Tuesday, September 28

Contrasting power changes

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TWO Asian Muslim-majority countries have experienced a change of political leadership (de facto if not de jure) since my last article two weeks ago.

The world’s attention was focused on Afghanistan, where Taliban fighters entered the capital Kabul without much resistance after rapid takeovers across most of the country in the weeks prior, humiliating the government’s forces despite assessments that they would hold out for much longer.

Regardless of your view of US foreign policy — and in this particular case, President Joe Biden’s decision to uphold the policy of his predecessor to leave Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of 9/11 — one cannot be unmoved by the harrowing images and videos that have emerged. In this matter, the most important and credible voices are Afghan ones. The sheer numbers of Afghans trying to flee the country — including those clinging on to the sides of airplanes taking off from Kabul airport — reveals the extent of desperation. Apart from that, there are the accounts of killings as told by Afghans themselves.

Unfortunately but inevitably, today’s social media-led discourse quickly leads people to take sides in a binary manner depending on their geopolitical outlook and religious affiliation: pro- or anti-US, pro- or anti-China, pro- or anti-Islam, and so on. Instead of assessing situations based on the actions of transgressors and the pain experienced by victims, many displays of sympathy and solidarity are instead based on these pre-existing divisions. Thus there is a reluctance among Muslims to condemn atrocities committed by Muslims against other Muslims; even though they would loudly condemn cases where non-Muslims commit similar acts.

As certain Malaysian politicians also weigh in with their views on what is happening in Afghanistan — in particular their concern over the treatment of women, or the notion that the Taliban have changed — I would urge Malaysians to listen to Malala Yousafzai, who recently posted this on her blog, “Two weeks ago, while US troops withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban gained control, I lay in a hospital bed in Boston, undergoing my sixth surgery, as doctors continued to repair the Taliban’s damage to my body.”

Today, Malaysian girls already have to deal with sexism in schools, recently brought into the spotlight by Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam. But we must work to ensure it remains inconceivable that any Malaysian girl would be denied an education altogether.

At the moment, the nation awaits not just a new education minister, but other cabinet portfolios as well — for Malaysia is the other country that has a new political leader, following the steps taken by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to appoint a new Prime Minister according to the provisions of the Federal Constitution.

The mood expressed on social media and in private chat groups is grim, with relief brought only by comedic references to the “efficiency” of voting once and getting three Prime Ministers as a result. Netizens have been scrutinising the new occupant of Perdana Putra for any signs of hope, and the signs are so far mixed.

However, as I write, an unprecedented joint statement by the Prime Minister and leaders of the three biggest opposition parties has just been issued following a meeting between the four men, seeking to lower the political temperature, cooperate to defeat Covid-19, strengthen parliament to check and balance the executive, while agreeing on the independence of the judiciary, institutional reforms and good governance to ensure an environment conducive in the context of the “Malaysian Family”. The joint statement began with thanks to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, for it is the monarch who, on behalf of the people, asked that the politicians pursue these things.

Nearly two decades ago, as an undergraduate student of politics and sociology, I wrote an essay discussing what the future government of Afghanistan should look like following the US-led invasion. There was much discussion on the loya jirgas, or grand assemblies in the Pashtun tradition, that were being held, but I argued that the king should be restored as a constitutional monarch — a situation that actually existed until 1973. I opined that it could be the best institution to rival the Taliban in terms of personifying indigenous authority while ensuring that democratic reforms retain a complementary role for traditional power structures, thus providing political stability and a national cultural focus.

Here in Malaysia, our combination of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy have become truly our own. It is a setup that derives from our Federal Constitution, and will continue to evolve based on the collective wisdom of our Rulers, the functioning of our check and balance institutions, and of course the vicissitudes of our elected politicians as judged by the Malaysian people.

Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of Ideas.