Saturday, 8 May 2010

Islam & South-East Asian Democracy - Notes from the talk and Q&A with Anwar Ibrahim

A not-so-great camera-phone photo taken by me at the event

On the Bank Holiday Monday (3rd May 2010) just past, thanks to CUSEAF, Dr Anwar Ibrahim came down to the Faculty of Law at the University of Cambridge to talk about Islam & South-East Asian Democracy. He also spent a good hour answering questions from the audience. Dr Ibrahim was a witty and erudite speaker, and we were both educated and entertained (edutained!) during the event.

These notes are by no means complete, but I have tried to convey what Dr Ibrahim said as accurately as I can. He also made many jokes which I'd probably spoil if I tried to repeat here, so I largely won't. The jokes aside, any further errors or omissions will be my fault, and please use the Comments to point them out.

Dr Ibrahim started by rejecting the argument that democracy is not compatible with Asian values or Islam, and the notions that Asian people were 'not ready' for democracy and preferred a paternalistic autocracy.

He noted that Asian nations had fought for freedom from colonial powers on the very same principles that underpin democracy. The argument that Asian people were 'not ready' could no longer wash, since post-independence governments have had some 50 years to get their peoples used to the idea. He further noted that democratic principles existed in Islamic tradition, such as shura, albeit with differences in terminology.

Dr Ibrahim drew many lessons from the success of democracy in the largest Muslim nation, Indonesia. He noted that the Indonesian system was inclusive, with Hindu and Christian minorities represented rather than excluded.

He emphasised the importance of inclusivity - Malaysia could not continue to exclude entire minorities based on race and religion.

More than once he criticised Malaysian arrogance in thinking they are better than Indonesia - a contributing factor in Malaysia's failure to learn from Indonesia's successes in implementing democratic reform.

He emphasised the critical importance of universal justice in any implementation of Islamic Sharia, noting that the Prophet Muhammed's (pbuh) saying that he would punish his own daughter had she been found guilty of a crime. This saying highlights the Sharia's key principle of equality before the law - nobody is above it.

He contrasted the Prophet's (pbuh) principle with the implementation of Sharia in Malaysia, where he cited a recent case of a poor woman who had been punished for being drunk and disorderly, whereas Malaysia's privileged regularly get away with the same offence. He rejected the argument that they were only dealing with those they caught, since no effort was being made to catch the privileged for the same offence.

He noted that the ruling party UMNO continued to undermine the Sharia whilst claiming to uphold it. He cited public information on Mahathir's son's 30% stake in the Philippine brewery company San Miguel (an investment which is not permitted under Sharia).

He further criticised the ruling party's hypocrisy when claiming Islamic values. He noted that a system could not be both Islamic and corrupt at the same time.

He also emphasised the importance of equal access to the courts for any citizen, regardless of their faith (another principle of Sharia that is absent from the Malaysian system). He noted the case of a Hindu woman that was unable to appeal a Sharia court decision, as she had no access to the Malaysian Sharia courts as a Hindu. The civil courts had refused to hear an appeal too, citing the decision of the Sharia court. She was thus denied her right to a hearing. Dr Ibrahim noted that all citizens had equal access to the courts in Indonesia.

He criticised the misunderstanding of Sharia in the West, which results in those supporting Islam & Sharia becoming excluded from political discourse.

He was questioned on the feeling of disengagement still felt by sections of the Indonesian population despite the democratic reforms oft-quoted in his talk. He acknowledged that Indonesia had its issues, and noted that when corruption exists, decentralising power just decentralises the corruption.

He was questioned on the independence of the judiciary in Malaysia. He noted that many local & international organisations continued to criticise the state of the judiciary, which is still not free of external influences. He continues to raise appeals through the courts - primarily to make a point, as he still does not expect a fair hearing. He cited strange rulings, including the case of a rape victim where a man who tried to champion her case found himself sentenced to prison. In another case which affected him, the courts gave two conflicting judgements for the same case in order to legalise actions taken by the ruling party (in the first judgement, dismissing a governor was apparently the king's prerogative, but when the king revealed he didn't actually sign the order, the courts decided it was the prime minister's prerogative).

He was questioned on where he'd "draw the line" with regard to the separation of religion and state in Malaysia. He replied that, when people's rights are guaranteed by a constitution, he didn't see the need for a line - noting that religion continues to make a significant impact in policy-making in the United States of America.

He was questioned on what Malays abroad could do to help reform in Malaysia. He noted that Malaysians abroad, bar some embassy staff, were unable to vote in general elections - unlike many other countries, including Indonesia, that allow their citizens to vote whilst abroad. He said that Malaysians abroad should raise this issue (politely, he added) whenever government officials visited, quipping that they were unlikely to grant this right unless they could be confident that Malays abroad would vote UMNO.

He also noted that he was banned from entering any Malaysian university, since Malaysian academic standards were 'a little bit higher' than those at Cambridge.

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