IN 2006 I interviewed a visibly agitated Imran Khan. He was annoyed because he had come to Malaysia only to be met by a bunch of journalists who didn’t know who he was.
I set out to talk to him about cricket. He was, after all, a legend who captained Pakistan to a World Cup win in 1992. But he was having none of it, telling me tersely that he was in Malaysia as a politician, not a cricketer. In fact, he said, he was here to pick the brains of our then former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir!
Fortunately, I was able to improvise a bunch of questions about Nawaz Shariff, Bhutto and Zia, and the performance of his Tehrik-e-Insaf party versus that of the long dominant Pakistan Muslim League and Pakistan People’s Party. I had also just spent 10 days in Pakistan the month before on assignment and after about five minutes managed to get the aloof gentleman to warm up.
I remembered our meeting when Imran’s party won Pakistan’s election recently. He has a formidable task ahead. Arguably one of the toughest in the world. Imran will be Prime Minister but he doesn’t have a strong majority.
Pakistan always seems to stand on the brink of chaos. A nuclear power, it nonetheless has regions vulnerable to infiltration (and indeed, at one point, was in danger of a takeover) by extremists linked to the Taliban and other unsavoury elements. It has a rich secular history, yet is weighed down by a strong fundamentalist presence. It has a vast varied landscape, speckled with glaciers and deserts, and yet many millions live in dense urban centres.
The Imran that I met in 2006 was looking to Dr M for guidance.
“The reason being that in the Muslim world there are too few statesmen of stature. He brought poverty levels of 35% down to 5% (in Malaysia) and raised per capita income manifold.
“Unfortunately, most of the Islamic world is ruled by autocrats and tyrants, who are impediments to progress,” he told me.
When I pointed out that Mahathir’s rule from 1981 to 2003 was not known for its commitment to democracy – including a similar flaw in Lee Kuan Yew – Khan said: “Sometimes they have behaved in a very autocratic manner, but I think, essentially, the power came from the performance. People don’t mind losing a bit of freedom if so many things are going well.
“Military leaders usually destroy everything, you cannot compare military dictators to these visionary leaders. What they did for society speaks for itself.”
What worried me then, and still does now, is that despite his one-time image as a playboy and strong ties to the West, Imran Khan was not averse to playing the religious card as a politician. Indeed it remains to be seen if his party is going to be a sufficiently progressive force for change.
Citing his exposure to corruption as a key motivating factor for his entry into politics, Khan told me “My main ambition is a socio-political revolution. I wish for Pakistan to preserve its sovereignty and not be the lackey of any country. It is humiliating as a Pakistani to see us as a lackey of the United States.
“I also want the people to understand the rule of law – an independent judicial system is crucial in Pakistan. Finally, I want a welfare state. I believe that the state has to bear the responsibility for its poorest people, the bottom 40% or so of society. I strongly believe that the more privileged you are the more you have to do.”
It definitely sounds good in theory, but just as with the new Malaysian government, Imran is going to find that winning the election is just the beginning. Just as with Malaysia, he is going to find that if you let conservative religious values override the natural evolution of a democratic society, it will lead to injustice and oppression.
Pakistan has some of the most alarming laws and practices in the world when it comes to blasphemy, apostasy and rape. Just an accusation of blasphemy often leads to violence and death. And in rape cases, the victim often suffers further legal sanctions because there are not enough witnesses willing to come forward.
In fact, in these areas it is a blatant warning to right-thinking Malaysians of what can happen if you place too much power in the hands of religionists. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Secularism is not sexy, but its principles are absolutely crucial to building a better world.
Imran’s got a lot of problems to solve and I wish him the best. And over here, we too have better plant our feet firmly in the right direction, instead of waffling around and squandering the momentum of the watershed election.
News Editor Martin Vengadesan remembers thinking that Pakistan’s problems were too great to be solved. He hopes to be proven wrong.