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Friday December 7, 2012

Solidarity with the Palestinians

The Palestinian cause has united Malaysians, who reiterated their support during the recent International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People in Putrajaya.

FOREIGN policy issues can unite citizens who disagree on domestic matters, and the cause of the Palestinians is a prime example. 

Ethno-nationalists view the conflict through a racial lens: the once dominant race has been displaced by foreigners and it is right to support the original inhabitants against the usurpers. 

Some self-proclaimed religious conservatives invoke holy texts or interpretations to argue that reclaiming and defending the land are ordained by God. 

Secular leftists view the Palestinians as being oppressed by a military state supported by an international capitalist cabal.

Libertarians support the millions of individuals who have had their democracy, freedom and property forcibly taken away from them.  

At the International Day of Soli­darity with the Palestinian People commemorated in Putrajaya on Tuesday, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Deputy Foreign Relations Commissioner of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, pointed out how some Western governments supported the rights of many citizens in the Middle East in their yearning for freedom and democracy, but failed to stand up for the Palestinians who wanted the same things.

Dr Abdullah praised Malaysia for having been with the Palestinian cause at important historical junctures and conveyed President Mahmoud Abbas’ invitation to Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to visit Palestine.

The Prime Minister, wearing a scarf of the Palestinian flag’s colours, reiterated Malaysia’s support, declaring that we would be the first country to open a full embassy in a sovereign Palestine.

As it was called a day of solidarity, I was hoping to see senior figures from the federal opposition in the audience, but there were none. I suspect they were not invited.

On my table, however, former Foreign Minister Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar (now Chairman of SPAD) was sitting next to former PKR MP Zulkifli Nordin. 

Lots of ambassadors were there, including from France and New Zealand, whose governments voted “yes” in the recent vote at the United Nations to elevate Palestine to Non-Member Observer State status (the same as the Vatican), enabling it to participate in general assembly debates and access other UN agencies and the International Criminal Court.

The last few weeks have also seen a huge outpouring of support from ordinary Malaysians after the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Civil society groups have been raising awareness in shopping malls and entrepreneurs have held special events (like durian eating fests) to raise funds.

However, I have been reminded by my Palestinian friends in Malaysia that caution should be exercised in some cases because there are some unscrupulous individuals who are taking advantage of our emotions on the issue.

Not many seem to be aware that the Palestine Embassy on Jalan U-Thant is accepting donations, with official receipts issued.

In a memorable class in university, I once argued against the two-state solution.

Looking historically at how adjacent polities defined or dominated by their different religions behaved, I thought it was better for people living in the same space to be governed by one common law, based on democratic values with the government having a neutral attitude towards religion and ethnicity. 

Admittedly, that was an intellectual exercise devoid of realpolitik, but it did also make me think of home, where there are those who would essentially like to see two Malaysias: different laws applying to different citizens according to their religious affiliation.

In my column I have often advocated more decentralised federalism to encourage policy competition on issues such as education, rubbish collection and public transport.

Of course, the first item of the State List of the Ninth Schedule of the Federal Constitution confirms that states can legislate on “Islamic law and personal and family law of persons professing the religion of Islam”, and accordingly, there are also syariah courts empowered to impose limited fines and jail terms.

However, these days some want to go much further, and already some would wish to criminalise me getting my haircut from a woman (though I find male hairdressers are more sympathetic to my hair).

I don’t think our federation was set up for this purpose.

Unlike the land now known as historical Palestine, we have the good fortune of having centuries of history that prove peaceful multi-ethnic co-existence in continuously surviving polities: sultanates, kingdoms and former colonies that federated together.

I would like to think that we are still a “one nation” of thirteen states, where the preferences of the vast majority of citizens can be accommodated within our borders.

But I fear that recent times have seen an increasingly vocal and assertive minority who wish to stretch or ignore the constitution to accommodate themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens.

> Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is president of IDEAS

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