I feel sorry for Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his government. They face a terrible dilemma: On one hand, they are actively seeking the cooperation of various nations to apprehend fugitive financier Low Taek Jho, better known as Jho Low, and on the other, they are protecting fugitive preacher Zakir Naik who is wanted in India.
It is a headache that neither Mahathir nor the government need; but it has been forced upon them by Naik and his supporters in Malaysia.
There are similarities between Jho Low and Naik, chief of which is that both are wanted in their own countries but are on the run.
Jho Low was charged in absentia in Malaysia over the 1MDB scandal. Almost all the 15 charges are under the Anti-Money Laundering and Anti-Terrorism Financing Act 2001. He has denied the charges.
A charge sheet was filed in absentia against Naik under India’s Prevention of Money Laundering Act. He has denied the charges, and also the accusations of spreading hate speech.
Jho Low is in hiding, with some suggesting he is somewhere in China or Taiwan. He has refused to return to Malaysia. In July, Inspector-General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador said police were negotiating with “a certain country” to bring him back.
Naik fled to Malaysia and has refused to return to India. The Indian authorities have contacted Malaysia to seek the return of Naik.
Jho Low claims he will not receive a fair trial here. A statement issued by his lawyers last December said: “It is clear that Low cannot get a fair trial in Malaysia, where the regime has proven numerous times that they have no interest in the rule of law.”
Naik has described the actions of the police and the Enforcement Directorate of India as a “witch hunt” but he has not directly said he would not get a fair trial. At least I have not read about it. However, Mahathir has been quoted as saying: “Zakir Naik, in general, feels that he is not going to get a fair trial.”
I’m puzzled as to why the prime minister said this, for it can be interpreted as Mahathir becoming the spokesman for a fugitive, which, I’m sure, was not his intention.
While there are similarities between the cases of Jho Low and Naik, there are also a few differences. For instance, Low is using his money to stay clear of Malaysia while Naik is using religion to stay clear of India. Jho Low is not stirring problems in Malaysia but Naik is creating a rift between Muslims and non-Muslims, the latest of which was when he questioned the loyalty of Malaysian Hindus in a speech in Kelantan last weekend.
A foreigner is turning Malaysian against Malaysian by his activities and his very presence.
Putrajaya has denied Jho Low’s claim that he would not get a fair trial and insists that Malaysia’s judiciary is independent. However, in protecting Naik, it is questioning the independence of India’s judiciary.
If Putrajaya is not careful, people may think the present government is willing to put the interest of one man over the interest of the nation, which is to ensure Malaysians of all ethnicities and religions live in peace and understanding; and to cooperate with all other nations.
The blame for giving permanent resident status to Naik, despite various allegations against him, rests with the previous Barisan Nasional government. And the headache has now passed over to the Pakatan Harapan government.
Recently, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mujahid Yusof Rawa was reported as saying India must convince Malaysia about the validity of its request to extradite Naik and provide safeguards to Naik. Has he wondered what he’d do if the country now harbouring Jho Low were to ask for similar safeguards for Low?
The fact is, Mahathir has been placed in a difficult situation. As the prime minister told an interviewer in Turkey last week: “We have a multi-religious population in Malaysia. We don’t want anybody who comes up and addresses extreme views about race and other religions. So to that extent, we cannot have him. But on the other hand, it is difficult to send him anywhere else because many countries don’t want to have him.”
Now that’s interesting. I assume that as a Muslim preacher fleeing India, Naik would want to seek refuge in a Muslim nation. So, why are the fully Muslim countries not taking him?
Naik has placed Mahathir and the government in a spot. Only Naik can make the headache go away by leaving quietly. The proper thing to do for a truly religious man is to not cause problems for his host and his host nation.
A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT
The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.