For the love of the common people
By MARTIN VENGADESANThe Star (Lifestyle) Sunday July 27, 2008
For more than two decades, he was the poster boy for socialism before he turned his back on it and joined Umno. Now in his twilight years, Kassim Ahmad considers himself a failure but has no regrets.
THINKER, teacher, socialist, politician, Kamunting detainee. In his time, Kassim Ahmad was all these and was certainly no stranger to controversy.
Following his own philosophical muse has taken him from the highs of his acclaimed commentary on the Hikayat Hang Tuah (in which he argues that Hang Jebat is the true hero of the Malay epic) to the lows of a five-year spell under the Internal Security Act.
What’s more, after serving 18 years as national chairman of the Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia (PSRM), he infuriated many leftists by resigning and later, joining Umno in 1986.
Then as an Umno member, he began his second career as a “troublemaker” when his interpretation of Islamic teachings earned the ire of religious authorities and conservatives!
Now in his twilight years (he turns 75 in September), Kassim has no intention of slipping away quietly. His autobiography, Mencari Jalan Pulang, Daripada Sosialisme Kepada Islam (Finding the Road Back, From Socialism to Islam) which was released in May, has become a best-seller.
The first print order of 3,000 copies has sold so quickly that a second print is in the works.
He is also a blogger (kassimahmad.blogspot.com), writing on philosophy, politics, religion and literature.
Yet, he is no longer the intellectual Che Guevera of Malaysian politics that he once was. For one, he is no longer an active politician; he’s even given up on Marxism – more on that later.
Kassim who was born in Bukit Pinang, Kedah, started out brilliantly. He earned his degree in Malay Studies at Universiti Malaya’s Singapore campus and a Masters (also in Malay Studies) at UM’s Kuala Lumpur campus.
He was still in his 20s when his work on Hikayat Hang Tuah established him as a leading intellectual in the emerging new nation of Malaysia.
Indeed, when he returned to Malaysia in 1966 following a four-year spell as a lecturer at the University of London’s School of Oriental & African Studies, Kassim could surely have abandoned leftist politics for a distinguished career in a public sector hungry for highly-qualified Malays. However, his principles did not allow him to do so, and when it became clear that his political activism was affecting his ability to find work as an academic he became a teacher at Sekolah Adullah Munshi in Penang.
“I have no regrets about those decisions,” he says. “I went into politics because I wanted the power to change the country for the better. But I loathe Machiavellian politics and that partly contributed to my failure. Another factor was the unpopularity of socialism among the Malays.”
Indeed in the late 1960s Kassim took a strict ideological line, identifying the hitherto Sukarno-influenced Malay nationalist party, Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM), with the doctrine of scientific socialism, a dangerous move in the intolerant Cold War environment.
“I joined PRM in 1960. I went to the office with Syed Husin (current Parti Keadilan Rakyat deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali) to sign up. But I was not really active until 1967 or so, after my return from the UK. I soon became chairman of the Penang division.
“It was a tough time to be a leftist. Then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was still very colonial in mentality and we were against many of his policies. The Malay masses were also averse to socialism because of the issue of national identity and religion.”
PRM was then part of Barisan Sosialis which was falling apart because of mass detentions and a few defections. Kassim was at the forefront of the party’s restyling itself to PSRM. However, it missed out on the Opposition’s successes of 1969, which were cancelled out by the racial riots of May 13.
“When May 13 came, political activities were stopped for 1½ years. (The new Prime Minister) Tun Abdul Razak brought about many changes. There was a more nationalistic, less colonial outlook that came alongside the New Economic Policy which was meant to alleviate the poverty of the rural poor. During this time, PSRM was invited to join Barisan Nasional, but through a miscommunication, the offer fell through.”
By this time, Kassim had married Shariffah Fawziah Syed Yussoff Alsagoff. The couple have three children – Soraya, Ida and Ahmad Shauqi.
“It was difficult at first as my wife’s family were not happy with my political involvement and her father wished her to marry another man. She refused and married me and once our children came along, her family came around.”
Kassim has good memories of his tenure as leader of PSRM. “My fondest memories were those of my visits to the rural areas of Terengganu, Pahang and other states where I saw and experienced the people’s suffering in places so isolated and underdeveloped that teachers would only go there for two or three days a week.”
For all the good work done by the party in the rural areas, PSRM’s leadership was affected by another around of detentions in 1974. Kassim was held two years later.
“My ISA detention was not part of the roundup in 1974 following the farmers’ and students’ protest, in which leaders like Syed Husin and Anwar Ibrahim were detained.
“My detention was linked to my teaching of the domino theory because Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam had just fallen to the Communists. In truth there was no good reason for the detention – many of us were just pawns in an internal Umno power struggle then.”
After his release in 1981, Kassim focused on his writing – he wrote two books on his traumatic experiences titled Universiti Kedua - Kisah Tahanan di Bawah ISA (Second University – Detention under ISA) and the banned Zaman Pancaroba (The Troubled Age).
Despite all that, he believes that the ISA is necessary “to cope with the threat of unjust rebellion” and was duly criticised for such a stand.
In 1984 he shocked his followers by leaving the party which he had led for so long.
“It is hard to believe now, but back in the early 1980s when he just became Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was seen as very progressive.
“We had known each other from our Alor Setar days and we had met and talked informally about bringing some of the PSRM ideas into the Barisan Nasional concept.
“We even formed a sub-committee in PSRM to handle these negotiations but my integrity was questioned and I felt I should resign from the party.”
Thus began a journey which led Kassim to review his opinions on Marxism.
As he explains it on his blog in a posting to rebut Hishamuddin Rais’ harsh review of Mencari Jalan Pulang, Daripada Sosialisme Kepada Islam: “... Marxism is history today, and Hishamuddin and his likes (sic) had better accept this reality and bitter truth.”
And he tells me: “The fatal flaw in Marxism/Socialism is its restriction on personal freedom. A person must be free to work and earn according to his ability. However, unrestrained capitalism results in many inhumane injustices. What we need is a good welfare concept where people are able to exercise their individual freedoms but still be supported by the state when the need arises.”
Kassim’s review of his socialist leanings coincided with a renewed interest in Islam, which harked back to his childhood (his father was a religious teacher).
“When I studied the Islam of my ancestors I realised that many deviations had occurred and it was very different from the Islam of the prophets.”
In 1986, Kassim made a double move that had him at the centre of both political and religious storms: he joined Umno and then published Hadis – Satu Penilaian Semula (Hadith – A Re-examination), a highly controversial religious analysis!
“When my book came out there were big discussions. Some labelled me an apostate, misunderstanding my message and calling me anti-Hadith.
“I don’t consider myself anti-Hadith, but I feel some have sought to elevate the Hadith to equal the Quran. I maintained that where there are contradictions, the Quran must take precedence.
“The problem may not be so much one of interpretation, but that of fear of open dialogue. The intellectual culture in Malaysia is weak, largely due to a leadership that has made religion and ethnicity sensitive subjects. That’s wrong. We should seek to understand one another and ourselves in an open-hearted manner. That’s why inter-faith discussion is important.”
In his view, last year’s Lina Joy decision seems to indicate that Malays have no freedom of religion (On May 30, 2007, The Federal Court dismissed her appeal to remove the word Islam from her identity card because she had converted to Christianity).
Says Kassim: “The Quran clearly and absolutely upholds the freedom of religion for all men. sura 2, verse 256 gives you complete freedom of religion, yet apostasy charges are popular.
You cannot force religious faith on a whole people. It must come from within. Secularism itself is not strange to Islam, as indicated in the Medina Charter, which was written by the prophet Mohamed to help the people govern a multi-religious society.”
What then does he makes of groups like Al Arqam, Al Ma-anah, and Sky Kingdom?
“These are deviationist groups. I think if you look at the Sky Kingdom which appeared to be peaceful, the authorities took a wrong approach. You cannot force on people your own definition of what is religiously correct as it will only encourage them to rebel and oppose you.”
As for joining Umno – as Pengkalan Kota branch leader in Penang – he explains why:
“I joined because it was the party with the strongest roots in the Malay community and I wanted to work with the grassroots poor. I viewed politics in a different way; I felt that if those with progressive views joined the ruling party they could renew it and reshape it.
But it doesn’t appear as if the “progessive” ones achieved their aims and Kassim retired from active politics in 1991. His opinion of Umno today:
“It needs a radical change. Over the last two decades, it has alienated itself from the Malay masses and become an elitist party. But it is still a party rooted in the defining community of Malaysia, i.e. the Malays. It needs to go back to its original struggle. Whether it can make the necessary changes or not remains to be seen.”
On Pakatan Rakyat, he says: “They have to resolve their ideological differences and prove themselves a better coalition than Barisan Nasional quickly. Otherwise the people will throw them out.”
Kassim busies himself with writing, reading and taking short walks. He looks forward to the next World Cup and watching Brazil play. While his occasional travels have been slowed down by bronchitis, he has no intention of putting down the pen with which he has made his mark.
“After writing my memoirs, I felt as if a big load was taken off my shoulders, and I can relax now,” he says with a laugh.
Buoyed by his book’s success which has stirred interest in his previous works as well, Kassim plans to compile his essays posted on his website into two books in the next two or three years.
No one is more excited than his publisher who himself is a good barometer of a younger generation’s interest in a man from the past. Ezra Mohd. Zaid, director of ZI Publications, is only 25.
He explains: “I feel that Kassim is an intriguing figure, both at the centre of our intellectual thought and yet marginalised because of his unorthodox views. I feel he deserves a platform to address contemporary issues.”
It’s been a long journey but, as long as his health allows him, Kassim Ahmad has not reached the end of his road – he still has paths to explore and welcomes anyone to come along for the ride.
Living by his principles
TO his most ardent admirers, Kassim Ahmad is Malaysia’s “foremost thinker and philosopher”. To his detractors, he is a Marxist-turned-Umno man who is anti-Hadith.
But to his son and closest friends, he is a scholar and a gentleman who made great personal sacrifices for his country and its ordinary people.
His lifelong friend Parti Keadilan Rakyat deputy President Dr Syed Husin Ali says they were two young friends who were united in a passionate political struggle that changed their lives.
“After Kassim came back from London, the two of us ceased to be just academicians and took over the leadership of PRM (Parti Rakyat Malaysia) and that’s when we renamed it Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia which I perhaps didn’t totally agree with.
“Kassim became the chairman and I became the secretary general. There was some strain with the old leaders, especially Ahmad Boestamam, but eventually we came together to build a party to fight for the common people. We tried hard, but maybe in the end we failed,” muses Dr Syed Husin.
Indeed, he, Kassim and other party colleagues earned a spell under the Internal Security Act.
Kassim’s son, Ahmad Shauqi, now 41, recalls those difficult years vividly. “The time my father spent under detention was very tough. I was in Standard Three. My mother wasn’t working and there was no steady income for the family. Fortunately PSRM gave a sum of RM100 or RM150 every month for a few years and our relatives helped too.
“I must salute my mother for not abandoning my father or the family when he was detained because she was very pretty and many men were chasing her during this time,” he adds with a laugh.
Kassim and Dr Syed Husin were detained at Kamunting but were placed in different cells.
“We were never in the same dormitory but we managed to talk over the zinc partition, and to pass food and books to each other,” says Dr Syed Husin.
To the authorities, Kassim was a trouble-maker but to his son, he was a soft-spoken and law-abiding citizen.
“He cared about the welfare of the people as a whole, putting it higher even than that of the family. He knew the hardships of life growing up in Kedah and he wanted to work to improve the conditions of everybody’s life, not just his family’s,” says Ahmad Shauqi.
“My father tends to think the best of people and sometimes he has been taken advantage of. But most people I meet think very highly of my father although some rural Malays have been given an incorrect impression of him because of (his book) Hadis – Satu Penilaian Semula (Hadith – A Re-examination).
Parti Sosialis Malaysia chairman and Kota Damansara assemblyman Mohd Nasir Hashim was among the generation of leftists who remembers Kassim’s leadership of the progressive struggle.
“Our paths did not cross much, because I was overseas and only joined PSRM in the mid 1980s soon after he left the party but I can tell you that many young leftists in the 1960s and 70s looked upon him as a guiding force. After he came out from detention, he moved towards Islamic socialism before abandoning socialism altogether. Even so as an Islamist thinker, he questioned a lot and was branded unfairly as ‘anti-Hadith’.
“I believe leaders like Kassim and (DAP stalwart the late) Dr. V. David, at their height, were a force to reckon with.
“Kassim was always coming out with fiery statements and interpretations of global politics. In later years he mellowed. He must have had his reasons for going to Umno; it was a tough world for a socialist and in Malaysia the leftist movement had been wiped out.”
Dr Syed Husin admits that Kassim’s decision to leave PSRM affected their friendship “a little” but they remained friends.
“We were certainly not antagonistic. We still attended each other’s children’s weddings and most recently met at the launching of my book (The Malays: Their Problems & Future).
“But in hindsight, I think Kassim would have had more influence if he remained independent after leaving PSRM instead of joining Umno because his style and their political culture were incompatible.”
Adds Dr Syed Husin, “Kassim is an important thinker. Right from his student days he was interested in both socialism and Islam. Some people misunderstand him, thinking the interest in Islam came later. Even as an Islamist he holds opinions which are viewed as controversial, some of which I share and others that I don’t.
“He is a very powerful poet and should be recognised as such. Whatever the controversy surrounding his politics and religious views, his contributions as a writer should not be overlooked. He was given an honorary doctorate by UKM (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) in the 1980s but by and large he has not been given his due.”
Still for all his trials and tribulations, it is heartening to see Kassim enjoy retired life with his loved ones. His two daughters married an Australian and a Frenchman and reside overseas while his son lives in Penang with his Malaysian Chinese wife.
“As a father he has done his job well,” says Ahmad Shauqi. “Even though he was not always around when we were growing up, he gave his values of what was right and wrong. He has a very open mind and heart which he has passed to us and now to his (11) grandchildren (aged from 22 to three).
“My father likes to impart his knowledge and values but then give you the freedom to chose your own path. He taught us to be independent and self-reliant and not to depend on the government or a corporation for your living.” – MARTIN VENGADESAN