Ours was one of a number of programs organised by AMI. Another program is organised specially for journalists. Someone associated with the journalists’ tour told me something very interesting about the attitudes of some Australian journalists. Here is what that officer told me, more or less …
I was with a group of other journalists to Kelantan state, which is currently ruled by the PAS Party [the Islamic Party of Malaysia]. They met with PAS officials and also with a group of non-Muslim PAS supporters called the PAS Supporters’ Club.
I was shocked by the behaviour of a number of the journos. One couldn’t believe how any non-Muslim could even consider supporting for PAS. He kept badgering a PAS supporter about the dangers of sharia law and how they could honestly accept status as second class citizens. Each time the PAS supporters explained why they supported PAS, this journalist would shake his head and say things like: “You must be brainwashed” and “How much are they paying you?”
A few weeks ago, I dined with a group of Malaysian journalists who were visiting Australia on an AMI exchange program. One was of Indian Catholic background from Kelantan. I asked him about PAS and non-Muslims. The journo told me about his father.
My dad is on the executive of our parish council. Before approaching PAS, he had been waiting for 8 years to get our church extensions approved. UMNO were in charge of planning in our state at that time. They kept making promises but my favour could never get anywhere with them.
Then PAS came into power. My father told his committee he wanted to approach the new Chief Minister. The committee told him to try but not to expect too much as this was an Islamic fundamentalist party and they would probably try and shut down the church.
My father approached the Chief Minister and told him about the problems he was having with the church extensions. The Minister listened careful, shook his head and apologised to my father.
“This is terrible. You have every right to worship, and we have no right to stop you. Let me see what I can do. We are all believers in God, and no believer in God should stop another believer from building a house for God.”
Within a week, we received confirmation of planning approval. My father was surprised. Later, he found out from Hindu friends of his that their contested temple approvals were also granted.
PAS and UMNO both compete for the Muslim vote. But UMNO shows its Islamic face by Malay chauvinism and making life difficult for non-Muslims. PAS shows their Islam by helping all religious people.
You won’t believe this, but the PAS Chief Minister comes to our special Mass services as much as he can. He also visits the opening of Hindu temples.
How can one explain this? Is PAS just making hard-headed political decisions? Are they being pragmatic? Quite possibly, yes. But this is the power of democratic government. Short of ethnic and religious cleansing, democratically elected governments have little or no choice but to ensure they seek and maintain support from as many sectors of the community as possible.
The problem with some Western journos and commentators is that they believe democracy doesn’t have enough strength to reign in religious parties. Others used their own sectarian prejudices to argue that anything even remotely resembling Islam can never sit comfortably with democracy.
Aussie journos and commentators reporting on Malaysian politics need to read more widely and think outside the square. Subscribing to news portals like Malaysiakini.com is a good start. Getting to know and understand the ethnic and religious landscape of the country is another. But whilst Aussie journos continue presuming that any group or party related to Islam is little more than an outlet of al-Qaeda or part of some international conspiracy to destroy the West, they really won’t get far.
© Irfan Yusuf 2007