“In the absence of justice, what is sovereignty but organised robbery?”: St Agustine
Date: November 1985.
The Prime Minister was Mahathir Mohamad. Musa Hitam was the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister.
Malaysia was going through a bad recession. The price of its 2 main natural resources, tin and rubber, was at rock bottom.
The Mahathir-induced “look east policy” was not working to Malaysia’s advantage. All it managed to do was to invite Japanese and South Korean contractors to undertake massive development works such as the then ground breaking Dayabumi project. Little else was being achieved from the policy apart from the mushrooming of Japanese restaurants around town.
“Privatisation” and “sogo sosha” were the in-words at this time. On the other hand, the policy only managed to isolate Malaysia from its customary ally, the Great Britain and consequently, the United States.
Economically, Malaysia was struggling. Nothing was happening. Graduates, local and from abroad, were finding it hard to find jobs. In order to help the graduates, a “graduates scheme” was implemented where graduates were assigned jobs as clerks and junior executives in the civil service and government agencies circa 1986. Things were bleak.
Mahathir Mohamad had managed to consolidate his power base by winning the general election in 1982 after a “power transition” - which UMNO is so well known for – from Tun Hussein Onn. He appointed Musa Hitam as Deputy Prime Minister, a pairing that was so glorified as the “MM” leadership. Both of them were even presented with a motor bike each bearing registration number MM 1 and MM 2 respectively.
It looked like a pairing made in heaven. Although history would later show that Mahathir Mohamad’s political marriages would never stand the test of time, for various reasons which could only best be described as Mahathir-esque.
Elsewhere, something earth shaking and of more sinister nature, was brewing.
In 1979, the Shah of Iran left Iran under cover of darkness leaving Shapour Bakhtiar, his Prime Minister, to fend off the Islamic fundamentalist with the help of the Supreme Army Councils. The exiled Ayatollah Khomeini - whose preaching and sermons were smuggled into Iran in cassettes tapes – came back to Iran on February 1 1979.
On April Fool’s day that year, after a referendum in which only one choice was offered - Islamic Republic: yes or no – saw a landslide vote for the Islamic Republic, Khomeini declared Iran as an Islamic Republic with a brand new constitution. The Iranian Revolution was thus complete.
Nobody in Malaysia - not even Mahathir Mohamad - gave 2 sens to the Iranian Revolution and the effect it would have on the world in general and on Malaysia specifically. The truth was that the Iranian Revolution would be the catalyst for Islamist revivalism all around the world.
Soon, its effect swept throughout the world, the wind of Islamist revivalism sweeping east through India, Afghanistan going downwards towards Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. To the west, it blew through Turkey, Europe and crossed the big pond to the United States of America without even being noticed nor realised.
In Malaysia, the Islamist revivalism saw the Islamist party, PAS, going on a fundamentalist rampage throughout Malaysia. This coincided with the return to Malaysia of firebrands such as Ustaz Abdul Hadi Awang, who would soon climb PAS’ power hierarchy on fundamentalist ticket. In the early 80s, PAS, taking advantage of the Islamist revivalism elsewhere throughout the world and with Iran as the central catalyst, embarked on a series of political assaults against UMNO and the Barisan government in such intensity as yet unseen.
In short, PAS’ agenda was to equate UMNO and Barisan Nasional with infidelity and a vote for UMNO or BN was a vote against Islam. Those who did that would be the enemy of Islam and would consequently go to hell. It was a simple message. It was as basic as it comes.
The mass media referred to this propaganda as the “kafir-mengkafir” (branding people as infidel) issue. The infamous “Amanat Hadi Awang” ( Hadi Awang’s Decree) was laid by Hadi Awang in 1981.[i] Loosely translated, Hadi decreed:
“My brothers, believe me. We oppose UMNO not because its name is UMNO, we oppose the Barisan Nasional not because its name is Barisan Nasional. We oppose them because they continue with the Constitution of the colonial, continue with the regulations of the infidel, continue with the regulations of the ignorant. Because of that we struggle to fight them. Believe me brothers, our struggle is a divine struggle (jihad). Our speech is jihad, our donation is jihad and because we struggle against these groups, if we die in our fights, our death is martyrdom, our death is an Islamic death. We do not have to join the Jews, we do not have to profess Christianity, we do not have to profess Hinduism, we do not have to profess Buddhism, but we will be infidels if we say politic is a quarter and religion is a quarter.”
Hadi Awang was, and still is, a brilliant and fiery orator. His was a potent mixture of oratorical skills and political savvy-ness unashamedly laced with religious fervour. His audience were the farmers, the padi planters, the young Malay in the rural areas, the young impressionable university students and those who were unknowingly caught and swept away by Islamist revivalism. In other words, he appealed to the poor non-urbanites as well as the impressionable intellect who were tired of the Barisan Nasional’s policies and were looking for alternatives.
The Barisan Nasional, under Mahathir Mohamad, did not lack leadership. However, Mahathir was too much of a leader as much as he was a listener. Polemic was a dirty word. Dissent, political or otherwise, was even a dirtier word. As a result, it was a government which lacked any kind of intellectual input. It was a government which lacked any kind of opposite ideas which would provide the impetus for any counter-reactive steps when faced with political assaults based on rural popularism.
(The inability to deal with new and untested issues seem to be the BN's - and particularly UMNO's- real bogeyman. It continues till this very day. In 2008 GE for example, both the BN and UMNO were at a loss as to how to deal with the alternative media and the cyber world. At present, the BN and UMNO do not have a clue on how to deal with the people's grievances and wishes which are being aired daily. This is because their leadership tradition is not based on an orchestral-conductor or same-level leadership but on a pyramid-feudal leadership, where the top only listens to the man directly below him.)
Thus, the Mahathir led government was at a loss on how to counter PAS in general and Hadi Awang in particular. The effect of the Islamist revivalism caused by the Iranian revolution was slowly, but very surely, sweeping the nation under Mahathir’s nose without him even sniffing it!
The government tried to counter the sudden revival of Islam by portraying itself as an Islamist government. The Barisan Nasional’s or more specifically, UMNO’s brand of Islam saw the emergence of the various Islamic authorities, Islamic school, Islamic attire and a more Islamic oriented civil service. Thus, where there were no female students wearing a tudung in school in 1979, the tudung became almost an identifying factor in the early 80’s. Efforts were made to show that UMNO was in fact a more Islamic party than PAS. And UMNO’s Islam is a better Islam than PAS’ Islam. That was the agenda.
However, the government’s efforts to “Islamise” the country as a counter-reaction to PAS’ populist political assaults has just resulted in PAS gaining more and more momentum in their political assaults. In Kedah for example, a village would have 2 mosques, one for UMNO’s supporters and another for PAS supporters. Families broke up just because the father was a PAS supporter and the son was an UMNO supporter. Marriage could not take place because the bride to be comes from an “UMNO family” and the groom comes from a “PAS family”. PAS supporters don’t attend a khenduri by an UMNO supporter and vice versa. Even the dead would not be prayed for by PAS supporters if he or she was an UMNO supporter! These were the scenes at the height of the kafir-mengkafir controversy.
In the universities, the full force of the Islamist revivalism, which translated itself into a war of political idealism slowly seeped into student politics. As a student who was active in student politics in the University of Malaya in the early 80’s, I went through hellish moments and countless confrontations with students who leaned more towards the PAS political ideologies. (There is no doubt that the development in the student movements, both locally and abroad, in the 80’s laid the premise for the current political climate in our country. I don’t think this is realised by the powers that be).
Hadi Awang and the PAS agenda were therefore left largely unchecked. On the social front, Islamist organisations, such as Al-Arqam, were gaining momentum, recruiting not only rural Malay folks but also young Malay intellects as members. The Mahathir led government was at a loss to deal with this sudden rise of a concept which was almost alien to this country. Suddenly, wearing a skirt was deemed anti-social in Malaysia. Going to work or school without a tudung was deemed immoral in Malaysia.
Memali was a sleepy little village near Baling, Kedah. Surrounded by rubber smallholdings, the villagers were mainly rubber tappers, odd jobbers and farmers. These were among the forgotten people of Malaysia. Ensconced within an impoverish surroundings, these were people who had never seen development. The benefits, if any, of the New Economics Policy only spread within a small circle of the Malay elites and the people of Memali were too far away from even the edge of that circle. They were the modern proletarians whose only concern was to find enough to eat and to survive on day in day out.
When hope was not a part of life, what else was there to look forward to, other than to hope for the best in the after world? In death, if one could go to heaven; bath in rivers of milk and surrounded by virgin nymphs, what wouldn’t one give to ensure such heavenly achievements? Thus it came as no surprise that PAS’ ideologies, encapsulated by Hadi Awang’s decree, won the hearts of the people of Memali. UMNO after all was the antithesis of life in Memali. UMNO was rich. UMNO was in the big towns. And of course, UMNO was infidel! And we fight them, we are on a divine struggle. And if we die, we are martyrs.
Ibrahim Mahmud was a graduate of the University of Tripoli (thus was his nick name, Ibrahim Libya). He also studied in Al-Azhar. When he came back, he even made some appearances on national television. But back in Memali he was an orator in the Hadi Awang’s mould. Fiery, enthralling, charismatic and full of religious fervour. Obviously, he jumped onto Hadi Awang’s martyrdom formula to gain his political mileage. And in Memali, where life was hard and mired in hopelessness, heavenly promises would be the only hope left. The people of Memali embraced the call for jihad and Ibrahim Mahmud aka Ibrahim Libya became a religious leader for whom the Memali people were ready to die in order to protect him from the neo-colonialist-imperialist-infidel UMNO led government.
The Mahathir led government meanwhile had no clue on how to deal with the likes of Ibrahim Libya. It branded him a criminal and set out to arrest him and detain him under the ISA. Just how various attempts to arrest and detain him failed is beyond my comprehension as the government has on numerous occasions shown that when it wanted to arrest or suppress the people, it would somehow succeed. On the 19th November 1985, after Subuh prayers (morning prayers), the police surrounded Ibrahim’s madrasah. When attempts to arrest him failed, the police fired guns and killed 14 villagers, including women and old folks. Most of them were rubber tappers, farmers and oddjobbers who were armed with parangs, spears and one or two hand guns. Four policemen also perished.
Memali is proof that the New Economic Policy doesn’t benefit the forgotten people of Malaysia. It is testimony that the politics of hatred, much more when the hatred is based on religious differences, would soon terminate in a colossal debacle. Memali is also about a government which had lost its plot, which had no idea how to deal with oppositions in a proper and democratic manner, in an area where it lacked clear ideals and plans.
Never in the history of independent Malaysia has the might of physical power been so nonchalantly and casually executed on the helpless and weak. At the very least, the usage of brute power against the villagers was reckless, if not downright wrongful and illegal.
Memali is also proof that religious extremism is a time bomb waiting to explode. Religion as a political base and tool is a recipe for disaster. Because religions, to many people, demand blind faith. And blind faith does not require thinking or the process rationalisation. PAS and the late Ibrahim Libya were indeed playing with fire.
In true Mahathir fashion, Mahathir Mohamad sometimes later insinuated that he was not responsible for the Memali incident as he was abroad on 19th November 1985, when it happened. That also insinuated that Musa Hitam was responsible as he was then the Acting Prime Minsiter and Home Minister. Whatever it was, it was during the administration of the Barisan Nasional government, of which UMNO was the leading party, and of which Mahathir was the Chief, that the incident happened.
What does Ketuanan Melayu mean to the people of Memali, then and even now? What does the New Economics Policy (and now, the New Economics Model) mean to the people of Memali, then and even now? If the Judges who were wrongfully sacked and suspended by the Mahathir regime in 1988 could be paid a total of 10 million ringgit, perhaps the Memali people deserve even more.
At the end of the day, the victims were those who perished and the poor people of Memali. Malaysia was reduced to a state of disbelief.
Mahathir Mohamad. Musa Hitam. And the whole cabinet in 1985. Please visit Memali and feel the pain of the forgotten people of Malaysia. And if the Memali incident does not tickle even the edge of your conscience, you are perhaps a lesser human than you think you are.
p/s : Al-Fatihah to those who died in Memali on 19th November 1985.