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Global issue 20

Arena Politics there has been much debate as to whether Malaysia is technically a secular state, or whether it is, in fact, an Islamic state. To many people, whether or not Malaysia is an Islamic state, membership of a religion should be based on a person’s faith and devotion. Why, then, would a government make it so difficult for people to convert out of Islam, labelling this ‘treason’ and necessitating endless bureaucratic hurdles? Why would it censor and punish those who might convert Muslim people to another faith, or be afraid that followers could be easily ‘tricked’ away from Islam through simple linguistics? Why, unless the government is using the faith of the people to manipulate them? Ultimately, these problems stem from those running the country using ethnic and religious differences to play Malaysia’s ethnic communities against one another in order to maintain control – and, unfortunately, the tension between Malaysia’s communities has been growing for some time. Following independence in 1957, Malaysia’s population consisted predominantly of Malays, with Chinese people making up around 35 per cent and Indians ten per cent. There was disparity of economic power and educational attainment among the ethnic communities. Even following the expulsion of Singapore in 1965, the Chinese community achieved better results in education and this helped it to maintain an economic advantage. Malay political movements emerged around this issue and were contested within the UMNO–MCA coalition government, with UMNO leaders determined to level the playing field. In 1961 the new Education Act made Malay and English the only teaching languages in secondary schools, with state-run primary schools only allowed to teach in Malay and Malay schools heavily subsidised. Chinese and Indian communities were allowed to maintain Chinese- and Tamil-language primary schools, although it was still compulsory for pupils to learn Malay and work from an established Malayan curriculum. Further to this, the entry exam into the University of Malaya was to be conducted exclusively in Malay, despite most of its subjects being taught in English. As a result of these changes, many non-Malay students fell behind or were excluded from ongoing education. “Allowing religious institutions to dictate what education, what upbringing people receive will lead to militancy,” Zaid says. The various national plans similarly favoured Bumiputera, or indigenous Malays, by concentrating resources on creating developments for the rural Malay community, agencies to aid Malay smallholders, incentives and low-interest loans to help Malays set up businesses, and so on. To many people, whether or not Malaysia is an Islamic state, membership of a religion should be based on a person’s faith and devotion These changes did work to reduce the gap between Malay and non-Malay standards of living, but they also bred resentment – something that the government has since been keen to exploit. “The result is that the public is now more polarised than ever before. When Malays became more ‘Islamic’ and government institutions, such as schools and the civil service, ceased to be ‘national’ in character, the non-Malays started moving into their own spheres. Vernacular schools are now the choice of the Chinese, and wealthy Najib Razak, Prime Minister of Malaysia, speaks at the UN Climate Summit 2014 Malaysians send their children to private schools and colleges. In politics the non-Malays, non-Muslims and Christians tend to vote for the opposition rather than the ruling Barisan Nasional. “When non-Muslims gravitate to the opposition, it exacerbates the tension further. That’s when you hear that Islam, the Malays and Malay institutions like the Sultans are under threat. As the country embraces more Islamic precepts, then naturally fundamental rights and liberties suffer. The issue of freedom of religion has divided the people, especially in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak, where Christians see themselves as victims of the Islamisation push,” Zaid says. “If you want to appeal to the population, you use religious issues.” After the Iranian revolution of 1979, many Muslim countries saw a rise in political Islam – and Malaysia was no different. Malay and Muslim parties began to march for Islam in their search for votes. Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, Dr Mahathir, is an ultra-Malay nationalist who heightened Islamic bureaucracy in all spheres of government and declared Malaysia an Islamic state in order to cement the Malay parties’ grip on power. According to the 2010 Population and Housing Census, 61.3 per cent of Malaysia’s people practise Islam. “The argument that the government uses is that Islam comes first: it is more important than human rights, democracy – everything else. Every mosque in Malaysia tells people to reject democracy and this message is from the government. “It’s convenient for an authoritarian regime to use Islam as the weapon to control the largely Muslim population. Only when Muslims themselves are ready to depart from the politics of Islamic parties and willing to believe that the sanctity of religion does not depend on politics will we see a more liberal democracy back in Malaysia,” says Zaid. “The government is unwilling to deal with a difficult issue because they want to keep power. And it is a failure of the elite that no one speaks out. 42 l www.global -br ief ing.org f i rst quar ter 2015 global © UN Photo/Rick Bajornas


Global issue 20
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