And the divide keeps growing in Malaysia

We are now in a stalemate, an impasse. RUU355 is left on the backburner and ICERD will remain unsigned. It’s our way of resolving matters by leaving them unresolved, the classic Mexican standoff.

June H.L. Wong, The Star

FOR the better part of last year, a section of Malaysians lobbied furiously against the introduction of a law they deemed a threat to their and the nation’s well-being.

This was Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang’s Private Member’s Bill to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act, or RUU355.

A key point raised by various groups against the Bill was that if passed, RUU355 would immediately enable three hudud punishments in the Syariah criminal laws in Kelantan and Terengganu – 100 strokes for fornication, 80 strokes for unsubstantiated accusation of adultery or sodomy (qazaf), and 40-80 strokes for consumption of alcohol – that would alter the secular nature of our legal system.

As a group representing Sabahans and Sarawakians put it, RUU355 “is not only unconstitutional but also erodes the moral foundation of Malaysia as a secular federation.”

And as Sabahans and Sarawakians consistently maintained, they never signed up for this when the two states agreed to join Malaya to create Malaysia in 1963.

More recently, another section of the population fiercely fought against the government’s intention to sign the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

Fanned by Umno and PAS, the resistance is based on the fear that the special position and privileges of the Malays and the status of Islam would be severely compromised, if not eliminated, should Malaysia became a signatory to this United Nations convention.

Both RUU355 and ICERD are perceived as Malay-Muslim versus non-Malay, non-Muslim fights. They are sadly the most recent of such exchanges that have ramped up the temperature to scary heights, no thanks to threats like that from Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who claimed the Malay-Muslim community would run “amok” as a sign of protest.

The definition of “to run amok” is “behave in a violent and uncontrolled way” and “as if with a frenzied desire to kill.” With threats like this, it was enough for the government to stand down on the issue.

Looking back, almost all the bad feeling and tension in our society over the years have been race and/or religion related, and always seem to have been between Malays and non-Malays.

Despite feel-good YouTube videos and muhibbah commercials, the ugly truth is that this inter-racial conflict was in the nation’s DNA even before its birth.

We can blame the British and their divide-and-rule strategy for that. When they came as colonisers, to appease the Malays, they allowed the sultans to retain their symbolic status as head of the aristocratic social system and gave them limited powers as the authority on Islam and Malay customs.

The British also took care of the Malay elite by giving them “a place in the new colonial order as civil servants,” according to

With Independence, the British drafted a Constitution that defined who was a Malay, and guaranteed their “special position.”

This sense of privilege and entitlement has been engrained in the Malay psyche for so long it is no surprise they cannot imagine life without it, at least not in this country. But for those who have emigrated elsewhere, they have adjusted quite well, it would seem.

Meanwhile, after accepting decades of discriminatory policies and practices as necessary affirmative action to uplift the Malays and help in nation-building, the Chinese and Indians who have long made Malaysia their home are chaffing at the bit.

To them, enough is enough.

To non-Malay minds, the Malays have been given all the support and funding available to improve themselves and if they still haven’t after all this time, it’s not ever going to happen.

And the Malays only have themselves to blame because they kept electing corrupt and selfish leaders who actually didn’t do much for them but convinced them they had their best interests at heart and protected them, like the British, against those ungrateful, greedy interlopers (a.k.a. the pendatang) who, they are told over and over, keep wanting more.

Instead, these leaders enriched themselves and their cronies. This was evident in the unbridled corruption and accumulation of wealth by almost every leader, which finally led to the downfall of the Barisan Nasional government in the 14th general election.

According to the Merdeka Centre, 95% of Chinese and up to 75% of Indians voted for Pakatan Harapan. But only 25-30% of Malays did so. It was enough of a swing to change government but this is the stark reality: 35-40% Malays still voted BN and 30-33% picked PAS.

And that means the fault line between the Malays and non-Malays is still very wide and deep. It wasn’t just Barisan that had a huge trust deficit. It exists between the Malays and the non-Malays too.

Any demand made by Malays is seen to be backward and conservative that would continue to erode the nation’s competitive edge.

Any demand from the non-Malays is deemed too Western, uncomfortably liberal, and an attempt to erode the Muslim-Malay character of the nation.

Also worrisome are the small actions that go under the radar that deepen the racial chasm; actions like having separate canteens for Muslim and non-Muslim children in schools.

If kids are taught they can’t eat together in that environment, what’s next? Separate canteens in government and company offices, different sections in food courts and eateries like McD’s or PizzaHut?

This is the most fundamental flaw in our country, a wound that has been festering for a very long time. Each time we think it’s started to heal, we pick at the scab and reopen the hurt.

The majority of Malays believe they must support an Islamic state, even if many may not really know what that entails. Non-Malays are horrified by the imposition of syariah and hudud, which they believe to be barbaric and especially bad for women. So they are desperately trying to keep it secular. Not just secular but pluralistic, inclusive and liberal, concepts that have become anathema to the Malays.

We are now in a stalemate, an impasse. RUU355 is left on the backburner and ICERD will remain unsigned. It’s our way of resolving matters by leaving them unresolved, the classic Mexican standoff.

Is there any way to reconcile the two sides with such different desires? How many more Mexican standoffs can we take before it all gives way?

I have no answer because all over the world, when race and religion are involved, there is never a good ending.

And that is what is most frightening.