After all the spirited calls and consensus that an Indian-Muslim preacher had crossed the line and that some of his statements on the non-Muslim communities were awfully odious, offensive and obnoxious there has surfaced a seemingly sudden, almost surreal, magnanimity about him within segments of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) Government. The Opposition comprising UMNO and PAS had no other interest but to discredit the present government and may have felt a tug of triumphalism that the PH government was being bruised and burnt over this issue.
For a fledgling fifteen-month old government attempting to cautiously build a credible, authoritative and respectable narrative the handling of this issue was not the best of achievements especially in the eyes of both the majoritarian moderate Malay/Muslim community and the maligned minorities.
Yet there is another story to be told.
Muslims in Malaysia are a peace loving and tolerant lot. They have lived in harmony with their non-Malay compatriots for centuries. Those foreign newcomers who marry Malays and embrace Islam become Malays officially, with a special position provided for them in the country’s constitution. That is how liberal and loving the Malays can be.
Usman Awang(1929-2001), Malaysia’s poet laureate encapsulates this spirit of generous socio- cultural inclusiveness in a sajak(poem) ‘Melayu’ he wrote decades ago.
First, Pakatan Harapan’s youngest cabinet minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman who had earlier sought deportation made an abrupt about-turn by stating that the country must move on and then he invites Dr Zakir Abdul Karim Naik to his private residence for an obviously pleasant repast. Then the Prime Minister and the so-called prime minister-in-waiting affirm that Naik could continue to reside in the country. They had, it would seem, valid reasons to take this course of action, both to keep their jobs and maintain peace and security.
Another Pakatan Harapan component, the splinter group from PAS, Parti Amanah Negara has consistently taken a conciliatory course in voicing support for Naik’s continued stay in Malaysia while cautioning him that he should refrain from inflammatory rhetoric on non-Muslims. It is interesting that Amanah’s tack is being widely emulated.
The security authorities who were recording statements and investigating the matter for further action have obviously not completed their work. Their own minister, the Home Affairs Minister, has been rather circumspect and has not had much to say about the matter. In fairness he has stated that permanent residents are not above the law.
It is however most unlikely that as an experienced and seasoned hand who had suffered the ignominy of being defrocked as deputy prime minister some four years earlier, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin will say anything at variance with Tun Dr Mahathir.
Ironically Naik’s influence in spite of his poorly and partly understood largely English language preaching seems to have had particular impact in Kelantan and Trengganu where the Opposition Islamic party, PAS, is better established. PAS, in calling for Naik to be allowed to remain in the country has also cautioned him to confine his activities to normal preaching and not venture into politics.
This concerted effort of the largely Malay components of Pakatan Harapan in the Peninsula to accommodate Naik has somewhat shown up some DAP members of parliament as somewhat vacuous voices seeking his deportation. Yet those DAP parliamentarians calling for Zakir Naik’s deportation were within their rights. They also had widespread support, including from the country’s dominant religious group.
The concession granted to Zakir Naik has to be viewed holistically. Wanted for crimes and shunned almost everywhere he could not return with dignity to the land of his birth. In Malaysia, because of the underlying rhetoric of racist and religious slant of political discourse more than the country’s convivial ethno -religious harmony there are restrictions on the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims, for instance. Zakir Naik’s hate pedagogy did acquire some traction for this peculiar reason and not for any other. Zakir Naik seems to have capitalised on such minor issues in the majority-minority divide to maul and mock the country’s minorities.
But most Malaysians refused to fall for Naik’s taunts. They kept their silence and their peace. They had faith in their people and their government.
How could a mediocre, mean-spirited mealy-mouthed misguided misogynistic missionary take on magnanimous, magisterial and majestic Malaysia?
UMNO and PAS could not however accept that conciliatory conclusion.
Undeniably there is the underlying unique bigness or capacity for tolerance within the country and its leadership which has long been the basis of Malaysia’s stability.
The Opposition, largely made up UMNO and PAS, has been super efficient in taking advantage of the tensions and fissures developing between the DAP and their other Pakatan Harapan allies over the Naik issue.
UMNO and PAS, with their mosquito-sized non- Malay allies in parliament have sought to enter the Zakir Naik fray in a melodramatic and destructive manner by stating that the ruling government was losing ground and it should dissolve parliament and hold a general election. Their agitation had nothing to do with the Zakir Naik issue. A massive rally is being planned ostensibly for this purpose of dissolving parliament. It is obviously inspired by UMNO.
It is reasonable to expect that given the concession that has been made to Zakir Naik he will hunker down and maintain some decorum and civility in his conduct and not harangue and confront those Malaysians who have justifiably called for his deportation. Almost everyone has warned him that he has to behave and not abuse the hospitality he enjoys.
Zakir Naik has survived this storm only because no one wants further divisions in the country. It is not because of his apologies or the muddled efforts at clarifying what he had said.
UMNO has not only lost power since GE14 but has suffered disgrace as it’s two top leaders have been charged for serious corruption and criminal offences. UMNO’s former Secretary General is also in distress with sensational corruption charges. What could UMNO do?
The only way out of infamy, incarceration, irrelevance and possible bankruptcy for both UMNO and its leadership is to resort to tactics to dislodge the currently well functioning Pakatan Harapan Government by fair or foul means.
Zakir Naik and the controversy, confusion and the centrifugal forces he seems to have unleashed have inexorably assisted UMNO’s machinations to discredit the current government which, according to Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, UMNO president, is suffering from ‘political gangrene,’ a symptom that has obviously afflicted his own party.
Political ineptitude is perhaps what he was implying.
With a divisive situation developing the Pakatan Harapan Government has wisely defused it by clamping down on Zakir Naik and calming the concerns of minorities and the provincial authorities in both Sabah and Sarawak.
This was the best and least damaging course to take. Ultimately it was a damage control exercise.
It is time that the strident voices seeking Zakir Naik’ deportation desist from further labour over it. A failure to recognise the dark and destructive strategy of
UMNO and its allies would convulse the government in an unending and bruising battle which would detract from its own promised campaign prerogatives.
Should not the government focus on the overarching task of rebuilding the country from the scorched earth remains bequeathed by the previous government of Najib Razak.
Dato’ M Santhananaban, a retired Malaysian ambassador has 45 years of public service experience .