It’s been nearly a year since the G25 group of eminent Malays was formed. Now, two of its members remind Malaysia that there are many moderates out there.
FOR a son and a daughter of former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, joining the group of prominent Malays which have expressed concern about “continuing unresolved disputes on the position and application of Islamic laws in this country” was a natural thing to do.
Tawfik Ismail, a former banker and Sungai Benut MP who later set up IGB International School, was invited to join what is now known as G25 soon after their open letter calling for a review of syariah and civil law, recognising the supremacy of the Federal Constitution, was published on Dec 8 last year.
The initial group included former Finance Ministry Secretary-General Tan Sri Datuk Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim, former ambassador Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin and former Court of Appeal Judge Datuk Seri Shaik Daud Md Ismail. Since then, more have joined including, earlier this month, former Court of Appeal Judge Datuk Mohd Hishamudin Yunus.
A founder member talked to Tawfik at Tan Sri Ani Arope’s funeral last December. “I saw it as a challenge to take up Ani’s cause. He had a reputation of fighting for fairness and transparency,” says Tawfik.
He later suggested that his sister Zailah, who had returned that month after years of teaching in Oman and Turkey, would be useful to the group with her past experience as public affairs adviser to the Governor of Bank Negara. Her membership was announced in May.
For both of them, the group’s goals match their father’s.
“G25 stands for what my parents, uncles and grandparents stood, fought and died for: the moderate Malaysia as we used to know it,” explains Zailah. “In the Cabinet and in politics, my father never saw things in terms of race or colour. G25 is the embodiment of that, upholding the Constitution and the Rukun Negara.”
Tawfik points out that their maternal grandfather Datuk Mohd Seth Mohd Said (who later became State Secretary and acting Johor Mentri Besar) and father were among those with Tunku Abdul Rahman who signed the Independence Agreement in London on Feb 8, 1956.
“Tun Ismail and his brothers Datuk Suleiman and Yasin threw in their lot with me and together helped to build up Umno and then went on to fight for independence,” noted the Tunku in his speech at Tawfik’s wedding to Rubina Kamal in April 1981.
“A man who was more loyal to Umno was hard to find. He finally died in the service of the country.”
Zailah remembers that after the May 13, 1969 riots their father was “pulled out of retirement. He didn’t want to see fighting. He sacrificed his health for this country but we are not honouring his sacrifice and his memory.”
Tawfik worries that the country has “gone too far astray into the right wing”. The former MP calls for a review of religious legislation breaching fundamental and personal freedoms protected by the Constitution.
“How are we furthering moderation in Islam and making it emulated?” he asks. “The actions of a few are alienating others. It is all about punishment, not justice.”
That is G25’s main thrust, he stresses, with its open letter calling for the Constitution not to be eroded or subverted under the guise of religion. “The Constitution has the spirit of Islam but is all-inclusive, no matter what race or religion citizens are,” he says.
Tawfik remembers being with Dr Ismail in a resthouse in Malacca when he saw a Federal Minister in another part of the building with a very young girl. When Tawfik commented on this, “He said very sharply to me, ‘You should mind your own business. What he does in his private life is between him and God. It is not for us to judge what others do in their private lives.’”
“And G25 says personal sins should not be treated as crimes,” adds Zailah.
Brother and sister are both helping to edit G25’s book, Voices of The People: Islam in a Constitutional Democracy, which is due to be launched next month. Zailah has helped to arrange press conferences, advises on media relations and is preparing a strategic plan for G25, including a media plan.
Tawfik will also moderate a session at the G25 forum with local and foreign scholars in December to mark the anniversary of the first open letter. Before that, there will be a forum in Penang, hosted by the Penang Institute, on the Constitution and individual freedom.
Since G25 doesn’t have a grassroots network, Tawfik says, it has to work with mass organisations and NGOs, “and the best way is to focus on issues which cross political lines such as political funding and hudud”.
G25 led a group of 70 non-governmental organisations that signed a declaration on Transparent and Accountable Political Funding as the Underlying Framework to Eliminate Corruption and Promote Clean Governance on Sept 10. Since then, they have set up a committee to flesh out a plan of action to be tabled, debated and legislated.
“The idea is to get a broad consensus, especially among MPs, and set up a caucus which would cut across political lines,” says Tawfik.
To achieve its aims, G25 has to work with whoever’s in authority to set up a national consultative council on civil and syariah law, he adds.
G25 wants to pull the leadership back to the centre, says Tawfik. “Why don’t we have the Blue Shirts?”
Brother and sister wore blue for their interview with the Sunday Star “because is it is the only colour not taken by the reds and the yellows,” he quips. “It stands for moderation, blue as the sky and the sea. We have to show there are more moderates.”
But they both also find it sad that a group like G25 is needed today.
“If our father and Tun Abdul Razak Hussein were alive, there would have been no need for G25,” says Tawfik.
“Malaysia would have gone along the path they’d set out. To have this group in existence is a sad reflection on the country.”
What is G25?
> The G25 group started with 25 members comprising senior retired civil servants who penned an open letter urging the Government to initiate a rational dialogue on the position of Islam here.
> In its letter published on Dec 8 last year, the group said it was dismayed over the continuing unresolved disputes on the position and application of Islamic laws in this country, among others.
> The group’s vision statement includes supporting an environment for the application of syariah laws that upholds justice, equality and compassion as enjoined in the Quran, conforms with the Federal Constitution and promotes mutual respect and understanding of Malaysia’s diverse cultures and religions.
> Since then, G25 has become a vocal campaigner of moderation and held its ground in rejecting what it perceives as extremist views in the public sphere.
> The group has received support from the public and even sparked off the “I am #26” online petition.