Of human rights and Malaysia

OCT 7 — One of the things, and there are many, that sets Dr Mahathir Mohamad apart from his disgraced predecessor Najib Razak is the way he conducts himself on the global stage.

Where Najib was dead set on winning foreign hearts and minds to the frustration of his citizens, Dr Mahathir acts the opposite: he could care less about what others think, garnering the affection of the nation.

To the adoring masses, Dr Mahathir’s address at the 73rd United Nations General Assembly was a sign of bravado, the colours of a strongman that they have sorely missed.

The prime minister hit out at trade-warring United States, Palestine-bombing Israel, palm oil-hating Europeans, money-making arms dealers, and Rohingya-oppressing Myanmar in one fell swoop; checking the little boxes of what Malaysians, particularly the Malay-Muslim majority, would like to hear.

It was Putrajaya’s intention to signal Malaysia’s return with a new steward, a new ambition, and Dr Mahathir did it with a bang.

Drowned out by this swelling Malaysian pride, however, lies a problematic core in Dr Mahathir’s address that few took note of, and even fewer would address.

It shows Dr Mahathir’s age, a stark reminder that he is a nonagenarian and not getting any younger. It may not totally be his fault, for he is a product of his times — of World War II, of post-colonialist nationalism, benevolent authoritarianism, and Eastern moralising — but it is a shortcoming, nonetheless.

The prime minister kicked things off by reiterating Putrajaya’s pledge to ratify all the remaining UN human rights conventions, a pledge preceded by his foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, a few months ago.

While there has been little publicly to suggest that progress has been made on the ratification — and I may yet be wrong here — Dr Mahathir has pre-empted the difficulty of such a move by saying that Malaysia is multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-lingual.

It is frustrating to hear that we are not making the required strides when it comes to human rights because of our plurality, when it is the plurality that should be the catalyst of our progress.

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad speaking at the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2018. — AFP pic
Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad speaking at the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2018. — AFP pic

When Dr Mahathir said that the last 15 years has not changed much, it may well be that he is the one who has not changed much, as evident by his disdain for social progress.

“Socially, new values undermine the stability of nations and their people. Freedom has led to the negation of the concept of marriage and families, of moral codes, of respect etc,” he said, a subtle dig at the advancements of civil liberties, minority rights, and progressive values across the world.

This disdain was only galvanised in the various media appearances he has made since the address.

In a Wall Street Journal interview, he has scoffed at abolishing the colonial relic of the anti-sodomy law, saying that “a Muslim nation” like Malaysia does not tolerate sodomy.

Later on in “The Future of Democracy in Asia” event held at Chatham House, he persisted that there must be “limits to freedom” — holding on to old dichotomy of “Western human rights” versus “Eastern family values.”

Freedom does not negate marriage, families and certainly not moral codes. It is just that in 2018, humans have a more sophisticated view of what it means to have ties and relationships. Morality, too, has evolved. And respect comes with reciprocity, not seniority.

But perhaps Dr Mahathir’s biggest fallacy comes from his over-simplistic, condensed, almost monochromatic view towards religious terrorism and jihadism — that if not because of his intellect, may have come across as too naïve.

He seemed to distill the many sectarian conflicts and jihadism to one sole cause: the 1948 formation of the modern Israel state, and the subsequent massacre and eviction of Palestinians.

“Malaysia hates terrorism. We will fight them. But we believe that the only way to fight terrorism is to remove the cause. Let the Palestinians return to reclaim their land.

“Let there be a state of Palestine. Let there be justice and the rule of law. Warring against them will not stop terrorism. Nor will out-terrorising them succeed,” said Dr Mahathir.

While we cannot deny him his points on the conflict, one has to wonder whether this was Dr Mahathir’s unapologetic anti-Semitism talking.

He had told BBC HARDtalk show that his “hook-nosed” comment was merely an “old truth.”

Back home on Friday, Dr Mahathir defended his anti-Semite stance, accusing the Jews of being “so privileged” and beyond reproach for their acts of violence — again, showing that to him, the Jews, Israelis, and Zionists may as well all be one and the same.

Will global jihadism stop once the two-state solution is achieved? It may well do, if we can ever reach it.

But hoping so ignores the many factors driving terrorism, one of which is the return of a pan-Muslim caliphate to replace democracy which they do not only see as flawed, but is the main stumbling block towards establishing God’s rule on Earth.

And at the centre of this zealotry is Islamism, the political belief that Islamic scriptures and laws should reign supreme over everyone, not just Muslims, but every man, woman, and child no matter what they may or may not believe in.

It ignores the reality on Malaysia’s own ground — the spread and dominance of a strain of judgmental Islam, that values form and rituals more than faith, that forsakes compassion, that measures piety by pieces of cloth.

Pakatan Harapan and Dr Mahathir may have won over most of Malaysians, but now it is time for us to measure our bodies to the global cloth, to acknowledge that sovereignty does not mean turning our backs on universal rights enshrined to all humans by virtue of existing, and hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Only with such a stellar human rights standards and record can Dr Mahathir rest easy that we shall stand tall with our international peers, even when the reins are no longer in his hands.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.