It has been widely reported that you won’t be meeting Malaysia’s Opposition Leader, Anwar Ibrahim, during your upcoming visit to Malaysia.
If this is indeed true, it would be an astonishing betrayal by a country that has often portrayed itself as a world champion of democracy and human rights. It sends an unmistakable signal to corrupt and abusive governments everywhere that disrespect for human rights and the curtailing of democratic governance will be overlooked in exchange for pro-American policies.
Mr. President, you should re-read the US Declaration of Independence and remind yourself of American’s guiding principles, particularly the part about being endowed “with certain unalienable Rights… [including] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The inalienable rights of Malaysians are under threat today as never before; all democratic nations should rightly be concerned.
If such rights are only for Americans, America has no right to claim moral leadership in the world, but if they be for all men, as America’s founding fathers clearly intended, you, Mr. President, have a moral obligation to passionately affirm and defend them both in word and deed wherever you go.
It cannot be that you are unaware of what is going on in Malaysia – the corruption and abuse of power, the tainted elections, the harassment and jailing of opposition leaders, the racial and religious incitement, the intolerance of dissent, the narrowing of our democratic space. No, one has to reach the unhappy conclusion that you have chosen to remain silent, to close your eyes, to shut your ears to what’s going on in order to maintain good relations with the Najib Administration for political and economic gain and strategic advantage.
To provide yourself with political cover, your administration has taken to referring to Malaysia as a “moderate Islamic democracy.” That is nothing more than a chimera built on Malaysian government propaganda.
In the first place, there is no such thing as an “Islamic” democracy or a “Christian” democracy for that matter; a nation is either democratic or it is not. And increasingly we are not.
Of course, the majority of our people are Muslim and proud of it. However, that does not make us an Islamic state. If you care to study our constitution, you will find that we are, constitutionally, a secular state. Listen to what our founding father, Tengku Abdul Rahman, had to say when he read Malaysia’s proclamation of independence in 1957 in our name: “We will be forever a sovereign democratic and independent state founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people.…”
Foreign leaders who refer to Malaysia as an Islamic state or an Islamic democracy, therefore, do enormous damage to our secular constitutional foundations.
As for moderation, Thomas Paine once remarked that “moderation in principle is always a vice.” We don’t need moderation in the pursuit of justice or moderation in the number of people tortured and killed in our prisons or moderation in the fight against corruption or moderation in the harassment of racial and religious minorities. That is not moderation but vice. It is suffocating our democracy, destroying our freedom, undermining our institutions and looting our national wealth.
All this to say, Mr. President, that the so-called moderate Islamic democracy that you speak of is simply non-existent. What we have is a government which cynically and opportunistically exploits both religion and the trappings of our democracy that remain to stay in power.
As for Anwar Ibrahim, whether it is convenient for you or not, he is the leader of the opposition. The multiracial and multi-religious coalition he leads (Pakatan Rakyat) won a majority of votes in the last election. As your own State Department would no doubt have briefed you, only fraud and gerrymandering kept him from taking his rightful place as prime minister of our nation. Anwar Ibrahim, therefore, has a greater claim to speak for Malaysia than anyone else. If you want to understand our hopes and aspirations, speak to him. Ignore him and you trample upon our long struggle to build a better and more just nation.
Whatever it is, you cannot come to our country and treat the parliamentary opposition leader in such a callous and contemptuous manner. It is like spitting on our democracy! It is like going to Myanmar and refusing to meet Aung Sang Suu Kyi.
Furthermore, given the persecution, harassment and recent sentencing of Anwar Ibrahim on trumped-up charges of sodomy in a trial which has almost universally been condemned, your refusal to meet him will be seen as an endorsement of the Najib Administration’s manipulation of the justice system to incarcerate a political opponent and stymie hopes for democratic change. You might as well be on hand to turn the key to Anwar’s cell and lock him up for what might be the last years of his life.
If you keep silent at this time, if you decline to meet him, you are as guilty of this travesty of justice as Malaysia’s government is. Martin Luther King Jr., one of your own heroes, said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
And, Mr. President, you yourself once said that “when the United States stands up for human rights, by example at home and by effort abroad, we align ourselves with men and women around the world who struggle for the right to speak their minds, to choose their leaders, and to be treated with dignity and respect. We also strengthen our security and well being, because the abuse of human rights can feed many of the global dangers that we confront — from armed conflict and humanitarian crises, to corruption and the spread of ideologies that promote hatred and violence.”
During your visit, you will have a historic opportunity to align yourself with the struggle for justice and democracy in Malaysia. I hope you will seize that opportunity and walk the talk.
[Dennis Ignatius is a former Malaysian ambassador]