Archive for August 28th, 2016

Things Fall Apart

Chinese thoughts on the Federation


Country of Multiple Nations

Mahathir Mohamad’s views concerning Johor and Sarawak have received elaboration — and dare we say, support — at a number of places (Jebat1, Jebat2, Kadir, Syed Akbar). In his defense, there is a throwback to the old ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ notion of a national ‘race’ or identity and which, in turn, is posited against regional sentiments. Mahathir’s primary concern is that regionality, driven far enough, would lead to, after Singapore, a further breakup of the Federation. This is neither reasoned argument nor fact; it is just a claim.

The Chinese have a stake in those claims. Not least is this, it is better to live in Johor or Sarawak than in Kelantan because there nobody could be free, not even when you go for a hair cut, and not even for the most pious imam.

There is a far more compelling reason to enter this fray: for the sake of a best possible outcome, federation or no federation.

Because ideas tend to be nebulous, difficult to nail down, hence different in feel from objective reality (a tree, a stone and so on), almost all critical terms employed in discussing about the federation have been highly abstract. Consequently, a few points of clarification are called for.

1. National identity. This seems to the pivot of the arguments. For the purpose of elucidation, Lee Kuan Yew is useful. He once described Singapore this way: it is a country united but not yet a single nation. Huh? What he means is this: Country is generic and a commonly used term; nation is political specific. Restated, a country is a composite of multiple ethnics but — and this is critical — already united under a single flag, single government, four official languages and so on. Nation is one country, one ethnicity, etc. This implies a united country is not necessary a united nation; nor does it say which is preferred.

Does a nation exists anywhere then? Those camel-Saudis come to mind. But it’s not even a nation in its definitive sense: It is a family-run dictatorial enterprise called the House of al-Saud; a sub-tribe group, 1975 native population 7 mn, 1985 doubled that; naturally, an impossibility even if every female including prepubescent girl gives birth to two children a year without stop — the poor female of an Arabian species. (The Saudis didn’t have a proper census until the 1970s and wasn’t really interested even after: their agong cum prime minister had been fixed even before birth.)

In the opposite of a single nation, Yugoslavia is another example. The breakup of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR were essentially attempts to fit into the Westphalian (and the UN) notion of a single nation-state wherein a sovereign independent state power = nation, both contained within the physical, geography limits of a thing called country.

Yet, every country outside Europe — without exception — doesn’t fit that European model neatly. Malaysia’s problem is no different. China, even today, never sees itself as an ideological state, such as France or Britain wherein established laws (a Constitution being mostly widely used, as opposed to use of armed force or a family enterprise) make up the means of independent sovereignty. China’s history is too long for all that and so Chinese see themselves as a civilization state rather than as a nation-state. In China’s case, sovereignty rests on culture, predominantly Han. It already has a national identity before there was a nation called China which, over 3000-4000 years, keep changing in size and geography and ethnic makeup. Identity preceded, gobbled then birthed the ‘nation’.

In modern terms, though, nation first then comes national identity. Absent of that is a copycat version, such as Singapore, so that, invariably and as enunciated in LKY, there are multiple identities within a trumped-up nation. Since such a trumped-up nation is diverse, the problem that follows is called ‘unity’. But in what sense unity? Everyone goes under the same flag after all — and why is it preferred? Less conflict? But, here, the counterfactual reality: Scandinavia speaks the same language, only with minor variations. Yet it broke up into Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and they have since lived happily ever after. Ditto Czech Republic and Slovakia. Breaking up, it appears, becomes good, and single language is not a requisite of unity; further evidence of which is the Arab world. Therefore, has the ‘problem’ been imagined? Or, dare you say, manufactured?

2. Federation. Question: What is a federation? Fundamentally, it extents the idea of nation-state outwards, two or more nations or nation-states make a federation. It’s somewhat like, after independent Czech and Slovakia, comes Czechoslovakia. This creates a LKY problem: since Singapore is a country of multiple linguistic, ethnic nations, is it a federation? Of course it isn’t because one part is missing from the equation: ethnicity = nation = state. The state. Applied to Malaysia, the idea of federation gets far more problematic because, introduced into federation, are different histories, sultanate systems, tribal groups before that, and regionality, all jumbled up into just one thing — ethnicity. There are simply no clear-cut demarcations.

Take Malacca in its formative years. When Parameswara turned up at the Ming court of emperor Zhengde (rule, 1505-1521), so the off-archive stories say, the court scribes didn’t know how to place the man on record. If he is the sultan, what covers his domain and where? The sultan’s domain was a group of villages around a river mouth, and what’s name of the river, from which mountain does it flow out? No one at the time knew. All of which says, statehood hadn’t fully materialized and, hence, by extension a nation of Malacca which the Ming people finally gave it the name maliujia to bring into accord the earliest (Tang era) stated term, manlaja. The further back one goes, the more difficult it is pin down a nation and therefore the source of sovereign power.

Because the source of sovereign authority is critical to defining nation, and vice-versa, that, in its turn, matters to the creation of a federation or, under the current debate, in the opposite direction to un-federate. Which part or nation has greater say, or is it equal, and why. The Constitution is no help because it sets terms at only one point in time, at the moment of Malaysia’s birth, disregarding history in their entirety. In such a situation, arguments about federation and, related to it, unity, can regress to infinity reaching this: reductio ad absurdum. Meaning, reduction or argumentum to absurdity.

3. Bangsa Malaysia. Mahathir’s level of political understanding is one of his one thousand-and-one Achilles’ heels so that when he uses Bangsa as a means to create ‘unity’, he puts the cart before the horse. That is, it is a cart not even in existence. What exists though is a single country, one passport nationality, of multiple ethnics, origins, multiple nations and especially multiple federations. That is, Malaysia is a federation of federations, Federated Malay states, unfederated ones, Sabah, Sarawak. To drive such a cart — the so-called nation of Malaysia — Mahathir uses the horse named Bangsa. That was an entirely absurd set-up since race or ethnicity or a distinct group is the product of a nation and not the other way around.

Grouping all the peninsula states under the name Malaya has turned out to be a disaster. It permitted Umno far greater access to an even larger population, usurping sovereign power, beating all nine sultans combined. Expanding Umno to Sabah has further made the near impossibility of removing Najib right away. And then, decades later, there’s still no Bangsa in sight. Mahathir failed because the idea was never meant to succeed; it couldn’t; it became instead a convenient political tool — all the yada, yada about why Umno unites the Federation.

In trying to create Bangsa Malaysia, Mahathir was wrong in his assumption that there is even a Bangsa Melayu at the core around which everyone else rallies. He was wrong that the Malays or the bumis of Sarawak or Sabah want the same things as him, a mamak Malay after all. One final repudiation of Mahathir comes from Shafie Apdal, a Sabah Malay, when he refused to join Bersatu although both men are on the same side against Najib. Neither Mahathir nor Muhyiddin Yassin seem able to penetrate into that man Shafie: He must have seen how, from the lens of history, Bangsa Melayu, via Umno, created more divisiveness than to unite. Among the reasons is their differing sense of morality. Other reasons, practical ones relate to the spoils of plunder within an enlarged Umno. The net effect from the change in party demographics means there is less to be shared among more people with the result that the thieving today has to go into billions upon billions. Why is Mahathir is surprised by the scale of the 1MDB theft? He knew Umno had money politics in his days. Expand the party, expand the membership, expand their domains, you invariably have to expand patronage; money simply has to keep in step. Following which comes the question that dogs Federal-Sarawak relations: who gets more? No wonder, the Kadazandusuns have come to resent Umno so much. In the circumstances, who should Shafie serve? Sabah people or Putrajaya, with or without Umno? This is same position as the Johor sultanate who especially can’t be bribed because they don’t need Umno’s money and especially don’t want it. He was right about Mahathir.

Malaysia left as it were when we found it, might not have been so bad in hindsight, an excellent piece of rojak found no where else. Abstract concepts such as Bangsa are therefore best left to academic papers; the rest of us just want to get on with our lives, better still if we have 2.6 bn ringgit returned into our pockets.

The only thing today that unites Malaysia is the Law, that is, the Constitution, backed up by the Royal Malay Regiment; all else is just political claptrap. That is, Malaysia is not an ideological state, much less a civilizational state; it doesn’t belong to thugs nor thieves, it isn’t ruled by some idiot tribal family claiming to be descendants of some prophet. It is an artifice, like paper printed with dollar signs: what is legal is what can be imposed by force and by a man named Khalid Abu Bakar and behind him Najib Razak.


The Problem of the South and East

Now that we have got the abstractions, along with Najib, out of the way, what’s the problem? Let’s deal with Sarawak and Johor simultaneously because, their grouses although seemingly different, allow for comparison but converging into just one conclusion….

Geography. Nearly all other countries are physically and geographically contiguous, a natural outcome in the birth of a country. (The last country split by distance went to war, among themselves, creating Bangladesh and Pakistan.) Not Malaysia. It is an absurdity in so many ways, and not just because it is separated by an ocean. Sarawak, supposedly an equal partner with the Peninsula, is bigger physically yet has only a small say and if it must beg do so softly. Johor isn’t Sarawak; not their histories, nor geography and especially not in their relationship with the Center, Putrajaya. On practical terms, then, the Center owes Sarawak more than it owes Johor; one is a signatory in the Federation, the other not. At Federal there is representation, but that’s only appearance because Umno is the master.

Resource sharing. Johor has no problem with this. Of course not; it has no oil, therefore, no money to share. This is, instead, Sarawak’s chief complaint and resource includes human resource, such as, how many Sarawakians are employed by Petronas. This gets into the headline because employment, people going in and out, is something that Sarawak has control. Trees and monkeys, jungle and mountains, Sarawak also has control but, out at sea, resource is federal jurisdiction and Federal is not three States together; it is not even Peninsula but Umno. Where ever oil exists, a Petronas project ought to be, on fair basis, and at the minimum, a 50:50 partnership. Instead, Umno sapu everything. (Taib Mahmud got money from trees and land, so didn’t care. 1MDB’s ability to borrow money at the blink of an eye was dependent directly on ability to repay, hence on Federal reputation and asset backing and that, in turn, dependent on Petronas. Fact: 1MDB’s USD6.5 bn raised was benchmark to Petronas.)

Getting a pittance is one thing, but to watch the money taken elsewhere and not put into the parts needed and useful is another. In 2009, 1MDB declared energy investment half a world away. Caspian Sea? Where is it? Whereas right in the front door is Sarawak and Najib never even gave it a thought, a people who, on point of politics, are his kin. (Mahathir is not much better though that came out of incompetency and faulty logic, not immorality.) In the circumstances, what would you therefore do if you were named Adenan? Answer: kick Petronas. The Sarawak-only employment is, in consequence, a manifestation of a dissatisfaction rather than the cause of any dispute. It also goes to show, along with other signs, that Najib has reneged on a deal with Adenan during the Sarawak elections. The latter now says, I helped you but you are not helping me. In Umno culture this is, biasa la: Najib is legendary in notoriety for breaking promises. Ask Hindraf. Or, look at 1MDB today and its promises in 2009.

Underlying those problems is, distribution of power.

Power Sharing. Johor’s power-sharing with Putrajaya precedes the Federal Constitution, going further back into past. That is Johor’s starting point, something quite unlike Sarawak where balance of power and sharing thereof is laid out under Constitutional rules. That being so, there is little to add. If power distribution between Sarawak/Sabah and Putrajaya is disproportionate and unequal, then, instead of blaming the Constitution it is incumbent on the Putrajaya to act in the spirit of the Federation not by Law. The onus is, thus, on Najib, Umno by extension, and not Barisan because within it Sarawak’s voice is no louder than a squid. Again, there has been equality gone kaput. If, therefore, the Federation cannot rely wholly on the Constitution it must also look at Najib’s motives, performance and results. And what’s the score in all areas? Zero!

Identity. Putrajaya is central because, under Najib especially, he perpetuated the fiction that Sarawak/Sabah is subsumed to the federal government. Federal has always meant Melayu.

But, what is the Melayu? This is so open-ended that when it gets more Arabic, more tribal, and more desert like nobody notices, much less acknowledge. Its culture becomes exclusionary, more distant and more antagonistic than what many Malays have tried, not all successfully, to portray all along as tolerant and all-embracing. Enter PAS. Enter Najib, and behind him Saudi Arabia, PAS and Jakim ustaz and imams. ISIS follows. The result seen today would be something unrecognizable at Malaysia’s birth and before that.

Identity, thus, and not just resource sharing, is Johor’s primary grouse with Putrajaya. It explains why the Johor royal house keeps talking about the past, invoking it even: your bangsa has become not our bangsa. This distinction rules out the dispute as one between Bangsa Malaysia and Bangsa Johor since the latter is but a cross-sectional slice of the former. The point of dispute must lay elsewhere, therefore, since regional loyalty can only has as much reality as national loyalty where, even there, it is questionable and never clear cut; Malaysia being what it is. But, hacked through these abstractions, one finds lying there in the thicket, matters that concerns morality, notions that encompass ideas of what’s just, fair, plural, tolerant, fortitude, righteousness and the much maligned word, dignity. One bangsa is simply no longer the bangsa the other knows since the culture enveloping it has long been corrupted and corroded.

Federal failure isn’t, therefore, just the failure to preserve the bangsa, agama dan negara idea — that is the cultural or ethnic elements of the actual Malay but also, and worse for it, its contribution in stripping away the bangsa-self. That is, the sense of loss in the easy-going and undogmatic person; one that’s more human than God.

Sarawak, too, shares the same grouse only to a lesser extent because Putrajaya is an ocean away and they have some powers, immigration for example, that can put a check on the Salafist proselytizing. But because identity has become so political, again beginning with Mahathir, it is all that Adenan can do is play along while inside he could just as well be seething with anger. Not coincidentally, Sarawak is the first to openly reject the hudud of PAS and the first to openly and defiantly permit English into its state and legislative proceedings.

Government. It underlies all the complaints: administrative, financial, resource use and distribution, power sharing, religion, sensitivities, morality. If the Federal government had upheld, even just half the things it professes to do then the present situation wouldn’t have degenerate to the degree it has. The failure of government has been momentous, piling up crisis on crisis. It is so stupid, so inept, and so disastrous that government failure is the byword in the lips of every man, woman and child, even among Umno members who preferred simply to shrug their shoulders and say, biasa la.

Umno alone, Najib by extension, has been acting the ultimate jurisdiction and sole authority in defining nationalism, identity and bangsa, including even its morals (recall, they say 1MDB is not theft). This has been emblematic in some of the greatest failures of the Federation and since Umno has sequestered all its powers it alone must bear full responsibility.


Chinese. As an aside, the Chinese have no collective position on the sentiments of Johor and Sarawak: Is there a difference? Any where we go, we’re still pendatangs. Sarawak is ahead of Johor in regards to the Chinese; no madman ustaz to worry and Najib is on the other shore of the ocean.

Other notes. For too long, Mahathir et al have been promoting the fiction that Malays are super-tolerant whereas other people act the bully. He has been lucky to have compliant people to rule, people who have been tolerant. Now, along comes a super-thief Najib, then tangkap here, tangkap there, and tangkap everywhere. On his heels comes ISIS and 1MDB, and those are just desserts. If Johor and Sarawak comes out spitting, it is not by coincidence of timing. They prove the point that if you keep pushing and pushing, people will push back: the weapons of the weak.

But not us, the Chinese, Bro! We are just pendatang. If pendatang, we keep our mouths shut and so can you, Tun, like the Johor Sultan has so properly advised.

Take a break 老马. Only tell us with your mouth what you mean in your heart and understand, please, where you have been wrong because that’s the truth. Do that, and not only us, the Chinese, but Johor and Sarawak would be happy to join you to break that piece of Bugis pirate. We have to reset everything. Everything. First, though, you have to know where to begin. This whole business is not purely about Najib; he is nothing. Think about it a moment; he is nothing really. The bigger challenge is Malaysia and that starts in the heart, and no heart proves its intent waving flags on Merdeka day. Even thieves willingly do it.

(Pssst. Did you hear, Jebat. Don’t tell anyone: Petra Kamarudin has threatened to kill Chinese, another May 13, if we join the Pro-Tun ANC ‘conspiracy’. Don’t laugh, OK? But, from where you sit, can you hear the sound of those terrified Chinese knees knocking against each other? Send me a quick note if you do. And we’ll order those Knees to shut up; we’re giving ourselves away!)


Oh, not the evening…

The soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes. — Edith Wharton





An Imported Medieval Past: Malay & Yet Un-Malay


Typically portrayed by the Salafist Arab Saudis and their fellow travellers, ISIS, and especially by the Malay ulama and ustaz, the medieval history of Islam is an unadulterated, pure, pristine and sinless world. If only the Malays return to that past, then life would be proper, fruitful and in accordance with the Islamic principles. Rubbish. Such a world is a PAS-Hadi Awang invention. Here is a book (cover pictured above) to prove it, but then the Arab world is right next door to the decadent West.

Titled The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, its writing started in 1314 by a retired Egyptian bureaucrat named Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri. It covers 9,000 pages in thirty volumes, an attempt to fit all of human history from Adam onward, all known plants and animals, geography, law, the arts of government and war, poetry, recipes, jokes, and of course, the revelations of Islam.

In one sample chapter:

That sly and brilliant one
Who grows girlish in his impudence
He appears manly at first
But after a drink is suddenly a woman
When you tell him: “Baby, say Moses,”
He lisps moistly: “Motheth”

That was about homosexuality: manly at first / suddenly a woman. ‘The juxtaposition is one of many in this bizarre, fascinating book that illustrate the sprawlingly heterodox reality of the early centuries of Islam, so different from the crude puritanical myths purveyed by modern-day jihadis,’ said the New York Review of Books in which the passage was cited. NYRB has reported that English translations of Erudition have begun to be published.

That passage wasn’t the only thing of course, reports NYRB. Another passage contains, ‘many formulae for enlarging the penis, tightening the vagina, enemas, suppositories, contraceptives, and other sexual aids, with titles like “A Recipe for Another Medicine that Produces Indescribable Pleasure.


Reading it is like stumbling into a cavernous attic full of unimaginably strange artifacts, some of them unforgettable, some merely dross. From the alleged self-fellation of monkeys to the many lovely Bedouin words for the night sky (“the Encrusted, because of its abundance of stars, and the Forehead, because of its smoothness”) to the court rituals of Egypt’s then-overlords, the Mamluks, nothing seems to escape Nuwayri’s taxonomic ambitions.

Nuwayri draws heavily on earlier Islamic sources, and his respect for tradition usually prevents him from passing judgment, even when the claims he is citing are hilariously implausible. In one section, for instance, he passes on a story about a sexually voracious she-bear who captures a man so that she can slake her lust on him again and again, licking his feet raw to prevent him from leaving the cave. Yet at a few points Nuwayri permits himself a brief editorial comment, as in one section about happiness: “Imru’ al-Qays was asked, ‘What is happiness?’ and he replied: ‘A delicate maiden burning with fragrance, burdened by her ample curves.’ He was infatuated by women.” At another point Nuwayri relays a story from “a trustworthy person among the Abyssinians” about how to escape the charge of a wild rhino: “If the man urinates on the rhinoceros’s ear, it will run away and not return to him. That way, the man will escape from it. God knows best.” One has to wonder if the pious addendum is slightly tongue-in-cheek—a rhetorical shrug of the shoulders.

At times Nuwayri allows his sources to compete with each other, citing different juristic opinions on wine-drinking, music, and the punishments for illicit sex. At least once, he even dramatizes such a disagreement:

The caliph al-Ma’mūn asked (the judge) Yaḥyā ibn Aktham about the meaning of desire, and he replied: “It is the auspicious thoughts that a man’s heart falls in love with and his soul esteems.” Then (the theologian) Thumāma spoke up and said: “Shut up, Yaḥyā! You should stick to answering questions about divorce or whether a pilgrim violates his ritual purity by hunting a gazelle or killing an ant.”

Mostly, the heterodoxy creeps in sideways, in the book’s unapologetic references to supposedly illicit pleasures. The section on the human body includes the sub-heading “On Poetic Descriptions of the Down on the Young Male Cheek.” The section titled “On the Buttocks” includes this poetic snippet:

The eyes of his onlookers gathered around
His haunches, like a second belt  

But Nuwayri is not deliberately sabotaging Muslim orthodoxy. He is merely reflecting a world in which moral prescriptions existed alongside a much messier reality, and some degree of dissonance between the two was accepted and forgiven.


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