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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