In 2017, I wrote an article entitled ‘Nothing moderate about Malaysia’. It denounced the country-wide persecution of a local chapter of the group Atheist Republic. After they posted a photo of their meeting online, many received death threats and were forced into hiding.
Whilst it is true that Malaysia is a diverse country that protects the rights of various religious groups, basic freedoms are frequently threatened by the state and the Sharia courts. Several states have egregious apostasy laws that threaten ‘rehabilitation’ and prison time for any Muslim that tries to leave the religion. It was for this reason that Dr Shahidan Kassim, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, wanted to identify whether there were any ‘official’ Muslims in the photo.
“Not once does it [the constitution] mention atheism. This clearly shows that the group goes against the constitution and basic human rights… I suggest we vehemently hunt them down and identify them”, he said.
Not only did the minister’s comments lack an understanding of human rights, they demonstrated an institutionalised acceptance of oppression. This was nearly two years ago, and since then a new prime minister has taken office.
Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad assumed office in May of last year, having previously served as prime minister from 1981 to 2003. His election was largely in response to the corruption and authoritarianism of the previous prime minister, Najib Razak, who has been charged with money laundering in connection with the infamous 1MDB scandal.
Dr Mahathir has made some progress in fighting corruption and has promised to rejuvenate the rule of law in Malaysia. It was with this context in mind that I attended his talk at the Oxford Union last Friday evening. I was optimistic that the country’s political change had coincided with a liberalising of social attitudes.
After a speech on the problems facing Malaysia, there was an extended period of questioning. Union President, Daniel Wilkinson, asked the prime minister about his ban on Israeli swimmers entering the country ahead of an upcoming Paralympic swimming tournament.
Dr Mahathir replied: “In Malaysia we have no diplomatic relations with Israel at all, we don’t think that they should come to our country because we have no relations with them… A country has a right to keep its borders closed to certain people… We have borders to only allow people we like to come to Malaysia.”
The PM refused to separate his racism towards Jewish people from his criticisms of the Israeli government. Wilkinson repeatedly pressed the prime minister on his racist remarks, but he was only met with nonchalance. His trite response that “the Arabs are all Semitic people” was a dismal attempt to conceal his deep-seated anti-Semitism.
He added: “Well it seems that most of them [Jews] support the stance taken by [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu against the Arabs, so when I say only the Zionists, people do not understand. What they do understand is ‘yahudi’ or ‘Jews’.”
Wilkinson went on to question the PM on his claims that Jews are hook-nosed and have an instinctive sense of money. Dr Mahathir retorted that he is free to say what he likes, which garnered a gleeful applause from the audience. And yes, thankfully, Mahathir can express such opinions, for then we can see his views for what they are: lazy, hateful bigotry.
The Union must be commended for hosting such an influential person, for scrutinising him thoroughly, and for enabling erudite questioners to expose his prejudice. Inviting a range of prominent people to the Union ensures that illiberal views are shown, with a little inspection, to be founded upon nothing but false beliefs and a hateful morality.
Nowhere was this more evident than when one audience member asked: “Is sodomy wrong?”
To which the prime minister replied: “In our society, it is wrong. If you want to do it yourself go ahead, but [do it] in England not in Malaysia.”
Writing this in St Peter’s College library, I can see the police patrolling the entrance to St Michael’s street. They are there to control the protests of Marion Maréchal’s talk at the Union – she’s a niece of Marine Le Pen. For the no-platforming, self-proclaimed anti-fascists it does beg the question, where was your protest on Friday evening?