Skip to 0 minutes and 1 second Welcome, I’m going to speak to you about the idea of freedom in Asia. The title of my presentation is Freedom and Power in a Post-Asian Values Context– Malaysia, Islam, and Democracy. You will learn about the emergence of an alternative conception of freedom and democracy in Southeast Asia, using Malaysia as a case study. I will introduce the authoritarian Asian values ideology, which was made popular by a number of East and Southeast Asian leaders in the 1990s, and how it was fused with Islamic social and political values in Malaysia. Then, I shall explore what I see as the start of a new post-Asian values period.
Skip to 0 minutes and 43 seconds I shall ask what challenges recent democratic interpretations of Islamic politics pose, and ask how a multiracial, multi-religious society can function democratically. I will conclude with some questions about the future development of this project of Islamic democracy. The aim of this presentation is not to lend moral support to this Islamic democratic project but to show you how reform ideas emerge out of a particular local tradition, which is informed by society’s cultural and religious sensitivities, and yet, still, on so many levels, shares the democratic aspirations of societies all over the world. Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy located in Southeast Asia.
Skip to 1 minute and 29 seconds It compresses two main parts– peninsula Malaysia, which is south of Thailand and north Singapore, and East Malaysia or Malaysian Borneo, which borders the kingdom of Brunei Indonesia’s part of Borneo, Kalimantan. A former British colony, release Malaysian politics, after achieving independence in 1957, has been marked by its communal nature. At the federal level, it has been ruled uninterrupted by a large coalition of political parties, the majority of which are ethnic-based. The tone of the country’s governance has always been set by the United Malays National Organisation, UMNO, which members come from the majority ethnic Malay population. As per constitutional definition, the Malays must also be Muslims. Although the Malays form the majority of the population of Malaysia, it is not by much.
Skip to 2 minutes and 21 seconds Malaysia and Southeast Asia by extension is the home of a diversity of cultures, including ethnic Chinese, Indian, and other native communities who practise a multitude of faiths, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and various native regions. Since the early 1990s, many political leaders in East and Southeast Asia began to speak of the supposed uniqueness of the cultural traditions of the Asian people, pitting these against what they perceived as an onslaught of Western liberal democratic values. Here in Asia, according to leaders like Mahathir Muhamad of Malaysia and Lee Kwan Yu of Singapore, people hold to values that are distinctly Asian.
Skip to 3 minutes and 5 seconds Unlike Western values, which emphasised on civil liberties, individual freedom, political pluralism, et cetera, Asian values give primacy to political stability, strong leadership, consensus over dissent, collective over individual interests, filial piety, and social harmony. Society is seen as needing order and guidance by paternalistic authority figures. These ensure the path towards physical development and material prosperity. While a fully democratic framework may work in a Weston context, in an Asian context, some form off authoritarian rule is unavoidable, so the Asian values argument suggests. In Malaysia, to appeal to its Muslim majority population, efforts were made to justify the Asian values ideology on an Islamic platform.
Skip to 4 minutes and 0 seconds Mahathir, who ruled from 1981 to 2003, began to embark on an Islamisation mission to instil Islamic values into the political culture of the society. This fusion between authoritarian governance and Islamic values became a recipe for success for Mahathir and his administration, giving him continuous electoral success throughout his tenure. Today, the popularity of Asian values as an ideology has waned for a number of reasons. However, while Malaysian politics is experiencing a post-Asian values era, the presence of an establishment with authoritarian inclination is still in place. As a result of rapid industrialisation alongside authoritarian rule in the 1990s, information, including political information, spread far and wide across the population.
Skip to 4 minutes and 53 seconds Especially, the younger generation developed a more pronounced political consciousness, wanting to render Malaysian politics more democratically vibrant and respecting the plural nature of its society. While opposition and descent had always been present throughout Malaysian post-independence history, articulating an alternative vision robust enough to challenge the hegemony of the establishment and raising an electoral opposition big enough to challenge the establishment’s sheer size and resources had always been difficult in Malaysia. One of the greatest challenges in articulating an alternative is to think about one that would appeal to the sensitivities of the majority local population. Add to that, there is also a need to think about an alternative that is palatable enough to others, i.e.
Skip to 5 minutes and 40 seconds the religious minorities, to get them on board the route to reform. This is the context for the recent rise of Islamic democratic thinking in Malaysia. While for quite some time the establishment’s Islamisation project had created an exclusivist outlook to Islam, one that sits squarely within the enclave of Malay communalism, proponents of Islamic democracy have been attempting to present a more inclusive account of Islamic politics. This is an attempt to reclaim Islamic politics, by departing from longstanding defensive, protective, and reclusive positions. While this project is not just about freedom, it is also about democracy and therefore must remain grounded in the religious sensitivities off the majority.
Skip to 6 minutes and 30 seconds Influenced by modern interpretations of Islam’s relationship with democracy, such as the thoughts of the Tunisian philosopher activist Rashid [? Ghannushi, ?] you will find supporters of this view in different sections of Malaysian society, from civil society to the political parties, even within establishment circles. And interesting example relates to Malaysia’s opposition politics and the main Islamist political party the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS. For a long time, PAS and UMNO had been on collision course to win the hearts and minds of the largely conservative and traditional Malay Muslim population, with one always trying to out-Islamize the other, often at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities.
Skip to 7 minutes and 18 seconds The influence of Islamic democratic thinking, however, has managed to realign PAS’s political outlook, even leading to it to enter into a coalition known as the Pakatan Rakyat, the People’s Pact, with the secular Socialist Democratic Action Party, DEP, and the secular Liberal People’s Justice Party, the PKR, in the run up to Malaysia’s twelfth general elections in 2008, which contributed to unprecedented electoral success, denying the ruling correlation its customary 2/3 majority in parliament.
Skip to 7 minutes and 53 seconds Although there were a number of reasons for this, PAS’s embrace of a broader approach of Islamic politics, which moves beyond the old believe that justice could only be ensured through Islam’s monopoly of power and the establishment of a Sharia state, has been crucial in drawing support from ethnic and religious minorities. The most profound shift has been its acceptance of the more cross-cutting notions of good governance, civil liberty, free and fair elections, social welfare, and pluralism, in addition to an open rejection of communal politics. All of which are set to be upheld through Islam through its fundamental sources, the Quran and the Sunnah.
Skip to 8 minutes and 39 seconds There is hope amongst many that Islamic democratic thinking could affect a change in the general political makeup of the country, especially in the everyday life of the people, through a cultivation of a democratic ethos that fosters rather than stifles diversity and pluralism. The language that is deployed here, however, at least, at the moment, will not be that of liberal democracy, given the reality of the cultural makeup of the society. This, ironically, by and large, agrees with Asian [? values’s ?] diagnoses of the cultural relativity of the Asian people vis-a-vis the people in the West.
Skip to 9 minutes and 16 seconds Moving forward, if the inculcation of the values of Islamic democratic reforms were to be successful, supporters must face up to queries about the resilience of its project. While accommodating religious minorities could be unproblematic, could it, in the future, accommodate demands of emergent identities, such as sexual ones? With strength, is there a danger of its own potential retreat into an authoritarian mode? What other kinds of limits that it would set as far as freedom and liberty go for people should its values become a reference point for a future framework of governance?
Islam and freedom
In this video, Khairil Ahmad, assistant professor at the the International Islamic University in Malaysia, argues that the much-cited idea of specifically ‘Asian values’, meaning that liberalism has to take a unique, non-Western form in the context of Asia, is an expression not so much of cultural specificity, but rather a ploy to prop up authoritarian regimes and restrict the natural emergence of liberal politics.
How should we respond to those who argue that liberty and freedom are Western constructs, that are not suitable for particular societies? And what exactly do we mean by a ‘non-Western society’? Does its definition depend on geography, ethnicity, or on religion? Which of these, if any, are important in necessitating some ‘translation’ of so-called Western political ideas into a new context?
Please see the Resources Bank section in week 5 for Khairil’s references and suggestions for further reading.
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