Home Menara English Opinion What Malaysians can do to preserve racial and religious harmony

What Malaysians can do to preserve racial and religious harmony


Recently, some dubious scholar from the Middle East Institute in based in Washington DC, the United States, Maszlee Malik, penned a piece on behalf of the Singapore based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) titled ‘How Malaysia can reverse trend of increasing religious intolerance’ which was published in a left wing online news portal, the Malay Mail Online just earlier today.

In it he presumes to lecture Malaysians on how best to reverse a supposed trend of increasing religious intolerance by making an a priori assumption that racial and religious harmony in Malaysia have been undermined by “a series of incidents” that allegedly began in 2009 with the cow head protest incident in Shah Alam.

These incidents, as well as past legislative proposals by the government, statements by Muslim leaders and the “over institutionalisation of Islam” he says, “threatens the very fabric of Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious make-up,” and proposes three steps that seek to remedy this apparent malady.

The problem with his analysis though, is that it is fundamentally flawed. So flawed in fact, that it is not far-fetched to surmise that the piece serves not the purpose of curing an existing societal problem, but instead is to distort and obfuscate the real issues behind our current situation as a nation. And given the irredeemably flawed analysis, it naturally follows that his proposals are faulty as well, given that they are made based on the wrong premise.

As any doctor can tell you, a wrong diagnosis of an apparent problem can lead to faulty prescriptions in treating the same with disastrous consequences being the obvious result. His op ed therefore is fit to be seen only as a poison, and not a panacea for our woes. None of its contents should be taken or construed as a cure for the problems we face as a society, lest it fan the flames of discord between our disparate communities even further.

So what then instead, one may ask. Is it not true that Malaysia suffers from increasing racial and religious discord? Indubitably yes, but any diagnosis of the problem must be correctly identified and narrated before solutions thereto may be found.

One must always bear in mind that Malaysia as a whole has generally always enjoyed relatively peaceful relations between citizens of different ethnic background, then and even now. There is no plausible reason to suppose that relations have soured. If they have, then the origin of such discord did not start in 2009 but 40 years earlier, in 1969.

Race relations, then and now

The brazen attempt by Chinese minority based political parties in particular Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (“Gerakan”) and the Democratic Action Party (“DAP”) during the 1969 general election to question and undermine the settlement reached between our nation’s forefathers, namely that citizenship be given to non-native inhabitants of the then Malaya in exchange for due recognition of the supremacy of Islam and Malay native rights upon this land led to the infamous incident on May the 13th of that year. Given the scale and magnitude of atrocities committed by all sides in that incident, it was thought that prevention of root causes giving rise to complications, rather than allowing the same to fester unhindered and treating symptoms when they occur, would be the better course of action to undertake from then on.

It was in this context that the existing Sedition Act 1948 was amended in 1970 to protect provisions contained in our Federal Constitution protecting the settlement reached between native Malays and non-native ethnic minorities in the then Malaya prior to independence in 1957, namely the provision on citizenship in Part III, the status of Malay as the national language and sole language of the state in Article 152, the special position of Malays in education as well as business in Article 153 and last but not least, the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the Malay rulers in Article 181. Regrettably, Islam’s exhalted position as religion of the federation, encapsulated by Article 3 of the Constitution, was left out of this equation.

It is beyond doubt that the aforementioned amendment, coupled with the arsenal of preventive detention laws such as the Internal Security Act 1960 and the Emergency Ordinances avaliable at the disposal of the government then, have contributed towards the continued safety and security of the nation as well as ensuring racial and religious harmony to prevail between its inhabitants from then until 2012 when they were unfortunately repealed.

Over indulgence of ethnic minority demands at majority expense

The disasterous turn of events was due to the fact that the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition haemorrhaged votes in the 2008 election. This led to our current Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak to acquiesce to the demands of irresponsible quarters, such as the Malaysian Bar and foreign funded civil society NGOs such as SUARAM, among others, to repeal most of the preventive laws in the hope of recovering lost political support from the Malaysian electorate. This did not occur and the ruling coalition is in worse shape politically then it was prior to the subsequent general election in 2013.

The Sedition Act 1948 was fortunate to be the only preventive law that has survived this repeal onslaught by our then overambitious PM, and all Malaysians should be grateful for this. Otherwise our constitutional settlement would have been open to question again by those with malicious intent without sanction, leading to unimaginable consequences for race and religious relations.

But another hangover from the past remains and this is the continued existence and operation of vernacular schools. Various proposals in the 1950s were made for their abolition, but as the schools had existed for a while prior to independence, and communities were not ready yet to give them up, it was agreed that they would continue albeit for a temporary period after independence was achieved. The Razak Report of 1956 confirms this, stating that Malay, as the national language, should be the eventual sole language of all educational establishments throughout our nation, and one in which a common national identity can be based upon.

However due to the need by the head of the BN coalition, UMNO to help its partner MCA obtain and secure Chinese support, this has not come to pass until this very day. This is evident from the judgment of our former Lord President, Suffian LP in the case of Merdeka University v Government of Malaysia where His Lordship bemoaned the tendency amongst some members of the Chinese community to demand what is not theirs under our Constitution, namely the right to be educated in their mother tongue, the Mandarin language (though this itself is doubtful since Mandarin is not native to any Chinese community in Malaysia). This is quite different from having the right to know their mother tongue which is of course, protected in Article 152 of our apex law.

This among other over indulgence of minority demands has led to the slow erosion of the positions rightfully and naturally enjoyed by the Malay Muslim majority natives of this nation. Hence any proposal, if it is to be made, must take into account this, and more.

Malaysians, instead of following the utter hubris of the three steps suggested by Maszlee Malik in his opinion piece, would do well to take heed of these following steps instead.

Step 1: Respect the Constitution

The Federal Constitution is our highest law and is the result of compromise and settlement between the leaders of the disparate communities in Malaysia prior to independence. This settlement must be made known to all Malaysians and must be duly respected. The essence of the settlement can be distilled into five general principles, known as the pillars of our Constitution. They are Islam’s position as the religion of the federation (Article 3), citizenship for all based on the social contract (Part III), Malay as the national language (Article 152), the special position of the Malays and legitimate interests of other communities (Article 153) and the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the Malay rulers (Article 181).

If all Malaysians were to internalise these principles and conduct social relations based on them, then everything should be fine. For example, knowing Islam’s position as the religion of the federation itself should put paid to the preposterous idea that implementation of hudud law, which would in any event only apply to Muslims, should not be allowed on the fictional basis that Malaysia is secular. As it is now, even mere increase of the jurisdiction of Sharia courts, already lawfully existing under our Constitution, is being questioned. Is there any wonder then that religious harmony has deteriorated?

Step 2: Take stock of our geographical and historical context

Geographically, our nation is located within a region known as the Malay archipelago or locally known as the Nusantara. Historically, we learn in schools that Peninsula Malaysia was a collection of independent Malay Muslim Sultanates who implemented Islam in all aspects of public life. They were collectively known as Negeri-Negeri Tanah Melayu or the States of Malaya. Later, the British came and colonised these States one by one during the 18th and 19th centuries, and, by the admission of one of their own, namely RJ Wilkinson, stunted the natural growth of Islamic laws and Islam based existing practices by substituting their own laws for all matters except for personal laws.

Later, these States were federated and achieved independence as a federation named Malaya, later expanded with the addition of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore and renamed Malaysia. Thus, is it any wonder that the native inhabitants of these states want their Islamic way of life back? That is what independence means, for goodness sake – the right to determine public affairs according to the native ways of the region, in our context, from the position of Islam.

Fighting these attempts by false comparisons with Britain, the United States or any other country, and importing foreign doctrines such as separation of religion and state or demanding equal treatment in education and business without due regard for our constitutional compromise is folly and just asking for trouble. Stop this, and things will be good.

This is not to say that those foreign concepts and ideas are bad in themselves. If any Malaysian agrees with them, they are always welcome to migrate to those places where the same are indeed practised. Just don’t try to bring them here.

Step 3: Actually respect others and abide by the laws, instead of being hypocritical

Malaysians, particularly (but by no means exclusively) ethnic minorities and even some Malays of the liberal and left wing persuasion, pay lip service to respecting the religious feelings of the native Muslim majority, but in practice routinely violate them.

This includes complaining about azans being too loud, building religious structures, such as churches and temples illegally on state owned land, interfering in the right of a Muslim convert to raise and educate his or her children in accordance with the Muslim faith (which the convert, being a parent of such children, has undoubtedly a right to do under Article 12 of the Constitution), erecting religious symbols without permission of local authorities thereby contravening planning permission by laws, provocatively using terms commonly known to be used by Muslims, such as the Arabic term for God, Allah, in their own non-Muslim faiths with no credible religious justification, arguing for the legalisation of homosexuality and attempting to challenge Islamic laws by openly consuming food during the holy month of Ramadan, among others.

The above is in addition to falsely and hypocritically denouncing those who bring up legitimate concerns about Malay Muslims as racist as well as ridiculing them, moaning and groaning about supposed unfair treatment by a Malay led government in social media and setting up news portals to perpetuate false narratives on the internet, and the like. These, among other reasons, is why race and religious tension in Malaysia is increasing by the day. All that is needed is for these and others to stop, and there is no need even for a second National Unity Consultative Council even. After all, no amount of councils will cure the problem if the problem is not recognised for what it is – minorities trying to subvert and suppress a majority on issues that have nothing to do with them. Again, stop this, and all and sundry will be hunky dory.

So there it is – three genuine steps (as opposed to the false steps set out by Maszlee Malik in his abovementioned article) that can be followed by all Malaysians to improve racial and religious harmony. Do your bit as a Malaysian, and get cracking on implementing them!

Faidhur Rahman Abdul Hadi