Malaysia is a nation of extremes

Upset by the headline? Defensive because it is provocative? Are your egos deflated? If so, please continue reading.

“Extremism” and “extremist” are words that have been tossed around in the print and social media. Aggressive, irrational and over-emotional citizens shoot their mouths off in accusatory analyses.

Concerned politicians also refer to this phenomenon, both defensively and pedagogically.

If you are not upset by the headline, pat yourselves on the back. Most likely, your extremist thoughts and behaviour have found ways to benefit society.

Or you actually understand what being extreme is all about.

The upset and provoked must calm down though. Adjust your egos. Realise that for 62 years, Malaysia’s extremism has been both a positive and negative condition for our nation building.

In other words, being extremist can also be good. One example is how the Malaysian public went to extreme lengths to reject the previous government.

The word extremist is a predominantly derogatory noun. It means fanatical, radical and fundamentalist. It also almost always applies to a bigot and a chauvinist.

It is usually attributed to political or religious views. An extremist is an individual or regime who advocates illegal or violent action.

As an adjective, though, to be extreme can be something good. It could mean serious and intense.

The opposite meaning of extremism includes average, modest and moderate. There are also negative connotations of its opposite, namely unremarkable, unoriginal and mundane.

The many shades of extremism in Malaysia have made our nation what it is today. We just celebrated 62 years of nationhood.

The reality is that Malaysia has evolved into a nation of extremes.

A recent opinion piece, by an academic, was commemorating Hari Merdeka. It was sullen and depressing, and it conveyed the message that “Malaysia has no hope”. This form of extremism is unremarkable and unoriginal. It is also counterproductive for a nation that is struggling to overcome serious misunderstandings.

In May last year, a headline in Aljazeera read “A peaceful revolution in Malaysia”. The report was glorifying our society’s revolt against corruption. We can feel proud because we exercised extreme behaviour through the ballot box.

This form of extremism was intense and serious. In the Malaysian context, overthrowing a 62 year-old government is the culmination of extreme democratic rights.

A democratic society is headed by a representative, accountable and responsive government. It’s aim is to strengthen institutions to promote peace and stability.

However, the tricky part lies in the fundamental tenets of democracy, mainly allowing different voices to chime in on public debate.

This is where extremism can either rear its ugly head or contribute to progressive collective behaviour.

If we look at the run-up to May 9, 2018, despite tightened institutional checks that curtailed public debate, Malaysians succeeded in bringing about our “peaceful revolution”. Given the decades that the Malaysian public felt oppressed due to debilitating corruption, the Barisan Nasional (BN) government had to retire.

Such democratic extremism was abnormal in the Malaysian context. Yet, such “extreme” collective behaviour proved good.

Since the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government took over in May 2018, the negative attributes of an extreme Malaysian mindset, spanning a range of the socio-political strata, have gone out of control.

Nevertheless, the extreme decision we Malaysians made last year provided us with hope. The new government still has time to take extreme measures, to reverse the trend. Tread carefully and be meticulous, serious and most importantly, knowledgeable. Depending on how PH conceptualises extremism, it has to exercise caution, diligence and intelligence.

Here’s how and why.

Chauvinism, racism, bigotry and fanaticism have surfaced. As we inch towards GE15, restless and irresponsible politicians, as well as state and federal officials have infuriated civil society.

The recent decision of the High Court of Kuala Lumpur on Sisters in Islam (SIS) is a case in point. Their appeal to challenge the Selangor religious authority’s fatwa against them exposes the emasculation of the judiciary.

Human rights group, Lawyers for Liberty issued an extensive statement outlining how and why lifting the corporate veil is unconstitutional in this context.

SIS has not committed fraud. Championing women’s rights in Islam hardly constitutes fraud. Such a ruling by this High Court judge is extreme. It also demonstrates a lack of intelligence, impulsiveness and an inability to conceptualise. These three qualities one expects a law student would have acquired through many years of vigorous study.

The public is left to continue thinking in the pre-GE14 mode: that even our judges act on personal agendas, devoid of professionalism. We thought GE14 was supposed to erase such perceptions.

Racist remarks by our leadership have reached an all time high since May last year. The clincher was when one of our leaders decided to regurgitate what he thought were words of wisdom. He unleashed a “free-for-all” labelling frenzy in cyberspace.

Of the dozens of despicable curses he invited, “prejudiced” will prove to be most sustainable. By his unabashed claims that Malaysia needs a strongman like Saddam Hussein, he implied that Malaysians need to be whipped into obeisance.

Is he offering himself for the job? Maybe so, since he erroneously felt that Malaysians have a disregard for Malays.

What is more interesting is how he chose to support his arguments. He drew pseudo-intellectual comparisons. A poor attempt was made to conceptualise “identity” and “human rights”, and how the two have a role in multiracial societies.

He was quoted as saying “a country has its identity. China is for Chinese, is India for the Chinese too? No, it’s for the Indians”. He also said that in “European countries”, despite the emphasis on human rights and equality, the “whites” still dominate and influence the identities of the countries.

Essentially, this so-called Islamic scholar gave a cat’s lick to an otherwise profound anthropological and sociological discourse on democracy, citizenship and the social-psychology of belonging.

First, he brought a sweeping correlation between “ethnicity”, “migration” and “identity”. If one lacks knowledge on such issues, one should refrain from trying to talk about it. It is a different matter, of course, if the said person just needed an ego boost, or if he honestly felt that our Malaysian public are really imbeciles.

Second, there is a growing number of Malaysians in both government and the larger society who feel knowledgeable just because they have boundless access to information. Wrong!

What we have access to are endless bytes of facts and figures. It takes seconds, minutes or just days to retrieve those. What we forget is that it takes weeks, months, or even years to assimilate, conceptualise, contextualise and construct arguments.

To do this, we actually have to read and comprehend, not cut and paste. As leaders and responsible citizens, we must use our brains to understand that terms such as identity, human rights and racism are indeed difficult concepts. They need careful articulation if we want to use them to better societal relations.

It seems we cannot resist bandying words like extremist and liberal. We attribute negative meanings to them. In the process we have hijacked the process of contemplation.

We approach developments in society too superficially, and allow ourselves to pontificate on empty nothings. By not focusing on poverty and our grave economic state, we Malaysians have embarrassed ourselves internationally.

We have exposed how ignorant and insecure we really are. If we insist on continuing the racial and religious narrative, at least try to be intelligent about it. Take extreme measures to be knowledgeable. Only then can a constructive debate lead to constructive change for all.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.