15 August 2013

Someone wondered the other day: who was Malaysia's best Home Minister?

The question was in response to the increasingly irrational behaviour of Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who has only one move in his playbook: use the sledgehammer to pummel and bully his way to hero status in Umno.

Justice, fairness, moderation are words that have no place in Zahid's small world, crowded out by grandstanding.

The question was also in response to a growing sense that the country is in a tailspin, buffeted from every side by worsening race relations, intolerance, a crime epidemic and in serious need of a firm but fair hand.

So who was the best Home Minister? Was it Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie? Was it Musa Hitam? Was it Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad? Was it Tun Abdullah Badawi? Was it Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar? Surely you remember Syed Hamid - he detained a journalist under the Internal Security Act to protect her, he said! What about Hishammuddin Hussein? He who was taking a serious view of this or that while crime was unravelling on the streets.

But seriously, on stature, standard and principle, none of the above comes even close to Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman. This Home Minister was called into action following the May 13 riots, when feelings among the different races were raw and legitimate questions were being raised whether the nascent democracy of Malaysia had gone up in smoke. This was a dangerous time: lives were lost, property destroyed and talk of a land of milk and honey almost foolish to entertain.

Dr Ismail could have played the race and religious card and become the most popular politician in Umno. He didn't.

Instead he went on television and delivered a stark message, edited by his friend Robert Kuok, on the death of democracy. It was his way of telling Malaysians that this would be the outcome for the country if people didn't put away their prejudices and work with the government towards reconciliation.

With the carrot came the stick. He ordered the arrest of troublemakers with no regard to their race, Malay, Indian or Chinese. And warned Malay ultras to expect no mercy if they agitated. Once he remarked that he would arrest his own mother if she did anything illegal.

Former deputy prime minister Musa Hitam watched the television broadcast and recalled "a sense of relief came over us, the sheer force of the man's reputation for fairness was magic".

Chet Singh of Penang Development Board remembered feeling comforted on hearing news that Tun Dr Ismail was returning as Home Minister.

This is how Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah described the Home Minister's performance during the darkest period in Malaysian history: "Ismail was a principled man - and was seen that way by the different races... once he decided on something you could be sure that he had gone through the relevant details and studied them. What is confidence unless it is based on the people's belief in the leader?"

Kuok said: "He was a lovely man with the strength of character, high principles and a great sense of fairness. In my opinion, he was probably the most non-racial, non-racist Malay I have ever met. Doc was a stickler for total fair play, for correctness."

Going through the excellent book, "The Reluctant Politician" by Ooi Kee Beng and culling information from various other articles on Tun Dr Ismail, these words crop up: firm, fair, principled, moderate.

Till today, older Malaysians across the racial and political divide remember Dr Ismail with rare affection. And then fall into a valley of despair when they compare him with the likes of Hishammuddin and Zahid.

He may have ticked off the dog trainer of the video clip fame but no way would he have agreed to have her remanded like a common criminal. Similarly he would have frowned on the Singaporean resort owner who allowed a Buddhist group to use the surau for meditation but you can't see him stoking the fires by talking about stripping the Singaporean of his permanent residence.

Why? Because those who knew him intimately said he never seemed interested in cultivating a loyal group of followers. Or, as Ooi Kee Beng wrote: "His style of politics, infused with the reluctance he had felt about going into politics, did not involve populist tactics."

In short, he did not grandstand at the expense of fair play or audition for a higher position in Umno as Zahid Hamidi seems to be doing on a daily basis.

These days there is little care that the take-no-prisoners approach of Zahid Hamidi and other Umno leaders is creating a them-versus-us undercurrent in Malaysian society. There is little sense of fairness or proportion to how Government reacts to a prickly situation.

Umno politicians have the slogans but few of them understand that fairness and justice are critical building blocks of nationhood.

The end result: a lack of respect among the public for the moral standing or competence of government leaders. And a growing sense of desperation for that one leader who can halt the country from sliding further into the abyss of despair with that combination of firmness, fairness and moderation.

This is what Abdullah Ali said about Tun Dr Ismail in the book, The Reluctant Politician: "He believed fully in the oneness of Malaysia, and worked on that belief. He did not care whom he had to fight. He was absolutely neutral. When you had to deal with him, you knew you would get fair treatment."


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