Malaysia’s Rubicon Moment

On Saturday a leading political cartoonist, Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, was detained under Malaysia’s draconian Sedition Act. He had been participating at the George Town Literary Festival, arguably the country’s best-known lit-fest. Zunar was arrested for criticising Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak. This is presumably to set an example: look what happens when you dare call a spade a spade! Zunar’s arrest has made international news, but what is less well-known is that he was also punched up beforehand by stooges of Malaysia’s dominant political party, UMNO, the United Malay National Organisation.

Zunar’s arrest is part of a string of troubling developments in Malaysia. The previous week, the chairwoman of a civil rights group, Bersih, was also arrested. Bersih (which means ‘Clean’ in Malay) has been campaigning for basic democratic rights for several years. Rights such as:

Free and fair elections. Clean government. The right to dissent.

Daring to demand an end to corruption is too much for the Malaysian government. After all, its raison d’être now is to cling on to power (and the nation’s coffers) by whatever means it can. Bersih’s chairwoman, Maria Chin Abdullah, was thus held in solitary detention – without charge, I might add – and not allowed to see her lawyer or family for a week. She has now been released, but not before the Malaysian police promised to crack down on people participating in vigils to have her freed.

Before Maria Chin Abdullah was detained, she had actually been threatened with ISIS-style decapitation. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is a troubling trend in Malaysia – a trend on which the supposedly moderate government has remarkably little to say. Indeed, there was yet another attempt last week to table a bill in Parliament that could pave the way to hand-chopping in Malaysia. In principle, the bill was not the government’s and is supposed to apply only to one particular state in the country, but these are beside the point. The rubicon of hand-chopping, if crossed, will have consequences for the entire country and each and every Malaysian.

I left Malaysia many years ago. In the Malaysia I knew, a law proposing the chopping off of limbs as punishment would have been unthinkable. This is the country I want to remind Malaysians of in the books which will form The Malayan Series. I’m no fan of British colonialism – anyone who has read The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds will realise that – but there was undoubtedly a degree of tolerance in previous days which has been deliberately leached away.

Malaysia has turned into a country I barely recognise. It is now a place in which, as soon as you criticise the government, you’re either beaten up or threatened with death. It is a country where protest demanding good governance is viewed as a threat to government and if you have the courage to voice any discontent, you’re told, “If you don’t like it, leave.”

Is this the Malaysia we want?

It’s not the country I want, which is why I will do what I can to remind people about the Malaysia we’ve lost. It’s also why I will support those who are fighting for a secular, pluralistic, more inclusive Malaysia.

There are people who say that it’s already too late. I don’t believe this: it is never too late to change. There are other Malaysians like me, as this sane letter shows. The longer we leave it, though, the more entrenched attitudes will become and the harder change will be. It is up to us Malaysians: no one else can do the hard work for us. The Malaysia of tomorrow will reflect what we today are doing, or not, as the case may be.


Filed under Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Writing

6 responses to “Malaysia’s Rubicon Moment

  1. Julie

    Wow! I am not surprised it’s going in this direction. I lived in Malaysia for nearly 20 years (1986-2004). I left as my Malay husband became more extreme after the 9/11 occurred. While there had been hope once Anwar Ibrahim was finally released, I was not feeling as if I fit in any longer. The people, food, and country were beautiful… but there were some university students who were openly harassing some of us when we were in KL. That was not a change for the better, I do hope that things will be better as I would like to visit again some day.

    • Dear Julie,

      I’m very sorry to hear that you and your friends were harassed in KL – definitely not the Malaysia I once knew. A million Malaysians live abroad, mainly of Chinese and Indian ethnicity but there are Malays too, who don’t feel they fit in. You should be fine to visit, however – it’s living there which poses a challenge.

      Speaking for myself, I live away with deep regret. Regret that to enjoy equal opportunities I must live abroad, regret at the wasted potential and endemic corruption, regret that instead of being a beacon Malaysia has chosen to regress.

      I’m hopeful, however, that change for the better will eventually come. But it won’t be easy or quick!

      • Julie

        I was surprised at this as well because most of my time living in Malaysia was a wonderful experience. My friends and I were Americans & Canadians married to Malays. We would go out together and found certain areas in KL where the Malay university women felt we were threats. In other places, we learned what hospitality meant!

        I was so amazed at watching how Malaysia progressed from my early days until just after Mahathir stepped down. Watching the fast growth with amazing! Again, I loved the cultural diversity and the many friends I had made.

        I am saddened that Malaysia is becoming more extreme… Compared to an Indonesian friend, I would NOT have been forced to convert for marriage as Malaysia requires. Many of my friends were also from the Baba-Nyonya culture as well, and their mixture certainly provided unique color into the pot that is Malaysia!

        One thing I had noticed in Malaysia about the “Bumiputra benefits”… it seemed the scholarships were going to those kids from wealthy but connected families – and NOT to the poor who needed the help for an education (even among the Malays). However, I was glad if I could help find scholarships for those students who were bright and with a good work ethic reach their dream of an American education. I had heard that many of them, too, are part of the brain drain.

        Thank you! I found your blog by accident and was glad to see what you are doing!

      • Hello again!

        Thank you for sharing your experiences, and for reading and following this blog. You’re right, apostasy is not practised in Indonesia and there has been a big brain drain. This is not something UMNO cares about: we’re simply not wanted.

        I don’t know whether you enjoy historical fiction; here’s a link to my debut novel The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds, a story which, in following the life a Nyonya in British Malaya, unfolds into becoming a story about family, food and identity ( Read the reviews and decide for yourself!

      • Julie

        Hi! OMG! That’s funny as I already found your book and bought it… which was how I found your blog! 🙂 I will be reading it after I finish a few on my list for reviewing! I am really looking forward to reading it!

        Isn’t it awful when your own country makes you feel unwelcome? I really hope there will be change for the better. Honestly, if not for my failed marriage and the way the atmosphere was changing towards the end of my stay, I might not have left until it was too late (for me).

        I am glad that you are sharing what’s up with Malaysia to the world… People need to see the truth.

        All the best!

      • Thank you for buying my book! Most of the people who’ve read it so far have known nothing about Malaysia – it’s possible to enjoy my novel on many different levels. You will appreciate it in another way, I hope. I’m aiming to do the same with the other books in this series and really hope you’ll like this first one. Happy reading!

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