Threats of illiberal disorder

24 September, 2016
As appeared in TheStar.com.my

ALAIN Juppé may not be a household name in Malaysia but the principled politics of this former French Prime Minister (1995-1997) in his country’s fraught national environment is worthy of note.

Despite France’s reputation for being the most pessimistic nation on earth, he projects himself as a prophet of happiness. He attunes himself to the promise of a happy national identity.

He strongly argues the diverse and mixed society is not a threat to France. He is against calls for a ban on burkinis (a preferred swimming costume among Muslim women).

He proclaims: “I won’t turn people in France against each other.” Notably, in the Islamophobic climate in France, he holds to the concept of integration against assimilation.

He is not a starry-eyed idealist however. He is clear integration carries fixed rules: charter of secularism, reorganise Islam in France to ensure French funding and preaching, firm line on immigration control with annual quotas set by Parliament.

For him: “The role of a political leader is not to add to the unhappiness of the times, or to darken the situation even more.”

Juppé is a Gaullist, fighting against Nicolas Sarkozy to win nomination of his party, Les Republicans, for next spring’s presidential election. Sarkozy is riding the wave of popular sentiment to win nomination by speaking out against Muslims, immigration and all things not lily white.

Jean-Claude Juncker, perhaps better known in Malaysia as president of the European Commission, sees the need for better explanation of European values against blatant nationalism, the galloping populism that is gripping Europe.

The values of freedom, tolerance and democracy, and the rule of law are a high point for humanity which must be defended.

In Britain, after Brexit, some segments of the populace have taken that vote as a democratic mandate for racism.

Polish people, one of the most hardworking in the country’s labour force, have been beaten and, in one case, murdered on the streets of Essex. As of last week there had been 31 attacks on Poles since the Brexit referendum: in Plymouth, Yeovil, St Ives, Harlow and Leeds, among others.

Juncker is very clear the whole European polity must fight against discrimination and racism. The British Government and laws, of course, do not countenance these attacks.

But there is undoubtedly a strong undercurrent of intolerance and hate in much of Europe which not insignificant numbers of politicians are exploiting and whipping into huge waves of all possible illiberal tendencies.

There are brave, liberal and true politicians who are willing to stand against these waves, for the values of the liberal and tolerant order that recognises the total and full rights of all citizens, not a regime that reduces some of them to the status of semi-citizens, a regime that hounds them to the periphery of national life. People like Juppé and Juncker have a tough fight ahead. But they are in it.

In America we see the rise of Donald Trump as nominee of Abraham’s Lincoln’s party to be President. That is how close illiberalism and intolerance can get to the seat of power to wreak disastrous outcomes: this in America, but not forgetting Europe or anywhere else.

There are grave dangers of Trump-style fear and demagoguery, and Nicolas Sarkozy’s hard-line brand of national-identity politics, surfing on a fear of Islam and cultural difference. Don’t forget, not too long ago Sarkozy was a respectable centrist politician and President of France. That is how strong the dangerous currents are.

Former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell may call Trump “a national disgrace” and an “international pariah” (in a leaked email to a former aide in June) but his rise reflects what is happening in America as well.

What the Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton calls the “basket of deplorables” – whether half or all of them – are his supporters, who are American. They are there ready to be turned into overt racists and jingoists by cleverly exploitative politicians like Trump.

There is an argument claiming these Trump supporters are the uneducated underclass – the lumpenproletariat – who have been under-served and under-provided in an economy of huge disparities of income and wealth.

This may be so. But as many as half of them? Is American society that poor?

There are actually perfectly “normal and respectable” Americans ready to be had, to go down that racist, Islamophobic and jingoistic path. Quick to blame others. Fast on the draw to exaggerate and to caricature.

These are the people – and there are many of them in the American Congress – who have been against Barack Obama these past eight years he has been US President because he is black.

They have been driven by the power to show, even if a majority of Americans may support Obama, they can jam it and make it difficult, sometimes impossible, for him to do his job – not infrequently against America’s own interest.

These are the people who are so anti-Muslim just beneath the surface that they are quick when scratched to jump and point at the Islamist threat to America. On the other hand they do not see gun laws and the police shooting blacks as any threat to American society.

They are irrational. They are emotional. They are one plus one equals to two people. The type one plus one equals to two populist politicians lap up. Politicians with no principles. Politicians who do not understand the complexity of things.

It is all too easy to whip up xenophobia among them.

Looking at all this from Asia, we have no cause to be complacent. Indeed, we have our own dark spots in many countries.

Taking just Malaysia, we have to defend our democratic, liberal and tolerant tradition. If we allow our populist politicians to ride roughshod over it there will be hell to pay not too far down the road.

It is deeply disturbing the way “liberal” has been turned into a bad word. As if it meant licence and excess, and therefore has to be snuffed out. To be replaced by what? A plutocratic religious order?

Exhortations and many actions point to this. Whipping up a frenzy.

It is also deeply disturbing that the consensus on a multi-racial and multi-religious society in Malaysia is being challenged by some quarters.

Again, to put what in its place? A uniracial, monocultural polity?

These are big issues principled politicians should take a stand on – like Juppé and Juncker.

Individuals and commentators, and groups like the G25, can make their point, but even they are attacked for being “liberals” who know nothing about religion – by those who claim to know everything.

But even groups like the G25 and those from civil society will ultimately be ineffective if leaders in the formal political system do not take up their cause. Or they have to get into politics.

Let us remind ourselves. When we talk about Vision 2020 we must not just talk about the economic targets.

All this was to happen in a country and society that was “democratic, liberal and tolerant.” In a system with “strong moral and ethical values.” Go back and read that statement in 1991 – and hopefully be revived.

Go back to Rukun Negara in 1970. The aspirations and principles expressed for our society, even if just after the May 1969 racial riots.

Look at them closely: Belief in God; loyalty to King and country; democratic way of life; just society; liberal approach to rich and diverse cultural tradition; rule of law; good behaviour and morality.

They were strong expressions that go back to the Federal Constitution espoused by the two greatest political leaders this country has ever had – Tun Abdul Razak Hussein and Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman – both of whom had the strength of character and leadership to define the future, even as they sought to repair the damage done to the country in 1969.

We owe it to them – and to ourselves – to make sure the country does not deteriorate. As we look at what is happening in our country, at what is happening in Europe, America and elsewhere in Asia, our politicians particularly must arrest populist tendencies and provide principled leadership to secure the future, and not just fight among themselves for the next piece of cake.

Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.