Unspoken truth behind Muhyiddin’s ‘small fry’ remark

Written by Helen Ang, CPI

The cabinet initiative announced by the Prime Minister’s Department (PMO) is officially called ‘the committee on promoting inter-religious understanding and harmony’. Unofficially, it has just been dubbed the Small Fry Committee.

Derived from Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Muhyiddin Yassin’s remarks, this nickname is – one would suppose – in keeping with the “small role” set aside for it.

Muhyiddin has stressed that the “special committee” (established so that the Prime Minister can make a play at 1Malaysia / Malaysian First), though special, is not a commission with legal standing to enforce or influence policies. And the DPM is quite right on several counts.

One, as he pointed out, committee head Ilani Isahak is merely a “moderate Islamic scholar”; actually she’s a lawyer and Umno politician but then again, this is Malaysia Boleh where a space tourist can be an ‘Angkasawan’. Nonetheless, she is not a minister, sitting MP or senator. So she could well be exactly just what Muhyiddin broadly hints at … quite powerless.

Two, the minister in charge – Koh Tsu Koon – is indeed ineffectual to influence policies much less enforce them. Koh’s track record speaks for itself.

Three, as clarified by the DPM, the non-Muslim quarter (well, one-sixth actually) of the committee has no legal standing. The non-Muslims are represented by the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) which can at best only make recommendations.

Muhyiddin is again correct to tacitly imply that MCCBCHST is not a government statutory body with has any force of law behind it. In any case, Malaysia has no codified Christian, Buddhist or Hindu, etc, legislation to speak of.

However in comparison, the committee’s Islamic components such as Jakim, Ikim and the Fatwa Council do have legal standing as well as state machinery backing them as they are agencies in the PMO or in government.

However, since Muhyiddin has asserted that “Islam will not be discussed”, this point is moot.

Four, Muhyiddin forgot to say that the committee has no doctrinal authority either. Christianity is more than 2,000 years old, Islam about 1,400 years, Buddhism 2,500 years and Hinduism dates back to among the earliest human civilizations. Therefore what else is new that the Small Fry Committee can add?

The committee is not the Vatican. It does not comprise any Grand Ayatollahs, or influential clerics or scholars from Al-Azhar or Mecca or Medina. Instead it has Illani, whom Koh characterized as a “very charming personality” possessing great people skills to put everyone at ease.

Illani’s personal charm may come in useful when she plays hostess later at Seri Perdana. We were earlier informed that one of the committee’s major tasks is to arrange “a formal annual meeting between the PM and religious leaders”. Presumably, the group will – for that one occasion once a year – be served the quintessential Malaysian-first drink teh tarik during their tete-a-tete at the PM’s official residence.