened in Britain where the ethnic minority were Muslims, the majority was White British.

But, unsurprisingly, it could also be read as a Malaysian problem wherein the minority group was the Christians or Hindus or Buddhists or any non-Muslim groups, and the majority was the Malay Muslims in Malaysia.

As a Malaysian Muslim living in Britain, I feel that it is not easy being an ethnic minority, especially when the majority feels that you are threatening them.

Living as a minority

Speaking in London on 15 November 2007, Professor Tariq Ramadan called for Muslims in Britain to engage in a “post-integration discourse”. He said that Britain is home for many Muslims. Their parents may have come from other countries, but for the younger generation, Britain is home. And that is why the minority Muslim communities in Britain are being urged to speak up – because Britain is their home. Speaking up is not an option. But it is an obligation for them to work as hard as they can to make the country better. I believe that the same arguments can be applied to non-Malay non-Muslims in Malaysia.

In the UK, the Muslim minority is demanding that they are treated as equals. That they are allowed to practice and to preach their religion. That they be allowed to pray and fast while at work or in school. That they be allowed to wear what they want to wear, where-ever and whenever they want to wear it. That they are allowed to build more places of worship in the areas where they live in. And so on and so forth.

Looking at Malaysia from abroad, I see non-Muslim non-Malays in Malaysia also asking to be treated as equals. I see some of the more religious non-Muslims asking to be allowed to practice and preach their religion. That they be allowed to build or retain holy sites, churches, temples and so on.

In short, non-Muslims in Malaysia seem to be asking for exactly the same rights as Muslims in the West are fighting for. In the West, Muslims are crying to be equals with the majority non-Muslims. In Malaysia non-Muslims want to be treated as equals too. But, in the West, some local non-Muslims are saying “Don’t challenge us, this is our country!”. In Malaysia some Malay Muslims are also saying “Don’t challenge us, this is our country!”.

It is not easy being a minority, is it?

It saddens me when I see and hear about how the majority tries to silence the minority. Only this time, it is the reverse of the situation on the UK. Over there the majority is the non-Muslim. Over here, the majority is the Muslims.

Confusing ethnicity and religiosity

That is, of course, a big over-simplification. I propose that there are actually two layers of the problem, and these two layers have been mixed into one, making the composite problem ‘thicker’.

The first layer is essentially the differences between ethnic groups. Since the early stages of the life of our nation, there have been rather visible differences between the socio-economic status of the different ethnic communities. They may live in one country called Malaysia, but they are oblivious to “the other”. They live together, but in many sense, they are actually living apart. Things like demands for the protection of ketuanan Melayu or recent calls for special privileges for Indians, only make this problem worse. So, if we dissect the problem, we will see that the first layer is the differences between ethnic groups who are grappling with the challenges of becoming a bangsa Malaysia.

The second layer is the differences between religious groups. There are obvious differences between one religion and another. Once again, we find cases where people of different religions find it difficult, and some even refuse, to inter-mingle.

Ethnicity and religiosity are supposed to be different issues. You cannot necessarily tell one’s religion based on one’s ethnic group. One ethnic group is not necessarily adherence to one particular religion. The Prophet Muhammad and Abu Jahal were both Arabs, but one was a Muslim and the other was not. Saidina Abu Bakr and Salman al-Farisi were not from the same ethnic group, but both were Muslim. So, in that sense, Malays are not necessarily Muslims. Chinese are not necessarily Buddhists or Christians. Indians are not necessarily Hindus. Ethnicity and religion are two separate things.

Unfortunately for us Malaysians, somewhere along the line, these two layers got mixed. That is when you start seeing Malay groups like UMNO claiming to defend Islam; Indian groups like the MIC fighting for Hindu temples, but not saying much when mosques were demolished, even though there are Indians who are Muslims; and groups claiming to be the defenders of Islam like PAS and ABIM seem to focus more on Malay rights when there are Muslims who are not Malays and Malays who are not Muslims. You also see a relatively new Hindu group – HINDRAF – claiming to act for all Indians when not all Indians are Hindus, and not all Hindus are Indians. Somehow, the two layers – ethnicity and religion – became blurred and the actions of these groups make the problem worse.

Some Muslims are a disaster

So the question is, is Islam a blessing to Malaysians? Islam is a blessing to Malaysians if practised as it should be practised. The problem is not with Islam, but with Muslims, and with those who say they speak for Islam. In reality, some Muslims, and some groups who claim to speak for Islam, are simply disastrous.

Although Islam is a blessing to mankind, many Muslims (not all), and some Muslim groups (not all) are simply a disaster to mankind. They seek to impose their beliefs on others. They want to coerce others into living the way of life that they define as acceptable. Even within the Muslim communities – and note that I am saying Muslim communities in the plural because I do not believe there is only one interpretation of Islam – they say you must follow their interpretation because they know best what Islam is.

In short, we have living amongst us, Muslims who believe in coercion and imposition, not just coercing non-Muslims into living lives the way they say, but also coercing Muslims into subscribing to their version of Islam.

These people have forgotten that Islam is a non-hierarchical religion. We do not have a central religious body that decides what is Islamic and what is not. If we go back to the golden age of Islam, you will see that Islam was practised in different ways. I believe that that age was golden because learned Muslims at different places were able to interpret Islam in different ways, and subsequently there was competition between the different schools of thought.

For example, when sufism became widespread in the Muslim world, there were various different orders of tariqah. When Islamic fiqh was being developed, there was not just one school but several. Even in the matter of aqidah, there was not just one school, but several. It was the competition among the various schools that allowed the flourishing of knowledge and wisdom among Muslim communities.

Moving forward

So, let me come back to the issue of Islam being a blessing to Malaysians but many Muslims are a disaster. How do we move forward?

I have been a member of PAS since 1992 and I am proud to see the party gradually changing for the better. I have been very lucky because I have been given the opportunity to deal and communicate directly with many of the top leaders in PAS. Through my association with PAS, I have very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to get to know many Islamic groups in Malaysia. At the same time, in the UK, as well as my involvement in the British Conservative Party, I have been involved with various Muslim organisations in the United Kingdom, and, believe me, the variety of Muslim groups in the UK is even wider than what we have in Malaysia.

Looking at Malaysia and Britain, I think there is a common thread weaving through many of the different religious and ethnic-based organisations. They all feel like they are victims, or they feel that they have been victimised at one stage in the past. They all feel like they have been, or are being oppressed, and they need to speak as one religious or ethnic group. They all feel like they have to defend themselves from attacks by other religious or ethnic groups, and that is why they group together as one religious or ethnic grouping.

It is funny that in the UK, where Muslims are the minority, they feel they need to be defensive about Islam, but you also see the same thing in a country like Malaysia, where Muslims are in the majority. Muslims in Malaysia also feel that they need to be defensive about Islam. And their reactions to current issues are almost very similar. They group together to create an “us” versus “them” situation, and they appeal to the emotions of followers.

For Malaysia, in order to move forward I believe we, Muslims, have to stop being defensive. Islam is a confident religion. Why is it that Muslims seem to have lost our confidence? Why is it that when others disagree with us, we show them the keris, or we insist on putting our beliefs into law, which is, just like the keris, a tool for coercion?

I believe these are all signs of defensiveness, and I believe it is high-time for Muslims, and in fact, those of any religion, to stop being defensive, and go into what Professor Tariq Ramadan calls, a “post-integration discourse”.

Let us debate substantive policy issues that will improve the country as a whole.

Liberating values of Islam

In order to move forward, we Muslims and Islamists must go back to the liberating values of Islam and formulate and propose policy ideas that are also liberating and fair for everyone. Non-Muslims should do the same and stop intentionally stirring emotional issues that would only create more division.

Let us move away from divisive emotional debates and try to focus about the very positive and liberating aspects of Islam, and other religions.

Rather than continuing to talk about the emotive issues like race and religion, let us shift the debate to real policy issues. Stop sensationalising issues like apostasy and threat to Malay rights. When talking religion, why is it that we like so much to debate about apostasy when we know it is divisive? Why can’t we debate education, health, crime, domestic and international trade, economy, public services, schools, universities, hospitals and so on?

Islam promotes choice and defends the right of individuals to choose. That is positive. Let us stop all this rubbish about “Dalam Islam memang ada pilihan tetapi pilihan itu ada hadnya”. This type of statements is turning a positive into a negative. We should go straight into the positives of choice, and find ways to introduce choice into national policies.

Choice in education

Let us look at education – the key to building a successful nation. Let us talk about how to introduce choice into our education system, particularly in schools, so that everybody, Muslim or not, would benefit. Let us make sure our education system is fair in the Islamic sense of putting the right thing at the right place.

To give a more specific example, citizens in this country pay taxes (or at least are supposed to do so!). Is it fair that, when everyone regardless of their religion, pays the taxes, and that tax money is then used to pay for schools and teachers, we still lump students into two groups – Muslim students learn Islamic studies, all other non-Muslims learn Pendidikan Moral. Buddhists pay taxes. Christians pay taxes. Hindus pay taxes. Why don’t we have Pendidikan Agama Islam, Pendidikan Agama Kristian, Pendidikan Agama Buddha, Pendidikan Agama Hindu in schools?

Did Islam not teach us to be fair? If fairness means putting things where they rightly belong, surely the most rightful thing to do is to allow Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Baha’is and so on to learn about their own religion, because after all, they have paid for those services through their taxes. Is it fair to force them to pay taxes to ensure Muslim children get Islamic education, but at the same time depriving children of other religion from learning theirs?

Let us translate the Islamic value of choice into giving true choice to parents – give them the choice to decide what religion their children will study in schools. This should not be dictated by the state, especially when the diktat is unfair to those of other religions.

Protecting consumers

Let us go to a second example. Let us look at how to ensure consumers pay the lowest prices for the best products. Surely protecting the consumers and ensuring that consumers get the best deal is a very Islamic thing to do. How do we ensure consumers get the best deal? The answer is by providing a guarantee for choice and competition in the market place, by removing government intervention in the markets, and by allowing traders to compete with others freely to give consumers the best value for money.

We have seen how government interventions only result in cronyism. State interference in the marketplace must be removed, and the role of the state in the market place must be limited. Let us open up our markets for traders, so that they have to compete to give best value for money. Who will benefit? The consumers, of course!

Let us allow the Islamic values of competing to do good (fastabikul khairat) to also operate in the market place. This will allow the traders, in their quest to attract consumers, also to do good for the consumers, by providing consumers with the best value for money.

New Economic Policy

Let us look at a third example – the New Economic Policy. I know many Islamists try to justify this pro-Malay policy by saying that the Malays need help the most, and therefore they must be assisted. I don’t know how these Islamists sleep at night because if they truly believe Malays need special treatment because they are all poor, they are either lying or are naïve. The reality is, there are Indians, Chinese, Malays, Ibans, Kadazans, Orang Asli, and many more who are also poor and are in need of help.

Islam is a fair religion, and there is nothing more fair than abolishing the NEP that favours only one skin-colour, and introduce a scheme to assist everyone who is in need. Yes, perhaps it should be done gradually. But there should be a clear target and we should develop a timetable towards that aim.

It baffles me to see our Muslim politicians battling each other to argue how Malays are still poor and that the NEP is still needed. This is like arguing that they have failed to do what they were elected to do. And the Malay voters are even more ridiculous. They keep on electing these self-confessed, failed politicians!

What could be more Islamic than campaigning for the abolishing of the NEP, towards the creation of a policy that truly helps those in need, regardless or race and religion? If “adil” means putting things where they rightly belong, then the most rightful thing to do with the NEP is to put it into the rubbish-bin.

I can’t really go into the details of each policy area as this would require more time and space that this short occasion. But my main point is, we should move away from debates on race and religion, and start talking about really substantive policy issues.

Malaysia for all Malaysians

The Muslim Malays must grow up. This is not just a Malay or Muslim country. This is our country and you can see the diversity of our population as soon as you venture outside your own house. We have to realise that when people talk about Malay rights, it is not necessarily because they want to threaten the Malays, but it is because they want to improve the country as a whole.

I know how it feels to be told to stay away from certain issues because, in England where I live, I am a minority. It saddens me to see my non-Muslim non Malay brothers and sisters to be told the same in Malaysia.

So, let me conclude by saying this. I am a Malaysian Muslim. I consider myself an Islamist who believe in classical liberal values. I live in England where I am a minority. I know it is not easy being in the minority. When you speak up, some (not all) of the majority says that you shouldn’t punch above your weight. When you try to make constructive proposals, some (not all) of the majority say you are trying to change their country. But, in all honesty, all that you want to do is to make the country better for everyone, not just for yourself. Somehow, because you are a minority, you are looked at with suspicion.

That is why I am urging every Muslim to make Islam truly a blessing for all Malaysians by not going too much into emotive issues. And this is equally applicable to people of all religions. We all should stop deliberately stirring up emotions, and we should move towards debating policy issues using the moral values of our religions, if you really want to use religion as the basis of your thinking.

Let us stop debating and sensationalising things. Let us walk away from debates that appeal only to the emotions. Instead, let us debate policy issues, and appeal to the intellect. Let us debate things that really make a difference to the lives of everyone in this beloved country of ours. Let us think about how to introduce policies that can liberate the people from the grip of the state. Let us together find ways to give back freedom and liberty to the people, socially, economically and politically, while at the same time holding true to the values of our religions.

And, especially to Muslims, let us go back to the values of Islam that promote fairness, freedom and liberty, not the centralising and socialistic tendencies of some Islamists factions.

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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is Director General of Malaysia Think Tank London. Previously, he was at the British Conservative Party Research Department and the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit. Wan Saiful is a life-member of PAS. While completing his university studies in England, he was actively involved in HIZBI, a movement for Malaysians in the United Kingdom closely associated with PAS. He was among the longest-serving President of HIZBI, and after he stepped down, was appointed as Mursyid. He moved from KL to England in 1993 and has been living there since. In May 2007, he contested in the English local elections as a Conservative Party Candidate. He is active in the Conservative Muslim Forum (CMF) and has co-authored a submission to the shadow cabinet on (British) National and International Security.

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