Public diplomacy and soft power can be expressed in a variety of ways.
Last week I attended a reception hosted by the Embassy of the United States of America to bestow their Woman of Courage Award to Indira Gandhi, the Hindu mother whose long-running battle for custody of her children converted to Islam by her husband brought questions of unilateral conversion and the jurisdiction of the civil and shariah courts to the fore.
The situation began in 2009 when K Pathmanathan converted himself (as Muhammad Riduan Abdullah) and three of his children to Islam using birth certificates, and the shariah court granted him custody. Between 2010-2014, the Ipoh High Court progressively granted Indira custody of the children, declared unilateral child conversions unconstitutional, annulled the shariah court order, and directed the police (including compelling the Inspector General of Police) to arrest Muhammad Riduan and return Prasana, the youngest child. The police did not do so, and in 2014-2015 the Court of Appeal, in a bid by the IGP and Attorney General’s Chambers, reversed the High Court’s directive for the police to act and upheld the unilateral child conversions on the basis that civil courts have no jurisdiction over conversion to Islam. In 2015-2016, the Federal Court granted Indira leave to overturn the Court of Appeal’s decisions. On 29 January 2018, the country’s highest court unanimously declared unilateral conversions unlawful: an historic judgment that will protect spouses and children in the future.
And thus the courts have, in the end, done their duty while the federal government has dithered (although Negeri Sembilan tackled this issue in 2015 by making divorce compulsory before one spouse converts to Islam). Still, not everyone is happy: for some Muslims who prioritise identity politics – that a Muslim must always be seen to win – it is unacceptable that four Muslim judges have “sided” with a non-Muslim. The idea that the judges actually sided with justice (a fundamental Islamic principle) and the constitution is, to them, irrelevant.
In honouring the remarkable Indira “in recognition of her tireless efforts to protect minority rights and to ensure the rights of both parents in the raising of a child”, the United States (despite a change in President, Secretary of State, Ambassador to Malaysia and soon Secretary of State again since last year) is signalling its values and encouraging Malaysians to support those values.
The recognising of foreign citizens by a government isn’t unique to the Americans of course: the Indian Muslim preacher Zakir Naik has been embraced by Malaysian leaders and has reportedly been granted Malaysian permanent resident status – and so has an Englishman living in Terengganu known as Mat Dan (whose videos I greatly enjoy), while Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan has received a Datukship from Malacca. Each of these decisions has communicated different things to targeted sections of the population.
Diplomats also intervene to rectify the mistakes made by their compatriots, the most recent being rendang-gate, in which the British High Commissioner joined Malaysian politicians on both sides of the divide and thousands of angry Malaysians to condemn a judge on MasterChef UK for criticising a Malaysian-born chef Zaleha Kadir Olpin for her chicken rendang not being “crispy enough”. Our Foreign Minister congratulated her for succeeding to unite Malaysians in the most divisive of times.
The unity has even spread to the region, with many Singaporeans and Indonesians joining in the condemnation. However, one side effect was a claim that rendang is actually Indonesian, originating in Padang and only brought to the Malay peninsula by Minangkabau migrants. Those of us who share this heritage can easily see beyond modern borders, but ultra-nationalists will always see food, music and art forms as exclusively theirs, proving that cultural diplomacy generates its own controversies.
One word used to describe the British judge’s criticism was that it was a classic example of “whitesplaining” – when white people lecture non-white people, often with racist or imperialist undertones. However, cooking ability and knowledge of dishes isn’t dependent on race (as I learnt eating my late grandmother’s amazing spaghetti) – and ignorance of certain dishes shouldn’t automatically be attributed to race either.
As culinary diplomats seek justice for the rendang in a case where a foreign judge got it wrong, and as formal diplomats signal their support for the decisions of domestic judges when they get it right, there may also be times when diplomats might be asked to explain why their country’s judges are doing things (like making seizures in kleptocracy cases) with possibly harder diplomatic consequences.
In those cases, Malaysians will have to again weigh their own considerations of diplomacy and identity politics against their understandings of justice.
First published in Conservatively Speaking Freely, theborneopost.com and themalaymailonline.com, 6 April 2018.