Grik was a cry of the marginalised

    15 Jul 2000

    Grik was a cry of the marginalised
    By Karim Raslan

    EARLY in the morning on July 2, a group of men masquerading as army personnel entered a military camp in Grik in northern Perak and made off with a haul of weapons. Within hours, the men were tracked down, identified and surrounded. In the ensuing drama, a number of them were injured and two security personnel brutally tortured and then murdered.

    As Malaysia -- a country with zero tolerance towards firearms -- comes to terms with the extraordinary train of events, there are three points that I would like to make: one, that extremists cults are found throughout the world; two, that it is nearly impossible to police such groups; and three, that these cults will grow in number.

    First, it's important to bear in mind that weird millenarian-type cults are not exclusive to the Malay/Muslim community. The Malays are no more predisposed to such behaviour than any other people. One only has to look at the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult for proof that such groups emerge in both undeveloped and developed societies.

    Similarly, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber (who, in 1995, was responsible for the worst terrorist attack on American soil) was not a cult member per se. However, he was driven by an anti-government ideology similar to the extremist, armed militias of the American west. His obsessiveness matched that of Asahara Shokou, the Aum's spiritual leader, whose followers released poisonous sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995.

    For those in search of an answer that suggests an inherent weakness in the Malay/Muslim psyche, I have to disagree; the susceptibility is neither culturally, racially or religiously specific.

    Second, in the aftermath of both those tragedies, Japanese and American media called for greater surveillance of such extremist groups and cults only to discover the impossibility of policing those on the fringes of society.

    However, it soon became apparent that zero-tolerance policing was at variance with time-honoured, societal values.

    For example, the modern liberal democracy is based on the Enlightenment ideal of man as being essentially "good" and, being "good", he should be left to his own devices; banish ignorance, poverty, feudalism and an unnecessarily intrusive government and he'll live peaceably enough. As a result, there is very little -- especially in the Information Technology Age -- that governments in the developed world can do unless they wish to maintain what would essentially be a police state, something that public opinion would not countenance.

    By way of comparison, the Asian paradigm (of which Mohamad Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew are the chief advocates) has long presented a combination of Confucian and communitarian values. In essence, it holds the view that we all possess the capacity for evil -- that it exists in all of us and that only faith in a higher being, morality and fear of retribution are the bulwark against chaos.

    Unsurprisingly, after the surrender of the Al Ma'unah, we witnessed a number of calls for a step-up in policing. Such a reaction is entirely predictable. However, in reality, I suspect it will prove as difficult to implement for much of the same reasons as in the US or Japan. Pre-emptive action runs counter to all precepts of a liberal democracy. Moreover, if mere suspicion were sufficient grounds for incarceration, I suspect the country's jails would be far fuller than they are now.

    Third, the incident highlights the very real personal and internal conflicts that have emerged over the past three decades of spectacular economic growth. In both Malaysia and Singapore, economic development is thought of as a universal good. I have long disagreed with this central tenet of the Asian paradigm. It is myopic and a scandalously dismissive view of the human condition. Man is more than a mere factor of production.

    Of course, efficiency, market forces and profitability can contribute to happiness. But they will not provide a spiritual "shelter" in times of need, and all of us crave more in life than the three Cs: credit card, car and condo.

    Given the speed of the change in Malaysia as agrarian communities have leap-frogged over industrialisation into the Information Era, I am surprised that Al Ma'unah has been one of only three groups in the past twenty years to have challenged the government's primacy in a violent manner.

    Singaporeans sitting comfortably in their island enclave should be wary of self-congratulation; the anomie -- or emptiness -- of modern life is as debilitating in Ang Mo Kio as it is in Port Klang. As economic development and progress have become the mantras of the "Malaysian Way", many find the materialism hollow and inadequate spiritually.

    Established religions have become a source of refuge for the disenchanted and the needy; the growing Islamisation of the Malay community confirms this trend. And, as with all religions, there will continue to be countless different interpretations of what constitutes the true faith. Some will prove to be exclusionary and militant, seeing all non-Muslims as a potential threat while others will be more spiritually inclined and harmless.

    Whilst there is no doubt that the majority of the population has benefited from the increase in GDP, there is a growing sense of relative (not absolute) deprivation, and this fuels a sense of inadequacy, anger and alienation in those who don't feel they have participated in the "banquet".

    A combination of these factors -- and a keen sense of marginalisation -- propels people to search for answers to life's central question: "What are we doing here?" And if the answers are not forthcoming in the mainstream of society, it will only be a matter of time before they will be searching elsewhere, finding alternative solutions and leaders.

    Unfortunately, the marginalised -- in an attempt to strengthen their sense of belonging -- will always seek to find scapegoats. Religious differences are the most obvious and easily exploitable. However, before one jumps to the conclusion that Islam is always militant, one should bear in mind that even in countries with a remarkable record of racial and religious tolerance such as Australia, extremism remains an unspoken force. Witness Pauline Hanson's unexpected ascendancy in the late 1990s.

    Moreover, an increase in economic opportunities allows people greater freedom of action to pursue their cravings, whether they be sexual, social or spiritual. Cars, handphones and the Internet -- the backbone of the modern economy -- will enable the marginalised to group, creating a sense of community that would have been impossible in the pre-IT Age. There is no way that all such groups can be supervised. An authoritarian system would institute a network of neighbourhood spies and disregard personal privacy. However, even in Malaysia, such a level of intrusiveness would not be countenanced.

    Education, exposure, engagement and empowerment of all levels of society is the only solution to prevent a recurrence of the Grik incident. Mishandling at this stage will only perpetuate a cycle of malignancy.

    Karim Raslan is a KL-based writer and lawyer

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