A moderate struggle to global success

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 08 Mar 2015

Keeping Malaysia on the moderate path is key to our economic progress, says the "economist" of the eminent G25. Interview with Tan Sri Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim.

I'M not a lawyer, nor am I a constitutional expert, says former Treasury secretary-general Tan Sri Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim, "But I know my rights. If I am convinced my rights have been violated, I will challenge it."

As one of the 25 "prominent" Malay personalities, who, three months ago, sent an open letter to the moderate Malay Muslims to reclaim Malaysia from what many are describing as the "growing extremist religious and racial elements", Mohd Sheriff is all too aware of his critics and doubters.

"Religion is good but if you use it to create various kinds of restrictions, it will affect our growth prospects. That is bad, and the poor will suffer. That is why I continue to speak up," says the 75-year-old who is also a regular contributor to The Star's "Letter to the Editor" column over the years, writing on social and human rights issues.

"If you look at what I've written you will see that I offer no new knowledge, but I feel that it is my responsibility to remind people about their basic and democratic rights."  

After dedicating almost half his life in service to the country, Mohd Sheriff is resolved to stand up for Malaysia's stability and prosperity.

And he strongly believes the way to do this is to defend the nation's moderate stance, within the context of the Federal Constitution.

"We are blessed to live in a country that is diverse and rich in natural resources like Malaysia. We cannot take things for granted."

"I'm confident that if we make our policies right, if we don't become too radical in our economic, social and religious views, this country can become one of the most successful countries in the world," he notes.

"But if we go in the wrong direction, it will be very difficult to reverse."

>What do you think of the momentum set by G25 in rallying moderate Malays in the country to speak up?

I think we can say that we are quite happy with the response we have got from the public and the number of groups who have come out to speak out on moderation, including two alumni groups of St John's Institution (one is the Class of 75 of St John's). And there were messages of encouragement, including from students studying overseas, from Sabah and Sarawak and from the non-Malay community. Many feel that the open letter by the G25 has given them hope that the voice of the majority is now being heard loud and clear and I'm sure we can expect more to come out, spontaneously on their own.

> Is this voice of moderation loud enough?

I think so, we don't want to go down to the streets. We don't want to organise demonstrations. We feel that a clear voice is what is required to get the message across,

And frankly, I believe the Government is listening. That's encouraging.

Of course, now that the momentum has built up, we cannot rest on our laurels. We should go and meet the important personalities, and I'm glad that they have agreed to see us and we have had quiet discussions with them. Naturally we don't want to publicise who we have met and what we have discussed but as long as we know that we are reaching out to the right people, we are quite happy.

>Since the publication of the G25 open letter in December, the number of the group has grown, but critics say that it has not done anything concrete. What is your response to that?

The first meeting we had was with Jakim in January, about one month after the open letter was issued. We had a nearly two-hour discussion with them where we explained our view that many of the fatwas and laws issued by the religious authorities might have deviated from the Federal Constitution and raised the question of whether we should review these fatwas and laws so that we can bring them in line with the Constitution and protect the rights of individuals. We also want to ensure that the authorities work under the powers conferred on them by the Constitution. Where they have gone beyond the powers authorised under the Constitution, we should review whether we have to correct those mistakes.

G25 came into being because of the need for moderates to speak out against the excesses in the administration of Islam. These excesses must be checked before they get out of control and make a mockery of the Constitution. Indeed, many constitutional experts are saying there is already a silent rewriting of the Constitution going on as one religious authority after another passes syariah laws and fatwas beyond their powers under the supreme law of the country, the Federal Constitution.

Yet, any challenge by civil society on these religious edicts is immediately met with threats and intimidations from the extremists.

We in G25 have proposed that instead of trading challenges and insults in public, it's best that we examine the administration of Islam through a consultative process whereby different views can be discussed on the constitutionality of the syariah laws, taking into account the changing values of society, such as on the status of women and their human rights.

>Is there any area of the Islamic law that you feel has really contravened the Constitution and is worrying you?

The legal and constitutional experts have said that criminalizing personal sins is unconstitutional because crime (criminal offences) is a federal responsibility under the Constitution. If religious authorities at the state level issue criminal laws to punish people, the question is whether that is allowed under the Constitution.

 These are concerns that have been raised by the constitutional experts; they feel that the syariah laws on personal crimes are a rewriting of the Constitution.  That is why in our open letter to the Malaysian people in last December, we suggested that the Prime Minister use his authority as leader of the government to form a consultative committee where legal experts, constitutional experts and academicians from both inside and outside the country can sit together and exchange views.

 It is very important that the Islamic authorities recognise that times have changed and social values are changing, such as on the status of women and their human rights - what was considered a "sin" before may not be a sin anymore in today's values.

 I think all across the world, not only in Malaysia, social values have changed as a result of economic growth, urbanisation and instant communications.

 (For example) women have come out to work in the cities and towns, many of them come to the city alone - they don't come with their family. Their way of life has to fit in with city life but they are basically responsible people. They too want to be successful, get married and raise a family later. 

These are common values in all societies and we should not take a negative view about women becoming more active in the economy or as social activists. Becoming more active in asking for recognition of their rights and freedoms is part of democracy. If we ignore them, if we ignore their feelings, their views, we may be creating injustice.

 >How close are we to the establishment of that consultative committee process?

 It's difficult for me to say at this stage how close we are to making it a reality but I can say that so far, there is no objection to this idea and I also think that it may be well received at the highest level. I think we are getting encouraging signs that it is a good idea to get the experts to give their opinions so that the authorities can evaluate whether the Islamic authorities are carrying out their functions and responsibilities in the proper way.

We have identified a list of constitutional and legal experts as well as highly respected academicians from within and outside the country who can form a consultative committee. And we have drafted their terms of reference to advise the authorities on the validity and suitability of the various syariah laws existing in the country and make the necessary changes to protect the rights and individual freedoms of the people as guaranteed under the constitution.

>What is moderation to you?

 In my view, moderation is taking the middle path on an issue, be it economic, social, racial or religious. A moderate expresses his views in a way that is helpful for our unity. A moderate does not take a hardline approach. He tolerates differences in opinion and is willing to listen and discuss how to arrive at a satisfactory solution on an issue.

 Extremism is of course the opposite.

 >The Malaysian Consultative Council of Islamic Organisation (Mapim) in January criticised the way the term "extremism" is generalised by the "moderation movements", like G25, in the country. What do you say to that?

 To me, an extremist is someone who advocates an ideology that is difficult for the people to accept because of its implications on the peace and stability of the country. It is an agenda that makes people worried about the future of the country as a constitutional democracy where all citizens are equal under the law.

 I appreciate that certain groups have been established with specific mandate on race, language or religion. In a democratic society like Malaysia, they have a right to promote their agenda but when they cross the line to become extremists and cause concerns about our rights and individual freedoms, the rule of law should apply. If they are allowed to have immunity against the law, this will create a sense of injustice and as they get more aggressive and all the time get away with it, people will wonder who is running the country and whether citizens can expect any protection under the law.

 When we reach to a stage where people have lost hope in the law, and where chaos has ruined the economy, causing poverty and misery among the people, the country will slide into a failed state like many other Muslim countries. That's when terrorists will take over.

 > Mapim also said that it is not the growing Islamisation of the country that is threatening the country's unity, but rather an ethnic divide in the economy and education due to the hijacking of the affirmative action policies in the country by the elite class. Do you agree that this has contributed to the growing disunity in Malaysia?

 I am glad that you brought up the question of economic and income inequalities because they do have a big influence on the politics of race and religion in the country.

 I you look at the EPU (Economic Planning Unit) and World Bank studies, they find that much progress has been made to reduce the social and income disparities.

 The reduction of inequalities has come about both through government interventionist policies especially under the NEP (New Economic Policy), as well as through the dynamic process of growth and change.

 It's a fact that the restructuring and modernisation of the economy through rapid growth of 7% to 8% over two decades in the 1970s and 1980s and 5% to 6% in the subsequent years, has brought about major changes in the structural pattern of employment, which in turn, has brought about a lot of economic and social changes, as millions of rural Malays moved out of the low productivity employment in the traditional agricultural activities to the modern and urban sectors.

 The share of Malay employment in the non-agricultural sectors has grown the fastest compared to other races. Rural-urban migration of Malays into the major industrial and commercial centres of Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Johor Bharu has been the fastest among all races. All these changes have had a favourable impact in raising Malay participation in the commercial and industrial sectors, as we can see from the rapidly growing number of middle class Malays in the managerial, technical and professional occupations. 

Overall, Malay incomes have increased, resulting in narrowing the gap with other races, Thus, although there are still inequalities in the economy, the disparities among the races have narrowed significantly.

 Unfortunately, not enough emphasis has been given to these remarkable achievements in broad based development. Instead, the politics of race and religion have tended to focus more on the 30% ownership target which has been exploited to create divisions and racial tensions. We cannot deny that Malays have made such progress in terms of the absolute amounts in ownership of corporate wealth. 

In terms of percentage, however, the number is lower than 30% because, as the government becomes more and more successful in encouraging local and foreign investment in the country, the ownership share of other races and foreigners is bound to increase more rapidly. But this should be viewed positively because the higher the investments by businesses, the greater the benefit to Malaysians, especially in terms of employment and income opportunities. I think politicians should accept that investments by whichever race, and local or foreign, is good for Malays.

 They should openly acknowledge that the more Chinese and Indians invest in the country, the better it is for all Malaysians. If they prefer to invest overseas, we should be worried. Therefore, we should encourage our investors and foreign companies to expand their business in the country to make Malaysia a high-income country by 2020. That should always be our priority.

 >At the same time, there are those who think NEP is the cause of the ethnic divide and should be dismantled. What is your opinion on that?

 I don't agree. In fact, I think the NEP must be credited for having brought about political and social stability in the country. We need to look at the whole picture.

 It was initially supposed to end in 1990, but the political decision was that we still need to continue with the policy, and I think they were right.

 The question that is being raised now, and it is a fair question, is whether we should improve its implementation so that it is more inclusive and fair to all races.

 The distribution policies should be more inclusive which means that it should not be based on race but based on needs. Even in the West, they are talking about the need to bring up the bottom 40% as too much inequality in the society is not good.

 We need to make sure that our bottom 40% are well taken care of in health, education, employment retirement benefits, care for the aged, etc. Malays need not worry because based on needs, they will still be the main beneficiaries.

 They also don't need to be scared of being under threat by the other races because the political leadership will always be in Malay hands, the administrative and government machinery will also remain largely in Malay hands, simply because of the country's demographics and there are safeguards to protect Malays and Malay rights in the constitution.

 We also have a Sultanate system where at the state level the sultan is the head of the state and religion, and is responsible for the protection of Malay rights and interests.

 > There are some who believe that the past decades in Malaysia have been the Zaman Jahiliah (Dark Ages) when it comes to religion, and now the current generation is more enlightened, and that is why they want an Islamic state. What do you think of that view?

 It's strange for people to say that - basically the people of the 1960s and 1970s are the same as today. But what has changed a lot is the environment - today we are more urbanised than, say, 50 years ago. Malays are also more urbanised, and as I mentioned elsewhere, the rural-urban migration of the Malays is the highest in the country. So they leave behind their traditional life in the kampung and their work in the traditional sectors of the economy to work in the modern environment and they have to adapt to a new way of life.

 All this will have influence on their values system. The youth today are more exposed to religious lectures, in the mosque, in their neighbourhoods. It is a good thing as Muslims but we need to remind the young of their responsibilities to their religion, family and community. They have to be taught the right values.

 >In other words, some think to have Hudud or an Islamic state is progressive, not regressive as others may say.

 I definitely cannot agree with that. I think Hudud will not be acceptable to the country as a whole - we have to remember that we are a multiracial society. Although they claim that Hudud is only for the Muslim, we have to remember over and above any Islamic law there is the Constitution, and since having Hudud inevitably means going against the fundamental principles of the Constitution, then all the races in the country have a say in it and have a right to give their opinion on it. 

And I think it will not be a favourable opinion because most of us would like to be part of the international community and many of us would like our laws and our legal and administrative system to be in line with the international practice because we are an open economy - we want to deal with the world, we want foreign investors to come, we want foreign tourists to come into the country, we want to retain our talents and not lose them to other countries... This means our legal and administrative system and democracy - how we conduct our elections, how we allow people to express their views in the media, the way we treat our women and girls - are important aspects of our national lives and if we are seen to be different from the rest of the developed world, it will affect our development.

 As you know the government is implementing its National Transformation Plan, under which the objective is to make Malaysia a high income country by 2020 and for that we need investment, skills and good managers; we need to convince the world that Malaysia is a good place to do business and bring their families to live and get educated here. You cannot achieve it only by investment - you need to get the environment right.

>How did your generation do it - embrace "modernity", "development" and "global world" but still maintain a strong faith as a Muslim and strong sense of identity as a Malaysian Malay?

 Then, there was no big issue about religious extremism. We were faithful in our religion because that was how we were brought up. Many of us went to Malay schools and in the afternoons, we went to religious classes. The early training in religion taught us the basic fundamentals and as we grew up, we continued to do what we were taught in our childhood. There were no groups or religious bureaucracy making people worried and frightened by the way they are trying to introduce "Islamicity".

 I've also mentioned in my previous letters to the editor about Malaysia moving towards theocracy.

 If we do not keep within the limits prescribed in our Constitution, if we follow what some are suggesting- amend the Constitution to apply Islam in all economic and social activities in the country - that will mean we are giving more and more powers to the ulama, and we have seen in other countries that when the ulamas gain more power, they can become quite dictatorial.   

 That is something we cannot allow to happen in Malaysia because it will affect our democracy and that in turn will have an effect on our economic growth, standard of living and our relationship with our neighbours and international community. I mean we have an open economy and open society and let's keep it that way. 

 >Why do we have this situation now?

 Well, again, I'll come back to the basic point - we have allowed the religious authorities too much power, beyond what they are supposed to do and naturally, when there are no checks and balances, they tend to do what they think is right but what the society thinks is not suitable for the country.

 >Our strength is our diversity. How can we celebrate, nurture and harness this diversity?

 Policies and laws should be implemented fairly without people feeling any sense of injustice or that they have been fairly discriminated or targeted by the authorities. When you ensure that all citizens are made to feel equal under the law, then diversity will naturally strengthen in the whole country, and that diversity will be an asset.

 >Do we need to enforce a specific law like the National Harmony Act to foster moderation in the country?

 Some people feel that the Harmony Act will reduce extremism by preventing people from making statements that incite racial hatred and contribute to religious tensions. Frankly, I am not sure how such a law can help but if the lawyers can write it in such a way that it contributes to national unity, why not?

 >When you speak publicly about national issues and government policies, do you have to be mindful that you are a former civil servant?

 Being retired means I have less constraint about speaking up freely. If you are working in an organisation, you need to be more careful about what you do and say. Retired means more freedom and I am using this freedom in a constructive way to remind people that we need to put our priorities right and ensure that we adopt the right policies, because I have always maintained that we are really blessed in this country and we need to protect it and its assets.

 >Do you think more prominent Malays need to speak out?

 We welcome others to join us. The bigger our number, the stronger we will become. 

 We are glad that we don't have to do a membership drive. In fact many people just call us up to say they are interested to join us including those from Sabah and Sarawak who are getting more and more interested in this. I think we will be gettting more members from there. That is good as there is a lot that we can learn from them.  They have always emphasised to us, and publicly, that they don't have the same kind of sensitivities or tensions about religion that we have here.

 >Many people are still scared to speak up though, especially when it comes to religion and race. What do you say to them?

 I would like to think that since the emergence of G25, less people feel worried about speaking up, and that's what people have told us, that we have somehow provided the energy for the moderates in the country to speak up. Before they felt that they would get into trouble but now they feel it is time for the silent majority to speak up. And if you are doing it in a responsible way, there is no reason why you should be scared.

 >What is your advice to young people, especially students in university?

 I strongly believe that the Universities and University Colleges Act should be abolished. That is based on my own experience as a student in Universiti Malaya. When you are in university, your education does not only come from what you hear in the lecture theatres, your education also comes from campus activities. In my time, the best activity we had was to listen to talks and debates on campus by various personalities. What was most interesting and educational for me were the debates between opposition politicians and the Government.

 I believe if we allow this on campus now, it would develop our students' maturity. If you look at it (from our time before the Act was introduced), how many became troublemakers anyway? Most became good citizens - leaders in the public and private sector. That was where we developed our leadership skills. I think it's time to give our university students full academic freedom, for the sake of the country's future. And we can't suppress them anyway; it's their fundamental right.

>What is your greatest hope for our country?

 That Malaysia remains peaceful with all the races living peacefully together. We have all the opportunities to become one of the best countries not only in the region but also in the world.

I know many retired foreign executives who have made Malaysia their second home, and we need to ensure that our policies continue to be conducive for the county to develop. Let's not waste time on things and issues that divide us.

 >Today, March 8, is the International Women's Day. As you had a lot to say on the changing values in relation to women, do you think Malaysia is ready for a woman Prime Minister?

 We are a democracy so the people have to decide. There is nothing in the Constitution as far as I know that prevents a woman from rising to the top office but whether the electorate is ready or not, if they will favour such a change, remains to be seen.

 >How do we move forward with moderation?

 We should all cooperate with the Government in seriously implementing the Government's National Transformation Programme, which also consists of various social and educational reforms as well as legal and judiciary reforms.

 If all these policies are carried out well, it will make the country a better place. It is not just about the economy although I still think the economy is the most important - if your economy is strong, you will not have all these tensions. At the same time I recognise that you need more than economic growth to be a successful country.

 You need to uphold the democratic principles  - these principles are designed to provide people the opportunity to express themselves and contribute to the country's development. But you need to develop the economy in an inclusive manner so that no one feels they are unfairly treated or being left behind.  

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