Inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations under the spotlight

Dr Chandra Muzaffar

Global approached a number of leading figures in public life for their views on the current state of inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations within Malaysia in the light of a recent raising of tensions

Inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations will remain fairly stable for the foreseeable future, with the occasional friction raising the political temperature. Whether these frictions will lead to major eruptions will depend, to a great extent, upon the performance of the economy. If growth is accompanied by more equitable distribution of wealth in the coming years, it will ensure relative inter-ethnic harmony.

If certain controversies involving community and religion have been thrust into the forefront in recent months, it is because of power and politics. Within a segment of the Malay-Muslim community, there is a perception that its political power is being challenged by a more assertive non-Malay/ non-Muslim community, buoyed by its electoral performance in 2008. It is this – and not religion per se – that is the root of the problem.

Malik Imtiaz
Lawyer and former president of the National Human Rights Society
Islam is now highly regulated. There is no freedom of religion for Muslims and they are subjected to a highly restrictive framework of personal law in which they can, and are, prosecuted for ‘moral’ crimes. The blurring of the line between public law and Islamic law has resulted in Islamic ideologues more increasingly defining the public sphere. A notable instance is the capitulation of the former Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, to pressure from Islamists on the question of HIV-reduction campaigns centred on needle-exchanges and free condoms. The then prime minister said the matter had to be considered by the National Fatwa Council, a body which has absolutely nothing to do with matters of public health. The situation has also led to a restriction of freedoms on the part of non-Muslims. The situation is illustrated by the recent Home Ministry ban of the use of the word ‘Allah’ in a monthly publication of the Catholic Church. The matter was taken to court and a decision in favour of the Catholic Church was handed down in the first instance. Ostensible outrage on the part of a vocal minority group led to a more general ‘edict’ that the word ‘Allah’ could not be used by non-Muslims. The appeal has been left pending before the Court of Appeal. In this vein, Malay-Muslim administrators have made it very difficult for other religious organisations to procure necessary permits through administrative action blatantly insensitive to these religious groups. Public frustration is mounting.

Dr Farish A. Noor
Senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, RSIS, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
By and large Malaysia is still seen as a model country to emulate among ordinary lay Muslims in South Asia and some parts of the Arab world. Malaysia was most prominent during the time of Mahathir Mohamad, who was popular among ordinary Muslims who regarded him as a model Muslim leader. But the tone and tenor of normative Islam in Malaysia has grown more conservative and sectarian, and is now linked to other ethno-nationalist agendas.

There is a rise of communitarian politics and an inability by the parties of the ruling coalition to transcend sectarian ethno-religious politics. Ethnicity and religion will remain dominant in Malaysian politics for some time. This will worsen inter-ethnic relations, but is not an existential threat to the Malaysian state as an institution. The human cost will be seen in the brain drain of non-Malay/Muslim professionals leaving the country for other places like Singapore, the USA, Australia and Canada.

Jacqueline Ann Surin
Journalist and editor of The Nut Graph, an online news site
While the government promotes the slogan ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ to the outside world, its internal policies and actions chip steadily away at the, thus far, warm and peaceful race relations that make Malaysia a joy to live in. In 2009, after Friday prayers in the month of Ramadan, some Muslim protestors stomped on a cow’s head and promised that blood would spill if a Hindu temple was moved to their neighbourhood in the suburb of Shah Alam, about 25 kilometres west of Kuala Lumpur. The authorities did nothing until public pressure forced the Home Minister to charge the men with sedition. More importantly, however, a group of predominantly Muslim-Malay Malaysians got together and drove to the Hindu temple that had been threatened. At the temple, they offered fruits and flowers. And then they sat down and held conversations with the Hindus while temple prayers and bells chimed in the background. Two weeks later, while still in the month of Ramadan, a group of Malaysians of all faiths organised a joint fast to mark Malaysia Day. Whether such citizen action can negate the rhetoric and actions of both state and non-state actors in the medium and long term remains to be seen.

About the author:

Dr Chandra Muzaffar is a Professor of Global Studies at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, and chairman of 1Malaysia Foundation.


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