Ustaz Fadzil Noor in memory

Dato' Fadhil Noor and the Malaysian DreamThe seismic shocks in Malaysian politics, when in a space of 17 hours the Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed, resigned and the the Leader of the Opposition, Dato' Fadhil Noor, died changed its political landscape irrevocably.

Both presidents of their parties, one of UMNO and the other of PAS, their importance is reflected after they departed. Dr Mahathir strutted the world stage but Dato' Fadhil Noor tended the home fires that he was seen to the outside world as a colourless party apparatchik. Nothing could be further than the truth.For when he died of complications from a coronary bypass operation, it could not have been a worse time for the party he led.

The outpouring of grief and shock, the tens of thousands who turned up either at the Hospital Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (HUKM), at the airport before his body was taken to Alor Star for burial, and when it arrived there. What one saw was not a show of strength, although there was a little of that, but to say farewell to a man who made a difference in this mythical journey to the Malaysian Dream.

His understated presence, his concern, his empathy with those he was in contact with, his principled conduct in Parliament amidst the racuous needling from the National Front (BN) benches when he or his colleagues raised inconvenient questions the government would rather not answer, his behind-the-scenes presence in PAS which modified the harsher proposals that made it (almost) accepted by the non-Malay and the non-Muslim. So much so that he was viewed with suspicion by the more fundamentalist members of his own party.I once asked him about this. His reply was typical: "There is no one way that is as good or as bad as any other. And none so good that it cannot be improved with discussion."

It is not, he said, a sign of frustration or confrontation; rather, it is a commitment towards an Islamic state which should come with debate and discussion. It did not reflect a split in the party or that the parties did not like each other.That he was at odds with the party on occasion was in his view proof that PAS was a democratic institution. He represents the moderating influence in PAS, one that was there from its earliest days when the UMNO religious wing became the Pan Malayan Islamic Party (PMIP), the precursor of PAS. He is, unlike those in control of PAS, from the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia, from Kedah, which is also the home state of Dr Mahathir.

Past PAS presidents have always been from the West Coast. When I sounded out PAS leaders and members about this, there were as many who thought this tradition must be maintained as those who thought it did not matter.But he was clear in his mind that his vision of the Malaysian Dream was one where Islamic ideals of societal living played a dominant role. He was the conscience of the non-Malay and non-Muslim, who felt that in this Islamic state he fought for, their presence was important and honourable; that since there are as many visions of an Islamic state as there are Islamic political parties, whatever vision one had must be tempered with the universality the religion portrays.

In Malaysia though this is complicated by this constant conflict between the Malay cultural world view in which Islam plays an inalienable central part and the belief that cultural mores must take a back seat in this march towards an Islamic state.The former university academic he was, Dato' Fadhil, with his quizzical hint of a smile and an invisible wall he seems to surround with, remained aloof and seemed lost in his own world. So one did not get close to him. I had known him for more than a decade, got to know him well enough that he would approach you when he saw you. But there was always that distance.

But of his sincerity there can be no doubt. He was comfortable in his Malay, as I am not, and this made conversation somewhat tilted, but he left his mark in the small gestures he made, out of the public eye. He was not a hail-fellow-well-met individual, but one whose mind was his best companion.He entered politics through the Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) when it was run by Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

A strand runs through their political careers, one joining PAS the other UMNO, one becoming PAS president, the other UMNO deputy president before a political misstep brought his downfall. The two were close to the late Palestinian academic, Mr Ismail Farouki. There were political inferences drawn from that but there was no doubt that the two men were close, even comrade-in-arms. Which was why Dato' Seri Anwar asked for special permission to pay his respects before the funeral.

It is typical of the mishaps which take place when the authorities decide it should not happen that he got the permission but there was no police escort to see he did.I do not endorse Dato' Fadhil's Malaysian Dream. Indeed I have my own version of it. His is rooted in his Islam and his belief in its power. Mine is in a Malaysia which distinguishes itself in its multiracial, multireligious polity in which Islam has a honoured place, a religious primus inter pares. What was important for him was that he wanted to know why I objected to a theocratic state.

Nor was he averse to the forces of history which could, in time, change the fundamentalist nature of Islam. But he felt sincerely and honestly that when that came the non-Muslim accept the primacy of Islam. Perhaps. But it is a realisable dream if obscurantist forces do not wreck it.Of his patent honesty and sense of purpose, there is no doubt. It is leaders like him in PAS which presents the acceptable face of Islam to the non-Malays.

That his moderation in politics as in everything else is deeply ingrained in his character is seen in the grieving crowds that came to pay their respect. That his death has put paid to the Malaysian prime minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed's plans to return to the helm, and threatens the future of UMNO in Kedah is one small indication of the silent giant that strode the political canvas with a determination and purpose that stopped mightier but more flambouyant men.That he lived in our midst makes us all the greater.

That he left us in his prime gives us cause to revel in his what he did for us all. When rescuers found the body of the then UN secretary-general, Mr Dag Hammarskjeld, after a plane crash in the Congo in the 1960s, they found a well-thumbed handwritten book of his own favourite quotations. One was heavily underlined. It read: When you were born, everyone was happy, you alone cried; make your life such that when you die, everyone cries, you alone are happy. He lived to that maxim. So Dato' Fadhil Noor, president of PAS, Leader of the Opposition, politician, husband, father, humanbeing.