Malaysian leadership must set a precedent. We should actively oppose the monopoly of big power geopolitics in the realm of knowledge production.
Intellectual imperialism has peaked, globally. To date, socio-political constructs such anti-Semitism, terrorism, freedom and racism have been defined to fit into a specific global agenda.
Led by the US and other Western powers, Malaysians are now trapped in the heady word-game of definitions. We should no longer appear apologetic and defensive on the international stage. Even though we know that we are not apologising for anything, the predominant global perception is that we have been, and still are.
In international politics, perception by and of the “other” are contributing factors in the world of economic and diplomatic strategies.
For example, when condescending, arrogant and rude foreign journalists interview Malaysian officials, not only must we be conversant in the language used, we must also possess the etiquette and poise expected of a statesman or senior political official.
Many can recall how a few key leaders of the past Barisan Nasional (BN) government became entangled in embarrassing muck-ups on global media. One stood up in a huff and threatened to leave midway through an interview. Another failed to deliver a coherent United Nations address. Thankfully, the current Pakatan Harapan (PH) leadership has not yet gotten into similar snafus.
But this article is not about decorum or language proficiency. It is about how we are perceived as global players and how “foreign” ideology has shaped the way Malaysian leadership responds to foreign insinuations.
In the interest of attaining global respect and being an important game-changer, Malaysian decision-makers need to adapt to, and re-define, key global concepts.
Our new construct has to be made loud and clear. The “politics of identity” is driving the phenomenon of the superiority of specific political cultures. We need to address this as it has repercussions on the intertwining global economy. How nations perceive one another affect foreign direct investment, international trade and domestic well-being.
Last week, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman had the opportunity to address the world where hard-hitting questions were posed. Both leaders presented their viewpoints with integrity.
However, what was lacking was a unique form of rebuttal needed to dispel prevailing myths and perceptions among the international community.
The PH coalition was voted into power after a 61-year autocracy by BN. This was robust democracy at work and the world praised Malaysia’s non-violent transition of government.
However, democracy of this nature does not necessarily mean that we are politically progressive. This, of course, is based on the assumption that democracy is the universally acceptable and progressive system of government.
In many ways, Malaysia is still trapped in ideological confusion. And this is precisely how our new “colonial masters” among the big powers maintain their strategy to dominate politically and economically.
In his opening remarks at the Oxford Union, Mahathir said that Malaysia chose the democratic system of government at independence. For 61 years, Malaysians exercised their right to vote. Even though the same government remained in power, a functioning democracy existed.
The overthrow came after Malaysians felt that abuse of the system had gone too far, he said. A few seconds later, Mahathir’s speech caught my attention.
He said Malaysians are a “timid” people, that we do not take to the streets easily and show no tendency towards violence. Our history of independence does not involve war, unlike the 1775/6 American War of Independence.
But this does not mean that Malaysians are timid. It conveys the wrong message to international observers.
Rather, today’s Malaysians know that overthrowing a government through violent means will have serious repercussions, internally and externally.
The public is not timid; rather, we are wise. The public decided to end kleptocracy through the ballot box so that other aspects of our social and economic life would not be too disrupted. In this way, we demonstrated the wisdom of foresight.
The Oxford Union moderator of the Q&A session, Daniel Wilkinson, addressed controversial issues such as the use of the ISA, free speech, the rule of law and the legitimacy of Mahathir’s comeback as prime minister.
Mahathir responded well without shifting in his seat. As expected, Wilkinson then brought up the issue of Malaysia’s ban on Israeli para Olympic swimmers and anti-Semitism. Mahathir’s response was that he is not anti-Semitic, and that it is unfair for the international community to label him as such.
If I were in Mahathir’s shoes, I would have caught them at their own game.
Hatred towards the Jews stretches back to antiquity and medieval times, in Central, Eastern and Western Europe. The term “anti-Semitism”, though, is a 19th century construct. It is defined as hostility to, prejudice, or discrimination against Jews. It is considered a form of racism.
The word “anti-Semitism” was popularised by German journalist Wilhelm Marr in his polemic “Der Sieg des Judentums uber das Germantum” (The Victory of Jewry over Germandom). This was published in 1879. It was Marr who suggested that the “Jewish threat” to Germany was racial.
Marr said Jews had a “destructive nature”, “tribal peculiarities” and an “alien essence”. Whatever Marr’s axe to grind was, his use of the term “stammeseigenthiimlichkeiten” was meant to convey the notion that Jews are “mixed up”, not of a pure race, and therefore inferior and destructive.
For centuries, anti-Jewish sentiments were fanned for political reasons. For example, conservative Catholics squared up against liberal and socialist Jews in French society between 1894 and 1906.
Similarly, medieval Russia harboured notions of a “Jewish conspiracy”. Russian journalist Sergei Nilus despised the challenges posed by Jews whom he believed were the enemies of Christianity.
The rhetorical strategy of vilifying Jews as “barbarians”, “abominable”, “clannish” or “circumcised” dates as far back as the pre-Christian world of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Anti-Semitism was a notion created to oppose Jewish influence on politics. The ancient Greeks and Romans and the medieval church feared losing their political hold on society. They felt threatened by the street-wise and intellectual Jews.
In the current era, the anti-Semitism debate centres around the state of Israel. Concerted efforts are being made to block critical debate about what is happening in Israel-Palestine. Critics of Israel are stifled, provoked and smeared.
Malaysia’s stand on Israel is very clear. We have never had diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. Our stand is political, yet Mahathir’s decision to ban Israeli swimmers from participating in the para swimming championships in Sarawak (July 29-Aug 4) has been ridiculed and deemed offensive.
Mahathir has been labelled anti-Semitic, which has racist undertones. The International Paralympic Committee has been asked to change the venue if it fails to persuade Malaysia to lift the ban. How arrogant and delusional world opinion apparently is!
At the Q&A session of the Oxford Union address, the topics of Israel and anti-Semitism were addressed. Mahathir defended himself by saying the Arabs are Semites so he could not possibly be anti-Semitic.
Mahathir should have added that he, as a representative of Malaysia, does not even subscribe to the phrase “anti-Semitism” or “anti-Semite”.
The world should know that Malaysia understands the difference between historical anti-Semitism and contemporary Zionism. It is time Malaysia exposes the “imperialist conspiracy” against anti-Zionist proponents.
Mahathir is right in saying that it is unfair to label him (and Malaysia) as anti-Semitic. But it is crucial to educate imperialist powers (such as the US) and their mouthpieces.
Additionally, the old modus operandi of apologetic polemics by rising economies like Malaysia should be a thing of the past. Syed Hussein Alatas wrote in 2000 that imperialism is not confined to political or economic aspects alone. It applies to a cluster of human undertakings, including intellectual undertaking.
The rhetoric surrounding the anti-Semitic debate is an example of intellectual imperialism. It demonstrates a kind of subjugation.
Branding leaders and countries as anti-Semitic is as good as exploitation, tutelage, forced conformation and domination. It is my hope that Malaysian officials re-visit the anti-Semitic debate by addressing the intellectual imperialist agenda of the powerful countries.
We should dismiss questions on anti-Semitism with a flick of the finger. They should realise that Malaysia considers it irrelevant and historically, culturally and religiously inaccurate.
Our accusers should be aware that Malaysia does not subscribe to any form of imperialism, including intellectual imperialism.
A politically progressive Malaysia should be capable of shaping foreign policy discourse and knowledge production.
Instead of accepting globally defined concepts such as anti-Semitism, former colonies like Malaysia must educate the new global colonialists. Smaller nations like Malaysia have every right to dismiss false notions of anti-Semitism.
The smokescreen of anti-Semitism is an imperialist tactic to divert attention from the gross human rights abuses against the Palestinians.
It is time that big powers see that smaller countries are not naive, neither are we ignorant of history and political rhetoric.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.