Do we even need the ‘25 prominent Malays’?

DEC 14 ­— Earlier this week, the nation was surprised by an open letter by 25 former high-ranking civil servants — former secretary-generals of ministries, former director-generals, former ambassadors — described as “prominent Malays.”

Or perhaps not actually the whole nation, as the open letter was noticeably absent from most mainstream papers, which ignored it and decided not to publish it. Especially the Malay ones, which will reach the letter’s intended readers, despite a Malay copy provided to editors.

In the letter, the 25 called for an open and rational debate on the implementation of Islamic laws, and the way Islam is being used to shape public policies in this country.

They also reiterated in no vague terms that some parts of Shariah laws might need to be reviewed to ensure that they do not intrude on the civil liberties enshrined in the Federal Constitution, which they said remains as the supreme law in the country.

It was surprising to me to read such an unexpectedly well-written letter, backed by sound arguments, after experiencing a lot of remarks and opinions which seek to bludgeon the intended reader into agreement, in addition to being awfully written.

It was more surprising to me though that the open letter by the 25 was met with dripping cynicism, especially from its own target audience: the so-called liberals, moderates or progressives.

Much of the criticism stemmed from the fact that most of the 25, being senior-ranking former officials, are speaking from a vantage of privilege.

Almost all of them possess honorary titles of some sort: there were those with Tan Sri, Datuk Seri, and many more with Datuk.

Hailing from a different social class from common Malays, a higher one that is, then the 25 have the advantage of making such calls without fear of censure, or even the Sedition Act that seems to be slapped on anybody who talks bad about the status quo.

Being well-off with the perks of such positions, the 25 also have the luxury to not be worried about those issues, especially when they do not have to worry as much about putting food on the table and rising cost of living.

In addition, the timing of the statement seemed odd. Why now? Why not before Malaysia went down this route?

Granted, being civil servants, they could not issue any statements when they were in the system. But the question remains, how much did they do when they were in the system? Why talk now when they can no longer affect Putrajaya directly from the inside? Were they speaking from a position of regret?

25 former high-ranking civil servants said in an open letter that some parts of the Shariah laws might need a review to ensure they do not encroach on the civil liberties enshrined in the Federal Constitution. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
25 former high-ranking civil servants said in an open letter that some parts of the Shariah laws might need a review to ensure they do not encroach on the civil liberties enshrined in the Federal Constitution. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

It was easy to make such statements now when some of them, as ambassadors, had the privilege of serving abroad where the restrictions on civil liberties and freedom we have here did not apply to them back then.

A news portal had even loftily announced the letter as the moment when Malays were “finally standing up” for rationality and discourse.

This, of course, was far from true. Malay civil activists, writers, thinkers, lawmakers, and observers have long called for and advocated rationality and discourse. They would still stand up for rationality and discourse long after, and even without the 25.

Whether it would be the turning point for the Malays, and is able to halt the ongoing creeping of Islamisation into our public lives remains to be seen.

But when common men — such as a lowly writer like me — makes the same point, it is perhaps harder to achieve such an impact as the 25. Their statement surely made some people pay attention, from armchair observers to right-wing groups.

Perhaps this was why the open letter was important: that they come from not only 25 Malays who were highly esteemed by their contemporaries, but have also contributed much to all Malaysians while they were in service.

These are not exactly just “some people.” And if the voices of these 25 can amplify the message to reach the ear of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, then so be it.

Their recommendations, however, were a rebuke of Najib, asking the prime minister to show some leadership and appoint people who are more suitable to deal with religious affairs. What are the chances Najib will listen?

Some of the public have been complaining that some media have been giving space to right-wing groups, either to Malay supremacists Perkasa or Islamists Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma). According to them, it is better if the voices of these people are not given a platform.

But would not that be just sweeping our problems under the carpet? The hate speech and negative speech will not die down, they would just stay among some of the Malay-Muslim community.

Furthermore, the reason why we are hearing more of this shrill pro-Malay, pro-Muslim voices is not because they have more space. We hear more of them because we do not hear enough from the other side, from the so-called liberals, the moderates, the progressives.

And the reason why we do not hear is because there are just not many such voices, especially those with clout and pull that make them newsmakers.

Here is where the emergence of the 25 play a huge role. Not only are they contributing by providing alternative views against the conservatives, but they are also making their views prominent by virtue of their standing.

Someone who holds similar views would probably keep it to himself previously, as they feel that their views are alien. When someone like the prominent 25 speak up, they send a message that not only are those views acceptable, but there are decent people backing them.

Could we do without the 25? Perhaps. But barring questions on the issues of privilege and class, it is important to garner more allies against creeping Islamisation. Hopefully we will hear more of such similar open letters.

More importantly, hopefully their remarks deliver some impact on the real policymakers and cogs in Putrajaya: not the lawmakers, the politicians and their ilk — but the civil servants, the administration and diplomatic corp, and the ministry staff. After all, they are the ones who are currently in the system.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.