The typical Malaysian problem

(Jakarta Post) As pointed out by Azmi Sharom of University of Malaya in his dissertation (, “at the crux of the problem facing plurality in Malaysia” are the twin issues of race and religion.

And its roots are found in the very constitution of Malaysia, which, in Azmi’s words, “was and is a strange creature that combines liberal democratic ideals and what can only be described as racially based preferential treatment”.

The Malaysian constitution stipulates that “Islam is the religion of the federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the federation.”

Prior to Malaysia’s independence in 1957, it was the Alliance Party (later Barisan Nasional) – consisting of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) and the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) – that had suggested the inclusion of this article.

It was, obviously, a shrewd political maneuver by UMNO to gain support from the Islamic groups, and blessed by its two partners.

Such a move, however, did not make Malaysia an Islamic state. The Alliance assured the Reid Commission, responsible for drafting the Malaysian constitution, that “The observance of this principle . shall not imply that the state is not a secular state.”

UMNO was aware that without the support of the two other parties, it was in no position to singularly represent the diverse Malayan federation and the multiracial and pluralistic Malaysian society.

The Reid Commission was further assured by the trio that, “Making Islam the official religion of the federation is primarily for ceremonial purposes, for instance to enable prayers to be offered in the Islamic way on official occasions, such as the installation of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong *King*, Merdeka Day *Independence Day* and similar occasions.”

Tunku Abdul Rahman, one of the founding fathers of the Malaysian state, was more blunt in saying that, “I would like to make it clear that this country is not an Islamic state, as it is generally understood; we merely provide that Islam shall be the official religion of the state.”

The Malay rulers were a step ahead in asking the commission to ensure that “in an independent Malaya all nationals should be accorded equal rights, privileges and opportunities, and there must not be discrimination on grounds of race and creed”. They were not in favor of any special preferential treatment for the Bumiputra, or the indigenous Malays.

The Alliance, however, saw the large chunk of indigenous Malays as its potential vote-bank, and was eager to impress them by appearing as a hero. Thus, special quotas for entry into the civil service, public scholarships and public education were proposed.

The commission was left with no choice but to accept the proposal, granting the King of Malaysia responsibility for safeguarding the special position of the indigenous peoples.

The provisions, however, were temporary in nature. The Reid Commission suggested that 15 years after independence, such provisions should be reconsidered, and that the “legislature should then determine either to retain or to reduce any quota or to discontinue it entirely”.

Tun Dr. Ismail, one of the nation’s founding fathers, likened the special privileges of the Malays to a golf handicap, only to be used until the time comes that such a crutch is no longer needed (The Reluctant Politician).

The article was, thus, due for review in 1972. Unfortunately, this never happened. During the 1969 elections, thanks to the ambitious politicians playing with the religious and racial sentiments of the masses to gain votes, the foundation of the Malaysian state suffered its first crack. The riots of May 13 that year were the outcome of broken promises and broken hearts.

Less than 15 years after its independence, Malaysian society was already divided between the indigenous and the non-indigenous. Malaysia was no longer united. Insensitive to this, the Malaysian government introduced economic and development policies that widened the gap, rather than build bridges.

To worsen the situation, following a wrong trait of nationalism, being Malay became identical with being a Muslim. Azmi cites the success of the Iranian revolution for the “growing Islamization of Malaysia”, resulting in the “personal changes, in dress, manner of speech and shifting value systems”.

But that was not the only reason. The 1980s and 1990s were also the decades of petrodollar supremacy. Money from Saudi Arabia and other affluent Middle Eastern countries flowed in freely, causing more division and more harm to Malaysian society.

The situation was such that non-Muslim Malaysians were compelled to reinstate their pre-independence identities. They were, once again, Chinese or Indian. For they would not be considered Malays if they were not Muslim.

Meanwhile, the Islamic parties gained ground, which made then prime minister Mahathir Mohammad feel threatened. In a desperate attempt to secure his position, he brought Anwar Ibrahim, popular among Malaysia’s Islamists, into his fold. That way, the shrewd senior politician thought, UMNO would have their support.

The rapport between the two leaders, however, did not last long. Anwar’s popularity also became the cause of his downfall, when Mahathir finally sacked him in 1998.

Without Anwar on his side, and still eager for the support of Islamist groups, Mahathir made another major political blunder in 2001: he declared Malaysia an Islamic state. His opponents knew it was a political gimmick. However, as Lim Kit Siang, a veteran opposition leader believes, it “opened the way for the Islamists”.

That was the final blow to the promises made by the nation’s founding fathers and rulers. In a country where political parties have always been race- and community-based, the blow caused almost irreparable damage.

Malaysia, our neighbor, our younger brother, begins this year with attacks on churches. Shameful. It tarnishes the image of peace-loving Malays. What is the solution? Remain Malay. Follow the religion of your heart, but keep to your own culture. Shun the Middle Eastern, Indian and Chinese identities, norms, lifestyles, cultures and values – you are Malay. We are siblings. Your problems, your pains, are our problems and our pains. God protect you!

The writer is a spiritual activist and author of more than 130 books (