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I have noticed a worrying trend in social media since the May 9 general election that ushered in euphoria for a “new Malaysia”. The worrying trend that I am talking about is the problem of criticising the leadership and demanding for change.

Although in a democracy, a leader like a minister or a prime minister is a servant of the rakyat, we have to understand our delicate relationship with the position of trust and power.

For a corporate figure who hired a worker, the relationship is very simple. One wrong word and you are out of a job. I feel that in a democracy, the relationship between citizen and leader or elected representative is as delicate as a husband’s relationship with his wife or a parent’s with a young adult child. One wrong word and both will suffer – the husband and the father will be worse off.

Believe me, I have two sons and three daughters who are all in the adult category and three of them are still dependents. My other two children who are independent still have strong ties especially during certain occasions like pregnancy, birth or sickness.

I have noticed that in our political issues, certain individuals and students do not understand that there is an “adab” (courtesy) that should go with our new-found freedom to criticise and demand without being thrown in prison.

Take for instance the issue of Anwar Ibrahim’s bid for a parliamentary seat. Why the harsh words about an individual who is synonymous with our new-found freedom? Do we think that GE14 was a “people’s movement” instigated overnight?

I followed almost every media outlet’s news about the Anwar saga, which was instigated by Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his band of Umno followers with a shameful judiciary and law enforcement agency, since 1998. Every day. Twenty years. Seven thousand two hundred and fifty days. I have 100 magazines and books and over 400 CDs collected since 1998.

Perhaps we could pause and give some respect to the man who has endured more than a decade of prison under the influence of our present leader, Mahathir. Let us not forget history.

For some of the students now demanding that Education Minister Maszlee Malik step down, what do they know of the Reformasi and the change that was 20 years in the making?

So the first rule of “adab” is to remember history and speak in a context of respect for the struggle. Sitting on steps barricading public access may seem heroic but that is not comparable to a 20-year struggle for the people like that of Maszlee and Anwar.

The other thing about “adab” is to understand that a leader of worth is someone who has a vision and sometimes takes an unpopular stand. I have been taking an unpopular stand against the Malay-Muslims for 20 years, to the point that public universities find great difficulty allowing me to give public talks, post-graduate viva and most definitely academic appointments.

When Anwar decided to become a member of Umno, most of the Islamic reformists in Abim and other groups opposed the move.

Thus, whether it is the Kajang Move or the Port Dickson Move or the Umno Move, these are the considerations of a leader with a far-sighted vision as well as a seasoned veteran who has endured political punishment for many, many years. All of these political strategies are within the legal guidelines of the Election Commission.

Are we, as mere students or individuals who have not shared the same journey, worthy of the words that we now dish out to such a personality? It is true that democracy does not guarantee our compassion, kind words and thoughts but are we enlightened enough to have any of these humanistic values?

A leader like Anwar or Maszlee will always take an unpopular stand as they have responsibilities and visions honed by many decades of ideas and actions, many of which never bring any financial or materialistic rewards. If they had RM116 million in their apartments, perhaps some unkind words from us would be merited. But for these two? Come on. Are we that holy and good that we can pass judgment and use hurtful words?

The third thing about “adab” that I recommend in criticising the actions of a leader or my wife or daughter is to change it to an “observation”. If you come out with guns blazing at your wife or daughter, then be prepared to be alone for a number of weeks… if you are lucky.

Make no mistake, I am the boss of my household. I can exercise my will on my family. But I decide to practise restraint and patience rather than look for a quick and hurtful solution.

Prophet Muhammad once advised Muslims to respect leaders even though they might not think that he is worthy. If a person has been appointed a leader by the sultan, like Maszlee, or has been appointed a leader by history, like Anwar, then they deserve some respect and decorum in the way we address them.

Yes, we have the democratic power and the media clout to destroy them but only those with exceptional strength of will, mind and conscience exercise strong restraint in addressing leaders. We wouldn’t say the things we do if we were addressing the sultan, simply because the law would throw us behind bars.

But Anwar and Maszlee have no power to do that and so we owe these two a certain respect in addressing our concerns. To use a simplistic idea of democracy to justify hurtful language, obstruct public access and demand that someone resign from a post, to me speaks more of “gangsterism” than an education in civilised “adab”. Changing a stinging criticism into an “observation” and, in rare instances, “advice”, is an “adab” worth considering in a good relationship with leaders we truly respect and appreciate.

Remember, what we dish out also reflects on our personality and professionalism.

Fourthly, the “adab” of patience in offering advice to leaders is simply to accept it for a while if nothing happens. In advising my wife and children about life, I usually expect nothing to happen and am surprised if my advice comes to fruition. Why must every piece of advice we give be immediately accepted by the other party? We must learn the “adab” of patience and acceptance. Do we then just stay silent, without action? Well, sometimes yes. As the saying goes, time will tell.

But we might consider taking a different strategic but polite action. Why don’t the students who are so gung ho about Maszlee stepping down take their concerns to the man who appointed him, His Highness the sultan? Take it up with him. Maszlee did not ask for the post. He was appointed. In government service, one usually cannot refuse an appointment but always can refuse an “offer”.

If the letter reads “Saudara dilantik…”, case closed. But if the letter reads “Saudara dipelawa…” – well, a refusal is possible but not recommended. The best way to refuse in government service is to do so before the letter comes out. Do the “brave” students and so-called activists know this? Have they been in government service before? I was, for 27 years; Maszlee for 20 or so. I think both Maszlee and I know a little bit more than young students.

Finally, I wish to end by saying that we have a new Malaysia and, like the Star Wars trilogy, a new hope. Let us not dash our precious space of democracy by impatience, impertinence and ignorance.

“Adab” is the highest level of a civilised and educated citizenry. What we do to others will have an uncanny way of hitting us from behind in many ways. Worse, such unthoughtful actions may have serious repercussions on others who may turn this new Malaysia into the old Malaysia.

Tajuddin Rasdi is a professor of Islamic architecture at UCSI University.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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