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 NohSo, 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 / sxc.hu
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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