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The poverty of riches and the riches of poverty

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Residence of Nik Aziz

Aliran member Farish A Noor had the chance to get up close and personal with Kelantan Mentri Besar Nik Aziz Nik Mat and was impressed that the Tok Guru still uses the same cheap plastic BIC ballpoint that he had first seen him use in 1999. There is a lesson to be learnt in this.

As an aside to the academic work I normally do, last week I was given the opportunity to meet with Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the Spiritual Leader (Murshidul Am) of the Malaysian Islamic Party PAS at his office in northern Malaysia.

Despite the frail health of the man and his taxing schedule, we managed to pack in close to two hours worth of interview on tape and this will now be my headache for the next week as all of this information has to be transcribed for publication purposes.
One thing, however, struck me somewhere during the second half of our meeting. I remarked to the Ulama that his home was suprisingly similar to that of Ho Chi Minh’s in Hanoi, Vietnam, and that both he and the revered ‘Uncle Ho’ chose to give up their stately government mansions to live in humble wooden houses. I also remarked to him that he was using the same cheap, plastic BIC ballpoint pen that I had seen him use when we first met in 1999. This occassioned a laugh and a smile from him, but it struck us both that these observations were far from pedestrian.
The truth is that for both revolutionary Islamic and Communist movements alike the world over, the democratic impetus and the drive for revolutionary politics was accompanied by a strong sense of disdain for worldliness, and a respect for a spartan way of life. Whatever you may say about Ho Chi Minh, one thing you could never accuse him of was corruption and the easy life. The same applies to Nik Aziz as the spiritual leader of the Islamic party of Malaysia.
The same however cannot be said of the secular modernising elites of so many post colonial societies that rather quickly got used to the comfy life of the former colonial masters they condemned and demonised, so what gives?
As someone who studies the various modes of religio-political behaviour in the Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist worlds respectively, I am left with the rather simple conclusion that the ‘moral economy of the peasant’ that was talked about in the 1970s is as relevant now as it was then. With the global economy in a tailspin and many an Asian economy precariously hanging in the balance, we already see the repeat of the mistakes of the past. The list of errors and complains sound surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly) similar to those that came to the fore during the Asian crisis of 1998: indiscriminate credit expansion, contracts given to government contractors or those close to power, etc.
Time will tell whether this imminent global recession will see political heads roll as it did in  1998, when public protests brought down the governments of Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia, and rocked the political foundations of Malaysia too. Then, it was apparent that the economic crisis was as much a political one as it was financial, due to the murky dealings of political fixers and the unfettered role of political parties and elites in so many asian countries.
If this were to happen though, the credibility of religio-political leaders like Tuan Guru Nik Aziz will remain intact, for the man himself has nothing to lose in the first place. Nik Aziz, above all, understands the meaning of the poverty of riches and the riches of poverty. His wealth lies in his cultural capital as a pious man whose hands are clean. And in any case he has no luxury items to give up: After all, he still uses the same plastic BIC pen today that he used ten years ago!

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