APPARENTLY, President Barack Obama has done it again. Heaped praises on Malaysia as a role model Muslim nation that is progressive and moderate.
The first time it was reported in Malaysia that the highly-popular US chief executive gave the thumbs up for our tiny Southeast Asian nation was on 27 June 2009 when both Obama and our prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, first spoke on the phone. According to Najib, Obama told him during their 20-minute conversation: “You should be proud of Malaysia because you are a modern, progressive Muslim country, able to manage a multiethnic and multi-religious society.” In late September 2009, Najib again announced that the Obama administration regarded Malaysia as a “progressive and moderate Islamic nation”.
My question is, should we believe any of it?
There is no doubt that any endorsement by Obama of the Najib administration has the powerful impact of legitimising and creating credibility for our prime minister. Obama is a brand unto himself. His public appeal is so strong that his successful campaign for the White House was celebrated all over the world.
So, who wouldn’t want to tumpang glamour on Obama?
But a healthy dollop of scepticism is always useful if citizens — whether in Malaysia or in the US — are to contribute to vibrant democracies.
Firstly, what really do we expect world leaders to say to each other in the public realm? During the phone conversation in June, Najib announced that Obama had “graciously acknowledged my ability to serve as Prime Minister based on my extensive background in the public service”.
Could Obama have been critical of Najib as Malaysia’s new prime minister? From a diplomatic perspective, that would have been a serious faux pas. Even if privately Obama had his misgivings about Najib because of the damaging international reports about the murder of Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu, he would have kept it to himself.
It might have been possible that Obama did say more than what Najib announced. Perhaps he was even critical of Najib and the Barisan Nasional administration during the phone conversation. But, will the rakyat ever know? Of course not. Najib would not be volunteering that information. He is, after all, a politician who wants to make the most of being even remotely connected to Obama in whatever way as his Malaysian counterpart.
And neither would Obama publicly shame him. After all, Obama too, is a politician and knows the rules of the game that world leaders have to play. Indeed, the US administration has on countless occasions announced that Malaysia remains a nation that the US has strategic trade ties with. Hence, it would not be in the US’s interest to jeopardise bilateral relations in any way.
Perhaps what’s worse is that we also know that it is highly deceitful to keep describing Malaysia as some kind of model progressive Muslim nation. This is regardless of whether that was an accurate description of what the Obama administration really thinks of Malaysia. Are we really a moderate, progressive Muslim nation?
In Malaysia, “Allah” cannot be used by other faith communities, even though the name precedes Islam, because the Umno-led government insists only Muslim Malaysians have a right to use it. In Malaysia, the syariah courts believe in caning women for alcohol consumption despite reputable Muslim scholars and human rights advocates questioning such forms of punishment. Indeed, in Malaysia, both Umno and PAS believe that women’s rights groups should either be charged for sedition or ultimately outlawed for daring to speak up against injustices in the name of Islam.
In Malaysia, children can be unilaterally converted to Islam and non-Muslims cannot get justice in the civil courts on matters arising from conversions to Islam. In Malaysia, minority groups are threatened with violence in the name of defending Islam, and the Najib administration defends not those who are threatened, but rather those who do the threatening. In Malaysia, there is no freedom of religion for Muslims and the state can detain you without trial should you choose to apostatise.
If this is a progressive, model Muslim nation, I wonder what that says about Islam. If I were a Muslim, I would actually be insulted. I also wonder about the US’s understanding of what “progressive”, “moderate” and “model” mean.
Therein lies the deceit of such glowing descriptions about Malaysia by the Obama administration — whether real or embellished by Najib. They are inaccurate and disingenuous. They create a falsehood about the kind of undemocratic nation we have become — one that is ruled with the threat of violence and fear in the name of Islam and Malay supremacy.
And really, if what the US thinks of Malaysia is such an irrefutable benchmark of the kind of nation we are, did we see the Najib administration taking the US State Department‘s report about human trafficking in Malaysia seriously? On the contrary, the blacklisting of Malaysia was described as “unfair” and the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur was asked to provide an explanation.
So, whatever the US says that makes the Najib administration look good is played up but whatever is critical of our government is delegitimised. Crafty and convenient, no?
To be certain, it’s not just the Malaysian government that spins the tale in ways that are deceitful. Foreign emissaries such as US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg do Malaysians no favours when they propagate, on behalf of the Obama administration, the message that Malaysia is some role model kid on the block.
But more importantly, we are all equally to be blamed for sustaining a falsehood about what this nation has become if we buy into these feel-good declarations about Malaysia hook, line and sinker.
Jacqueline Ann Surin nearly declared a public holiday for her office when Barack Obama was made US president. Regardless, she believes that all government leaders, including Obama and Datuk Seri Najib Razak, should be held accountable for their words and actions, or lack thereof.
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Alan Tan says
Excellent piece, simply written about [the] glaring facts.
The point is, on a global scale, brown-nosing is a critical political skill. Obama wields it well. Then again… it may be an admonishment. Since Najib has acknowledged the compliment, he has to play the part. Failing which….
Nicholas Aw says
Bull’s eye, Jacqueline. What our leaders don’t understand is that they shouldn’t take compliments from other world leaders at face value. These compliments are what we call “political compliments”. We can’t expect Obama or for that matter any other world leader to say “not so nice” things about Najib, and vice-versa.
I am in tandem with you and I’m skeptical that Malaysia is a moderate, progressive nation. The way I see it, […] we are sitting on an “earthquake plate” where many things can erupt into a full-blown issue.
Peace is [maintained] in this country due to the acceptance of the minority population at large towards policies (whether they like it or not). Generally, all Malaysians irrespective of race or creed live in peace but get jolted once in a while by some irresponsible goons who would carry out actions such as the cow-head protest.
My appeal to all Malaysians: “Let us live peacefully together and accept each other for what we are”.
uncle husim says
It’s all business.
Kudos for this entirely well-argued piece, Jacqueline. Thanks for addressing a serious issue which cannot simply be swept under the rug of diplomacy and political correctness.
RJ Manecksha says
The US government is thoroughly briefed on all matters pertaining to this country, including religious affairs, by its officers on the ground. Thus comments by ministers, if questionable, will be laughed at at the US foreign department.
Aiyah, Jacqueline, it is starting to become difficult waiting for your piece every week. Don’t you ever go on leave now 😉
Obama spent a decent amount of time in Indonesia, even though it was as a child. I’m sure he knows better than to imagine Malaysia is all that awesome either.
[Jacqueline], this is not a place for you. You can find a […] free place for you in [the] US. Maybe your past ancient country, a communist [state] is a better country for you? Come on, you maybe [do] not practise Christianity truely, but [do] not [harm] other [religions].
I am a citizen of Malaysia. Why shouldn’t I try and fix what I think is wrong in my country? Running away to another country is easy. And really, that isn’t the point, is it? Truth is, I know I would excel in a country like the US where there is meritocracy and a clearly secular government. Leaving is always a viable option for me and many other Malaysians. Hence, our brain drain. But I chose to stay. Guess why? Because this is MY country, too and why should I leave just because you don’t agree with my views?
For so long as I’m a citizen in this country, I have a stake in Malaysia and have a right to voice my opinion about where my country is heading.
How about you try instead to argue the points I have raised instead of attempting to character assassinate, and asking me to leave my country? That would be more constructive that just asserting that I would prefer a communist state and that I’m doing harm to another religion. If you can’t prove your arguments, then they are just the assertions of someone who wants a particular kind of Malaysia without respecting that there are other citizens who may have different views about the kind of Malaysia we envision.
I almost had a holiday? Dammit.
I wonder when will […] TNG’s deceit be exposed?
What’s our deceit, pray share. And if you have information about it, please do our readers a favour and expose it.
Dokter Lap says
Yeah. Maybe Jackie is just playing a guessing game. After all, who’d noticed the difference. Jackie said “In Malaysia, ‘Allah’ cannot be used by other faith communities, even though the name precedes Islam..’
Actually the name was unknown before Islam. As a matter of fact, Jackie is just grubbing the fools.
“Actually the name was unknown before Islam.” And the source of your research is? Pray share so that we can all learn from your knowledge, and I can be held accountable for misleading readers with my “guessing game”.
My source is Karen Armstrong’s History of God (1993). Armstrong is an internationally-recognised scholar and she writes in her book that “al-Lah” was the name for God that both the Christians and Jews used before Islam, and it was something the prophet Muhammad acknowledged himself. “al-Lah” referred to “the supreme god” in the pantheon of gods the Arabs believed in before Islam.
In Muslims countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Syria, “Allah” is used by Christians, Jews and Muslims with no problems nor confusion. Why is Malaysia special? Because our administration is run by politicians who refuse to listen to rational views that are based on historical fact? And perhaps because these politicians allow themselves to be held hostage by a constituency that doesn’t read history but is still rabid nonetheless about threatening minority groups. Go figure.
But please also, let’s hear what your sources are less you be found to be playing the “guessing game” yourself.
Jacqueline Ann Surin,
No. Allah is not the name of God given by Jews and Christians. Allah is the name introduced by Muhamad during his time as Prophet. Who this Armstrong? Is she a non-political Islam scholar? Who [does she refer to?] People can write, including what people believe, that may not be the truth. You may wonder why all Jews, Christians and Muslims have common values? Because all three religions are Sky-Religions, meaning, to teach by the truth God through His Messengers. When the Jews got corrupt [after a while], including [introducing the concept of trinity], a new messenger was sent via Jesus. Then again after a long time, Muhammad was sent [to spread Islam]. Allah and 98 other names of God were given to Muhamad for Islam. Do the Torah and Bible use this name? Think about it and stop guessing. Remember why we read western books and why we say to ourselves to be careful of lies.
Why does Indonesia use Allah as reference to God? If you don’t really notice it, they have this Indonesia-culture where their Chinese can speak Indonesian fluently, and practice the same culture.
Editor’s note: For further reading on how “Allah” is also used by Christians in Arab countries, refer to “A Middle-Eastern Christmas” by Rahel Joseph: http://thenutgraph.com/a-middle-eastern-christmas
Columns and Comments Editor
Hay, when this nation was established, you can count how many Chinese contributed to Independence. Chinese just wanted all the riched without caring about being British [lackeys]. They agreed on all the agreements as all believed they were sitting on the nation, taking all the opportunities they [could] which they [couldn’t enjoy] back in China. This is why they agreed that [opportunities for Malays] should not be taken away. Now their grandchildren think all should be shared without remembering the past.
Hay, does Islam force the Christians in Malaysia to reserve back the Bible, back [when] the Bible was still not changed by any king or pope? No! Because we believe and teach that we are not to attack any religions without any provocation. Ours is ours, yours is yours. That is why there is no “perang salib” in Malaysia except for those [are] extreme, provoking each other. […]
Jacqueline Ann Surin:
“As the congregation bent their heads to say the ‘Our Father’ in Arabic, I wondered what they and the thousands of Christian Arabs in the Middle East would say if they knew of the controversy in Malaysia surrounding the use of the word ‘Allah’ in church services.”
What are the words they use for “Our Father” in Arabic. I would like to know.
You got to understand, Islam [was] not the first in Arab, it [was] the last [religion] but Islam has shaped the country’s culture. [When] you hear an Arab man, who is not a Muslim, greet you with the salaam, “Assalammualaikum”, this man greets you that way not because he believes in the teaching of Islam. But rather [because] of the culture rooted in [his] [society]. [It’s the same] when one says “Masyaallah” (Allah is Great) due to shock, not because [of a] belief in Islamic teaching but rather, [it’s] [cultural].
Being a Muslim doesn’t mean we are the good guy [or gal]. Lots of us [are] bad. In my line of work, I [watch] [leading] [Arab] [men] who show good Muslim [values] in Saudi, but every weekend, [they] fly to Syria for alcohol and women. We [are] still the same, but many of us [are] trying hard to [choose] the way which is approved by God.
We got the Al-Quran and the prophet to show the way. During his day, he [was] beaten, threatened and attempts [on his life were made]. Once, his enemy [tried] to fool him, for him to try to live [according to] their religious ways for several days, and his enemy [would] do the same [according to] Islam. His answer: “Let my [religion] be mine, and [yours is yours.” Lebih kurang la. Waallahualam (an Islamic way to say something when I’m not exactly sure).
Well, Islam probihited them [from] [disturbing] other [religions], for us to respect others. That’s why Syria can have that culture, even Jews can life peacefully now in Iran. If we have a bible in a hotel, we would not tear it up as we believe in respect for other religions and many of the bible’s contents are the word of God. So, you know not to be fool enough to be an extremist.
Well, I don’t want my kid to hear, “Allah [doesn’t] stop you from drinking as long as you can control yourself.” Hey, that is your religious command, not mine. So stop [pretending] you don’t understand why we can’t use Allah for all [religions]. Just continue using God, or other names that [have] been given to you. What’s wrong with that! Yours is yours, and ours is ours.
Nothing wrong at all except that “Allah” doesn’t belong to Muslims. So, why should Malaysian Muslims have copyright over it at the expense of other people’s right to worship in the way that they always have?
Do you really [not] understand or [are you] just playing [the] fool? Allah is for Islam. We don’t have the culture like others, that [is] why we do not do what [they] are doing. You [do] not believe in Islam, and frankly, [the] Bible does not ever use the word.
“at the expense of other people’s right to worship in the way that they always have?”
What expense? Stop using “Allah” when the Bible [doesn’t] ever use that word […]. “Allah” is a name, not a substitute, for the word God. Find yourself the Bible in the original language, and show me the word “Allah”.
vicky voo says
“And what about the 10 to 12 million Arab Christians today? They have been calling God “Allah” in their Bibles, hymns, poems, writings, and worship for over nineteen centuries. What an insult to them when we tell them not to use this word ‘Allah’! Instead of bridging the distance between Muslims and Christians, we widen the gulf of separation between them and us when we promote such a doctrine. Those who still insist that it is blasphemy to refer to God as ‘Allah’ should also consider that Muhammadâ€™s father was named Abd Allah, ‘Godâ€™s servant’, many years before his son was born or Islam was founded!”
Excerpted from Building Bridges by Fouad Accad (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, p. 22)