Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Between the Idea and the Reality

Exactly a week ago I found myself at St Catherine's College, listening to none other than Anwar Ibrahim speak. You heard me right. Anwar Ibrahim. Former Malaysian Minister of Finance and heir apparent to Mahatir, that is until he got chucked into jail on charges of corruption and sodomy. He's in Oxford now on a visiting professorship - it's so cool that Oxford draws the most eclectic people from far and wide. It was a really interesting talk, "From Paradiso to Inferno", touching on the years 1997-8 when the Asian Financial Crisis struck. I was quite impressed when he started off by quoting Dante:

A heavy clap of thunder startled me up
As though by force; with rested eyes I stood

Peering to find where I was--in truth, the lip
Above the chasm of pain, which holds the din
Of infinite grief: a gulf so dark and deep

And murky that though I gazed intently down
Into the canyon, I could see nothing below.

He spoke about what he did as Finance Minister and how he tried to push for reforms to the system so as to combat corruption. He said he met with great opposition, and he also basically said that it was his personal war on corruption that led to his fall: he was making it harder for the former PM to favour his own, especially his children.

He impressed me further by quoting Amartya Sen (Nobel Prize winner for Economics and formerly of Oxford) on his theory of development as freedom, and proclaiming that Asian Values were clearly overrated. Arguments about the need for example, to curtail freedom of speech in order to maintain racial harmony and guarantee national security have been used since the 1960s - surely we have moved on since then. He stressed the importance of freedom and democracy, specifically expressed in the institutions of an impartial judiciary and a free press, as the best way to fight corruption and encourage greater growth.

During the question and answer session I stood up and said "You say that the way to combat corruption is through having freedom and democracy. I was just wondering what you think about the experience of Singapore as compared to Malaysia in the fight against corruption, especially given the fact that Singapore is, well..." People started laughing, and because I'm so incredibly politically correct, I didn't go on to state the obvious. He smiled and said that clearly Singapore was much more successful than Malaysia in dealing with corruption. And this is something that Malaysia always has trouble admitting - that Singapore is better at it in anything. But he insisted that Singapore could still do with greater freedom. And besides, corruption is sometimes a matter of defintion, is it not? It made me think about how it is possible, while not breaking the letter of the law (and hence not being legally culpable) one is still clearly capable of breaking the spirit of the law.

He also spoke about the "Chinese problem" and the bumiputra policies. He said that there clearly needed to be more equality, and in the cases where there was to be affirmative action, it should apply equally to all races: the Indians on the plantations, the Chinese in the urban slums and the Malays in the rural areas. He said he'd often had arguments with fellow Malays about the matter, and he always pointed out how it was impossible to be a just Muslim if you were to deny, say for example, an accomplished Chinese student a seat at the university on the basis of race.

He was very funny and engaging and I could see why the Economist had said that he was the most charismatic Malaysian politician of his generation. He spoke about the difference in the extent of corruption in Indonesia and in Malaysia. In Indonesia they just ask you for bribes outright, but in Malaysia they were a bit more subtle. "We were trained by the British you see, the Indonesians were trained by the Dutch," he said, to much laughter all round. He talked about his time in jail. "There wasn't much to do in solitary confinement; read, sing, you name it, I sang it all, Elvis Presley and all that."

He looked perfectly fine and healthy which was surprising. He said he had been beaten quite badly in jail but that his operation in Germany had more or less got him back on his feet. He said that he did not regret anything that he did, except for the pain that it had inadvertantly caused his family.

Later on during tea at the Rector's Lodgings I got to speak with him. I asked him what role moderate Islam (as practised in Malaysia and Indonesia) had to play, in the light of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. He said that he was writing a paper on that and that it would be published soon. I then asked him what he thought about Mahatir's incendiary and controversial comments about the West (I distinctly remember him accusing the Jews of conspiring against the Islamic states during the height of the financial crisis) and how he thought it affected relations between Islam and the West. He said that Mahatir was a clever guy and that he knew just how to appeal to Muslims all over the world. When you consider that their options are rather limited (Saddam, Osama, the Saudi King), it is not difficult to see why Muslims would respond positively to someone like Mahatir (a moderate in comparison).

I also had a chance to speak to his wife, Dr Aziza, MP of Penang as I understand it (yay Penang! I have family there :) She seemed really nice and gentle. I asked her what she thought was the role of women in an Islamic society. She spoke about how in the beginning there was Adam and Eve and that is the way God made it - men and women were meant to be partners in this world, but this did not mean that women should be treated like men. She talked about the differences between men and women, women had to bear children, biologically we have a different make-up etc. I asked her if that then meant that men and women have different roles in society, women at home and men in the workplace. She said that women should be in the workplace as well, but that differences should still be taken into account. Do you mean in terms of maternity leave, childcare subsidies and so on and so forth? Yes, she said, and she spoke of recent efforts to extend maternity leave.

She said that a man once asked the Prophet whom he should respect, and the Prophet replied "Your mother. Your mother. Your mother." Women were clearly worthy of great respect. But I kept wondering if, in conservative Islamic societies, it was the case that women only gained the greatest respect as mothers, and that implicit in all that she had said, was an admission that women could never really be "on par" with men, and that "difference" was just another word for inequality. She spoke about how it was important to be gentle and genteel and to be respected when conducting oneself in the political arena - that was how she got things done. But at the same time I wondered how much that respect was contingent on her being the wife of Anwar Ibrahim. Don't get me wrong, she seemed perfectly nice and respectable, and I'm thrilled that she's an MP, but I am still rather sceptical of the prospects of gender equality in a conservative Islamic state like Malaysia, at least for now.

Later that night I spoke to my dad and told him that I'd seen Anwar Ibrahim speak. We have lots of family in Penang (some of them rather well placed) and my dad told me that according to a very reliable source, Anwar Ibrahim had had a very mutually advantageous relationship with one of the prominent Chinese businessmen in Penang. It might not have been a case of straight out corruption, but like Mr Ibrahim himself said, it's a matter of how you define corruption, isn't it? Cherfarn said quite humorously and quite accurately that it was not a matter of whether you were muddy or clean, but how muddy you were, because everyone was dirty. It is a matter of degree, so where do you draw the line?

In his speech, Mr Ibrahim also quoted (much to his credit) T.S. Eliot. It was particularly apt.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

- from 'The Hollow Men'

I was speaking to Dr Aziza when they had to leave. "Thanks for coming," she said, "And God Bless."

"Thank you," said I, "God Bless you too." I thought it was nice that we could say that to each other meaningfully, even though we had different conceptions of God.

I really enjoyed the session and it really made me think. They were both very pleasant and approachable, and I do hope to God, for his sake and for his country's sake, that Mr Ibrahim is innocent of what they charged him with. And also, that he truly means what he says.

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