Tawfik Ismail is a modest man with a huge mission.
His name carries no honorifics or title. “Just call me Tawfik,” he says.
This man is, in fact, the son of the late Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, the “best prime minister that Malaysia never had”.
I have known Tawfik for many years and remember well that he had offered his father’s letters and papers to the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, where I was a senior visiting fellow some 16 years ago.
With Tawfik’s assistance, Dr Ooi Kee Beng, who was with me at ISEAS at that time, wrote a best-selling biography of Ismail – The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time.
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A Malay edition followed, entitled Bukan Kerana Pangkat: Tun Dr Ismail dan Masanya. And a Mandarin edition will soon be out, Tawfik tells me.
Like his father, Tawfik is Malaysia’s current ‘reluctant politician’. He sees it as his duty to plunge back into politics to rescue Malaysia from its dire state. He has vowed to take on Umno president Zahid Hamidi wherever he stands in the upcoming general election.
Tawfik is an honourable man with a massive mission. All right-minded Malaysians must throw their support behind Tawfik to defeat Zahid. This will be an important step to banish Malaysia’s kleptocrats into the dustbin of history once and for all!
Below is the gist of my conversation with Tawfik Ismail on 15 October at a location in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, named appropriately enough after his father.
Why I quit Umno
Johan: Briefly tell us about yourself and why you started Gerak Independent.
Tawfik: My background is in history and politics, but my first love is history. I view history from the standpoint of a ‘Merdeka baby’ (being born in 1951) and have seen events over the decades and experienced prime ministers from the Tunku (Abdul Rahman), Tun Razak (Hussein), (Dr) Mahathir (Mohamad) and others up till now.
It’s a journey that has been quite perilous as I witnessed Malaysia sinking more deeply into too much race identification and too much religious consciousness – by which I mean that these two factors colour our thinking in everything we do in this multi-ethnic and multicultural country we all live in and love.
Speaking as a Malay, I feel that we must not think of ourselves as ‘Malays and others’.
In the past, we used to be proud of our diversity.
The Islamofascists have made us think as ‘Muslims and others’ rather than as Malaysians. This is a very retrogressive thought process which has been inculcated in Malay minds from foreign sources, such as the Iranian Revolution or influences from the Middle East, which are totally alien to our own Nusantara concept of Islam.
Why Gerak Independent?
I was a one-term parliamentarian in 1986-1990 and was very disappointed with how Mahathir killed Umno in 1987. This happened when he created ‘Umno Baru’, which I’d rather not call Umno but Mahathir’s Frankenstein party.
The other event that made me distance myself from that party was when Najib (Razak) was looking for a deputy president. At that time, I was in the Pontian division, and I had objected to Muhyiddin (Yassin) being the number two, as I wanted to have someone stronger to support Najib against Mahathir.
I proposed Shahrir Samad to be the deputy, but I was not given that support. I then quit Umno around 2009.
After lying low for some time, I turned my attention to the issue of national integration and I conceived of Malaysia First. It was a movement created using WhatsApp, where I invited friends and supporters to join me in my quest. I was pleasantly surprised by the huge following that I got from public intellectuals and from disaffected politicians.
After Malaysian First was born, I went to witness the Sabah state election in 2020 and was taken aback by the degree of animosity of Sabahans against the peninsula. The depth of bitterness was based on the terms of MA63 [Malaysia Agreement 1963] and peninsula politicians not recognising the rights of Sabah and Sarawak.
After this, a few friends got together to look at what needed to be done, as we felt that the political parties were too ossified. New ideas could not penetrate the calcification of our political parties.
We thought that we should look at the idea of independent candidates, so we set up Gerak Independent. We wanted the public to be aware that there are alternatives to leadership beyond political parties.
Why I am contesting against Zahid
Why have you decided to take on Zahid in his constituency in Bagan Datuk, Perak, or in any constituency he may choose?
Before I made the decision, I was fairly neutral about what the general election would be about.
But then, when I looked at the events during Zahid’s trials and the way his first case was dismissed by the judge, I became very concerned. His speech where he singled out his deputy and other cabinet members of BN [Barisan Nasional] as the next targets for investigation if they lost the elections made me think that this man has to be stopped.
He has already shown his hand – that he has very strong right-wing tendencies, and if BN was to win, they will change the laws and we will all be thrown back into the dark ages!
One evening I was thinking of how I could stop this. And the next morning, I made a statement to the Malaysia First group that I will take on Zahid Hamidi in any constituency he chooses to run in, to stop him from being the leader he expects to be and that it will be a fight of the Rakyat versus Rasuah (The People versus Corruption).
I want to take it a step further and say that we should fight for Maruah Malaysia (the Integrity of Malaysia) because this is a Malaysian issue, not just a Malay issue.
I can understand that the non-Malays feel rather helpless now about what is happening in the country, and so it is now up to a Malay to stop a Malay.
Zahid is also someone who exploits the issue of Islam, even though his lifestyle is very secular and affluent. He doesn’t seem to be one seeking heavenly rewards. There is this deep dichotomy in the man and it would take a psychiatrist to interpret his personality.
Whatever it is, to put such a man in power would be very dangerous for the country.
Myth of Malay unity – Malaysian First
You say Malay unity is a myth. Can you explain this?
People like Mahathir and Muhyiddin have always exploited Malay unity as an agenda to justify Malay dominance in government and the civil service.
But it is a myth because Malays themselves are a diverse group of people. People in Kelantan and Johor do not think alike in matters of culture or even household matters. With respect to Malays within our region, there are Hindu Malays in Bali, Catholic Malays and Muslim Malays in Indonesia, and people in the Philippines also consider themselves to be Malay.
Malaysian Malays need to think more deeply about themselves and about their own inclusiveness and pluralism. Historically, the Malays have been influenced by many cultures, whether it is Islam, Hinduism or Christianity.
Malay culture has always been inclusive and open. It hasn’t made the Malays any less Malay; rather, Malay culture has been enriched by these influences.
It is a strength that we still have and we should remind our current generation and the next generation about this – the inclusiveness of Malay culture. We need to remind them and our new generations of ethnic communities too, what it means to be Malaysian.
Should you win the seat against Zahid, what would be your political agenda, your first tasks? What do you hope to achieve in your term as a parliamentarian?
The first set of issues would be bread-and-butter issues.
I would ask the government to remove unfair taxes that limit people’s spending power. House prices have to come down, the price of food has to come down, the price of cars also has to come down.
We were overtaxed on cars because we are protecting a silly motorcar policy. People are paying 200% to 300% more than they should for a car.
We should look very closely at the issue of food security. Essential commodities like rice are much cheaper in other countries like Thailand.
We need to push for greater socioeconomic integration between different parts of peninsular Malaya and Sabah and Sarawak.
I think there should be more access for people to cross the South China Sea, and people should be allowed to settle in places which are economically enriching for them.
For example, Sabah and Sarawak have extensive land masses, and there should be no reason why we cannot allow extensive farming to be carried out in East Malaysia for the benefit of the whole country.
We also need to look closely at our defence and foreign policy. We do not want to become a client state of China or any of the major powers. We should be more equidistant in our dealings with such powers.
While we welcome foreign sources of infrastructural development, we should also look at the overall cost to the country. An example is the high-speed rail between Malaysia and Singapore – but at what cost will it be built?
We should look at the land reclamation policies and how they affect the livelihoods of our fisherfolk, an example being the Forest City development. There has been displacement of Orang Laut in southern Johor because of these land reclamations.
I will be a champion of the climate change issue and sustaining the environment. Malaysia should do our part to protect our rainforests and waterways.
Politically, Malaysia has been quite unique, with our federal system, which allows for good representation. It could be even more democratic if we adopt the American-style senate system and allow for states to elect two or three representatives each. That way, even a state like Perlis would have equal representation with other states.
This will be a very good check against gerrymandering of seats for parliamentary representation. In this way, we can also address the imbalance between Sarawak and Sabah and the peninsula.
We should also study the excellent Athi Nahappan report on locally elected councils and re-instate elected local councils.
Women, youth and the People’s Agenda
What is your view on the need for the empowerment of women and youth in politics?
Absolutely! Women are a key component of our entire system. Their role has always been underplayed but it’s usually due more to cultural habit than any conscious actions on the part of the men.
Women have culturally not been empowered, but now they are demographically in a better position in terms of income than men. They cannot reach the top because of that glass ceiling which they have to penetrate.
They must be given the opportunity to rise, but sometimes they don’t seem to want to push themselves.
When it comes to youth, what is key is that we don’t seem to want to give them the authority to be in the front lines to drive the country. This is something we need to reverse.
When Malaya got its independence, Tunku was the oldest at 50-plus and Tun Razak and my dad were in their late 30s or early 40s, and they built up the country. Why are we not allowing the young to do what our fathers did?
[The lack of] Succession planning is our biggest failure, and Mahathir is at fault when it comes to grooming young leaders. He seems to cut down whoever is honest and hardworking. You are only useful to Mahathir if he has dirt he can use against you! And he is still going on at 97 – why?
Finally, will you endorse the People’s Agenda, initiated by Aliran and five other groups, and supported by 57 NGOs?
The People’s Agenda should be held up as part of our philosophy of upholding the dignity and quality of life of the people.
We should also look at it in terms of our own history and cultural heritage and try to incorporate it as part of our diversity and our multi-ethnicity, without leaving behind any of the disadvantageous groups and the minorities in our society, including Orang Asli and migrant workers.
Tawfik’s parting message:
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
19 October 2022