A Dissident Malaysian Voice

Journey through Southeast Asia: Ceritalah 2
Author: Karim Raslan
Pub: Times Books International
237pp

If you have read Sabri Zain’s Face Off: A Malaysian Reformasi Diary 1998-99, Karim Raslan’s highly articulate dissident Malaysian voice does not come as much of a surprise. (It might come as something of a surprise, however, to the author to be described as a “dissident”.)

This is not to belittle it in any way, only to emphasize the existence among a younger generation of Malaysians of thoughtful, worldly people with both courage and integrity.

Karim Raslan, like Sabri Zain, is a bumiputera (native) of the generation that grew up post-May 1969 and thus a beneficiary of the New Economic Order that set out to level the playing field for the Malays. A Cambridge University-educated lawyer, Karim’s mother is Welsh, which gave him a culturally bipolar upbringing, notwithstanding which he asserts a Malay identity throughout.

Here is the voice of a Muslim who believes passionately that his religion is compatible with both modernity and democracy, a proper democracy that is, not the ethnic-orientated system of caucuses that has ruled Malaysia since independence and which is entrenched in UMNO, the MCA and the MIC.

The many very worldly references he makes clearly differentiate him also from the likes of Parti Islam, which now rules the states of Kelantan and Trengganu; in the latter the ruling party intends to institute hudud*. It’s extremely hard to imagine the Chief Minister of Trengganu unabashedly using the phrase “Bloody hell!” in a newspaper column!

Karim believes that Malaysia is a workable multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy. And why not? There are precedents. Much as the ruling elite would like to ignore examples from the past of successful multi-ethnic political parties, they exist.

The municipality of Ipoh, a major center of the world tin mining industry was once ruled by the Democratic Labour Party and widely acclaimed for the quality of its public services.

Here is a writer with some considerable courage.

“Politicians,” he says, “should never be allowed to write their own memoirs.” He then goes on to examine the virtues of Ho Chi Minh, whom he describes as “a reluctant Communist”, a rather brave assertion in a country with a considerable paranoia for anything on the Left.

He vigorously defends the organization, Sisters in Islam, and several journalists against the charges of Persatuan Ulama Malaysia and denounces PUM for its “intellectual terrorism”.

Indonesian readers will be most interested perhaps in the pieces here on their own country. He writes sympathetically about the fate of Chinese-Indonesians.

In a piece titled Malang and the Indonesian Chinese Predicament, he describes them as “vulnerable, isolated and only marginally richer than their neighbors”. Elsewhere Karim’s expositions on Indonesian artists and their interpretations of a rapidly changing world are thought-provoking and readable.

Sabri Zain set out to record the tumultuous events in Malaysia in 1998-99, and, for me as an expatriate who lived four years in the country and began to believe people were irredeemably docile, lifted the scales from my eyes.

Karim Raslan has further confirmed to me that among Malaysia’s brightest and best the machine politics of UMNO is not the only pole of attraction.

(pub. The Jakarta Post 27th October 2002)

* ‘hudud’ – In Islamic (Sharia) law hudud usually refers to the class of punishments that are fixed for certain crimes that are considered to be “claims of God”. – Administrator

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