It is common knowledge that South and Southeast Asia have extensive historical links. For thousands of years, there have been economic, cultural and religious interconnections. Diplomacy has been a key activity which spurred widespread trade, investment and people-to-people ties between India and Malaysia. Through this, a steady Indian diaspora established itself in Malaysia.
Statistics from 2017 show that 8% (or 2.4 million) of Malaysia’s population comprise Indians. This makes it the Asian country with the third largest population of Indians or non-resident Indians. Only Nepal (four million) and Saudi Arabia (three million) are ahead. For these reasons alone, it is not surprising that Malaysia’s political elite take a keen interest in India.
Anwar Ibrahim arrived in India for a five-day visit on Jan 10. He delivered a speech at the 4th multilateral Raisina Dialogue, organised by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Observer Research Foundation. The Raisina Dialogue is India’s flagship annual geopolitical and geostrategic conference. This year’s theme was “A World Reorder: New Geometrics; Fluid Partnerships; Uncertain Outcomes”.
The Indian Express quoted Anwar as saying he is “a very old India watcher and frequent visitor”. Maybe so, because Anwar knows Malaysia cannot afford to ignore India. Several domestic currents in both India and Malaysia have direct implications for regional politics and bilateral relations. And currently, whatever happens in or to India has direct repercussions for Malaysia. Communalism, religious extremism and democratic legitimation are three trends which both nations need to guard against.
Communalism and religious extremism
Anwar’s speech in New Delhi was replete with attacks on nationalism, jingoism and xenophobia. Some of us may not yet be familiar with the term “jingoism”, but Anwar has been using it for decades. For instance, in 1995, at the International Conference on Jose Rizal, he spoke of Rizal, Rabindranath Tagore and the Asian Renaissance. His message then was that Asian countries must have the political will to battle corruption and the abuse of power. However, he used the concept of jingoism to warn against a total rejection of alien ideals in the process of cultural rebirth. Rather than chauvinistic nationalism (which is what jingoism is), Anwar was all for synthesising the ideals of justice and compassion that exist in all civilisations of the north, south, east and west. He recognised these as universal values.
In 1994, at the International Conference on China and Southeast Asia in the 21st Century in Beijing, Anwar again mentioned jingoism. He spoke of the travels of Vasco da Gama and Zheng He (Cheng Ho), and international trade. His main point was that Asian societies should not succumb to the globalisation of Western interests, but instead counter economic protectionism while promoting a global trading platform that serves Asia’s interests. But Anwar cautioned Asians not to be the chest-banging King Kong at the expense of recognising a global system with multiple centres.
It is clear that we should not reject everything Western. Western civilisation has a good track record of rediscovering and reinvigorating its classical roots during its encounter with Islam. Much of Western science, art, mathematics, literature, music, technology and astronomy got a re-boot during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods.
Anwar’s latest jingoistic comments in Delhi seemed to focus on the threats to international peace and security. He referred to nationalism in Europe, communalism in India, and wars and conflict in the Middle East. We can all agree that Donald Trump’s “nativist” economics and Europe’s unhealthy nationalism is the very communal politics of the far right that is so familiar to India and Malaysia.
India and Malaysia have been preoccupied with identity politics for decades. Call it what you want, but communalism, racism and ethnocentrism are “three sides of the same coin”. In India’s case, it has lingered for over a century. For Malaysia, it has been 61 years and counting. Both nations have had to come to terms with this, more so in the 21st century. The nation state, whether we like it or not, is subject to global geopolitical trends. Trump’s wall idea and Europe’s anti-immigration laws are couched in economic truisms, but generally, they reek of racist and communal effluvium.
After four years in power, the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (part of the National Democratic Alliance, NDA) has declined 7%. After six months in power, the popularity of Dr Mahathir Mohamad and PPBM (part of the Pakatan Harapan alliance) has declined 19%. The main reason for the drop in BJP’s popularity was the Modi government’s failure to fight communalism. A key politician in the ruling PH coalition attributed its popularity decline to another “communal” excuse – that the goodwill of the Malays was fast eroding due to unfulfilled pre-election promises. One only has to look at the discourse around the Felda settlers, education policies, the ICERD fiasco, resistance to the Unified Examination Certificate, the Seafield Temple debacle and the “cross-on-building” mishap.
So, was Anwar deft in resurrecting the issue of “jingoism” in Delhi last week? Probably. The extreme patriotism and chauvinism in current Malaysian politics is akin to excessive bias in judging one’s own race and religion as superior to others. Fully aware that these sentiments are very much alive in our own political climate, Anwar may have made that speech in a convoluted attempt at bridging closer bilateral relations. Or it could be a case of “misery loves company”!
Anwar’s other agenda in Delhi was to meet with Rahul Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress party. Known as India’s “crown prince”, Rahul has been known to say that Hindu extremist groups could pose a greater threat to the US than Muslim militants. Comments like these have caused a storm in India. Also, in 2011, Zakir Naik’s Islamic Research Foundation, the IRF, donated Rs 50 lakh (approximately RM20 million) to the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust. At that time, Manmohan Singh, a congressman, was prime minister. India was governed by the United Progressive Alliance coalition. The donation was made after Naik was barred from entering Theresa May’s UK in 2010 due to his “inflammatory speeches”. In a desperate bid to escape inquiry over terror-related and money laundering charges, the donation was the next logical step. The congress has since claimed it returned the IRF donation. Nevertheless, what’s done is done.
Why, then, did Anwar feel the need to meet with Rahul last week? Naik is a permanent resident of Malaysia, much to the chagrin of many Malaysians. In December last year, Naik and his wife were “touring” Perlis, where the televangelist spoke at mosques, Islamic centres and universities in the state. The tour was organised by Muslim activist Zamri Vinoth, who is a staunch supporter of state mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin. Naik’s Facebook page has approximately 17 million likes, which gives us an idea of his massive popularity among Muslims in Malaysia. At this juncture, we can only speculate on the details of the Anwar-Rahul meeting. Until more information is revealed (if at all), my hunch is that Malaysia is trying to find a way out of the diplomatic mess surrounding Naik’s permanent resident status, Malaysia’s refusal to extradite him, and the need to maintain a working bilateral relationship with India.
Modi and Mahathir pride themselves on leading governments that are committed to the rule of law. Modi has been viscerally attacked by former prime minister Manmohan. The latter claimed that under Modi, corruption had peaked and the “credibility of institutions systematically denigrated”. Manmohan said, in no uncertain terms, that “democracy and the rule of law are under attack”. He accused the NDA of failing to home in on the rights of women and farmers, on youth unemployment and the rising prices of petrol, diesel and cooking gas.
Mahathir and the PH government are being attacked, too. An impatient public has become restless amid unfulfilled pre-election pledges. From the abolishment of tolls to the eradication of money politics and cronyism, PH’s failures have been attributed to Mahathir’s policies which were set in motion decades ago. This is grossly unfair and analytically warped. Even if undemocratic policies were in place during Mahathir’s first term as prime minister, the scourge of corruption and cronyism continued and peaked with the last of the BN mavericks.
Malaysians should stop finger-pointing and finding petty excuses. Anwar gallantly decided to address the Raisina Dialogue. In Delhi, he reiterated that both he and Mahathir are committed to reforms and to “cleaning up the system”. They both know, though, that the system is still disease-laden. The latest political appointees at government-linked corporations such as PTPTN, Mara Corporation and the National Kenaf and Tobacco Board are three cases in point.
India and Malaysia seem to look up to each other as influential Asian powers that are democratically matured. But outside the pristine settings of bilateralism and diplomacy, both nations are nursing mutually inflicted wounds. The good old days of Jawaharlal Nehru and Tunku Abdul Rahman are over. It is vital to deal with jingoism at home as courageously and confidently as we do on the international stage.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.