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“I am an extremist”

Jeff Ooi (Pic by Joi Ito / Wiki commons)
I AM an extremist because I am a friend of Jemaah Islah Malaysia (JIM).

In his capacity as the chief of staff for Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, DAP’s Jelutong Member of Parliament Jeff Ooi had called for Parti Keadilan Rakyat member Mohd Razali Abdullah to be sacked from the Pulau Pinang Municipal Council (MPPP).

Ooi made this call on the grounds that Razali was a JIM member, which Ooi termed an extreme group because it aims to implement syariah law in Malaysia.

Under Zaid Kamaruddin’s leadership, JIM has co-initiated civil society statements demanding political democratisation, and justice for Teoh Beng Hock and other casualties of custodial deaths. I know we can always call on JIM to speak against injustice against human beings, whether or not it involves Muslims.

Syed Ibrahim Syed Noh, vice-president of JIM, also leads the Abolish the Internal Security Act (ISA) Movement, (GMI). GMI has managed to make abolition of the ISA a national concern and the Barisan Nasional (BN) federal government look like a bunch of recalcitrant “extremists” insisting on detention without trial.

Syed Ibrahim Syed Noh
So, if Razali is an extremist because of his JIM membership, how can I not be one, too, being a friend of JIM leaders?

Upon Lim’s advice, Ooi has since retracted his statement. He has not apologised to JIM for making such allegations, but has instead threatened to sue others for alleging he is anti-Islam. He remains adamant that Razali should quit.

I don’t have any personal qualms about Ooi, whose contribution as a pioneer blogger I deeply respect, and whom I consider a friend. Nor do I want to inflict more damage to the Lim government, which has performed impressively in various areas, but whose image is now seriously tainted by missteps in Kampung Buah Pala.

The issue, however, is far from over with Ooi’s retraction. It is a symptom of a greater syndrome that deserves reflection.

The status quo speaks

I don’t know Razali, and I don’t have any problem with state governments sacking their local councillors; after all, they are political appointees, not elected representatives. I don’t think Ooi or the DAP is anti-Islam. Razali supporters have naturally spun the issue as an attack on Islam or Muslims, but it is not.

It is a reinforcement of the authoritarian version of Malaysia 1.0, under which I, too, was once called an extremist by association. I take offence with that because I believe both Ooi and I are fighting for a new and liberal Malaysia. As Ooi’s colleague once laughingly said to me, “I don’t need to be in JIM to be an extremist.”

In 2000, I was the executive secretary of a lobby group called the Malaysian Chinese Organisation Election Appeal Committee (Suqiu). The Suqiu document, which both the BN and Barisan Alternatif had in principle accepted before the 1999 elections, was attacked by Umno Youth in July 2000, which saw red in some of our 83 demands.

Mahathir (Pic by Samsul Said / Flickr)
Umno Youth demonstrated in Kuala Lumpur and the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall where the Suqiu secretariat was hosted. They threatened to burn down the building if we did not retract the Suqiu demand partially, if not entirely.

On National Day that year, then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad attacked us in his National Day address as if we were an enemy of the state. He compared us with communist and Al-Maunah insurgents.

What was Suqiu’s crime?

We called for abolition of bumiputera and non-bumiputera distinction; introduction of needs-based affirmative action; replacement of race quotas by a means-tested sliding scale; and a repeal of race quotas in university admissions, among others. These are things the BN is already pledging or considering now anyway.

We also asked for other reforms, from women’s rights, labour rights, and indigenous people’s rights, to environmental protection, abolition of the ISA, and local elections.

Did we take up arms or threaten to burn down the Umno headquarters to get any of these demands implemented? Of course not. Suqiu was too peace-loving to qualify for Umno Youth membership.

What’s in a name?

Suqiu was not the last civilised group to be targeted so harshly by defenders of the status quo. Remember Article 11? Remember the Interfaith Commission? Remember Sisters In Islam? Remember Hindraf? Remember the movement to abolish the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English policy? Remember GMI?

Some of these groups may have been called deviants or chauvinists or troublemakers, instead of extremists. But these many labels mean the same thing, really. These are the “wrong” groups. Wrong because of the ends they strive for, not even because of their means.

(Pic by engindeniz /

But if extremism is judged by someone’s ideological distance from us, who among us is not an extremist to somebody else out there? Who among us can speak legitimately if all of us inevitably irritate or annoy someone else? Is a free marketer not an extremist in the eyes of a socialist, and vice versa?

One could be an “extremist” for peacefully advocating an Islamic state or syariah rule in a multifaith society. But someone else could also be an “extremist” for opposing a ban on alcohol in a Muslim-majority area.

Labelling someone as extremist is a defining characteristic of Malaysia 1.0, where oneness rules. Once you are “accredited” as extremist, the authorities or some self-appointed guardians of society are free to take away your voice, your job, or even your freedom.

That is exactly what the labelling of Razali means. He was asked to be sacked not because of misconduct, but merely because he is a member of the “wrong” group.

Burqa (Pic by jean-no / Wiki commons)
In a sense, Razali is lucky because this “wrong” group is in fact the credible and respected JIM. What if his group were unknown and peacefully advocated for the wearing of the burqa for women? Should he then be defended?

In a sense, the labelling of JIM can be compared to the public mourning for Teoh. If Teoh had not been a model citizen but a criminal suspect, would we still mourn and demand justice for him?

We must. Our defence of Teoh must be premised on the same principles as our defence of A Kugan, the suspected car thief who died in police custody, or Halimi Kamaruzzaman, the Umno member allegedly abused during interrogation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

By extension, even if Razali were not a member of JIM and JIM’s reputation were not tainted by loose comments, we must still defend him and condemn the vilification. We must defend the freedom of people who are not related to us, because otherwise we cannot defend those who are.

For me, extremism should be defined solely by the use or threat of violence. A good man or woman trying to save the world from evil by using violence is an extremist. A bad man or woman propagating some bad ideas is not an extremist, so long we are not stopped from exposing his or her flaws with our own reasoned arguments.

But, insofar the oneness of Malaysia 1.0 still reigns, we are all extremists just waiting for our time to be singled out and banished. In fact, Ooi’s parliamentary colleague Anthony Loke has just been named the new extremist by the prime minister of 1Malaysia.

As long as any person is guilty for having his or her own thoughts, call them an extremist, too. I must be an extremist, if not to you, then to someone else.

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat thanks the American unionist Eugene V Debs for his wisdom and courage: “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

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15 Responses to ““I am an extremist””

  1. dhanen mahes says:

    A very good article and a very valid point.

  2. Nicholas Aw says:

    Rightly or wrongly, the situation in this country has become overly sensitive. It doesn’t help with irresponsible politicians fanning the flames of racism and making uncalled for statements under the guise of championing Islam or whatever religion they profess.

    One good example is the call by the Information, Communication and Culture Minister, Rais Yatim to take action against anyone who insults Islam or gives rise to any situation of a seditious nature as there are adequate laws to prosecute such people. I hope his concern is not only for Islam but for all religions in this country which brings me to wonder about the intrusion of a group of irresponsible people at a First Communion service in an Ipoh church some time ago and the desecration of Holy Communion by the Al-Islam journalist recently. Have these two incidents been swept under the carpet?

    May I appeal to politicians from both sides of the divide including NGOs to refrain from harping on racial and religious issues? There are more pressing issues to highlight, bread and butter issues that should be looked into for the benefit of the rakyat especially the poor and the deprived.

    If only I could turn back the clock to the early sixties where Malaysians, immaterial of their colour, race or creed lived together in peace and harmony and the word ‘extremist’ was non-existent. Is this too much to ask for?

  3. elaine says:

    A balanced and matured writer, writing with a deep reflective power and personal responsibility that we all have to learn if we are truly friends to our own self and others: to be authentic. Wong reminds us that we need to be our own true self and accept that we are both hero and villain at the same time, and we are responsible to be who we are, knowing that we are fully responsible for our decisions and actions. This is maturity of humanity and human consciousness. Thanks Wong for this reflective paper.

  4. Azmi says:

    Yes, by the standards of Malaysia 1.0, I am an extremist.

  5. kamal says:

    Well put. Perhaps YB Jeff Ooi needs to appreciate that much of the mainstream media does not write in his favour. If he chose to villify Razali by associating him with an Islamic non-governmental group, he needs to understand that for many, the only way they get to engage with what he said is through the print media. Guess what they are saying? No prizes for getting that right.

    Plus Penang, like the rest of the country is multi-cultural. Religion is sensitive because many see it as core to their identity. Plus it has been played up to a point it is everybody’s Achilles heel. That is why many people were enraged at [the] Al-Islam journalists who went undercover, received Holy Communion and spat it out, and rightly so. The journalists breached not only professional ethics but also personal space. And that, following in the wake of the “body-snatching” and other distasteful activities, would leave many people feeling insecure and somewhat symbolically violated. They should apologise, the editor should apologise. In fact, the entire magazine should ring up CIJ for a course on journalism ethics and respect for cultural plurality.

    But back to YB Jeff Ooi. I doubt that he is anti-Islam or a racist. But like most Malaysians, I think he spoke too few words expecting what he meant to say to somehow be understood. And it probably was. But unlike the average Malaysian, he is a politician and one that is not necessarily the shinning knight to the mainstream media. Perhaps as a blogger, certain principles can be stubbornly defended. After all, like another writer, Dr Mohd Ridhuan Tee, who despite the shocking insensitivity towards the late Mr Teoh and his family, refuses to apologise arguing that the truth is Truth. But the difference, apart from the obvious (and I am not referring to their professed religions), is that Tee is not running for office and YB Jeff Ooi is in office.

    So for the sake of diversity and choice in political candidates, let’s not just kiss and make up, but for the sake of DAP’s reputation, why not explain to everyone why you say JIM is an extremist organisation. After all, a significant portion of Penang exists on the mainland (peninsular Malaysia) and they, too are part of the government’s constituents and perhaps would require an explanation.

    Also media is power. DAP should engage with more public relations-type activities to higlight the kinds of development and engagements that they have initiated there and throughout Penang.

    If Pakatan Rakyat wants to move beyond segregational racial and religious discourses that have dominated our socio-political landscape for the most part of fifty years, then politicians from Pakatan Rakyat need to show that their concerns and support are colour blind. After all, if you speak to any Malaysian at random, you are most likely to find that their concerns are indistinguishable from the next.

    So YB Jeff, we expect more from you. If you were misquoted, tell us. If you were misunderstood, clarify what you actually meant. If the mainstream papers won’t print your story, I am sure The Nut Graph and other internet news services will. But if you meant what you said, then you have to explain it as well. As a public figure making a public statement, don’t you feel people have the right to know what you meant? You retracted the statement at the behest of your superior. [But] leaving it at that is simply too ambiguous.

    Also, I agree with Mr Wong, that Mr Razali is a councillor selected and not elected to the post and so in principle there is nothing wrong with terminating him. However, there are two considerations. Firstly, you need stronger reasons than just an affiliation and this Mr Wong has clarified well in the article, and secondly, it was a political appointee and DAP now sits with two other parties as partners in a coalition. If all parties agree, then the termination should have not stirred up a controversy. Now if one member of the coalition wants Mr Razali in that post, then shouldn’t the conflict remain internal?

  6. Karen Goh says:

    Is not our nation deeply divided enough by race and religion? Jeff Ooi, as a responsible public figure, should do his homework on JIM, not to be confused with the notorious JI, before uttering accusations. I count amongst many JIM members (MPs included) as honourable friends, who are upright, principled, courageous people who care deeply for the fate of this nation [and who are willing] to sacrifice their liberty and family, [even] risking ISA detention. Ex-ISA detainees include JIM members.

    Public figures’ opinions carry heavy weight and [have] far-reaching consequences. Jeff Ooi, the critical, unrestrained, free-thinking blogger before assuming public status should now overhaul his thinking before penning his thoughts. Public status comes with heavy resposibilities and price. Respect comes with maturity and wisdom.

  7. lim goh tong says:

    Mr. Wong — congratulations — a mature and balanced article. Thank you for sharing.

  8. crap says:

    I’m a non-registered voter, I’m an extremist. Political parties in Malaysia are useless, self-centered and good for nothing.

  9. nero says:

    A very fine article. I agree with your points and salute you for making these important distinctions. I must disagree with you, though, about the value of Jeff Ooi’s contribution to blogging.

    He’s an atrocious writer, prone to cheap points, flip commentary and arrogance. With that same arrogance, has has branded someone an Islamic extremist, and failed to have the grace to apologise.

  10. Islam is a religion of mercy to all people, both Muslims and non-Muslims. The Prophet was described as being a mercy in the Qur’an due to the message he brought for humanity:

    “And We have not sent you but as a mercy to all the worlds.” (Qur’an 21:107)

    When a person analyses the legislations of Islam with an open mind, the mercy mentioned in this verse will definitely become apparent. One of the aspects constituting an epitome of this mercy is the way the legislations of Islam deal with people of other faiths. The tolerant attitude of Islam towards non-Muslims, whether they be those residing in their own countries or within the Muslim lands, can be clearly seen through a study of history. This fact is not only purported by Muslims, but many non-Muslim historians also accept it. Patriarch Ghaytho wrote:

    “The Arabs, to whom the Lord has given control over the world, treat us as you know; they are not the enemies of Christians. Indeed, they praise our community, and treat our priests and saints with dignity, and offer aid to churches and monasteries.”

    Will Durant wrote:

    “At the time of the Umayyad caliphate, the people of the covenant, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Sabians, all enjoyed a degree of tolerance that we do not find even today in Christian countries. They were free to practise the rituals of their religion and their churches and temples were preserved. They enjoyed autonomy in that they were subject to the religious laws of the scholars and judges.”

    These just relations between Muslims and people of other faiths were not due to mere politics played by Muslim rulers, but rather they were a direct result of the teachings of the religion of Islam, one which preaches that people of other religions be free to practise their own faith, only accepting the guidance offered by Islam by their own choice. God says in the Qur’an:

    “There is no compulsion in religion…” (Qur’an 2:256)

    Read the complete article at:

  11. Kok Yoon Lee says:

    “…some of our 83 demands.”

    I [don’t] think it was 83 demands, more like 83 appeals or requests (in most polite terms).

  12. Democratiziya says:

    Good and balanced article. I believe branding JIM as extremist is uncalled for. They do have the right to voice their preference, as long as that demand is not accompanied by violent demands. We don’t have to agree, but that is what democracy is all about.

    Lim (CM Penang) has acted correctly, surveying the facts and making the correction. Sometimes ego is our most fallible human frailty. It actually commands greater respect, when one has wronged and offers to apologise. The old addage, “To err is human”, applies.

    There are many more things for the Penang government to do, let’s not be distracted by side issues and be used as ammunition to derail its real agenda.

  13. kahseng says:

    “Extremism should be defined solely by the use or threat of violence.”

    This is worth highlighting, and not just for Chin Huat, but as a universal value to adopt.

    That is, so long as you do no threaten to use violence, say whatever you want. That is the only objective standard that will avoid authoritarian abuse, mob rule, and selective persecution.

    As for the overly-conservative who are repulsed by rude words of noisy dissenters who still do not threaten violence, they can counter with reason and exemplary civilised politeness. There is never the need for Sedition Act, etc.

  14. kahseng says:

    Now that I remember, I am also an extremist.

    I donated to JIM for their 1999 general election monitoring campaign (that was before Mafrel was formed officially).

  15. dawn says:

    Great truth that can set us free. Let us cherish and support the truth or else we will lose it and the twin pillars of freedom and love. God loves Malaysians. Do we love ourselves to defend the truth and freedom for all without label of race and religion? There is but only one Malaysian race on all documents and forms, dialects not included.

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