A vote of character
If i could sum it up in a nutshell, this is the thing that is wrong with Malaysian politics today: we're told to vote for a person's character, and not for what he/she can do for the people. I suppose it's inevitable that when you have nothing bad to say about a person's leadership decisions and conduct, you attack their character, and this includes their beliefs and/or their personality.
And so is the case with Normala Sudirman, the PAS Muslimah head, who is running for the Tenang seat in the by-election. Her refusal to shake hands with men have become an issue, and somehow this makes her less likeable and even more tenuously, disqualifies her from being a capable leader.
Educated in UIA, i learned very early on through a series of embarrassing incidents that are best left to the anals of my personal history, that shaking hands with a woman is considered touching her, and is thus a no-no for Muslims. Unless she is related to me by blood, or is my wife, Muslim men and women are prohibited from touching. It may seem strange to non-Muslims, but if you think about it, it isn't any different from any cultural oddity that the human race is full of. Middle Eastern men hug and kiss each other in greeting, some South Asians even go to the extreme of this and kiss each other on the mouth. Blacks in America often go through an elaborate hand-shake that includes exploding hands and wiggling fingers. The Japanese bow to each other (which can be tiring if you're meeting a roomful of people for the first time). The Thais nod their heads and clasp their hands together in greeting. The list goes on. Islam has its own prescribed method of polite greeting, which is the wishing of "peace be upon you".
It's a cultural, sometimes religiously motivated, quirk and it certainly does nothing to detract from whether that person is a suitable leader. Unless you want it to be, which i feel BN has chosen poorly in deciding to try and make it an issue. Instead of making Normala look like a Muslim conservative (which she may yet prove to be) and using that against her with the various scare stories of what conservative Muslims are capable of doing, it just makes BN look ignorant and, in the worst case, culturally intolerant.
Even if she is what is being claimed of her, does that necessarily disqualify her from leadership? Will her conservative Muslim (i use this term loosely) approach to life mean that she will do poorly for the people of Tenang, especially the non-Muslims? Not necessarily. She needs to tell the people what her stand is on a number of issues, what her plans are, and how she intends to make life just that bit better for everyone in her constituency. She needs a chance to do that.
Unless of course, this whole charade is a smart BN ruse -- they WANT her to be distracted, they WANT the people to focus on this issue, rather than the ones that really matter. They WANT this to be reported in the news (instead of her views on the issues that are important). Perhaps this is all a gambit; it's ok for BN to look silly for a while, as long as it distracts her long enough for her to answer the really important questions.
Then it's up to us to be mature enough to be able to tell the difference between the two. Don't vote for someone just because she wears a large tudung, or gloves, or refuses to shake your hand. Give that person your vote because you believe that she is able to improve your lot, and is willing to work her socks off defending your interests in Parliament.
On the flipside, be aware of whether she can deliver. Just because she is a "good Muslim" doesn't mean that she will make a good representative for the people. She needs to be able to rise above this as well, and that's as good a test as any of her ability to focus on the job. Will she be able to focus on job despite all the criticism? All the distraction?
As always, vote the person and what he/she can do for you. That's more important that how the person chooses to greet you, even more important than the political party he/she may belong to.