Perkasa president Datuk Ibrahim Ali’s voice has been so dominant that many think his views reflect that of all Malays. But are things about to shift now with more moderate Malays speaking out?
Temperature rising: Ibrahim (right) has become the icon for the Malay right wing point of view while personalities like Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin aim to reflect the thinking of moderate Malays.
DATUK Ibrahim Ali knows that size matters in politics. Hence, he made sure that the annual assembly of his Perkasa group last week was packed to the rafters.
But the reality is that the numbers did not really matter because Ibrahim’s larger-than-life personality has completely overshadowed Perkasa.
Moreover, controversy has sort of become the second name of the Perkasa president and media people covering the gathering were looking out for, well, more controversy.
He did not disappoint. His “bangsat” (scum) roll-call of several Umno leaders earned him a spot on what was trending in social media. It was not the first time he was trending and, as in previous occasions, it was not for the best of reasons.
There is no denying Ibrahim has a following among the Malays. The fact that so few in Umno have dared to criticise him says a lot about his Malay agenda clout.
Perkasa has also managed to attract some pretty big names into its rank and file such as former Election Commission chairman Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Aziz and former IGP Tan Sri Rahim Mohd Noor.
The biggest fish to date is former Chief Judge Tun Hamid Mohamad who has been quite vocal. Leading statesman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is also a key supporter who attends Perkasa events.
In short, Ibrahim had been riding high. He is arguably Malaysia’s most controversial politician and his ultra right-wing views have dominated the Malay political landscape so much so that many non-Malays had imagined that all Malays were like Ibrahim – that is, until recently.
The emergence of a group of 25 prominent Malays, since dubbed G25, has created a stir among the intelligentsia following their open letter which appeared inThe Star on Dec 8. The letter stood out for what the group had to say as well as for its eloquent and well-argued points.
The group was concerned about the country’s future and how Islam had been politicised. They called for a review of Syariah and civil law so that it would be consistent with the Federal Constitution.
Blogger Ahiruddin Attan, better known as Rocky, was impressed enough to write in his blog: “Some of them are genuinely eminent. Their arrival will provide another great avenue for the silent majority to channel their views and feelings and be heard.”
A week later, another group of 32 distinguished Malay individuals that included two serving muftis, lawyers and academics, penned their own open letter that was also published by The Star.
Their views, especially on Islamic laws and its administration, differed markedly from that of the G25. But, again, what struck many readers was the reasoned and civil manner by which they put across their arguments.
The G32, for want of a better name, advocate a central role for Syariah law. They cited a 2013 global survey that showed that 86% of Muslims in Malaysia favoured making Syariah the official law.
“They are a very credible group of eminent Muslims. You have the muftis for Perak and Penang. For people like them to come out, it shows they are concerned about the discussion going on about Islam and the Syariah system,” said Dr Yusri Mohamad, deputy chairman of the Islamic Dakwah Foundation.
One might say, two open letters, so what?
But it is more than that. It shows that there are credible Malays who are concerned enough to want to take a stand and make a difference.
They are part of the thinking Malays out there who can differ and disagree without being confrontational or resorting to insults and name-calling.
They are also proof of the diverse Malay intellectual landscape out there. So long as individuals like them remain silent, they are allowing those like Ibrahim to own the Malay intellectual space.
Members of the G25 were part of the early Malay elite who ended their careers as top government officials.
For instance, one of them, Tan Sri Ahmad Kamil Jaafar, had a glittering career as a diplomat before becoming secretary-general of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. His memoirs Growing Up With The Nation came out a few years ago and it is said that even Dr Mahathir deferred to him on foreign affairs in their heyday.
“Why is it so hard to find the middle ground to move forward? You are expected to fit into a certain pigeonhole but life is not that simple,” said lawyer Khairuddin Mohd Zain.
It is also apparent that not all Malays are thrilled with what the G25 has to say, especially their stand on transgender rights and their defence of Sisters in Islam. The Islamists are concerned that the G25 will go down the same path as Sisters in Islam whose liberal interpretation of religion appeal largely to non-Muslims.
Any debate about the Malays, said Dr Yusri, is very much centred around the question of Islam.
“We cannot run away from that,” he said.
The Malays are bound together by a great religion but as a race they are far from being the homogeneous entity that they have been made out to be.
“It’s mind-boggling that we have come to this juncture. To me, alternative voices must be allowed to be heard, let’s hear from both sides,” said Khairuddin, who is an occasional columnist in Utusan Malaysia.
But even contemporary-minded Malays like Rocky and Khairuddin are not against Perkasa per se. They identify with the Malay agenda that Perkasa stands for but are uncomfortable with Ibrahim’s personality and tactics.
Rocky had actually signed up to be a member of Perkasa in its birthing years. But the application got lost along the way, which was just as well because he feels that the organisation has lost its compass.
“It’s fine if Malays like Ibrahim want to speak on behalf of those who think like him. The G25 are people who feel that Perkasa is not representative of who they are. Of course, they are not representative of all Malays but neither is Perkasa or Isma or, for that matter, Umno.
“Call them names if you have to, but once you’re done, let’s hear the 25 out. They are Malays too, you know, and right now, what we need is for all Malays to stand up and speak up,” said Rocky who is also an advisor to an English publication.
Ibrahim is not going away anytime soon. He will continue to be a force mainly because he has support.
But what has changed is that people now know that Ibrahim’s audience is not as all-encompassing as it was made out to be. They know now that his voice does not represent all Malays.
Sarawak, for one, has shut its doors to Perkasa. The group has been told that it is not welcome in the state.
Recently, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Nancy Shukri, who is from Sarawak, faced a firestorm back home after telling Parliament that no action would be taken against Ibrahim over his alleged statement about burning the Malay language Bibles. He was supposed to have said that after the father of a Malay student lodged a police report of Bibles being distributed at his son’s school in Penang.
Nancy was so badly bashed on the Internet that she said she was at the “lowest ebb of my life”.
“I never dreamt that one day I would be branded as someone who is anti-Christian or a supporter of those calling for Bible burning,” she said.
What she went through was an indication that Perkasa has become the bogeyman in Sarawak politics.
Ibrahim has always been this way – loud, confrontational and a street fighter. Those who love him see him as a hero who is doing what Umno has failed to do. Those who dislike him see him as a bully, an extremist and even a racist. They make jokes about him and they run him down.
His reputation is such that when he opens his mouth, people no longer look at the message, they only see the messenger and that is not good. He has become his own worst enemy.
For instance, the media was so fixated on him that they ignored the keynote address of the ex-Chief Judge who had some hard truths for Perkasa.
Hamid, now a target of the opposition parties, told Perkasa members that nothing is free in life and that the way to success is hard work rather than a “buat kenduri” or happy-go-lucky attitude. He said Perkasa wants to put Umno back on the right path but it should not be at the expense of a split among the Malays.
He has probably heard of how certain Perkasa people have been lobbying the government for projects because he urged them to be clean and uphold integrity.
“I wouldn’t want to be part of a group with worms,” he said.
Will the more diverse Malay debate lead to greater understanding or more conflict?
“Not conflict, but it will cause more confusion before there is greater understanding,” said Dr Marzuki Mohamad, the political secretary to the Education Minister.
The Malay debate is not new. At the same time, it is very much a work in progress.
Marzuki has the best suggestion for the road ahead: “It will be fine if everyone keeps to the ethics of disagreement. That means giving room for each other to speak, respecting each others’ views and abiding by the law.”