Of Leadership, Compromises, and a better Malaysia

Khalid Samad, for many, epitomises the most interesting and paradoxical aspects of political Islam at this juncture in our contemporary milieu. Urbane yet confrontational, sophisticated yet at times brash, learned yet not arcane – people like him represent what I fathom to be among the torchbearers of hope for this nation: moderate, democratic, progressive, and engaged.

Is it sheer coincidence, then, that he hails from a family of seemingly complex contradictions? Immediately one recalls his brother, Shahrir Samad, the gentlemanly, sophisticated, yet uncompromisingly UMNO politician. Or perhaps this is not contradictory, but rather is a reflection of our Malaysian socio-political melange?

“Compromised values” would definitely not be words one would ascribe to why these two personalities are able to greet each other during Hari Raya! Instead, I believe that our cultural makeup – our DNA or “local genius” if you will – allows and encourages dissonances like these to co-exist. Khalid and Shahrir are therefore living examples of these accommodated dissonances.

By this, what I mean to say is: ours is an extremely accommodative (some say ‘sponge-like’) culture. How can it not be, when we have absorbed and accommodated influences, words, and symbols from so many peoples and lands? Melaka is, for many, the apex of this trait. Yet with Isma and Perkasa, it feels like that part of us is now eroded and lost. Is it?

Seventy years ago – in a Malaya before UMNO – we imagine that differences between and within communities or even families were better accommodated and not as militantly demarcated as they are sometimes made out to be today.

Million-ringgit question: If political parties did not trade (or prey) on these differences since Merdeka, would we have ended up where we are today, teetering on the precipice of ethnic discord? If parties did not strive to highlight and take advantage of what is “Malay”, or “Muslim”, or “Chinese”, or “Indian” – what kind of Malaysia do you reckon we would live in now?

Bank on it; if it were not for the ringgit and cents, most of these divisive politicians and parties would have no ideas to work with to mould the political discourse in society. Many of them – especially those in power at the Federal level – are not interested at all in the tenets of good governance, accountability, and reform; just look at how unsustainably bloated the Prime Minister’s Department is, and the number of Ministers and Deputy Ministers under him!

Islam as a way of life shows how we can be accommodative without compromising our values. For those who are leaders amongst us, it is timely as we leave the month of Ramadhan and enter Syawal that we take stock of what Abu Bakar as-Siddiq said upon becoming the first Caliph of Islam after the passing of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): “I have been chosen by you to be your leader, although I am no better than any of you. If I do any wrong, set me right… Obey me as long as I obey God and His Messenger (pbuh). If I disobey God and His Messenger (pbuh), you are free to disobey me.”

Case in point: Politicians often serve in leadership positions. It is imperative for them to live exemplary lives as their acts and deeds not only speak of and reflect the Malaysia we are living in today – the cultural complexities, the psychological tableaus, the political ecosystems – but more critical than that, they are among the first to shape the better Malaysia that we all long for.

An edited version of this article was first published in The Star.

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