Political Concessions in a Complex Country: The Social and Political Costs

Malaysia has been making international headlines over the past few weeks for all the wrong reasons, yet again. The spate of arson attacks on Churches, Temples and Mosques is a worrying sign that the fragile social contract – if there ever was one – that underlies the Malaysian multicultural project is in danger of falling apart if centrifugal forces aligned to communitarian groups and lobbies are not kept in check.

By Farish A. Noor

Ostensibly the controversy began as a result of protests on the part of several Muslim groups in the country over the use of the word ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims, in particular Christians, in the country. But one needs to take a step back from the furore to understand the other structural and socio-economic factors that may have played a part in this sudden mobilisation of mass communitarian anxiety. After all, why now? Christians in many parts of the country, notably in East Malaysia, have been using the term ‘Allah’ for decades, in fact long before the states of Sabah and Sarawak even joined Malaysia in 1963. If this was not an issue of concern over the past four decades, then why has it been made an issue now, and by whom?

The government of current Prime Minister Najib Razak is therefore caught in a double-bind, thanks in part to the communal nature of Malaysian politics that has been normalised over half a century. Despite talk of ‘1Malaysia’, ‘Middle Malaysia’, ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ by politicians in power as well as the opposition, the reality is that there are many Malaysias that have remained largely isolated and alienated from each other, developing in tandem but without ever seriously communicating. Malaysian society remains a distant idea as the communities of the country remain living in their private comfort zones with little real contact and understanding of each other.

Now the nature of Malaysia’s communal politics also means that anyone who aspires to power has traditionally had to appeal to all the different communities and pander to their private, short-term and at times exclusive demands. Successive Malaysian governments have conceded ground to communalist lobbies of all hues, be their language and culture activists, religious activists or proponents of narrow localised politics. Today the ‘Allah debate’ has brought to the fore two lobby groups that represent the interests of Muslims and non-Muslims in general.

How the government appeals to these groups will determine the future outcome of the ‘Allah controversy’, but also the future development of Malaysia.

The two choices seem equally stark and self-defeating:

Should the government concede to the demand of the Muslim lobby groups, they will regard this as a victory on their part. The government may claim some credit for this and claim that they have appeased the demands of the majority Muslim community, but to what end? This will signal a victory for Muslim communal groups that may embolden them to make more demands, and which will force the government to concede further on other issues. It will also be seen as a token instance of rewarding communitarian ethno-religious mobilisation that ends up securing the comfort zone of one community while alienating others. And what of the sensibilities of the Christian minority, particularly in East Malaysia, who have been supporters of the BN for so long? One consequence might be the alienation of the Christian vote which would not help raise the fortunes of the BN in general.

To concede to the demands of the Christian groups on the other hand also has its consequences, and would be seen as a case of being ’soft’ on matters of religion and identity that has been the complaint against both the Badawi and Najib administrations. It may also shore up support for the more conservative ethno-religious lobbies and to push them even further in their demands.

Either way, the current impasse seems to be a lose-lose situation that carries heavy political costs whichever way the government decides to act. To concede to the demands of the Muslim lobby would be to deny the historical and cultural claims of East Malaysian Christians who have been using Allah even before they were part of Malaysia, and does not send the right message as far as the project of nation-building is concerned.

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