Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Letter to PAS via Malaysiakini

With reference to Malaysiakini's lead story on August 17, 2008:


Conservative Islamic party PAS has shelved a proposal to ban gambling and restrict alcohol sales in the four states it rules with its political allies.

Dear brothers and sisters in PAS,

Thank you for being so reasonable, so wise, so patient, and so accommodating.

Like most Malaysians, I am determined that differences in beliefs and ethnic origins must not be allowed to cause the disintegration of our beloved nation. Far wiser to encourage open and sincere discussion amongst the various parties in the Pakatan Rakyat coalition - than for the destructive forces of racial and religious polarization to be used as an excuse for the perpetuation of BN-style authoritarian misrule.

A great many of my non-Muslim friends have long held a negative perception of PAS - since the party is founded on Islamic government as a core doctrine. That Anwar Ibrahim has been able to pull DAP and PAS together in a political alliance with PKR is nothing less than a miracle. Since the euphoric results of GE12 which broke BN's two-thirds majority stranglehold, the BN-controlled mass media have gone out of their way to magnify every little disagreement within the fledgling Pakatan Rakyat.

Right after the elections Umno attempted to forge an unholy power-sharing pact with PAS behind closed doors. When PAS rejected Umno's engagement ring, Khir Toyo used these clandestine meetings as a weapon to plant the seeds of doubt, mistrust and fear into the non-Muslim psyche.

Fortunately, Tok Guru Nik Aziz, spiritual leader of PAS and a wise old fox, was able to reassure his partners in Pakatan Rakyat that all was well and that there was no possibility of a PAS-Umno merger. The coalition remains strong, despite the inevitable jostling for power and influence amongst the various component parties. In any marriage, power play is part of the learning process of attaining true harmony and cooperation.

From a personal perspective, I have no fear of PAS and their Islamic agenda - at least they are completely open about it. Ironically, I am aligned with many of their "Islamic values." For example, I detest gambling and generally shun alcohol; to live in a community free of these vices would suit me fine. However, I'm also a hardcore libertarian democrat in that I would defend the right of those addicted to gambling and alcohol to indulge their chosen vices. To my mind what each of us chooses to do for pleasure is nobody's business - unless, of course, these activities come with deleterious side effects that negatively impact on others. And here we enter a fuzzy area where there are no simple formulas and pat answers.

The entire post-industrial model of economic development is largely founded on financial adventurism, speculation and risky investments - euphemisms for gambling. What is the stock market if not a 24/7 gambling den for white-collar punters playing with blue chips? Financial catastrophes are mostly the result of inveterate gambling - whether the game is called derivatives, commodity futures, sub-prime mortgages or treasury bonds. Gambling or gaming run almost as deep as our hunting and gathering instincts. The adrenaline rush of winning a game of high-stakes poker or mahjong, or breaking the bank in roulette, or flogging off a bunch of dead-horse shares in the nick of time - these are "adult" pleasures akin to a night out with the boys at a karaoke club or a pornographic interlude online when your officemates are all out to lunch.

I have never been attracted to gambling, perhaps because I grew up in a household where neither parent was a gambler. As for games, I quickly got bored with Snakes and Ladders, Monopoly, Checkers, and Scrabble. The last time I played any card game was perhaps 35 years ago. Call me a bore but I would much rather lie in a hammock with a book or a cuddly friend. Never once have I even contemplated the possibility of buying shares in any company or investing my surplus cash in some sort of tontine scheme.

Perhaps I have been saved from getting addicted to gambling by lifelong penury. Having studied the nature of the banking business, I have a pronounced negative bias towards bankers, moneylenders and loansharks - indeed, anybody who uses money to make money, because this is ultimately what widens the gap between haves and have-nots. Alas, this planet is pretty much akin to a giant casino operated by international "banksters" - but it's obvious that time is running out for them, as more humans awaken from their hypnotic trance of powerlessness and reclaim their lives from the corporate enslavers.

Certainly I tend to have a puritanical attitude towards business investors who become entrapped by sheer greed. It's difficult to understand why anyone who already owns millions or billions would continue to "cari makan." How much can anyone eat at one sitting anyhow? Uneaten food is wasteful and shows disrespect towards nature. For me, therefore, Islam's edicts against gambling and usury are eminently sensible and fully in keeping with my own values.

As for alcohol, after a 10-day Mekong binge in Phuket twenty years ago, my body became allergic to the poison. When offered alcoholic drinks at a party, I tend to refuse half the time - and when I do accept I find it difficult to finish an entire can of beer. A champagne toast at a wedding celebration can enhance one's enjoyment - and on cold evenings a shot of Irish coffee is just what the doctor ordered.

Nevertheless, living as I do in an Orang Asli community where 90% of the men are compulsive and terminal alcoholics, I have grown disdainful of drunken behavior and have little patience with the idiotic babblings of the inebriated. In effect, I wouldn't miss alcohol if it simply vanished off the face of the earth. But, please, don't you dare take away my tobacco!

The more puritanical among us, regardless of religious affiliation, will always condemn certain behaviors as "immoral" - while to others these are merely a fun way to kill time. What constitutes "morality" can be debated endlessly and inconclusively - but most of us will agree that the Golden Rule, do as you would be done by, has universal appeal and value. Indeed, once we adhere to that ethical principle, all other rules become redundant.

To my brothers and sisters in PAS I would like to convey this message: I salute your sound moral sense and agree that we would all be better off living in a vice-free environment. However, to use the law to enforce "moral behavior" often leads to abuses far worse than the vices themselves. Look at what happens when agencies like JAIS are given the power to harass courting couples or rudely raid bars and pubs. They turn into uniformed thugs, fascist brownshirts who get their kicks by pretending to be morally superior and throwing their weight around. This sort of loutish behavior is far more dangerous, in my opinion, than allowing a few Muslims the freedom of conscience to imbibe alcohol or experiment with sexual freedom.

The imposition of external discipline has the unfortunate long-term effect of infantilizing the populace, because it treats people like wayward children rather than mature and self-governing, self-improving adults.

Ultimately, the goal of all religious teachings must be to help people attain mastery over themselves (not others!)

And the only way one can become a Master is through the trial-and-error of personal experience, through internal discipline, not through legislation and enforcement.