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Late last year, I caught wind of a new Malaysian organisation -- I hesitate to call it a political party as such -- forming in the UK, based on broadly progressive grounds. This organisation, the Malaysian Civil Liberties Movement, piqued my curiosity and continues to do so as it takes shape. From what I can surmise, the MCLM aims to pursue and secure the civil rights of Malaysians according to our constitution, the law and global human rights standards. It offers itself as a third option in our increasingly entrenched bipartite political system, a kind of progressive voice to keep the real interests of Malaysians on the agenda. It does this by fielding progressive independent candidates (hence my hesitation at calling it a political party), each of whom espouses values I am very much in line with, such as our constitutional right to freedom of religion; our right to be seen first as Malaysians over a particular race, especially with regards to personal identification/legal documents; greater freedom and protection for our journalists and an Equality Act that would guarantee the equal rights of men, women and even transgendered persons.

At least two of the initial candidates the party has put up are reasons to give me hope. The first is Ms. Haslinah Yacob, a past president of the All Women's Action Society (AWAM), one of the longest-running and hardest-campaigning women's rights NGOs in Malaysia. AWAM's campaigns have included mainstreaming violence against women as an issue, not a taboo, where they've met with significant resistance just fighting to implement basic protections for girls and women under the law, and speaking out against violations by state religious authorities on citizens' personal liberties through blatant moral policing. In her brief interview on Free Malaysia Today, she mentions a few topics that strongly resonate with me: the right for children of multiracial parentage in Malaysia, if not all Malaysian children, to legally list themselves as Malaysians first rather than be forced into a particular race on legal documents, an end to child marriage (Malaysia sets different ages of consent for both Muslims and non-Muslims, all of which can be bypassed by parental approval to the marriage), an Equality Act to guarantee the equality of all Malaysians, whatever their gender, before the law and a change in Malaysian culture and thinking about violence against women. It's a big deal for me to know that there might be a feminist political candidate joining the arena, and it's an even bigger deal for me to believe that she might win, that she might set a precendent.

The second candidate of interest is Mr. Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a lawyer and human rights activist who has actively campaigned for freedom of religion in Malaysia. He has helped spearhead campaigns that highlighted the right of all Malaysians to freedom of religion, including the right of Muslims to leave Islam and pursue other faiths, as enshrined in our constitution. His profile on the MCLM website includes a fairly long but informative interview with him on BFM 89.9 about some of the issues he is likely to pursue. The right to individual religious expression is one of the cornerstones of my identity as a Malaysian. It's a big deal for me to think a political candidate may be running in the next election who shares at least some of my values about this topic, who believes that the racial and religious politics underlying our current system is worth engaging critically, and that unity is dependent on inclusiveness, not out-Islamising each other.

It's a really big deal on both counts, because these are exactly the sorts of grassroots activists whom I can trust to ask pertinent questions one doesn't hear enough in my country.

Among the interesting approaches and campaigns that the MCLM is undertaking is reaching out to Malaysians abroad, that is, the Malaysians who effectively want change to happen in our country, but who see no other option other than leaving Malaysia because ours is not a land of taking chances, either with changing our intellectual landscape or our lives. They're doing this partly by appealing to Malaysian students abroad to register to vote, as they form one of the few groups of overseas Malaysians allowed to submit absentee ballots. Malaysia allows only members of the Armed Forces, public servants, students and their spouses to register and vote as 'absentee voters'. For this reason, the MCLM is also behind a campaign called My Overseas Vote, which champions the rights of all Malaysian citizens to vote, even if they live abroad and are unable to physically return to Malaysia for elections. It's worth noting that I too am one of those Malaysians unable to vote by living abroad. I urge you to visit the campaign's website and at least find out a little more about this important and pertinent initiative.

Having said that, there are ambiguities on where the MCLM actually stands as an independent third option. The biggest thorn in its side, an almost glaring crack in its idealist outlook, is that from the outset, the MCLM has openly stated it is pro-Pakatan Rakyat. Specifically, MCLM has offered to vet candidates for Pakatan Rakyat to field in the coming elections, although its policy does include the right for individual candidates it helps sponsor to defer any association with a political party -- a good thing, in my humble opinion, to ensure the independence of the candidates.

The Pakatan Rakyat is a coalition of three parties with vastly different views on Malaysian society: Keadilan, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). I'll go into each of these parties below, with a quick conclusion on why I feel non-association with Pakatan Rakyat is a decisive factor on whether the MCLM can win the liberal, progressive Malaysian public it seeks in the long run, even though political realities now require even a loose coalition of opposition parties working together for Putrajaya at once.

Generally speaking, the Pakatan Rakyat represents current Malaysian society more than the racially-denominated parties of the Barisan National (the ruling coalition) does. It effectively represents the growing conservative Malay Muslim middle class, the traditional fundamentalist Malay Muslim far right and what I am going to call glibly here, the predominantly non-Malay crowd invested in seeing multiracial, socially democratic society happen. The BN, by comparison, still represents the country along racially-divided lines created over 50 years ago to secure Malaysia's independence from the British. The BN's major component parties are the United Malays National Organisation, which represents strictly Malays and Bumiputeras (indigenous peoples), the Malaysian Chinese Association, which represents strictly the Malaysian Chinese community, and the Malaysian Indian Congress, which caters to Malaysian Indians. For the sake of argument, although many Malaysians, particularly of the older set, may still believe in racially-divided politics working together for the common good, this lack of national cohesion has begun to show its cracks over time, as the increasing polarisation of our different ethnicities stand in the way of achieving national interests more often than not.

Component Parties of Pakatan Rakyat (As I See It)

Keadilan: This family-influenced political party, led by Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim (with party presidency held by his spouse, Dato' Seri Dr. Wan Azizah Ismail and his daughter, Ms. Nurul Izzah Anwar holding one of the party's Vice Presidential posts), began as a campaign with the explicit purpose of releasing Dato' Seri Anwar from prison. In 1998, Dato' Seri Anwar, then the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, was arrested on charges of sodomy and graft. Sodomy and oral sex of both the homosexual and heterosexual variety are punishable crimes in Malaysia. Rather than address the obvious issue of the real and present discrimination against gay Malaysian citizens, the media circus that flared up around the case seemed hellbent on creating even more danger for GLBTs in the country -- but that's a different gripe. Dato' Seri Anwar was eventually freed in 2004. He does not, at least to the best of my knowledge, identify as a gay or bisexual person, but he has gone on record to state that he supports legal reforms permitting private, non-commercial sex between consenting adults. Given his association with Islamicising organisations (more on that below), this is doubtful, however.

Dato' Seri Anwar started his political career as a university student in the 70s. He helped found and eventually lead the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), registered in 1971. ABIM's primary focus is the Islamisation of Malaysian values and Malaysian society in general. The organisation's goals are both nationalist, in that it sees Islamic values, Malay identity and Malaysian culture as one and the same, and evangelical, as it has been a key participant in shaping Malay Islamic practices towards a more Wahhabi-centric mould. Over the years, it has won significant ground for the Islamicisation of Malaysia's schooling system, from helping make Islamic Studies a core exam subject to introducing Islamically-correct school uniform options for students. Dato' Seri Anwar himself was Education Minister between 1986 and 1991. During his tenure, he succesfully changed the name of the Malaysian Language (Bahasa Malaysia) to the Malay Language (Bahasa Melayu). This was a contentious issue at the time and remains so, as the argument has been made that diassociating the national language from Malaysia would result in Malaysians believing the Malay language was only meant for Malays.

Keadilan, formed shortly after Dato' Seri Anwar's arrest in 1998 and for the purpose of campaigning for his freedom, had an original membership comprising of members of ABIM and a similar evangelical organisation, the Jamaah Islah Malaysia (JIM). The party strived to present itself as a counterpoint to UMNO, but with multiracial membership and universally-relevant goals. While it did attract leading Malaysian human rights activists and intellectuals at its inception, the party's lack of direction on crucial grassroots issues, eventual partnerships with the DAP and PAS and the then overriding focus on releasing Dato' Seri Anwar from prison came to make the party lose some of this liberal edge.

Should the Pakatan Rakyat take government, Dato' Seri Anwar will almost certainly become Prime Minister. His known sympathies for pro-Islamicisation NGOs are points I think are worth taking into account, especially since it is clear he could use any influence in office to help promote if not speed up the already appalling rate of Islamicisation in our schooling syllabus, and social system at large. While I think it is unlikely that Dato' Seri Anwar would agree to a total Islamic state based on Syariah law, if nothing else, just for the logistics of implementing such a state in Malaysia, it is almost certain that having him in power would put too many concessions in the hands of the religious conservative right.

DAP: For the longest time, the DAP represented the only real voice of dissent against increasingly pro-Malay nationalist ideology and Islamicisation as a fully multiracial party. They were the party one could depend upon to at least attempt the viewpoint of the intelligent non-Malay person when the Malaysian political landscape looked likely to descend into hubris. In preparation for the 1999 elections, the DAP founded what was then called Barisan Alternatif with PAS and Keadilan. This coalition of convenience not only lost the DAP seats, but also damaged its integrity among voters who were uncomfortable with seeing the DAP on the side of distinctly more pro-Islamic-Malay nationalists. The DAP went on to leave Barisan Alternatif in 2001 due to disagreement with PAS over its ambitions to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state.

In spite of these differences, the DAP would once again form a coalition with Keadilan and PAS, called Pakatan Rakyat, for the 2008 elections, where the PKR broke records for the best performance in history by Malaysian opposition parties, denying the BN a two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives). The DAP currently heads the state government of Penang, where it has managed to develop and demonstrate good governance standards.

However, as politics in Malaysia have grown to be drawn along even more combustible racial and religious lines, the DAP has taken a wait and see approach not always to its advantage. With both Keadilan and PAS playing into the hands of Malay nationalist fervour and particularly with PAS's hardline Islamic tact on many sensitive issues, the DAP's lack of comment, or even implied silent agreement, has again tested the patience of its supporters. Tolerance is a first step towards unity, but progress isn't made on mere tolerance. Without a clear plan on how it intends to build bridges with PKR's other disparate ruling ideologies, especially to form a coalition government that would be fair for all Malaysians, the DAP is not in a good place to represent a believable tempering view between Keadilan and PAS.

PAS: PAS, like the component parties of the BN, is one of the older political parties in Malaysia, having existed in some form since before independence in 1957. It has enjoyed both a long history and dogged consistency as a radically conservative Malay Muslim political party. The party's ultimate aim is to establish Malaysia as a full Islamic state, and enforce the full breadth of Syariah law upon all Muslims.

PAS has ruled the northern state of Kelantan since 1990, and enjoys significant influence in neighbouring Terengganu, which it has ruled twice. In Kelantan, and for a brief time in the early 2000s when Terengganu was under its control, PAS made headway in enacting Islamic-style governance. It attracted a lot of flack, again in the early 2000s, when it introduced hudud laws, that is the harshest set of punishments for serious crimes under Islam, in Kelantan and Terengganu, though these laws were never technically enforced due to unpopularity with the Malaysian public. Among the stricter interpretations of Islamic law that have seen practice in Kelantan are same-sex queues in supermarkets, separate public benches for men and women, banning public performances by women for mixed gender audiences, restricting sculptures that share the likenesses of humans or animals and its progressively stricter restrictions and banning of traditional Malay theatrical forms as un-Islamic, although Kelantan is one of the historical hubs for these art forms.

At least since shortly before the 2008 elections, PAS has backtracked on some of its vocal declarations of creating an Islamic state to woo non-Muslim voters. It's also made some small progress in building dialogue with non-Muslims, although PAS remains a primarily Malay Muslim political party. Recent initiatives by the party, such as PAS Youth's campaign to counsel and shame Malay couples caught in popular dating spots throughout Malaysia over Valentine's Day for the sin of being alone together, have not endeared them to many Malaysians. (In contrast, fellow PKR members DAPSY, DAP's youth wing, handed out carnations and chocolates to passers-by on Valentine's.) Real promises on the part of PAS for increased moderation on its Islamist principles remain to be seen, and it is still difficult to gauge if long-term cooperation with Keadilan and DAP could seriously work out, given how different PAS's policies are from its partners.

Conclusion: Pakatan Rakyat as a coalition does seem to share some determination to govern the nation, but lack strong cohesion on how to get there, and on what mutual grounds. Each of the component parties remain relatively autonomous of each other, acting and issuing statements on current issues in ways that can sometimes be at odds with their fellow component parties. The vague sense of togetherness is hardly a means to build confidence in their overall product. Once again, tolerance is a first step towards unity, but progress isn't made on mere tolerance. There is no real sense that the PKR is serious about building bridges between its component parties, and I for one have my doubts about their ability to tap into the needs of the Malaysian public and find a common platform based on that to stand on. Given that the BN's current predicament is based largely on what is seen as its pro-Malay/Muslim heavy policies, facing up to this with an opposition based on pro-Malay/Muslim/outright Islamist values isn't encouraging to the Malaysian on the street.

The MCLM, standing on a platform of a racially inclusive nation, based on our secular constitution and a willingness to engage in finding affirmative solutions beneficial to all Malaysians on the crippling Malay supremacy issue, is a great initiative. But its practice, and who it chooses to ally itself with, even for the most practical and logistical reasons of winning an election, remains to be seen. I would love to see the independent candidates it has fielded participate in the political process as true independents, akin to say, the Green Parties of various nations. If the point of the matter is to bring up issues for debate with the participation of the Malaysian public, and foster real voices of change, then the last thing that should happen is another unreliable body of reform that toes someone else's party line.

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