“Moderates? I don’t consider myself as one of them. What I did as a member of Occupy Dataran was a form of direct action that is quite removed from the term,” says Fahmi Reza.
The artist and activist talks to me in an Old Town in Cheras. He recounts his role in Occupy Dataran, an informal group of individuals who started gathering every Saturday night to coincide with the global Occupy movement. Like its counterparts in Wall Street and London, Occupy Dataran was intended to be an open, non-hierarchical gathering with emphasis on direct participation to decide the actions that they, “The People’s Assembly”, would take on current issues.
Among other things, Occupy Dataran supported the student movement that called for education reform in April 2012. This led to Fahmi’s arrest by the authorities for having camped in solidarity with the movement in Dataran Merdeka.
Fahmi Reza has been involved in various community projects that promote alternative takes and narratives on the idea of Malaysian community. Sometimes, he says, bringing these alternative narratives to the fore requires non-conventional methods that may be eschewed by so-called moderates.
“Moderates are inevitably defined by the community. In a conservative-leaning Malaysia, the term is drenched with notions that preserve skewed understanding about religion, race and political establishment.”
In 2011, Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Abdul Razak first espoused his idea of a Movement of Moderates at the United Nations General Assembly. “The real divide is not between Muslims and non-Muslims or between the developed and developing world, but between moderates and extremists,” said the Prime Minister at the assembly.
Later, the Prime Minister established the Global Movement of Moderates (GMM), with Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah as chair of the organisation since 2013. GMM is focused on promoting a “set of values and behaviour that is morally, socially, and culturally acceptable” in approaching foreign policy and international relations.
But what happens when the term, “moderates”, is disseminated among Malaysians?
Moderation as marketing
The recent scare of ISIS militancy in Iraq and Syria further compounded the perceived necessity to promote the concept of moderation. The fear might be well-deserved: this year, Malaysians saw one of our own citizens becoming a suicide bomber for a cause and conflict halfway across the world. Again, earlier this month, we were similarly astounded to find out about a foiled terrorist attack on Putrajaya by 19 individuals who had initially planned to join ISIS in the aftermath of their attack on the administrative capital.
Still, the violent path that these individuals had chosen to further their political goals is one that is almost universally eschewed by Malaysians from all walks of life. We may reject violence, but is this all that moderation entails? Massive campaigns by both the government and the corporate sector hint that it should mean more.
The Star is one of the first major organizations to rigorously promote the concept. Earlier this month, the newspaper launched its Merdeka and Malaysia Day campaign, #ModerateMY, with a photo-op spread of their columnists, whom the company purports to be moderates.
We may reject violence, but is this all that moderation entails?
The campaign was launched along with these words from the editorial team: “Today, we at The Star have launched a campaign to remind our readers that The Star has always been and will always be open to Brave Views and Bold Ideas – but tempered by the voice of moderation.”
Some hold a cynical view of the effort. “The campaign is a re-branding effort by the company to attract more readership” says Azmi Sharom, law lecturer at University of Malaya. As a columnist for The Star, Azmi was one of those involved in the photo campaign.
“The Star, like any other English-language publication began to notice the loss of readership to online news portals. Branding themselves as a moderate seems like a good way to attract the attention of young, urban, English-speaking population. I don’t mind it though. Every newspaper needs an identity.”
For The Star, their definition of “moderation” stretches across politically vocal figures such as Datuk Zaid Ibrahim and Marina Mahathir. The campaign says that “it’s not a word that belongs to a political party”, but there is the resounding irony. The Star does belong to a political party. As one journalism observer pointed out, these very columnists are sometimes constrained in what they can publish within the newspaper.
What’s in a name?
When used within the context of Malaysian politics, the term “moderates” is as ambiguous as ever. Most of those involved with politics would like to claim that they are in some form or another, a “moderate”. It is a catch-all phrase that seems to describe different things when different people talk about it.
“Well ‘moderate’ is a very subjective term. You know how they say, ‘Beauty is in the eye of beholder’? The same applies to ‘moderates’. Personally, I feel that it is a very risky term to use as anyone can say ‘I’m a moderate’. In the end however, it is your behaviour rather than what you say that defines you,” says Azmi.
As a columnist for The Star, Azmi has written on a variety of issues affecting Malaysia. Over the years, he has written on current issues from fatwas to haze and to MH370. However, a recurrent theme in his writings is obvious. He remains alert to alarming intolerance and the right-wing rhetoric and politics that often accompany it.
“Personally, I feel that it is a very risky term to use as anyone can say ‘I’m a moderate.’”
“Malaysia has always been slightly conservative, but in recent years, intolerant rhetoric has increased in the media.” Earlier this year, ISMA hosted a talk about taking an aggressive action against COMANGO, a human rights organisation, in order to protect Islam. This kind of action, says Azmi, has never been discouraged by the powers-that-be, even with its talk of “moderation”.
For Azmi, a moderate Malaysia is not so much as a set of values, but a condition that the nation should be in. “Groups like ISMA and Perkasa have the right to exist, but we need a more robust democratic space in which these views can be leveled by opposing views without any fear of repercussion by the law. Once that exists, then people will then lean to the middle-path, after having reached a compromise between those two views.”
The term then, implies an organic compromise across the political divide that can only be attained through reasoned conversation. The space for this conversation, however, is often lacking. At time of publication, Azmi had just emerged from court after being charged with sedition for his comments on the Selangor Menteri Besar impasse.
A space for free radicals
This lack of a “robust, democratic space” might be one of the reasons that efforts at moderation are floundering. Azmi had voiced his concerns ahead of the multiple sedition charges made against opposition politicians such as R.S.N Rayer, Khalid Samad, and N. Surendran. These charges came a few weeks after ISMA’s president, Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman, suggested that the Attorney General had been selectively prosecuting Muslims.
Long Seh Lih, of Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR) tells me that moderation is simply a realization among the public that in devising a policy for the nation, it should not be the case of “us against you”. The prevalence of that sentiment resulted in us getting caught up with rhetoric rather than actual substance of the issues.
To that end, MCCHR is working to realize various project such as maintaining the Loyar Burok blog and running the on-going civic education project, UndiMsia. “Aside from those two projects, we also do strategic litigation. Basically we take up cases so that we can spur dialogue about them.”
“We never explicitly said that we are moderates, because there is no point in saying it as we are human rights organisation and human rights is about balancing between rights and responsibilities.”
MCCHR was established initially to create more avenues in which discourse can happen freely. “That is why we encourage people to write for our blog, Loyar Burok.”
Due to their targeted group being the urban youth, perhaps it is unavoidable that their writers and readers lean towards the liberal side. A poll by the Merdeka Centre finds that in urban setting, 41% of all ethnicities expressed opposition to Hudud law, while in rural settings, just 33% of the population opposed it.
“To strive to be a moderate is pointless as we already have many of them. We need more people to offer different perspectives.”
“We try as much as possible to give fair air time to views from both sides of the political divide. The [liberal] perception might arise because of our targeted group, but we never attempt to favour anyone. As much as possible we try to be non-partisan. That is a much more helpful branding compared to moderates.”
Fahmi Reza similarly echoed a non-partisan approach. But he added that we need more radicals, not moderates. “We can’t let conservatives to continue to define what a ‘moderate’ is. To strive to be a ‘moderate’ is pointless as we already have many of them. We need more people to offer different perspectives.”
For him, the establishment have crafted a narrative in the media and in history text books that allows the delegitimisation of some movements through the usage of terms like “moderates”. He points to how a book by Professor Khoo Khay Kim, 100 Years of University of Malaya, did not include the existence of a strong student union in the 60s; and the selective narrative of independence in school history books.
By denying the existence of prominent views on the other end of the political spectrum, claims Fahmi, we have been induced into thinking that even mildly different ways of thinking should be shunned as being deviant.
When Bersih rally was first organised in 2007, the establishment expressed uniformed disapproval and even alluded to the protests as being non-Malaysian. The “otherisation” of who those who organised and participated in the rally was perhaps best expressed by the then Prime Minister, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi: “They are challenging the patience of the rakyat who want this country to be peaceful and stable. That is what they are challenging, not me.”
However, Fahmi makes it clear that despite wanting more radicals in the midst, he is not asking for a figurehead or a politician: “I don’t care about that. Everything is just a game if we leave it up to politicians.”
He continues that it is only because of the effort of the radicals, protest and rallies are commonplace enough nowadays so as to be adopted even by activists from across the political spectrum. “A few years ago, street protests were regarded derogatorily as a foreign practice, but look at it now! They had a protest for Gaza and the police was there doing what they should have done in all of the other protests previously: protecting the people.”
Aside from writing for The Star and lecturing in University of Malaya, Azmi Sharom is also a signatory of charter that established Negara-ku, a coalition of organizations helmed by Ambiga and A. Samad Said. Negara-ku was recently declared by the Home Ministry to be an illegal society. Hence, while being proclaimed as a “moderate” by The Star, he is also a member of an illegal organization, as well as having being charged with sedition.
“I think what Negara-ku and Saifuddin Abdullah are doing is good. They are putting a cohesive response to conservative rhetoric. Obviously it doesn’t mean that they have to agree on every single thing, but at least it takes away the media attention given to ISMA,” says Azmi.
So, what’s the future of moderation? For Fahmi, the establishment of those values needs to be shaken up every now and then. For Seh Lih, moderate views can only happen in a country when citizens form those views through proactive measures and social awareness. For Azmi, the term can carry whatever meaning that people want.
Carefully, Azmi reiterates, “Moderate is a subjective term. I consider myself and [the NGO] Negara-ku to be moderates, but to be honest, if you replace that term with ‘liberal, progressive’ or whatever, I’d still be okay with it as long as that word embodies certain fundamental values which I think are important: respect for the rule of law, institutionalisation of democratic practices and a free market of ideas.”
Our fascination with the word “moderate” may stem from its reconciliatory implications. It is perhaps ingrained within our collective consciousness as the people of a nation of who negotiated rather than won our independence through violent confrontations.
However, without the space for dialogue, reconciliation loses its actual value as unpopular opinions and actions can be dismissed as being “extreme”, or even seditious. The term “moderates” has a place in the political discourse, but it has to reflect the dynamism of Malaysian peoples’ thoughts and backgrounds. It cannot simply be used to dictate the same set of values for everyone.