“The real world is much bigger than that created by Umno.”
- Zaid Ibrahim
The last time I wrote about Zaid Ibrahim was when he joined the DAP. I said - “Here is a man who has done everything to alienate the political establishment by espousing views that are anathema to mainstream Malaysian politics.” Reading the latest edition of his book, ‘I, too am Malay’, what sticks out is that Zaid Ibrahim, despite what his critics claim, has pretty much carried the same tune ever since he quit Umno.
Discussing “Malay” issues is problematic. The race discourse in this country - as it is everywhere else - is toxic. Non-Malays either venerate Malays who think their way or mock those who are on the opposite side of the political divide. Malay oppositional politicians have to navigate between conforming to mainstream non-Malay expectations and Malay communal concerns, which is often mischaracterised by people who claim they are not “racist” but have no problem attributing damaging stereotypes on the Malay community in their war against Umno.
Zaid Ibrahim’s book - its various editions have been translated to Chinese and Malay but sadly no Tamil version (yet) - is a narrative that seeks to explore his “Malayness” that goes beyond the constitutional definition of his community and reaffirm values, both secular and religious, in a time when the country is at a crossroad. Since this is the latest edition, what we soon begin to realise is that the country has always been at a crossroad.
Nothing is off limits in this book and Zaid Ibrahim pulls no punches when it comes to Umno, “Malay” supremacy, Islam and the future of the Malay community. This is a book by a political insider who has no problem burning his bridges in an effort to expand upon his greater truth. While some view his “not playing well with others” reputation as detrimental to the groupthink of the opposition or establishment, I believe the unpredictability serves a purpose.
The problem with Zaid Ibrahim is that he is a politician who believes in ideas when he is operating in an environment that rejects grand ideas in favour of banal pragmatisms and political bromides.
One of the best chapters in the book, ‘What happened during Ramadan (2016)’, is a chronology of public events that show the mean-spiritedness of public officials and religious bureaucrats at a time when they were supposed to demonstrate piety and compassion. It is a description of events that is related in a matter-of-fact manner, but underneath the placid prose is a disdain for the hypocrisy of those who claim to have the moral high ground but are willing to use the low road to achieve their goals.
It is also another opportunity for Zaid to elaborate on the inner workings of a system and officials who have very little to offer when it comes to ideas that encourages inclusivity in a month that demands such, but rather the hypocritical pontifications on race and religion is all that the regime and Islamic types could muster.
Sometime back, when I interviewed Zaid Ibrahim, the discussion revolved around Islam. When it comes to “Malay” identity and Islam, Zaid’s answer was interesting because as usual it touches on issues which he has been talking about for a very long time.
From the 2012 interview - “Islam in Malaysia will not allow a Malay to be a non-Muslim. Some Islamic scholars however say that there is no compulsion in the religion. But scholars have no influence in Malaysia; only religious bureaucrats. Nurul (Izzah) is brave to express an opinion; but in Malaysia, Muslims have no right to an opinion on their own religion. They can be punished. Only the state can issue opinions...