The recent public spat between Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin and Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has caught the imagination of many. Not a surprise, considering the fact that the two personalities are men of great stature and established pedigree.
Mahathir is a man of vision, recognised by many as an iconic statesman who has delivered and achieved much for his nation.
Asri is a man of great religious conviction. He has established himself as a scholar par excellence with his commitment to the true meaning and glory of Islam. His views on Islam are measured and circumspect, premised on reason and moderation. Because of that, he has a great following among the intelligentsia, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
It comes as no surprise that, because of the shared idealism of the two men, they are often seen as being on the same side, fighting for a common cause. They have been at the forefront of the agenda to establish an accountable and transparent government, an independent judiciary and disciplined civil service, and to fight the scourge of corruption and abuse of power, to name a few.
However, of late Asri has been a bit hawkish in his criticism of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, contending that it has failed to protect the position of Islam and defend Malay rights.
The unfortunate public spat
Asri’s criticism did not go down well with Mahathir who was probably thinking that he could always count on Asri, out of all the Muslim scholars, for support and to understand the challenges and constraints of the new government.
Asri had said, “It is hard to hear voices defending Islam in the ranks of leaders in the administration these days.”
When asked about Asri’s reported criticism, Mahathir said Asri must be “deaf”, otherwise he would definitely have heard about the various efforts undertaken by PH in its bid to uphold Islam.
Asri himself suggested that Mahathir might have been merely “hurt” by his criticism as the two had a good relationship.
He mentioned that Mahathir had inscribed in a copy of his memoir, “A Doctor in the House”, the following words: “You are truly brave in your efforts to correct the religious teachings which confuse and divide the Malay Muslims in Malaysia. Do not set aside the truth for fear. A struggle free from challenges and opposition is not a true struggle.”
But for people like me who hold both men in high esteem, I would rather see Asri build on the good relationship with Mahathir than take a confrontational approach.
The National Patriots Association issued a statement asking Asri not to be poisoned by the opposition spin-masters who concoct lies about race, religion and royalty because they have nothing on national issues to fault the PH government for. Patriot also urged Asri to think as a Malaysian so that the nation could be harmonious and prosperous.
Both on the same side
All things said and done, the hard fact is both Mahathir and Asri are on the same side and fighting for the same cause.
Asri must understand the constraints faced by Mahathir. As a PM for all Malaysians, he has to pursue a policy and take a stand that will serve the larger interest of all Malaysians. He can’t just pander to the demands and expectations of any one community.
The new Malaysian narratives are more inclusive and built on a platform of social justice which is more needs-based than race-based, as was the case in the past. Mahathir is well aware that this is the new narrative, but subject always to the necessary safeguards to protect Islam as the official religion of the nation and the special rights of the Malays, as enshrined in the constitution. All communities must embrace this reality and work hand-in-hand for the collective good of all.
Asri must take cognisance of the fact that for national unity to be preserved, doctrinaire logic to protect communal interest has to be tempered with practical wisdom to accommodate other communal interests as well.
It is hoped that through constructive engagements between Asri and good men like him and Mahathir and his Cabinet, the problem can be amicably resolved. All others who have been overly critical of Mahathir and his government should also show a greater understanding of the situation and be more realistic in their expectations.
The new government needs to be given a bit more time to prove what it can do and deliver. If indeed we are guided by a national agenda instead of a narrow partisan or communal agenda, then we have reason to believe that all’s well that ends well.
The real troublemakers
The PH government and good men like Asri should focus on how best to deal with the real troublemakers who are causing discord, enmity and disharmony within the communities.
PAS and Umno, with their toxic politics of religion and race, continue to be divisive and destructive forces against national unity.
With lots of money, assets and logistics at their disposal, they have the means to engage cybertroopers and spin-doctors to assist them in their political agenda.
They have no qualms whatsoever about dragging in or agitating other parties, including the royalty, to support their cause and politics and go against the PH government. It comes as no surprise that Mahathir and his government are now having some tiffs with the palaces of some states.
The subject of the royalty getting themselves involved in the politics and administration of the nation deserves special write-up and elucidation. Many have done so. It would be most unfortunate if the people are forced to take sides.
From feedback and input on the social media or at events like the Rome Statute dialogue, there is little doubt that the people are unequivocally with the government on this.
Even Anwar Ibrahim and Muhyiddin Yassin are unequivocal in their support of Mahathir in his stand on the matter.
Since this issue is still developing and possibly under a temporary truce because of the holy month of Ramadan, we will probably have to write more after Eid Fitri.
Roadmap to a peaceful and prosperous Malaysia
All Malaysians must work together in the pursuit of new narratives to build a peaceful and prosperous Malaysia premised on the rule of law. In short, we have to uphold and respect our constitution.
We need a good understanding of the issues besetting the nation so that we can address them with wisdom and foresight.
The PH Cabinet has to be seen as more united in its policies and show greater resilience in resolving problems. There has to be more effective engagement with the people and all stakeholders so that we minimise misunderstandings like that between Asri and Mahathir.
PH has to develop a better communications strategy to reach out to the people, explain things, and counter the lies and deceptions of the opposition.
There must be no hesitancy on the part of the government to enforce law and order and in particular to curb extremism.
Wan Haron Wan Hassan is a senior practising lawyer, active in civil society movements.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.