Propelling Malaysia’s moderation to the world

It is not PAS that I am representing nor is it Umno that I am representing here. I am representing GMM. This appointment is an honour, says the new face of Malaysia’s form of moderation on the world’s stage.

NASHARUDIN Mat Isa was a surprise choice as the new CEO of the Global Movement of Moderates (GMM).

The former PAS deputy president has had some scathing comments thrown his way over the appointment, but he says they do not hurt him because his experience in politics have taught him to be immune to such attacks.

“It is a very typical Malaysian attitude. They don’t even know the person and their perception of him is that he must be bad or sombong (arrogant), and so on.

“But when they go up and say ‘Hello’ to him, their whole perception of him changes,” says the 53-year-old, who studied at St Gabriel secondary school in Kuala Lumpur and still keeps in touch with friends of different races and religions from his school days.

Speaking with ease in good English (which is not a language you would have heard him speak during his days on the PAS leaders’ council), Nasharudin believes Malaysia is a good role model of a moderate, developed Muslim country.

“But things are developing and there are racial issues cropping up, which is a fact that we cannot deny. If this is not curbed, it can turn into something that we do not want to see,” he says.

He takes over from Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah who vacated the post when he quit Umno to join PKR in October.

Nasharudin, who has a Masters degree in Comparative Law from Jordan, wants to take GMM back to its original track, to focus on moderation internationally and not so much locally.

So he plans to tackle the issue of Islamophobia, explore the root causes of radicalisation, and engage Malaysian students abroad to make sure they “do not bring back funny ideas from outside which are negative”.

He says there is also a need to redefine what moderation and extremism is, because for some wearing a tudung (head scarf) is already extremism.

Nasharudin, who is still a PAS member, believes hudud law and moderation are compatible, and says the spiritual adviser of PAS has given him his full blessing for the post.

The following are excerpts from Sunday Star’s exclusive interview with Nasharudin. For the full interview, go to

What does moderation mean to you?

There is a lot of confusion when we talk about extremism and moderation. There is a need to redefine what extremism is and what moderation is. The subject is very relative. Everyone can define it as they want it to be. To some, even wearing a tudung is already extremism!

When it comes to moderation the same thing applies, To me moderation doesn’t mean compromise or “lebih kurang” (more or less).

Moderation should be an act of balance between two tendencies, which means not too far right and not too far left.

But isn’t moderation and striking a balance between extremes a compromise?

Compromise means a lot. What I mean by compromise is striking a balance between two tendencies or two extremes.

In an interview, you spoke about GMM straying from its original role of promoting moderation internationally. How can Malaysia play a role internationally if it is facing problems managing moderation within the country?

That is a fact, but I think Malaysia is in a position to do this. It already has played an active role internationally. Malaysia is known to be a very moderate developed Muslim state. Some of our international participation in promoting moderation has shown great success, like in southern Thailand and southern Philippines and so on.

This is the kind of moderation that Malaysia can help to promote as far as the international scene is concerned.

I am not denying that there are issues here at home. But despite all the different issues we have, we are still very much a stable, still very much a developed, and very much a pleasant place in which to stay, to work, to do business, and so on. There is no country in the world that has no problems.

But we have managed to run the country with all these different issues. These are things that we can offer to the international world – how we manage our differences, how we manage our diversity in the country, which I don’t think many countries in the world have the luxury of doing.

The Malaysia of 30 years ago when we were a “model country” seems so different from the Malaysia of today. Today, when a church puts up a cross, there are Muslims who get all worked up and frantic because they think it is about conversion. Haven’t we regressed?

We have a huge reclining Buddha statue in Kelantan, which is very much respected. We have a huge (Lord Murugan) statue at Batu Caves, which is respected. We have many big churches in the country with crosses, which are respected, despite the fact that we are a Muslim majority nation. We have been living in peace and harmony and I will say it again that there is no country in the world which has no problems.

Every country has its own issues. But as far as managing the differences, I am proud to say that we are living in harmony and we respect each other.

But we are starting to see that things are moving towards disrespect. There are differences among the different races and religions, which are starting to surface. These are things that we need to look at in managing these differences.

One of my main objectives is how we can develop tolerance and the respect of others’ beliefs. If we can carry on with this kind and level of respect, I think Malaysia can be a very good model of moderation.

But things are developing and racial issues are cropping up, which is a fact that we cannot deny. If this is not curbed, it can turn into something that we do not want to see.

How worried are you for the future generations of the country if we continue on this path?

I went to St Gabriel secondary school in KL, which is a multi-ethnic school. My friends are Chinese, Indians, and Malays and we are friends until today. If you look at our school gatherings, you will see that the Chinese, Indians, and Sikhs are there. You will see how we appreciate the differences among us. We were the last batch of the MCE boys.

Those friendships have continued till today. There were not many issues relating to religion or race (then). That is the kind of environment that we grew up in. But lately, I don’t know why – I don’t know where the mistake is – there seems to be segregation and the tendency to divide people into segments. This is not good for the nation because we have been a multi-religious and multicultural society, which is something we can be proud of.

When you talk about multi-religious, multicultural, you can’t compare us with the UK or the US because their setting is different from ours. For me, Malaysia is Malaysia and all the different ethnic groups are Malaysians, so we’ve got to be careful in the way we manage our differences.

And all parties concerned in politics or the economy have to take into consideration all these things.

But don’t the two main political parties, Umno and PAS, use religion to try and out-Islamise each other and score points with the people?

Well, that’s politics! They will harp on the things that they have and the best that they can offer to the public as far as Islam is concerned.

Of course, Umno and PAS will be the main contenders so they will try to promote and buy off people with the strategy that they have.

There are political differences, political manoeuvrings, political clashes of opinion, but again I don’t see that we have reached a stage where we are heading towards extremism. There is a level of tension, but not to the level of extremism.

How do you respond to those who say that with your appointment as CEO, the GMM movement here is practically dead and the moderation chapter is closed?

This is the problem with Malaysians. We tend to judge just because of perception. You can have thousands of perceptions about any individual or organisation. I think if we continue with that kind of attitude, Malaysia won’t move far.

I’ve been in office only for four weeks now. So how can people say that GMM is already dead?

The US Under Secretary of State was here in my office. I’ll be receiving the Justice Minister of Australia next week. I’ve been invited to give lectures at the Defence Ministry a couple of days before. I have been engaging a lot of different people. I am organising several talks here in GMM. I have been invited to universities in the last four weeks. People have been coming non-stop to my office. You can follow my Facebook to see some of the activities we are organising here in GMM and also outside.

When you have that kind of perception, you fail to accept the differences from your belief and what you tend to think, so you won’t be able to see what others are going to do and are doing. I think if we want to progress as a developed nation, that kind of attitude should be brushed away.

Do you think they are unfair to judge you beforehand?

This is the very typical Malaysian attitude. I think if we want to progress as a developed nation, that kind of attitude should be brushed away.

What do you see is the biggest threat for moderation in today’s world?

The voice of moderates is very silent compared to voices of the extremists. The extremists are very loud, very vocal, active.

When you come to moderation, the appointment of an ex-politician to head an organisation such as GMM is perceived as to be very negative when they have not seen any result yet. That is the challenge that we will be facing.

You are still a PAS member. When you go for international meetings on moderation, would you have a problem shaking the hands of the women at these meetings?

As of now, nobody has offered their hand to be shaken yet (laughs).

I am quite used to these international organisations and meetings and so on.

During my MP days I was the deputy chair of the Malaysian chapter of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for two terms and I was made to travel to a quite number of Commonwealth countries attending a lot of international organisations’ meetings.

I was the head of the international relations in PAS so we meet different associations, different people and different attitudes and what not.

So it is not something new to me.

It’s just that this time with GMM, I have to promote that image of moderation, which to me is not really much of an issue because I have been with the idea of moderation since long.

I believe in dialogue. I believe in the need for us to discuss things and I believe in people coming to the table to resolve issues. So it is not really something new.

When I was an MP I used to be in PAS and now I am in GMM. It’s nothing new to me.

What is the position of hudud law with regards to moderation?

When you talk about law, there are two aspects that you have to look at, which is the substantive and the procedural part of it.

From my observation, what has been promoted in the campaign for hudud, whether it is in Kelantan or elsewhere, is much more concentrated on the substantive part of it.

In the application of a law when the substantive has been agreed to, the full implementation is still subject to the procedural part.

The implementation of hudud is subject to that tough, strict procedural aspect of the law, where the burden of proof and the standard of proof is very high.

If you look at the burden of proof and the standard of proof where hudud is concerned, it seems like it is almost impossible to implement.

But again from the religious aspect of the law, hudud has to do with ibadah (worship). It is about managing and controlling the society to ensure that no bad deed occurs in the society.

Our problem is that too much concentration is placed on the substantive and not enough on the procedural part. I believe that if the procedural part of hudud is also explained to the public, it can be accepted in a way. After all it is a law.

And Malaysia being a Muslim state, we can be a model of how that kind of law is implemented in a modern society. The substantive and procedural aspects are both important. Only if these two are brought together can hudud be presented as a just law.

So you think that hudud can fit in with moderation?

It has to. Only if these two are brought together can it be presented as a just law.

Islam is getting such a bad name internationally thanks to the actions of militant groups like Abu Sayyaf, Al-Shabab, IS, and Boko Haram – why are young Muslims attracted to such violence, beheadings, and rape?

My answer would first be, are these organisations really Muslim or are they something that have been invented to give that negative image of Islam?

And if these organisations are invented by these so called Muslims, whatever they invented is wrong because that is not the true face of Islam and they cannot be representing Islam and the Muslims. Islam means peace, Islam means tolerance, Islam means living together with others.

Why is there a huge attraction especially among the young to these kind of activities and organisations? From my observation, it is due to the lack of knowledge. People are attracted to the word jihad (struggle) and shahid (martyrdom).

People are attracted to all these beautiful terminologies, but if those terminologies are interpreted wrongly, they can give a very negative image of the true teaching of what the religion is.

The attraction is because of the lack of knowledge.

If you look at where the activities are concentrated, you will see that they are happening mainly in the Middle East. Why? Because of the tyranny, the oppression that people are suffering in that part of the world, so the need for the people to revolt against that tyranny and oppression is obvious.

Certain quarters are making use of that spirit to revolt and they put the name of religion in there.

It is a multi-pronged strategy. You hit a regime to bring it down and you hit one of the most important “enemies” of the Western world, which is Islam.

So it’s hitting two birds with one stone. That is how I see it.

One of the things I am going to do with GMM is to tackle the issue of Islamophobia. Not just programmes to counter terrorism or extremism, but also to tackle the root causes of why it happens.

That is why I would like to engage with groups locally and internationally on what some of the remedies can be to tackle the root of the problem, of why people are going for extremism or terrorism. We want to understand why. Is it because of a wrong understanding or because of where they get their information from? This is something we are going to look at.

If you say IS and other militant groups are a foreign invention and some groups are simply using Islam to do things which are unIslamic, if Muslims’ religion is being hijacked in this way, what are Muslims doing to take it back?

Sadly, Muslims are in a state of denial. We fail to be more proactive in promoting the real, true teachings of Islam.

We are more responsive to the negative promotion of Islam, which is being perpetuated by the small groups of extremists and so on. We are “busy” with the wrong priorities. I am not sure what these are. But we are “busy”.

There is a need too not to just put the blame on the leaders because in Islam, when we talk about Islam and leadership, it comes at different levels.

It comes from a father in the house, a penghulu (village chief) in the kampung, a cikgu (teacher) in the sekolah (school), and so on.

So if all these leaders make the effort to educate, to nurture a true understanding of Islam, I think that will help us counter the militant extremists.

But it is easier said than done. It comes back to each and every individual, and leaders of all levels, to take that action.

If not, if we were to just put the blame on the leaders of the country or on Jakim or the mosques, for example, we would just keep blaming others without looking at the responsibility we should take ourselves.

Since you mentioned Jakim (Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia), what do you think about sending YAPEIM (the Malaysian Islamic Economic Development Foundation) funds to Paris and to the United States to conduct marriage courses ?

I think all agencies use government funds for programmes organised overseas, whatever the programmes are. If we are referring to that YAPEIM programme, personally, I haven’t really followed it in detail and it has turned into a political debate now.

To me, if that kind of fund is being used wrongly, that is wrong and I am not for it. Funds of that nature should be used according to what the purpose of the collection was. If there is any wrong, and there is real evidence of it, then the authorities should take action against whoever is involved.

But surely there are Muslims whom we can engage in these countries to conduct such courses if there is a need for it (for a fraction of the cost). Why the need to spend hundreds of thousands of ringgit for a delegation from Malaysia to do that?

I don’t know if that is really the case. But if there is any wrong and there is real good evidence (to back this up), then the authorities should take action against whoever is involved.

You cited southern Philippines and southern Thailand as examples of Malaysia’s success in promoting moderation internationally, but southern Philippines is still very volatile with Abu Sayyaf and the beheadings and kidnapping for ransom, and southern Thailand is equally chaotic with bombings so these are not success stories. What do you say?

I believe in the basic principle of self determination, which is that an independent and sovereign country should be run according to its own beliefs and own law.

What we have contributed in both southern Thailand and southern Philippines is to help them negotiate.

Of course, we cannot interfere with the details of how they are running their own country. That is none of our business. We have facilitated in easing the tension between the parties concerned and by getting them to the negotiating table. That is how I measure the success.

We cannot be telling them that they should do this or that. I don’t think we will let other countries to do that with Malaysia. People giving ideas about this and that is very much welcomed, but going into details is something we shouldn’t be interfering with.

Isn’t GMM preaching to the converted because those who show up for their programmes are already moderates? What it hasn’t done is to engage in discussion the people deemed to be extremists and terrorists. Would you like to engage with these groups?

I will take note of that. We are going to have a lot of international engagements. We are going to have our next round table in Jakarta in January and we are going to follow through with all the Asean nations.

All that is part of the Langkawi Declaration that we agreed upon. I have also got a list of programmes that I am going to attend in Australia, the US, Kazakhstan and so on and so forth.

From my own personal planning I have to do a bit of PR for the first few months then we will go into communicating with the sections and segments of the society and organisations as you mentioned. I also believe there is a need not just to talk to the converted.

That would be an interesting challenge to find why.

I am concerned with Malaysians students overseas especially those in the Middle East who will be exposed to all different kinds of activities. This is one of the segments that I would look into.

We don’t want them to come back with all kind of funny ideas about doing changes. Yes, we must do changes but that change must happen within the framework of our constitution and our cultural Malaysian thing.

We shouldn’t be bringing something from outside which is negative.

They can come in with all the positive things. But if they come in with all these extremists ideas, I fear that we could develop into a nation which is not good for the future.

But Malaysia has become very intolerant when it comes to Islam. Islam is a very progressive religion which allows for healthy discourse. But we have become very rigid and want everyone here to be Sunni and of the Shafie (school of thought) and we don’t even allow a healthy discourse with Sufis, with Shia.

That is the wrong perception that you and the public have.

I have been attending a lot of such discourses.

You might have but Malaysia has banned Shia and Sufism.

There is a need to control for the sake of the nation because if you look at countries which are too loose in managing these things, it will not be able to succeed in a way to put Islam to where it is now.

As far as control is concerned, I do very much agree that there is a need for control. To say that we are blocking all entrance toward a discourse and so on, it is not correct because there are many, many organisations, many programmes are being organised by several sectors of the society, either by the NGOs or even the governmental organisations. They are doing these different courses.

Some of these are not made known to the public.

But if there is no management of that nature, I don’t think we (Islam in the country) would be able to progress as where we are now.

Is Malaysia in the danger of creating a divide among the Muslims by importing the Sunni-Shia conflict we see in the Middle East, especially when we have our students who have studied in the Middle East coming back and we have a small population of people from the Middle East who have made Malaysia their home?

I have not seen any evidence of that kind of importation happening yet. There are quite a number of Shia practitioners in the country. It is wrong according to the law if this is promoted to Malaysians.

But if somebody from Iran comes here to Malaysia and he practices his (Shia) beliefs here, there is no harm and no law that says you can’t do so.

When the regulation is such for the Malaysians it is for the benefit of the country. But if you want to practise your belief within your private vicinity, I think it is not against the law. You can practise whatever you believe in by yourself. The issue is when it is brought within the Muslim Malay community that is where the issue might be.

I would agree for the need of a kind of regulation to be implemented so as to ensure that our Muslim society is in control of the system. But practising what you believe in your own private space is a non-issue. Not only Shia. I heard that there are so many mazhab (schools of thought) that are here which is not really a big issue in the society.

Is the fact that you are from PAS and a former deputy president an advantage or disadvantage?

It’s an advantage. With the little bit of experience I’ve had in my political days, mingling with people is an art that PAS has taught me during those days.

Connection wise now, I have more access to agencies and politicians. So I don’t have any issue in connecting with people.

People may have a negative perception of me. They are free to do so. You started the interview with me just now having a totally different perception of myself.

I only didn’t know if you spoke English that’s all.

And you confessed. Hopefully, you write that also. Your confession tells me the reality. That is a disease. That we don’t even know a person and we can think he is bad or that he must be sombong (proud) but when you say “hello” to him the whole situation changes and your perception of him changes too.

There are a lot of things that I learnt in my MP days and my deputy presidency days while I mingled around with people.

When you were sacked from the PAS Syura (religious elders) Council in 2013, the late Tok Guru, Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, said PAS and you were divorced and asked you to look for a new partner – so your relationship with PAS isn’t the best. Comment?

I have not received any negative remarks with reference to my appointment to GMM. I have met the spiritual leader of PAS over this appointment and he has given his full blessings, and there has not been a negative remark from any of the PAS leadership on my appointment – so to me, that is a good sign.

I am no longer active in PAS so I don’t think it is a big issue.

It is not PAS that I am representing nor is it Umno that I am representing here. I am representing GMM. This appointment is an honour if I can help and carry out Malaysia’s role in promoting moderation at an international level.

I am quite happy as of the last four weeks.

What has been the response of the other Barisan Nasional groups over your appointment because you were never seen as one of the moderation figures in society?

Well, I have not seen any demonstration yet in front of the office (laughs) so I think to compare the amount of support and encouraging remarks, those are more than the negative ones. You can’t avoid negative ones.

Have the negative comments reached you?

Yes, in my Facebook. There were remarks like “It is payday time for me” or comments like “So this is the true image of moderation”. To me, having a negative perception of a person without knowing him is very extreme.

Does it hurt you?

I am used to it. I am immune to negative comments. If you want to be involved in politics you have got to be prepared to be immune to those kinds of attacks. That practical time when I was in politics helped me a lot here.

What would you change about GMM

As I mentioned in my earlier interviews, I am going to take it back to track. This means I want to take it more into the international arena.

I was talking to the chairman (Tan Sri Razali Ismail) about reconnecting the connections that we had before, which did not take place in the last two years like with China, US, Australia and even the UN.

After all, Malaysia still has one more year in the Security Council (as a non permanent member) so that is an area that we can do a lot.

The Langkawi Declaration is going to be moved forward with the agendas with the GMM. We are going to do a lot of Asean capital visits and regional programmes.

What about Islamophobia?

Islamophobia is high on the agenda because Malaysia being a model Muslim I think we have a huge role to play. I have contacted some of the organisations that I know and officials in a couple of the Middle East countries who are very much willing to work together with GMM in tackling Islamophobia and promoting moderation.

You talked about going into the universities to talk to our students overseas?

Yes both locally and internationally. I have already discussed this with our High Commissioner in London and we have agreed in principle to organise programmes in the UK using our facilities in London and GMM will come with whatever we have in as far as our mandate is to talk with the students.

What about our students in the Middle East in places like Egypt where they are probably more exposed?

This morning, a representative of our students in Jordan came to see me and I told them to prepare me a paper and we will work on something. I am prepared to come to Jordan and work on an interaction programme. I am also in contact with our students in Cairo and also our students in Morocco. These are direct contacts with students. I will continue this and I will also use our education relation offices in the Middle East and our embassies in the Middle East.

So is one of the roles of GMM to make sure that our students are not radicalised?

This is part of the untapped market of GMM which I think we should go into.

What is your take on G25 and its stance?

Well, they have their agenda and their own forum here. And Malaysia being a democratic country they can do whatever their strategy and plans are. As far as GMM is concerned I have got to work with GMM’s agenda so everybody play their role.

Would NGOs be one of the groups you will be engaging with?

We are open to all. There is no limit to who we want to talk with. Those who come here come from different NGOs.

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