Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Malaysia’

Iftar with Anwar Ibrahim

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 11th June, 2018

Anwar Ibrahim and Abdullah FaliqLast night at the London Muslim Centre in Whitechapel there was a particularly joyful Iftar dinner in honour of Malaysian politician Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who was released from prison last month after a decade of incarceration, most of it in solitary confinement. As the charges against him were widely seen as fabricated, one might expect him to feel aggrieved against the man who wanted him out of the way, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, but in a dignified speech before breaking the day’s Ramadan fast he said that one had to learn to forgive and forget. Only Dr Ibrahim’s wife and children were allowed to visit him in jail, but he was able to read voraciously, not only political and economic volumes but also religious texts (Islamic and others) and the complete works of William Shakespeare — the latter six times. Two themes were central to Anwar Ibrahim’s remarks last night: inclusivity and good governance. Malaysia has Islam as its official religion, though only slightly over 60 per cent of the total population are Muslims, and he argued that it is important that other groups including Buddhists, Hindus and Christians, as well as the animists of Sabah and Sarawak, should feel they are citizens with the right to play a full part in society. He slammed corruption — often euphemistically referred to as “commission” when the bribes involve high officials or politicians — and said that the challenge of the coming years must be how to make Malaysia and many other countries genuine democracies, where rulers are accountable and there is the rule of law. I asked him whether his vision for his country chimed with Dr Mahathir’s Vision2020, which is essentially about economic and social development, but he said his ideas would comfortably supplement that programme. After recent elections, Dr Mahathir, now aged 92, somewhat unexpectedly returned to power after a period out of office and made Anwar Ibrahim’s wife, Wan Azizah, Deputy Prime Minister (a role Anwar himself had had before his downfall). For me it was a privilege, as a member of the Executive of Liberal International, to work with Wan Azizah during Anwar’s imprisonment, as she campaigned for their common goals, with tenacity and dignity. Soon maybe Anwar Ibrahim himself will be back in government, as it is widely expected that he will succeed Dr Mahathir in the Prime Minister’s office.


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The Commonwealth and Human Rights

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th January, 2016

Bourne and ChidgeyThe Commonwealth is a rather odd club, made up of 53 states of wildly different size, most (but not all) of which once formed part of the British Empire. They therefore share an interest in the English language, as well as maintaining ties with the old country and among themselves. There is a Secretariat in London and Dominica-born Baroness Scotland is its latest Secretary General, but the organisation does not have the sort of resources at its disposal of a regional body such as the European Union or even the United Nations. But also unlike the UN the Commonwealth has the advantage of being a club, which means that members who misbehave badly can be suspended or even thrown out. Others choose to withdraw instead when the they see that they are in disgrace. Since the beginning the main reasons for exclusions have usually been human rights violations and a democratic deficit, both of which sadly are still evident in some of the current member states. This evening, as the first event of the National Liberal Club’s new Commonwealth Forum, chaired by Lord (David) Chidgey, the writer and longstanding human rights activist Richard Bourne spoke in particular about the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative with which he has been closely involved, but setting this in a wider context. Developing countries tend to highlight basic human rights such as access to food and housing whereas comparatively wealthy countries like Britain put more emphasis on civil and political rights. The latter can sometimes be extremely sensitive, paradoxically because of colonial era laws which are still on the statute books in many Commonwealth states while Britain has evolved in a different direction. Richard Bourne mentioned LGBT+ rights, for example; whereas same sex marriage is now accepted in many ‘developed’ countries, including Britain, homophobic laws are still acted on in some Commonwealth states, such as Uganda and Malaysia. Similarly, whereas long ago the Commonwealth championed the merits of democracy there has been a worrying tendency for some African states in particular to revert to an older model of presidents for life. Because the Commonwealth works by consensus and pressure is brought to bear on misbehaving governments behind the scenes, unless their behaviour is egregious, it is often hard to see what the Commonwealth actually achieves in promoting human rights and Patricia Scotland has a daunting challenge ahead of her to try to change that. But perhaps the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative can quietly chalk up successes while keeping the Commonwealth on its toes.

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Rehman Rashid’s ‘A Malaysian Journey’

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 6th January, 2010

Most good travel writing is a journey into one’s inner self, but it is rare to find a book that manages to be equally incisive about the country concerned and the author. Rehman Rashid, who has worked as a journalist in various parts of Asia, including Malaysia, where he was born in the twilight of the British colonial period, had the advantage of studying and traveling widely abroad before returning to his homeland, to examine it with a criticial, albeit subjective, eye. He never lasted long in any job, being far too much of an individualist, yet one who still feels great affection for family and friends and the multicultural dreams of Malaysia at its inceptuion. His book was rejected by a number of publishers, not because of the quality of the writing (on the contrary), but because they thought it was too hot to handle. So he published it himself, and it has gone on to sell many thousands of copies since it first came out in 1993. It’s still selling — I picked up a copy in the bookstore in KL low cost carrier airport — and deservedly so. Highly recommended.

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Is God Allah?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 4th January, 2010

An unholy row has broken out here in Malaysia about whether non-Muslims have the right to refer to God as ‘Allah’. A local Catholic publication, The Herald, did so, causing protests from some Islamic groups, but a judge then upheld the right of non-Muslims to use the word Allah within their own community. However, sensitivities in this multicultural, multifaith society are such that the matter has now gone all the way up to the Prime Minister, who is appealing for calm, while a fatwa has been issued by some Islamic leaders saying that ‘Allah’ is a to be used by Muslims only. As a Quaker, I confess I find such religious exclusivism baffling, to say the least. And as Islam recognises both Judaism and Christianity as ‘Religions of the Book’ — and indeed recognises most of the same prophets — I cannot see how anyone can argue logically that God is different depending on whether you call Him God or Allah or Jehovah. But this is clearly an argument that is going to run and run.

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George Town, Penang

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th December, 2009

I had intended to reach Ipoh today, but as the minivan I got from Hat Yai terminated in Penang, I decided to terminate there as well and so I will be ending the year in George Town. It’s 40 years since I was last on the island, though as I recall I didn’t linger even an hour in the capital then but instead headed straight for the beach (as one does at that age). Anyway, I’m glad to have the chance to make up for that now. Of course, there have been a lot of changes over four decades. Many new high-rise buildings have sprung up, for a start, and a long bridge now links the island to mainland Malaysia — which means far more cars than there were before. The character has changed somewhat too, as Penang was a free port way back then, whereas now it is more a centre for tourism, both domestic and foreign. There is still a lot to see, though. In fact, it is one of the jewels of South East Asia for anyone interested in history. It was made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in July last year. There is an extraordinary blend of Chinese, Malay and Indian culture, as well as some splendid colonial buildings from the British times. The seafront Eastern and Oriental Hotel — a bankrupt ruin when I was last here — has been beautifully restored to resemble its glory days when it was run by the Armenian Sarkies brothers as one of the great hotels of the world, much loved by Somerset Maugham, among others. Tomorrow, I’ll be off to see where the ‘father’ of modern China, Sun Yat Sen, was based in 1910 and where the German author Hermann Hesse visited just a few months later.

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Malaysian U-turn on Shirin Ebadi

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 24th October, 2008

Yesterday I blogged in protest at the Malaysian Foreign Ministry’s writing to various organisations, including the University of Malaya, telling them to withdraw invitations to the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi to speak at a number of events early next month, so as to appease the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The satisfying news has now come through that the Malaysian Foreign Minister, Rais Yatim, has rescinded this interdiction, saying that it was an unfortunate mistake that was made without his knowledge.

It seems a bit odd, to say the least, that such a major step should have been taken without the Minister’s approval. But anyway I warmly welcome his statement that ‘Malaysia should allow the freedom of expression and criticisms at the highest level’. That is a important declaration of principle, as well as underlining the pragmatic realisation that there is no value keeping the mullahs in Tehran sweet if one damages one’s country’s reputation in much of the rest of the world in the process. It is worth nothing that most governments are sensitive to overseas public opinion, which is why blogging and the work of campaigning organisations such as Index on Censorship and International PEN are so important.

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Malaysia’s Cowardly Ban of Shirin Ebadi

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 23rd October, 2008

   The 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi — a distinguished lawyer and Secretary-General of the Human Rights Centre in Iran — was due to give a series of lectures in Malaysia during the first week of November, on the theme of ‘Bridges: Dialogues towards a Culture of Peace’, under the auspices of the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute, the International Islamic University, the International Peace Foundation and the University of Malaya. But the Malaysian Foreign Ministry has instructed local host organisations that they must withdraw their invitations to her, to ‘preserve good relations with Iran’. This is in total violation of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1998 and denies the people of Malaysia the chance to hear an important moderate voice in the Islamic world.

Earlier this year, Ms Ebadi was the target of death threats and media slander campaigns in Iran, which is maybe not surprising given the nature of the regime in Tehran. But it is inexcusable for the Malaysian government to capitulate to pressure from the Iranian mullahs, thereby undermining Kuala Lumpur’s claims to be a modern, multicultural beacon in Asia.

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The Strange Case of Anwar Ibrahim

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th August, 2008

I left my meetings in the European Parliament this afternoon to do a live BBC World TV interview on today’s by-election in Malaysia, which sent the supposedly ‘disgraced’ opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim back into parliament with two-thirds of the vote, on a high turnout. This was not a surprise for anyone who has been following Malaysian politics closely recently, especially in the blogosphere, which has grown phenomenally, ironically partly because of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad’s policy of making Malaysia an ‘intelligent’ nation with a computer literate population.

Anwar Ibrahim had been Dr Mahathir’s chosen successor until a bitter falling out, which culminated in Anwar’s being sent to prison on charges of corruption (later overturned) and sodomy. The elections in March this year were deliberately timed to be just before his period of disqualification from elected office ended, but he got round that by having an arrangement with his wife, who had taken over his seat when he involuntarily left politics and which she recently resigned so he could fight a by-election. The campaign was extremely short, but vigorously fought.

The government coalition and its undercover supporters threw everything at Anwar, including more sodomy charges (seen by most Malaysians as being politically motivated, but which could result in a prison sentence of up to 20 years if proved) and accusations that he is both a Chinese agent and a friend of Israel (politically damaging in a Muslim-majority country). Most of these charges were pure calumny, and the Penang voters who elected him showed what they thought of them. But this certainly won’t be the end of the story, in what has the making of the most radical shake-up in Malaysian politics for half a century — the time that the current ruling coalition has been in power.

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