Strains grow in Malaysia as Muslims reassert majority status

December 22, 2008
(Photo: A Chinese temple in Kuala Lumpur, 7 Feb 2008/Bazuki Muhammad)

Malaysia prides itself on its multicultural heritage, and rightly so. The Southeast Asian nation of around 27 million people is one of the few countries in the world where so many races and religions live together in peace and stability.

Having arrived in July from Hungary, an ex-communist country that has one of the least diverse ethnic makeups in the world, I can attest it is a truly amazing cultural experience and one of which the country should be proud.

After four years of seeing nothing but look-alike Hungarian baroque churches, I now find Hindu and Buddhist temples nestled side-by-side in downtown Kuala Lumpur. A whitewashed Protestant church sits on a square where the country’s independence from Britain was proclaimed. There is a mosque near where I live and the evening call to prayer is still a sound that thrills and intrigues. When you see and hear all that, it is easy to believe the public face of the country.

The nation, however, defines itself by the fissures that run through the whole of society. Difference, both ethnic and religious, is what makes a Malaysian. Religion is bound up with race and race is bound up with politics and the stated political aim of the government is to defend the rights of the majority Malays, who by definition are Muslims.

(Photo: Fireworks over Putra Mosque outside Kuala Lumpur, 31 Aug 2005/Bazuki Muhammad)

The country is nearly 60 percent Malay, with two main minorities. The Chinese (whose religion can be Buddhist, Taoist, Christian or other) make up 11 percent of the population and the Indians (mostly Hindus) are seven percent. Smaller groups practice Sikhism, animism or forms of folk religion.

As the global economy stumbles,  the government is battling to reassert itself against a strong opposition. Political rhetoric about defending Malay rights and attacking non-Malays appears to be heating up.

In a speech on Friday, Malaysia’s normally reserved Foreign Minister Rais Yatim praised the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush. He also observed that we “have to enforce laws, in fact strict laws, and nourish the various conventions of the general Malaysian society”.

The next victim of the rise in tensions could be a Roman Catholic newspaper, the Herald, that may have less than two weeks left to publish after it used the word “Allah” in Malay for “God.” It did this in the Malay language edition of its newspaper, which is aimed at the indigenous populations of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island.

(Photo: Herald newspaper, 17 Dec 2008/Bazuki Muhammad)

“Allah” simply means “God” in Arabic, without any religious strings attached. Arab Christians use it in their prayers and it’s the term for the Almighty in Malay translations of the Bible. But Malaysia’s government believes its use here could inflame racial tensions, so it has threatened to suspend the paper’s annual permit to publish.

The government is also struggling against a boisterous Internet culture. While it can easily close down newspapers its pledge to foreign investors to keep the net free has created challenges it did not imagine. It tried to close down a blog written by Raja Petra Kamaruddin after he ignored warnings to abide by the law.

Raja Petra is related to one of Malaysia’s royal families, is a Muslim and supports the opposition. He has been arrested several times under laws that allow detention without trial and was most recently freed in November. He is currently also being tried for sedition.  One of his offences was to write an article entitled “I promise to be a good non-hypocritical Muslim” that said those who attack other faiths “foam at the mouth in defence of Islam. They slander and defile other religions. They declare all other religions as false and their holy books as fakes.” That too threatened the social order, according to the government.

(Photo: Raja Petra Kamaruddin, 6 May 2008/Bazuki Muhammad)

At the same time as the government is battling its opponents, attempts to control the lives of ordinary Muslims are on the rise. There is a seemingly endless series of “fatwas” prescribing what is and is not allowed. Most recently, rulings from the government-backed National Fatwa Council on yoga and young women wearing trousers have provoked both amusement and incredulity.

The fatwa on yoga was seen as an attack on the ethnic Indian minority here who are economically disadvantaged and staged large scale riots in November 2007. Even a small demonstration earlier this year was put down by police using teargas.

With a by-election test looming for the government in January in a seat in the rural Malay Muslim heartland and polls in March for top posts in the biggest coalition party, the United Malays National Organisation, there is a risk the rhetoric will get even harsher.

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In a word riven by ethnic conflict it’s heartening to read of a country where different faiths live side by side. But it’s also depressing to learn that the Malaysian government seems to be resorting to increasingly authoritarian methods to ensure its control of the population. Arresting bloggers and charging them with sedition does not bode well for Malaysia’s place in a world with a free flow of information.

Posted by Adam LeBor | Report as abusive