Marina Mahathir: We Used To Be Normal, Now We're Being Inspired By The Wrong People

With sadness and frustration in her voice and a glimmer of hope in her eyes, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir talks to SAYS' Mei Mei Chu and Judith Yeoh about what's causing the rising extremism in progressive Malaysia, her optimism for the open letters, our last chance, and what Malaysians can do.

  • Marina, you are one of the faces of The Star's voices of moderation campaign. What does it mean to be “moderate”?

    • Marina: For me, I think it’s very simple, it’s to be respectful of one another, to live and let live, and not try to impose your own values on someone else and insisting that they keep to it. To me, being moderate is being normal. Being an extremist is really not normal. Doing things like holding people hostage or blowing up schools is not normal behaviour. I think what people want is to go back to normality, to behave like regular human beings where we treat each other with respect. Unfortunately, having to have a campaign like this says a lot. People are moving away from normality.

  • As a country, we portray ourselves to be this moderate, progressive Muslim nation. Are we staying true to our words?

    • Marina: I think it depends on what you mean by "progressive". If you go to some countries, they are totally backward, economically and physically. Which also means that mentally, they can also be backward. Because, if they are not a developing country, one of the areas they are not developing is education.

      For us, I guess progressive means that we are almost a developed country. People who have never been here and come from far away are shocked to see all these highways and architecture. It is a mark of progress, we are used to a level of comfort. In that sense, we are progressive. Among Muslim countries particularly, we are a very advanced country.

      Progressive meaning that in the way we think about how the faith plays out, that’s a different thing. Unfortunately, we used to be very progressive, we used to be very easy and normal and moderate.

  • What changed?

    • Marina: We are being inspired by people who don't come from progressive countries, who come from worst countries than us. For some reason, we want to follow how they think. I don't see why. They haven’t developed their countries, people are not educated, just look at the literacy rates in many of the Arab countries. I don't understand why we should look up to these people at all. They might have money, but that’s a quirk of nature. They’re somewhere where they have petrol. But in every other way, they are not at all progressive. I don't understand why we should give them any latitude at all. That’s the confusion that we are in.

  • Is it a matter of placing our priorities in the wrong places that we allow this to happen?

    • Marina: I think it’s a constant pull. One thing that is true is that with globalisation, there are people who are being left on the fringes. There is a worry of this incredible consumerism, we just keep collecting stuff. We feel empty inside, so people are looking for something to fill their soul. Everywhere, people are getting more religious, it’s not just Muslims but Christians and Buddhists too. I think this constant human need (to fill our souls) can sometimes lead you down the wrong way if you happen to meet the wrong people. You see that everywhere, and you see it all mixed up with politics. People are taking advantage of this dissatisfaction. In places like Burma and what’s happening with the Rohingyas, it's not about religion. It’s about taking their land and businesses from them. That’s was what it’s about, but it is disguised as something else. That happens here too, that happens everywhere. That is a real problem.

  • There have been a number of open letters and petitions calling to bring back moderation to Malaysia. The first one was started by the 25 eminent Malays. Do you support these open letters?

    • Marina: I think it’s terrific, it’s been really inspiring hope for a lot of people. These guys (the 25 influential Malays) are not nobody yet they put their names down to it. That’s really something and you can see how it has really galvanised a lot of other people. People talk about bottom-up approach but sometimes you need someone to take the lead, and everyone else will follow. Partly because we have no leadership, so these people (the 25 eminent Malays), by virtue of standing, are in a leadership position. At least socially, so it gives the people something to look up to. I think it’s great.

  • Will it make the difference that they are seeking?

    • Marina: I think it’s already making a difference. Everyone is already reacting to it, positively and negatively. It spurred other open letters, endless groups and petitions. It has really started a discourse and that’s great because one of the things they said is that these things (the direction of Islamic laws in Malaysia) should be up for public debate, and now it is.

      There is no turning back now. What is the government going to do? Arrest the 25? Put them in jail? That’s just crazy, these are people who worked for the government. They can't just put them away to stop them from talking. The horse is out of the stable already and there’s no going back. I’m really quite hopeful about it.

  • The open letters made a few demands. What is the spark that they are trying to ignite?

    • Marina: I think what they really want is for the Prime Minister to please respond. Please take responsibility, you can’t let this situation to go on. There is no solution to it, all we do is fight every day, what’s the point? They’re just saying to get everyone to sit down and come up with some proper solution. You can't just keep shouting at each other, going to court, lodge police reports, it's endless.

  • The discourse is being held at ground level now, but people at the top, the Prime Minister hasn't given a response yet

    • Marina: Not at all. So everyone is wondering - What is happening? Why do you have no response at all? Don't you know what to do? It’s a real test of leadership skills. Maybe there’s none, there’s no skill. Not one response, except for the Minister of Religion, but he completely got it wrong. It’s unbelievable. Partly because the issue doesn't appear in the Malay newspapers at all. I think they can only hold it down for so long, it’s like putting a cover on a boiling pot, eventually it will open up. Otherwise, both sides will start saying "Are you seriously deaf?"

  • What if the government refuse to respond? Do you fear that the boiling water under the cover will spill and react into something dangerous?

    • Marina: I don't think so. I don’t think we are predisposed to violence. I think we are naturally calm people. And I’ve seen it before, when the Metro Tabernacle A/G church got burnt down a few years ago, nothing happened. If you go to Arab countries, you’ll know what I mean. On everyday basis, they are very excitable, and we are not at all. That’s something that needs to be appreciated. Who knows, some people keep deliberately provoking, sooner or later it might [explode]. But at the moment, I don’t think so.

  • Young Malaysians are waiting for the PM to say something, they know there is a problem, but don't really know how to help solve this problem

    • Marina: It’s how you analyse the issue: The whole thing is about being able to express an opinion and not be penalised for it because it’s different. It’s about freedom of speech and freedom of expression. That’s what we need to fight for. The space for expression needs to be constantly expanded and not kept narrow.

  • Many people are trying to expand the conversation, people like BFM are challenging media restriction, but the Sedition Act is keeping the conversation narrower and narrower

    • Marina: Well, they can try. I think it’s gotten to a point where they can only do so much. It’s getting sillier and sillier. IGP (Inspector-General of Police) says if you insult the police they’ll get you under the Sedition Act, but the Sedition Act doesn’t cover things like that. I think now people are not afraid. In fact, there are many of us who are thinking of just going to the police station and say "Ok, just charge us for sedition so we don't have to sit around and wait". Because in some of those sedition arrests, the actual case that they are charging people for are several years old. If you’re gonna get me four years down the line, might as well get me now.

  • You’ve been very vocal, are you afraid one day the IGP will come knocking on your door?

    • Marina: Nope, go ahead. You know what they are doing is making heroes out of people. Some of these young student leaders, they are young, they are silly, yet they are being turned into heroes by the government.

      The ISA is gone. We still have an opportunity to write things, we are lucky we are at this stage. We don’t want to become like Egypt and Tunisia where it reached its limit and exploded. They’re so disorganised that Egypt is already back to square one. We still have the time and opportunity to think clearly about strategies so we don’t become like Egypt where we go full circle and come back exactly where we started off, worst. So I think we still have a chance.

  • We still have a chance now, but when will it be too late?

    • Marina: If we do nothing. If we just think "Yeah, I can't do anything", then it will just deteriorate. It’s already deteriorated a lot, so it can deteriorate much faster if we don't do anything about it. At least now, people are waking up, they are putting bricks. What they are doing is they are putting bricks. It’s like a flood, you’re putting up bricks to slow it down. And that’s what we need to do. Keep putting up bricks like that.

  • So right now the people are in the right direction of pressuring the government with open letters?

    • Marina: I think so. I think civil society is pretty active in Malaysia. It’s a lot more active than what most people think. I’m talking to young people all the time and there are all sorts of different groups doing different things. It’s great, very active, very aware.

  • What more can Malaysians do?

    • Marina: Keep it alive. Keep talking about it. Encourage people. All this petitions and all that, promote them. It really does become a kind of numbers game.

  • Read more about the open letters that Marina Mahathir is hopeful for:

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