Deputy President of Kealidan (National Justice Party) (1)


Serge Berthier.- Prime Minister Mahathir is saying that stability in the society is, in Malaysia, something the government has to be permanently conscious of. Is the civil society in an unstable state or prone to destabilization because of the changes that have occurred for the past twenty years?

Chandra Muzzafar.- If, by civil society, one means public interest groups, trade unions, the media, that is everything between the family and the State, as people sometimes say that is what civil society is, then I feel that Malaysia has had an active civil society all the time. One could argue, even going back to traditional society, that the state was not as dominant as people think it was. Groups and institutions that mediated between the individual or the family on one hand, and the state or the power on the other, have always been numerous and, as in the case of the Mosque, rather independent from the state, sometimes taking contrary views. So it is still there.

S.B.- You mention the Mosque as a centre of civil society. But the common view is that Islam doesn’t fit very well with the concept of a civil life. Does it?

C.M.- When you have a society where the individual, as a human being, has a certain responsibility and certain rights which enable him to perform that responsibility, you establish the notion of a society governed by values going beyond the state. That is the very essence of the civil society. And you have it in the Islamic philosophy. It is known as “Madani”. It is the idea of a society governed by norms and values that could be regarded as spiritual or moral. Such values go beyond the state, beyond the rulers. They emphasize justice and fairness. Such norms and values would enhance the position of the human being as the steward of God, an important concept in Islam as well as in Christianity in fact. These values underpin the very idea of space between the state and the society, and it is not something we are alien to.

S.B.- But is it still there? The government is trying to reengineer the society. Does that leave any room for a space between the state and the society?

C.M.- Social instruments have made some contributions to Malay society and still play a role. We have for instance a trade union movement.

S.B.- Is it really independent?

C.M.-It is not really independent from the state. Yet you have opposition parties and media. Even though they are not totally free of executive controls, they still say, from time to time, things that do not harmonize with the interest of the state. And we do have for the past twenty years seen the non-governmental organizations increasing many folds.

S.B.- How are the relations between the government and organizations that basically contest its policies?

C.M.- The relations between the state and the NGOs went through three phases. At the beginning, the state was just ignoring the NGOs and did not pay attention to them. Then we had a phase when the state saw the NGOs with hostility. My arrest in 1987 was, for example, the climax of such hostile attitude. They were highly suspicious of NGOs’s motives. The state wanted total control. But then, we entered a new phase, where we were given some space.

S.B.- What had happened?

C.M.- I believe it could be because the state was then so dominant that it could give space without being worried about it.

S.B.- Recently, someone writing in a magazine about Dr. Mahathir said that Malay academicians, critics and political opponents are gagged. Do you think the NGOs are ignored or gagged?

C.M.- There is some appreciation of our contribution but still, there is uneasiness, because I believe - and this is central to our society - we are in a plural society fragile equilibrium.

S.B.- On that point, you tend then to agree with Dr. Mahathir’s view. What does it entail to be in a fragile equilibrium?

C.M.- As a precondition, it means that we, people in Malaysia, have had a problem since the beginning in dealing with the reality that certain groups enjoy certain degrees of autonomy. It is difficult to admit that they are different. Yet, it does not mean that they will go against the common will.

S.B.- But what if they do? There are obvious worries that ethnic violence could erupt, and that it could be manipulated, couldn’t it?

C.M.- True, it is one of their concerns, but one made the point : it is like a child growing up. You might let the child walk and discover the joy of walking, but one cannot learn to walk without falling.

S.B.- I agree, but can a government hold such an off-handed attitude, and let the child hurt the others? To me, the government has a duty to protect the individuals from communal violence, to maintain law and order for the good of everyone. Don’t you agree?

C.M.- Let’s put it this way, if we did not have riots for the past 29 years, I think it is not because we have laws that discourage, laws that restrict, laws that maintain order. This is what people would like to think because it gives a feeling of state control. But if we did not have racial problems, it is partly because we had growth and development, and by and large because Malaysians are very sensible with whom they deal. They don’t want to hurt our communities. They know what it is to deal with the others, and they are very conscious about that. If the Japanese are famous for their latent fear of earthquake, we call it the earthquake syndrome, in Malaysia, one could say that we have an ethnic-quake syndrome. The Malaysians are very restrained.

S.B.- Still, they were not so restrained in Penang, only few weeks ago. Muslims and Hindus were ready to trample one another.

C.M.- Is it because we have more space or less space? In fact, the issues are now broad-based and not ethnic based. For example, take the Bakun project (2), which has now been put on hold. People from all walks of life and of various ethnic backgrounds were against it. The government would not allow discussion on this issue and would not allow the people to get organized. Again, the argument was that we had to be very careful with such an issue, and that it could be explosive. But there was no ethnic bias to it at all, except that people were challenging the interests of the elite.

S.B.- The Bakun project has been criticized on various grounds, ecological ones, financial ones, technical ones, and it is a complex issue. Don't you think the government has sometimes to take a long-term view rather than a short one to please the masses?

C.M.- If the Bakun issue is a complex one, the haze issue is not. A couple of academics made some comments about the problem last year. The government put out a statement saying academics should not talk to the media. All Malaysians were united on the issue, as they were all victims of the haze. How much credence can you give to the fear that every problem has an ethnic coloration? In 1983, we had the Bank Bumiputra issue. This was not an ethnic issue at all. Malaysia lost 3 billion ringgit (3). Then again we had this fiasco (at the Central Bank) in 1993 where 2 or 3 billion were lost (4). This was not an ethnic issue either. All of these issues are not ethnic based. So while there is some truth with the fact that things could get out of hand or issues be exploited to create ethnic tensions, having said all that, there are many issues which are non-ethnic and which cannot be developed into issues of public concern because there is no autonomous space. Which is what you should have. A society that respects various sectors.

S.B.- You mentioned earlier that there was a better awareness of the work of the NGOs.

C.M.- We do have a little more space, but I think it is not enough. If we had more space, the voices on the margin of the society would be heard. We could have avoided some of the mistakes made within our own bodies in relation to the present economic crisis. A lot was beyond our control, but some of the things happening within our bodies contributed to it, and we could have enhanced our resilience. We could have done better if there had been greater responsiveness to civil society. Ten years ago, we warned against mega projects. Five years ago, we were saying that domestic lending was getting out of control and we were very critical of what we saw as a “get-rich-quick” mentality of the elite and the extravagance of its life-style. But this was at the margin. The government could ignore it because it controlled everything.

S.B.-,Ultimately, you have been vindicated. Do you now see the crisis as an opportunity to bring to a new level of comfort the relation between the state and the NGOs?

C.M.- Unfortunately, once again you are told that we have to be very careful, that we should not say certain things, and that if we want to solve this crisis, we all need to pull together.

S.B.- So, you are asked to toe the line and not to say anything that might undermine the government stance?

C.M.- Absolutely.

S.B.- Prime minister Mahathir says that he has lost his right of free speech, that he is not allowed to explain things, because what he says triggers irrational behavior, such as a run on the currency. Do you think expressing any discordant views will only add up to the difficulties Malaysia is now facing?

C.M.- On balance, it is always good to listen to the voice outside the establishment. The sad thing in Malaysia is that the parliamentary opposition is very weak because of the broad-based coalition system. Trade Unions are there but they can’t go beyond a certain point. The government dominates all sectors and it should in a way be more balanced. Michel Foucault, the post-modernist thinker, said that what matters is the right to interrogate power. You have to have such a right if you want a balance. Once you accept that, the power can be interrogated as a power holder. There has been all sort of arguments about this concept. Yes, but… Yes, but… We are not talking about issues that are on the front page of the American media every day, I don’t think that is the right way, people have to be responsible too, but nonetheless the principle that power has to be interrogated is very important. And that right is one of the greatest achievements of contemporary civilizations. It should not be denied.

S.B.- Dr Mahathir judges that a coalition is never strong and that in fact, the germs for the inability to govern are embedded into a multi-party system, because the elite cannot move. So in a way, you either have the power, or you are powerless with all that it entails when you have to formulate something which doesn’t please everyone. In a way, you have, at some stage, to be single-minded or ruthless.

C.M.- That argument has never been valid, not twenty years ago, not ten years ago, not today. If ruthlessness is the main factor to move forward a backward country, then I think Marcos would have done better than Lee Kwan Yew. He was much more ruthless than Lee Kwan Yew (former Prime Minister of Singapore) ever was. If Lee Kwan Yew succeeded in Singapore - and he has succeeded to some extent -, it is not because of ruthlessness. It is because the man is a good planner, he was able to build a united cohesive group, farsighted and efficient, but most importantly, it is because he has an ethics. Because of that, he and his team were incorruptible. Being clean and competent, and having a commitment to your people is what matters.

S.B.- Yet, you need, one way or another, to be in power. You hardly get elected because you are a saint.

C.M.- The point that one is making in all that is that in order to move society, these are more important factors than being powerful. Take the Korean society. One friend was telling me that Pak would have done better with a more open society than what he did. Just look what happened in these last few years in the country. Isn’t it a national trauma and an agony to see two presidents going to jail, a supermarket collapsing killing 500 people and many other things, just because corruption was at the root of the system? Of course, we talk about growth, how wonderful it is to have all the economic numbers right and so on, but I believe we take the wrong approach. If that is all that matters when we mention development, then I am very suspicious of this notion. It will lead to grief actually. If the growth is slower, does it matter? Taking into account your environment, your community of people, take them on board. Consult them. It is partly because of our fanatical obsession with growth for its own sake that we allow the fabric of society to be bulldozed into a new shape.

S.B.- That fanatical obsession, as you say, is not the making of the Malaysian government, but rather, as your Prime Minister said, the fact it is now an article of faith that cannot be challenged.

C.M.- Absolutely, and it is frightening. People believe that growth will deliver everything. But is it a fact or only a belief? There are other things.

S.B.- One of the other things is religion. Is the Malay a deeply religious man?

C.M.- The Malays have always been conscious of their religion as something they really cherish. And it is deeply rooted. I give you an example. In 1951/1952, we had serious riots about the simple issue of conversion. There was one child, a girl, who had been raised by a Malay Muslim family of Singapore. She was of Dutch origin, but her father and mother had disappeared during the war. She became Muslim for all intents and purposes, then some relatives came back, and she wanted to revert to Christianity so she could marry a Dutchman. There were riots in Singapore that spread to the Peninsula. This fact shows how deeply rooted was the religious creed in the Malay society.

S.B.- It was deeply rooted but from what I was told, the Malays considered it a private matter. Do you agree with the people who, today, say openly that religion is now intruding into their life because it is starting to be regarded as an obligation rather than a private choice?

C.M.- This idea that religion is now becoming intrusive in the life of the people is not a reflection of the reality. The Malay-Muslim attachment has always been very strong and is the same today. What has happened these last few years within the Malay middle-class and the Malay upper-class is that people who, in terms of their public life and even their private habits, had given away some of the Islamic norms, are coming back to such norms today.

S.B.- But is it done willingly or due to social pressure?

C.M.- I give you one example. Twenty-five years ago, the Malay civil servants were the elite, and life was simple. They had a life of privilege and class. The civil service was under the British influence, with its clubs and traditions. If a Malay was in a club, he would not mind consume liquor. It was a legacy of the British. But today, it is no longer the norm. Nobody has issued any directive on the matter. It is just a social trend that becomes the norm. But among the ordinary people who were not influenced by the British-educated elite, the norm did not change. It was the norm of the civil service that was out-of-line with the society, because of its British elements.

S.B.- Do you mean there were no political interference, no political agenda behind this evolution?

C.M.- Yes. What we can say is that the public mood has changed. The attitudes have changed. It is not a government policy, it is the masses. You have to look at the phenomena expressing itself in a different way. I will take example of countries that are not even Muslim to explain it, because what is happening here is happening elsewhere.

S.B.- Are you talking about the reemergence of the norms of an Islamic society?

C.M.- No. I mean the emergence of mass-movements. What is happening is that at the time of the independence of the countries in Asia, you had some sort of mass-politics, because independence movements are basically mass-movements. But the masses impacting upon politics, impacting on public life was not that obvious at the very time of the independence. However, as you go along with independence, especially in a democratic society, it is the people that start to impact on politics. So, sooner or later, the way they feel becomes altered. Sri-Lanka is one good example of this evolution. The first generation of politicians after independence was British-educated, and was very westernized. Then came Bandaranaike (5). He introduced the mass-politics because it was his only way to reach power. He himself was very westernized, but with time, he saw that he could not sustain Western concepts in the society. The people wanted to speak Singhalas and go to the temples to worship their gods. It was the forces of politics. He had no choice. Another example of the impact of the mass-politics is the Nehru example (6). He was a very westernized man, but when he got the power, he discovered much to his chagrin that he had to redraw the internal map of the political power in India to reflect the linguistic and religious situation there. He had to take into account the mass-movements, the Sikh one, the Hindu one, and so on. You can see today that one cannot sustain in the long-term politics that do not reflect the reality of the forces. India is another recent example of mass-politics coming to the surface. For the past decade, what we have seen is, first, the political scene becoming genuinely mass-politics, meaning in India a complex scene, then we saw the emergence of the regional issues which were a reflection of the intrusion of mass-politics into the political life. At that stage, the secularization of the Indian Congress Party with its secular politics, whether good or bad is another issue, were no longer tenable. The secular elite could not sustain its part in the pie. Why? Indians masses have always been in the majority Hindus and sooner or later they had to emerge on the scene. And they did. There is no turning point. So what I am saying is that religion, cast and sentiments result always in mass-politics. It does not come from the top, and that is why things evolved.

S.B.- And this is what is happening in Malaysia too, at the level of the civil society, and with the coming of an Islamic movement into the coalition?

C.M.- Absolutely. Dr. Mahathir had to. What happened is that in the 1970s, we had our own mass-movement. And what was the movement? It was an Islamic one. Anwar was at the forefront, but actually, the movement was driven by the masses. They were complaining about corruption, money politics and so on. Mahathir saw it. By the time he came to power, he knew that he could not ignore such a force. In the end, he has appointed Anwar in his team because Anwar was the expression of the masses.

S.B.- There was nothing religious in it?

C.M.- Mahathir’s concern is more on the international system. In fairness to the man, when it comes to deal with issues about Islam and Muslims, especially those issues which are important such as the law, he has taken positions which actually are not popular, and he has been bold enough to take such positions, which is to his credit.

S.B.- But if such positions are not popular, it means, coming to your example, that they are against the grain of the masses. Can it be sustained then? What can be done to avoid a confrontation between the masses that represent barely the absolute majority and the other ethnic groups?

C.M.- We have now in the country two education systems, a western one and a religious one, we also have two sets of law, the Common-law one, the Islamic one. Obviously, there is a need of some sort of unified integrated system, because such set-up leads to a situation where, sooner or later, there will be conflict and pressure resulting in a constant see-saw. For the society, for the country, it is not healthy. Anwar, I think, is the man capable of integrating the systems.

S.B.- Including the dual system of law?

C.M.- It will not be replica of some sort of very conservative, high-powered orthodox of past ways, for instance laws, such as chopping the hand of the robber, crucifying the highway robber. Notwithstanding, such system will put a lot of emphasize on characters and the values which are a great strength of the religious system. We will go to the substance of it.

S.B.- But whatever you say about it, I know of no example of a modern system of law derived from the Islamic creed. To the contrary, what we know are things such as the Taleban and their interpretation of the Islamic creed, and it is very scary.

C.M.- Afghanistan has been roundly condemned by every Islamic, and the same way you should not judge Japan because of the Aum sect, or judge Christianity because of past sins, or the American because of the Davidian sects, I don’t think you should judge 1.2 billion Muslims because of the Taleban. Even in Afghanistan, they are a minority. You have to keep in mind that it is only a small band of fanatics that came to power with the help of the CIA and the Pakistan intelligence service. It was a way to keep the Soviet Union at bay, but this went wrong. Political considerations have created a monster which has little to do with religion.

S.B.- Do you agree then with Dr. Mahathir that what we are talking about is the substance, not the form, which might be totally discarded?

C.M.- Taking the larger view on such problems, I have to give credit to the Prime Minister for dwelling on extremely sensitive issues, such as the form and the substance of the values, or the laws in the Muslim world. It is remarkable that he is coming out so strongly and openly on the subject, knowing how sensitive the subject is, whether in Malaysia or in the Islamic world.

S.B.- Christianity had to go through the Reformation process to drop the form which gave birth to the secular laws. Do you think anything like that is happening in the Islamic world?

C.M.- It is a very profound question you raise. I don’t see anything like the reformation movement in Christianity happening in the Muslim world because the tenets are not the same.

S.B.- Indeed. For one, Islam does not have to deal with a clergy and the question of the Pope. So maybe, the word Reformation is not appropriate, but why is it that Islam and Muslims among all religions appear to have been impervious to secularization?

C.M.- You are not the first one to raise such question. Ernest Gellner, the British scholar who studied the religions, did it. Maybe we have to consider, first, that no Muslim will legitimize certain behavior. He will tolerate it, saying for example that interest (on lending) is not right, but he has to deal as it is there anyway. One thing that comes to mind, and it is maybe a partial response, is that the vast majority of Muslims going to Mosque are young. Young people do practice their religion, whereas if you go to church you will only see a majority of old people. That contrast is significant and has a meaning. Is there something to understand? Why is this so? This is what Gellner was trying to understand. He did not provide a reason. There are obviously very complex reasons. But among them, one paradoxical one is this: Islam has not been affected by its own secularization because of its own flexibility, meaning that if you look at the religion, there is not a clear break line between the religion and the Islam scholars. It might be due to the fact that the leaders of the Islam society were not religious elite. They were coming from all walks of life. Some came from royal families, others were peasants. Whatever their origins, they wielded power through their own charisma, their own belief in the creed. There was no Empire, no Pope.

S.B.- But today you have Iran with a Supreme leader of the clergy who, actually, wields political power as well.

C.M.- What happened in Iran in 1979 is unique in Islam history because never before had religious figures justified their power. There is no priesthood. So it is an important point as regards secularization, because you had this separation between what you can do, what you are allowed to do, without the State being involved. That is why in one place you could experiment, do autopsy, study chemistry, whereas the Christian elite would decide what was right and what was wrong once and for all and for everyone. That flexibility in the Islam world explains why the question of whether Islam can or cannot secularize did not arise.

S.B.- What you say, is that Islam has always been a “soft” religion, in the sense that it did not become rigid.

C.M.- That is right. It did not have this rigidity.

S.B.- In the declaration of Kuala-Lumpur, signed in December 1997 by the leaders of ASEAN, strong families are considered to be the basic units of society tending to their members. The West, which emphasizes the individual rights, challenges that view. What is your opinion?

C.M- The family values are not Asian in the sense that they do not belong to us, but it is true that we cherish them and want to protect them. Unfortunately, they have been undermined in the 1960s and 1970s by the progression of feminism.

S.B.- In what way? Don’t you think men and women should be equal?

C.M.- There has been a total confusion on the subject. The progression of feminism does not, in my mind, represent what is essential to the dignity of the woman as a human being, because that dignity is undoubtedly very, very important, not only to the woman but to the man. People confuse equality and uniformity. How can you confuse equality and uniformity? You can be different and be equal. You need not be the same. They confuse the notion of right and wrong in relation to the gender, by which the argument was, “if men can do all these terrible things, so can we”, whereas the argument should have been “men cannot do these terrible things”. But we were in the 1960s and the 1970s. The belief was that freedom is an absolute notion, which is utter nonsense, because it undermines its very existence within the society. Freedom cannot be the rule of unrestraint. That tremendous confusion in the West has now damaged badly the society.

Spring 1998


1 - Kealidan was founded in 1998 by Wan Azizah Ismail, the wife of Anwar Ibrahim, former Deputy Prime Minister. Anwar is currently jailed for corruption and sodomy. Chandra Muzaffar founded a NGO in 1997 (International movement for a just world or JUST) (Pergerakan Keadilan Sedunia) registered as a society which laid the ground work for the new opposition party, although it was not its primary goal at the beginning. JUST was between 1992 and 1997, a private trust known as "Just World Trust".

2 - The Bakun Hydroelectric Project has come under severe criticism from public-interest groups as it would result in the destruction of 70,000 hectares of rain-forest (the size of Singapore) and the relocation of 9,500 indigenous people. It was put on hold after the Asian crisis, but has recently been reactivated.

The project has been on and off for more than twenty years. 26 feasibility studies have been carried out relating to technical, economic and environmental aspects. In June 1990, Dr Mahathir announced that the project would not go ahead as part of Malaysia's contribution to global conservation. Nevertheless, on 8 September 1993, the Federal Cabinet announced that it had approved it and awarded it to Ekran, a company owned by Tan Sri Pek Khiing. The cost of Bakun was estimated to be about 15 billion ringgit. In October 1996, an Engineering, Procurement and Construction works Contract (EPC) was signed between Ekran and ABB.CBPO consortium. On 4 September 1997, ABB, the Swiss-Swedich engineering company, was informed that the contract was ended as no agreement had been reached on major issues. Few days later, Prime Minister Mahathir announced that the dam would be "indefinitely delayed".

3 - Bank Bumiputra was one of the main creditor of the Carrian Group of Hong Kong which collapsed in 1983.

4 - See interview with Noordin Sopiee.

5 - Solomon Bandaranaike, first Prime Minister of Ceylon (as it was named) from the independence (4 February 1948) till his assassination in September 1959 by a Buddhist monk.

6 - Nehru was Prime Minister from 1947 till his death in 1964. His party, the Congress party has ruled continuously from 1947 to 1977. It regained temporarily power in 1980 but since then its monolithic grip has weakened steadily and it can no longer secure a majority of seats in the Parliament.

Spring 1998