Dina Zaman, New Mandala
Malaysia is not unique in its multicultural make-up, and the problems it faces. What makes Malaysia unique is Islam is the largest practised religion, (not unlike Indonesia) with a huge percentage of people who practise other faiths and beliefs. Article 3 of the Federal Constitution declares that Islam is the religion of the Federation, and that this does not affect the other provisions of the Constitution (Article 4(3)). Therefore, the fact that Islam is the religion of Malaysia does not by itself import Islamic principles into the Constitution but it does contain a number of specific Islamic features:
- States may create their own laws to govern Muslims in respect of Islamic law and personal and family law matter.
- States may create Syariah courts to adjudicate over Muslims in respect of State Islamic laws.
- States may also create laws in relation to offences against precepts of Islam but this is subject to a number of limitations: (i) such laws may only apply to Muslims, (ii) such laws may not create criminal offences as only Parliament has the power to create criminal laws and (iii) the State Syariah Courts have no jurisdiction over Islamic offences unless allowed by federal law (see the above section).
Much has been said about the country and its tolerance for the many faiths practised by its people. Malaysia makes for a fantastic advertisement on multiculturalism, and the infamous Malaysia, Truly Asia advertisement seen on television is proof of that.
The Myth of Malaysia, Truly Asia
Note the word ‘tolerance’, and herein lies the root of all the problems the country faces. In the past seven years, religious tensions dominate the news on a regular basis. “Perkasa (an all Malay ultranationalist group) ready to crusade against ungrateful Christians,” “Tension rise among Malaysian Muslims and Christians”, to name a few are some of the headliners seen by Malaysians and global community. These examples are rather tame, to put it mildly, especially when other news of animal heads being thrown into the compounds of mosques and temples dominate and promote an even more fearful, distrustful atmosphere.
Jakim’s (Malaysia’s Department of Islamic Development) guidelines for Muslims participating in non-Muslim festivals are cited as follows:
(Muslims may attend) the event (as long as it )is not accompanied by ceremonies that are against the Islamic faith (aqidah).
- to include religious symbols such as the cross, installing lights, candles, Christmas tree and so forth;
- to sing religious songs;
- to put any religious markings on the forehead, or other markings onto parts of the body;
- to deliver speech or gestures in the form of a praise to the non-Muslim religion;
- to bow or conduct acts of honour to the religious ceremony of non-Muslims.
- wearing red costumes like Santa Claus or other garments that reflect religion;
- serving intoxicating food or beverages and the likes;
- having sounds or ornaments like church bells, Christmas tree, temple or breaking of coconuts;
- having ceremonies with elements of gaming, worship, cult, superstitions and the likes. 
Leaders of religious communities and political parties have condemned such actions, and Malaysians have taken it upon themselves to quell this paranoia. Among young people and up and coming activists, dialogues, forums and gatherings have been organised where ‘The Other Meets The Other.’
There have been studies on ethnic relations in Malaysia, but on the macro level. If there is (micro) then these studies have yet to come into the public domain. Dr Patricia A Martinez’s survey on Muslim identities and their concerns, which is highly quoted and a reference, was published in 2005. The picture has changed in many ways, but this is best left to be discussed in another essay. Merdeka Centre publishes social surveys on a regular basis and its 2011 survey on ethnic relations showed that the divide is increasing; 39 percent identified themselves as Malaysians first, while 41 percent saw themselves as followers of a faith first. There was a 12 per cent decline in respondents who said that “ethnic relations were good.” “44 per cent thought it was just superficial unity. They (respondents) were mostly Chinese (50%), below 30 (52%), high educated and high income (> 50%),” the survey quoted. In another finding in the survey, “Those who stated ethnic relations have grown “further apart” were mostly are Indian & Malay respondents, male and younger people.” Yet, there is hope. 96 per cent said that inter-ethnic relations were very important, “… to avoid conflict, create unity among each other and understand one another (culture).”