One of the things I most distinctly recall from my travels was not that I took my own freedom for granted, but how little I understood that freedom. All my life, I’d been able to express myself freely, to practice my religion openly, to enter University without fear that my skin color would put me at any disadvantage. I learned, quite starkly, that this wasn’t the case in many part of the world.
Malaysia was one of those countries where I learned a great deal about the reality of freedoms, and openness. Like America, Malaysia was diverse, with at least 8% of the population adhering to the world’s four great religions (Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity). But it was certainly not a melting pot. It was more like a pizza with segregated toppings, rigid lines between each culture, leading to common misunderstandings and distrust. There are exceptions, of course, but far too few.
It was with this background that I took the opportunity to see Anwar Ibrahim speak last Tuesday night at UC-Berkeley.
Malaysian politics has been dominated by a single political party, the United Malays National Organization (UNMO) which, though the the 55% Muslim Malay majority, has governed uninterrupted since independence. Mr. Ibrahim was once part of this monopoly of power, rising rapidly within the UNMO all the way up to Deputy Prime Minister in the late 1990’s. But then things changed.
As any political historian will tell you, Democracy doesn’t work well with a single party perpetually is in power. Corruption reigned, cronyism was standard practice, often, as Mr. Ibrahim himself noted, to the detriment of economic policies. His own attempts to change this backfired, and he was arrested on trumped up corruption charges and jailed in 1999, for the next six years.
It was in Malaysia that I learned about some shocking laws. How it was illegal, by law, for a Muslim to convert to any other religion. How if a Muslim and a non-Muslim wanted to get married, the non-Muslim must first convert to Islam. These laws, of course, did not apply to other religions. There were affirmative action laws in place for the majority Malays, who, historically, had been among the poorer groups in colonial Malaysia, though ignored the plights of poor Chinese and Indians.
What was most striking to me about Mr. Ibrahim was when he spoke about his six years, in solitary confinement, in prison. I expected rage, anger, but instead I saw calmness, reflection, and even hints of nostalgia. Prison had given him time to think, to read, and to reaccess his values. It had changed him as a person
“I understand the value of freedom better than most of my friends,” he said, about what he learned from being jailed.
It made me reflect back on my travels. The times I treasured most weren’t when I was some festival, or party, but it was those in-between moments, when I was sitting on a train, alone, watching the world pass me by out my window, with a book in my lap. I began thinking how it might be good for me if I could be in solitary confinement for a year, to have time to truly read, and come to terms with myself.
I could see a glimpse of where Mr. Ibrahim got his drive from. Incredibly optimistic, hopeful about the future of not only Malaysia and Democracy, but of Islam as a whole to modernize and become accountable to it’s people.
“We will succeed.”
Yes, I know, he’s a politician. But if he’s still optimistic, after all that he’s gone through, I have no reason to give any excuses.