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Ahmad Ismail, my brother

Ahmad Ismail (source: Oriental Daily), against a map of Malaya (public domain. Source:

IMAGINE this. It’s 2013. The Pakatan Rakyat is in government and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is Malaysia’s 7th prime minister. In Kedah, Datuk Ahmad Ismail passionately repeats his 2008 message that Chinese and Indian Malaysians are squatters, and that Malay Malaysians ought to reclaim their supremacy.

What would we do with him? Would we charge Ahmad under the Sedition Act? Tell him to leave the country since he’s unable to live with the reality of a multi-ethnic democracy? Immediately deprive him of his citizenship?

You may say, “Why not?” If he cannot treat someone else fairly, then he does not deserve fair treatment. That’s the “an-eye-for-an-eye” logic we all know so well.

But should one be deprived of his/her citizenship because of his/her opinion, no matter how appalling it is, when a criminal sentenced to life imprisonment or even death is still worthy of Malaysian citizenship?

At this point, you may feel provoked: this stupid columnist is at it again, defending Umno and Barisan Nasional (BN) racists!

Bad laws for bad people

My column last week, Why Malaysia needs the ISA, evoked uproar in the blogosphere not because it allegedly justifies the Internal Security Act (ISA). But because it shatters the black-and-white worldview many anti-BN readers hold, just as this article intends to also do.

One of the “ISA opponents” at Malaysia Today demonstrated this well: “If Ahmad Ismail alone was arrested I am sure most Malaysians would not protest against the ISA. Unfortunately, between Ahmad and [Sin Chew Daily journalist] Tan Hoon Cheng they arrested Tan instead of the perpetrator. This goes to show the authorities are abusing their powers by using the ISA to clamp down on dissent.”

Another concurred: “If [Tan Hoon Cheng] stood beside Ahmad, guess who’s more likely to cause racial tension? Yet they arrested Tan and went on record to tell the rakyat they wanted to protect Tan.”

For these readers, the problem with the ISA is that it is “abused”, not that preventive detention is inherently wrong. A bad government uses the law on good people, so this is a bad law. But what if a good government uses the law on bad people? Would the ISA still be bad then?

Detainees being watched by military police in Camp X-Ray of Guantanamo Bay, Jan 2002
(Public domain. Source:

If our sense of right and wrong shifts according to circumstances, whether the parties are our friends or enemies, is this not tribalism? And if so, how are we different from the proponents of the ISA and Guantanamo Bay? And what moral high ground would we have to point fingers at them?

Malaysians all

But if anything has increased since the 8 March elections, it is finger-pointing at Umno and the BN as if they are the embodiment of all evils in Malaysia.

I am not defending Umno and BN. Those searching for a conspiracy theory to explain the anomaly of a fair commentator would be disappointed to know that I have no reason to support the ruling coalition.

I have been told twice that I would be detained under the ISA — once in 2000 and then again in November, 2007. I wasn’t detained either time but I was briefly held by the police in 2007 at around this time for attending a press conference in Parliament.

 (bicycle © Marija Jure /

And I believe Umno and the BN are beyond repair until they lose the elections. Even Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s so-called legacies are pathetic half-baked measures that make former Indonesian President BJ Habibie look like a giant. And the police are increasingly paranoid and mentally unstable to fear not only citizens singing the national anthem, but also citizens riding bicycles!

BJ Habibie (public domain.

So, I cannot wait to celebrate the day the Umno-BN dominance ends. But that does not mean that I think Umno-BN is the root cause of all evils, and everyone who opposes Umno-BN is good.

Umno-BN is as Malaysian as their critics are. And how many of us can claim that we do not share any of Umno-BN’s sins to varying degrees?

Talk about intolerance, how many of us have not asked our opponents to shut up, if not also threatened to lock them up? Talk about corruption or privileges, how many of us have not looked for the easy way out? Talk about breaking laws, how many of us have not talked on the mobile phone while driving or supported the pirate DVD industry?

As Malay wisdom reminds us, when we point a finger at others, we point the remaining four at ourselves.

Enough self-righteousness

While having the moral courage to speak up against injustice is admirable, self-righteousness is not. But it certainly is useful in political mobilisation and in scoring political goals. That’s what took George Bush’s army to Iraq, the terrorists to Mumbai, and the anti-democratic People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) to Bangkok airports.

So, the question is really this: is overthrowing Umno-BN the overriding concern, even if it means we imitate Umno-BN to achieve that goal? Or is it building a country free from the perils characteristic of Umno-BN’s reign, even if this means giving the ruling coalition more room and time to breath?

If your answer is the former, then really anything goes. Defections? Why not? Courting unelected institutions? Why not? Mobilisation through collective excitement? Why not?

However, if your answer is the latter, then we need a bit more humility to share in the responsibility of Umno-BN’s sins. If the Umno-BN reign is truly such a nightmare, then we would have to assume even greater responsibility, like the Germans for Nazi atrocities.

Participants of Bersih’s first anniversary (file pic)

Umno-BN supply what we demand for they have not ruled us with violence or threats. They have won 13 elections since 1955. Yes, I know how they have benefited from election-rigging because I drafted most of Bersih‘s press statements condemning this. But they have enjoyed more than half of the popular votes in perhaps all but three elections, even after discounting the fraud.

Back to the hypothetical question above, why should I defend the citizenship of someone who denies mine by calling me pendatang? Because I would not reduce myself to his or her level (pardon my pride).

Behind the labeling of immigrants or squatters is a “holier-than-thou” attitude in judging someone else’s eligibility to be a citizen — whether it is the person’s lineage, language, foreign contact, values, or behaviour. It is McCarthyism in a generic sense.

A sovereign state has every right to impose conditions on naturalisation for citizen wannabes, but on what grounds can one be rightly deprived of citizenship? In a world so dominated by nation states that stateless people are denied so many rights, citizenship is virtually a fundamental human right.

Tanah tumpahnya darah

On 14 Dec, I paid tribute, together with hundreds of Malaysians, to Chinese educationist Lim Lian Geok, who died 23 years ago. Little known by other Malaysians, he was revered as the “soul of the community” by Chinese Malaysians.

But he was deprived of his citizenship in 1961. His “sin”? Opposing the “final solution” in the Rahman Talib Report that there should eventually be only one stream of schooling in Malaysia.

Lim was not your stereotypical Chinese chauvinist. He was perhaps the first Chinese Malaysian leader who called for policies to support marginalised ethnic communities, 15 years before the New Economic Policy. And he did this in his 1956 Aidil Fitri message, again, unprecedentedly, published in Utusan Melayu.

Should a man, who called on all Malayans to love and support each other as family members, be deprived of his citizenship just because he had a vision of nationhood different from the government’s?

Ahmad is no comparison to Lim. But would it be justified to deprive Ahmad’s citizenship for repeating his penumpang remarks?

No, as much as I don’t want to live in a Hobbesian Malaysia, I loathe a McCarthyist Malaysia which judges the Malaysianess or un-Malaysianess of any citizen according to an ideal. Regardless if that ideal is articulated in Malay supremacist, Islamist, socialist, pluralist, or liberal language.

The late Toni Kasim (pic courtesy of Ezrena Marwan)

I want a Voltairean Malaysia. To paraphrase my late friend, activist Toni Kasim, “the Malaysia we fight for shall include you, even if the Malaysia you fight for may exclude us.”

So, I shall defend Ahmad’s right to call me a pendatang or penumpang. Just as I would an Islamist’s right to peacefully advocate for an Islamic state — despite my opposition to the idea — because he is my brother or she my sister.

They are as much a progeny of Bumi Malaysia as I am. That gives us equal fundamental liberties, enshrined in the Federal Constitution, on which no political correctness should reign.

That’s jus soli. That’s social contract — not compromise, not tolerance, but a mystical coincidence that we were born to the same land and are bound by this tanah tumpahnya darahku.

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.

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20 Responses to “Ahmad Ismail, my brother”

  1. Roger says:

    Your article is fresh and insightful. Time and time again self righteousness made us contract this disease of tunnel vision. Hopefully this article will create the awareness as we Malaysians want equality and the right to speak freely but quick to jump the gun when it hits our face.

  2. Wise words indeed. This is what democracy is supposed to mean. Winning is not by getting rid of your opponents but is through convincing people that you have better solutions to govern the country.

  3. Mr Wong,

    Your article on this is most relevant and appropriate at this juncture of nation building.

    Perhaps, you may like to shift your arguments to the relevance of people labelling MCA, PPP, MIC, SUPP and what-have-you as “running dogs”. There appears to be some similarity on the mentality of people labelling others as pendatang or running dogs.

    Your thoughts on this please.

    Thank you,

    B M Foo

  4. siew eng says:

    Chin Huat, thanks for that quote from Toni. Reminded me again (and I really needed that) how inspiring she was.

  5. chin huat says:

    Dear Boon Meng, I concur with you on the name-calling of “running dogs”. I shall write on that some time in the future but my year-end and new-year pieces may try to reflect on what this year meant to us and what we should look for in the new year. Thanks for your and others’ appreciation on this piece, which was provocative to many others, for example on Malaysia Today.

  6. bengaun choo says:

    Argue with a fool and you become a bigger fool.”Casting pearls before swines” was my former teacher’s favourite comment to his pupils for being naive or just plain immature. I suggest you need to look at the “ulterior motive” theory of the human race and creed. As the saying goes – in God we trust, the rest pay cash! Different levels of mentality comprehend a variety of interpretations and consequently interesting or even ridiculous reactions! Nevertheless, you need to present your case in a more simplified approach.

    Regards, cba

  7. Melissa says:

    Great thoughts and well articulated, without being preachy.

    Dare I say that this is a touchingly spiritual way of looking at things? That may get me into trouble but your article did make me search my soul. You are right that I am not blameless or free from racial stereotypes. I don’t want to point the finger, though. I’m interested in seeing how we can help each other to move forward. The differences in our cultures, religions and so forth are such a blessing, but only if we can teach ourselves to look at it in that manner. As I grow up (slowly) I finally start to see that He deliberately made us different so that we could learn from each other and learn how to truly love.

    I am reminded of the quote, “I may not agree with your beliefs, but I will defend your right to believe it till my last breath.”

    It isn’t easy, but that is what we should keep striving for.

  8. rathi ramanathan says:

    I loved this piece and it is a subject that is also close to my heart as you are well aware Chin Huat.

    It is because of the inability of many to respect divergent views that I wear my feminist badge with honour and defend the rights of atheists. I am very encouraged by the way
    that atheists have finally come together in the United States to defend their right to not subscribe to organised religion.

  9. hibou says:

    Mr Wong,

    The ISA is a bad law used by a bad government on good people. A good government will have no need for the ISA, so there’s no question of using it on good or bad people in a good government.

    Please do not compare the rest of us to the Umno types. They are capable of, to put it bluntly, murder, literally, as witnessed on 13 May 1969. They have also promised to bathe their keris with our blood again.

    It is not as you try to paint it – as a simple shouting match between disagreeing self-righteous parties.

  10. Fiona Lee says:

    Thanks for your article, Mr. Wong. I agree, the ISA and Sedition Act should not be used against anyone. Toni Kasim’s quote captures it beautifully.

    But if I may respond to a secondary, but crucial point: perhaps we should not be so quick to accept Ahmad Ismail’s use of “pendatang” as a dirty word. In doing so, we ignore the fact that in recent decades, our nation has also been built on the backs of regional pendatang, who have very little claim to any form of labour rights, never mind citizenship.

    When our defense to racist statements like Ahmad Ismail’s is, “We are citizens too!” we move in the direction of establishing another barrier that denies the non-citizen any claim to rights. In doing so, we hide the fact that many Malaysians are the ones yang menumpang on the exploited labor of migrants in order to partake of the privileges of living in this country.

    My point being, rather than just contributing to the endless “You are pendatang”-”We are bangsa Malaysia” feedback loop, perhaps it’s time to reclaim the word “pendatang” and subject it to a different political use.

  11. Daniel says:

    “I want a Voltairean Malaysia.” And a more humane earth.

    Let’s not forget we were all probably pendatangs from Africa some two million years ago.

  12. chin huat says:

    Fiona, I agree. While I believe there should be differentiation between the rights conferred to citizens and non-citizens (otherwise nation states will be meaningless), the non-citizens must be assured decent rights and entitlements as humans.

    The way many Malaysians treat foreign workers is rather pathetic. Sometimes I think educating Malaysians to be more humane is one thing organised religions can and should do more.

    I am quite uncomfortable when Chinese and Indian Malaysians claim that they deserve more rights (such as mother-tongue education) because their ancestors helped build the country.

    Why should the sequence of migration of the ancestors result in different entitlement of rights to Malaysians?

    A Bangladeshi Malaysian who has just naturalized one minute ago should have the same right with me whose family is third-generation Malaysian and with another Malaysian of n-th generation.

    What Chinese and Indian Malaysians (the last two groups of en mass migrant groups) deserve today must be extended to new groups of migrants in the future, for there should be no differentiated citizenship (perhaps with the only acceptable exception of special protection for the Orang Asli and Orang Asal).

    Otherwise, their condemnation of bumiputeraism is purely hypocritical for, deep down, they still share the belief of hereditary rights.

    I’d love to see one day Malaysian students learning Rabindranath Tagore’s work in the original language just like they do Tun Sri Lanang’s and Shakespeare’s.

    We should accept the fact that this is an immigrant nation – in a way, as Daniel points out, every country is. As the world becomes more globalised, Malaysia will be more culturally diverse. That should be a cause for celebration.

  13. malaywithchineseblood says:

    Look at Singapore – what happened to the Malays there when Chinese Singaporeans run the show. But here in Malaysia the Malay-led government robs the rakyat. So politicians are all the same.

  14. In short, “I’ll defend your right to say it, even if I don’t agree with you.”

    Brilliant as always.

    However, as a pro-ISA person, I have to clarify.

    Ahmad Ismail should have been charged for sedition, not detained under the ISA, since his statement and him admitting it is grounds for inciting racial hatred.

    And if Ahmad Ismail should be charged so and brought to court, RPK’s case in February should be very interesting to see as a basis for the former’s ruling later on.

  15. Eric says:

    malaywithchineseblood, what happened to the Singapore Malays after LKY (I assume it is what you mean by “the Chinese Singaporeans”) took power?

  16. Eric says:


    Would you mind to share with us the workings of the ISA as you wish it could stand? I have gathered bits and pieces here and there, but I cannot see the whole picture.

  17. markus says:

    Thanks for sharing Chin Huat! Insightful :)

    You should get this translated. In no way robbing The Nut Graph of well-deserved credit, I do wonder how far these articles here reach. Are we preaching to the converted?

  18. Eric,


    I thought I explained it rather thoroughly in Chin Huat’s last article’s comments section.

    As for malaywithchineseblood, meet malaywithachehindianchinese blood. Every nation has a majority which takes over the nation, from current day Iraq to America. Except for Sudan, perhaps.

    However, are the rights of the people in general secure? From what I understand on Singapore, the rights of the Malays, which was in Malaya’s 1957 Federal Constitution remains to this day in Singapore.

  19. Firebreather says:

    A very good article I must say.

    In this trying time, I am all for a clean government that will be respected by ALL Malaysians.

    Stop the racial discrimination (brought about by the NEP) and treat all citizens fairly.

    Only and only when the ISA, NEP and other similar one-sided policies formulated and put in gear by the current government are repealed will Malaysia be a truly democratic country.

  20. DanielC says:

    “Are we preaching to the converted”
    - Markus

    Heheh…it’s also about making sure the converted stay that way :P

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