Over the years, as the general election neared, many old friends would want to meet to catch up with the latest in politics. Maybe they think that a journalist would know more of the inside stories — which things are true and which are not. Rest assured though, I say to them, the voters on the streets are equally, if not more, in touch with the heartbeat of local politics.
Typical sessions will basically involve two groups. The session with the non-Malay friends will be dominated by a general view that nothing much is good about Malaysia. A lot of things are done wrong, the country is being managed badly and we will not progress much, we will be stuck in the middle-income trap, and slip further away from Singapore in terms of economic development.
As age catches up with them, some of them indicate they might want to migrate and that they have seen enough, and that racial and religious relations will worsen as there is a danger that a Malay-Muslim dominated government will become more insular rather than embrace diversity. Migrating is an option, even for some Malay families, but to me, the question is where to — in a world that is leaning to the right and engulfed in conservative race-based politics. Even the liberal Scandinavian countries — Europe’s bastion of social democracy — are getting ingrained in an anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalism mode.
The session with the Malay-Muslim friends, rightly or wrongly, could end up with a view — imagined or real — centred on the fear of “losing power”, which is prevalent even among middle and upper-class Malays. I cannot ever comprehend feeling like this in a country that since independence in 1957 has been led by a Malay-Muslim prime minister. The privileges and positions that they fear losing — for example, the power of Malay politics, the monarchy, the official status of Islam and Bahasa Malaysia, and certain economic empowerment and affirmation policies — are enshrined in the Constitution. I have reminded them though that the rights of the non-Malays as citizens are equally protected by the Constitution.
But at the end of both sessions, I often ask them this question — what are they going to do about it, to make Malaysia a better place? And if it is a general election year, are they going to exercise their right to vote? This is where some of the answers might frustrate you. Some say there is no point in voting as nothing will change — most refer to the 2018 results as an example. Some say voting would give legitimacy to a government that they did not select, and others would justify not voting by saying that they are not responsible for the type of government that we have.
And some, in the past, didn’t even bother to register as a voter, saying that the process was too cumbersome. Today, even with automatic voter registration, some will still prefer to give voting a pass despite being critical of the government and how the country is being managed.
If that is the case, I tell them, there is no point in complaining and that most of the discussions are just borak and tin kosong sessions — all talk but no action. After all, it is the empty vessel that often makes the most noise.
And if it is about finding it difficult to choose the right candidate, perhaps one can opt to follow the advice of the Jabatan Agama Islam Selangor, which in the last three weeks in its Friday sermons, has reminded voters about the criteria needed for one to be a good leader and the responsibility that comes with leadership.
While the sermon is for Muslims and the guideline is Muslim-centric, the criteria should be acceptable to a non-Muslim audience too as Islam promotes universal values that are not alien to other communities.
Here are some excerpts from the sermons titled “Leaders and the Future” (delivered on Oct 28), “Leaders and Knowledge” (Nov 4) and “Observing Good Akhlaaq (values) While Campaigning” (Nov 11).
“Leadership in Islam is not a privilege, advantage or something to boast about. It is an amanah (trust), a very heavy mandate and its very responsibility will be questioned in this world and in the hereafter in front of Allah.
“Leaders who are trustworthy, sincere, just and who prioritise the public interest will be in the first group that will be granted the shade of Allah in the hereafter. If (the leader) is negligent and failed [to uphold these values], then it will be humiliation and regret (for) the one that shouldered the trust.”
Indeed, becoming a good leader is a heavy responsibility entrusted by Islam.
“With Malaysia as a Muslim majority country, the candidate that is selected must have strong character, work hard and be willing to undertake initiatives and efforts and be well versed in the diversity of race, ethnicity and religion.
Further, it says in Islam, “a leader must have and practise four traits: namely siddeeq or being honest, in that his personality, speech and actions can be trusted; tableegh or being a presenter that is able to communicate and consult; amanah or being responsible in carrying out tasks, and fatanah or being smart in organising plans and strategies and their implementation.”
The sermon also reminded leaders not to over promise as “a manifesto cannot just remain as a tool or consist of promises to influence minds and people’s perception regarding the future. Let it not be that just because of the craze for power, a populist manifesto is made for the sake of wresting power, whereas in reality, it is all lies on the masses. In the end, the manifesto is justified (by some) as not being a ‘holy scripture’ but (in actual fact) what has been promised should be adhered to.”
It further noted that leaders according to Islam are “umaraa, which is those given the amanah to administer the affairs of the people. Aside from that, the leader is the servant or khaadim of the people” and never the other way round.
The sermon also touches on the point “that leaders must always seek and practise the knowledge of fard al-ayn (relating to individual obligations) and fard al-kifaayah (communal obligations) as commanded by Allah. Leaders that are knowledgeable but do not put their knowledge into practice will go astray, while leaders who act without knowledge will mislead others. Every leader will be held accountable in the hereafter regarding their leadership ...”
“On election campaigning, the sermon adds that candidates and supporters should refrain from speech containing words of contempt and lies. Muslims must not commit immoral acts when campaigning for it will cause Islam to be misunderstood.”
The sermon quoted Egyptian scholar, Shaykh Muhammad Abduh, who said, “I discovered Islam in the West without the presence of Muslims, and I discovered Muslims in the East without Islam. Islam gets concealed and blocked off by the evil acts of the Muslims themselves.”
And as in the Friday sermon, Muslims are reminded every week “to strengthen their iman (faith) so that they can avoid treachery, protect themselves from becoming among those that neglect their responsibilities and protect the state and nation from destruction due to bribery.”
There you are, some guidelines for ethical conduct in an election, although in today’s context, voters might find it difficult to see such characteristics and virtues in many of our politicians.
But still, don’t stay on the sidelines, cast your vote. If not, we might not get the good leaders that we want. Vote — enough of the borak and tin kosong mentality. And whoever wins, we must make politicians accountable so that the pledges in their manifestos will not end up as janji kosong (empty promises).
Azam Aris is editor emeritus at The Edge Malaysia