A MATTER OF PRINCIPLE
It’s not everyday you can get a ‘Raja’ to talk against feudalism, someone who espouses the notion of faithfulness to principles than to the ruling class.
But the sentence above personifies Raja Ahmad Aminullah, who has come up with a new book Fidelity to Ideas - a compilation of conversations the writer, poet and cultural activist has had on the topics of arts, journalism, media and the role of intellectuals in public discourse.
In Indonesia, they called it a society where you believe in the idea of ABS or Asal Bapak Senang - as long as the authority figure is happy, you just follow
“The central thread running through the book is, for one, to make it some kind of benchmark, an adherence to ideas and principle, as opposed to the trend that has developed in society over the last twenty to thirty years of being loyal to figures and personalities, whether in politics or organisations,” says Raja Ahmad.
Speaking quite frankly, the avid poet says that certain segments of the Malaysia has fallen into into a yes-man culture over the years, culminating in a society lacking in nerve to question things.
“In Indonesia, they called it a society where you believe in the idea of ABS or Asal Bapak Senang - as long as the authority figure is happy, you just follow.”
“If you don't have contestation, if you don’t have questions to ask, you can’t progress,” he emphasises.
This is where he sees the need for public intellectuals to step up and ask probing questions to people in power.
“The task of intellectual is to excavate silence - membongkar kesunyian and not cover (up) as has happened in our country for the last couple of decades where things happen but yet nobody asks questions because they are just too safe in their comfort zones.”
Raja Ahmad Aminullah is no stranger to being sidelined for making an unpopular stance. In 2001, the former UMNO politician was forced to resign as board member of Utusan Malaysia for starting an appeal to advocate better medical treatment for Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
This was when Anwar suffered spinal injury after he was sentenced to jail for sodomy and corruption charges. The Prime Minister-then Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad refused to allow Anwar to leave the country for medical treatment.
“I remember after I did the appeal, friends avoided answering my phone calls. When they see me on the street, they cross to the other side of the road,” says Raja Ahmad.
The task of intellectual is to excavate silence - membongkar kesunyian and not cover (up) as has happened in our country for the last couple of decades where things happen but yet nobody asks questions because they are just too safe in their comfort zones
He, nonetheless, feels a sense of reinvigoration in civil society following the historic 14th General Election, where Malaysians voted out a government that had held on to power for over six decades.
“There’s no more that culture of silence and fear that use to envelope certain segments of society,” he says during this interview held at the launch of ‘Fidelity of Ideas’, attended by both Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah and Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu.
I’m so happy for my society. We want ideas from people from every level,” he says of the changes that took place on May 9th.
“And the thing I like about change also is that (now) many more young voices are being heard. I’ve always argued for this. In my previous book Minda Tertawan, I wrote that it’s a travesty of justice if national youth organisations are led by people who are 60 years old and over.”
He cites the appointment of younger ministers like Yeo Bee Yin and Syed Saddiq in helming cabinet portfolios as refreshing.
Raja Ahmad also hopes to see a stronger alternative voice in politics and civil society, now that the fear of repercussion for going against the authorities, have been seemingly removed.
“There should be more young voices in the new alternatives - candidates or leaders who can pose the question to the current administration. Because whoever is in power, the role of civil society, the role citizenry is still there.”
“You cannot just say that - Oh, kita dah pilih orang (we have chosen the people), now we can go pull the blanket over our head.”
And how does Raja Ahmad see his role in Malaysia Baharu?
“Whichever government is in power, the nasi lemak seller is still a nasi lemak seller. The poet is still a poet,” he says with a chuckle.
“But I hope that people who were dissuaded from writing are now encourage and emboldened to do so.”
“You just create your own space and do it. The word is mandiri or self-reliance, an independent spirit,” says Raja Ahmad Aminullah. “Whether you support one side or the other, that’s your choice.”