FROM 1957 to 1969 and, (despite the trauma of 1969), for about two decades thereafter, we can say with confidence that Malaysia was regarded by many Asian and African societies as an exemplar of how a deeply divided, plural society can survive and thrive politically, economically and socially. Till about a decade ago, we would have compared favourably with India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Mynmar, Philippines, Thailand, Greece, Cyprus, Lebanon, the US before the Civil Rights Act 1964 and the UK up to the late seventies.
Despite the obsession with race and religion in public discourse, we have made many strides towards nationhood since 1957.
- The identification of race with social and economic function has been weakened.
- The vibrant economy has united our disparate racial groups.
- Sabah and Sarawak have given to pluralism a territorial dimension. Malaysia has successfully used the economy to create and maintain social harmony. By encouraging entrepreneurship and allowing the minority communities to provide leadership in the economic arena, twin objectives have been achieved: the economy has developed fabulously. Every community has acquired a stake in the country.
Not all is well, however
Sadly, since the nineties racial and religious polarization has reached alarming levels. We have become a “nation of strangers”. In many corners of the world walls of separation are being dismantled. Sadly, in our society these walls are being fortified. Recently the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, an advisory body of the US Government, has placed us on Tier 2 of a Watch List over concerns about limitations in Malaysia on freedom of religion.
To this bleak picture two qualifications must be added.
One, some of the racial and religious discord that exists in our society is a natural process of democratic freedoms. As a transforming society opens up, pent up feelings are expressed, often in ways that are deeply hurtful to others.
Second, many of the conflicts between the Muslims and non-Muslims of this country are actually not about Islam versus non-Islamic religions but about a resurgent Eastern society seeking an alternative to the hegemony of “Western” values. For example conservative Malay-Muslim hostility towards gambling, drinking, free sex, drug-laced music concerts, same-sex marriages, homosexuality, a free-wheeling media, over-sexualisation of female dressing, separation of religion and morality and extolling of a secular way of life are not necessarily reflective of a clash between Islam on one side and Confucianism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions on the other but a clash of traditional Eastern values with the hedonistic, media-driven culture of the dominant North Atlantic colonial nations..
There is wide gap between the theory and reality of the Constitution
If we read about the making of the Constitution, we will see that by far and large the forefathers of our Constitution were animated by a remarkable vision and optimism of a shared destiny among the various peoples of the Peninsula.
“Out of Many, One” was perhaps their creed. Their life was enlightened by a spirit of accommodation, compassion and tolerance. They abjured ideological purity of the political, economic and religious type. They walked the middle path of moderation. They gave to every community a stake in the nation. No group received an absolute monopoly of power or wealth. Every community received something to relish and cherish. Pluralism was accepted as a way of life and the unity that was sought was a unity in diversity.
The Constitution, even in its “ethnic provisions” sought to avoid extreme measures and provided for a balance between the interests of the “Bumiputera” and “non-Bumiputera” communities. Fifty-seven years ago, a pact, an understanding, a “social contract” was forged between the Malays and the non-Malays. In 1963, with the birth of Malaysia, a new pact was drawn up to safeguard the interests of Sabah and Sarawak.
Regrettably the Constitution’s “social contracts” of 1957 and 1963 are not being fully observed. The public sector as well as the private sector and all sides of the racial and religious divide are culpable of causing breaches. A few examples may illustrate the point.
Article 153: This Article was about affirmative action for the weak, and not about racial exclusiveness or racial superiority or ketuanan Melayu. In reality, however, overzealousness prevails. Affirmative action under Article 153 has metamorphosed into something else that is not easily possible to defend under constitutional jurisprudence. In some areas racism has become institutionalised.
Article 11(4): This Article permits State legislatures to enact laws to control or restrict the propogation of any religious doctrine or belief among Muslims. Most States have enacted such laws. Though Article 11(4) is broadly phrased, its primary purpose was to prevent conversion of Malays to Christianity due to the global reach and influence of Christian evangelists. By far and large, Article 11(4)’s restrictions have been observed. But now and then, stories of Muslim apostasy break the calm. Missionary work amongst Muslim children and critically sick Muslim patients in hospitals is not unknown. Bibles are discretely placed in hotel rooms. These proselytising activities cause disputes now and then. For example in April 2014, the Pahang Malay and Islamic Customs Council (MUIP) barred non-Islamic materials and symbols from the guest rooms and public reading areas of all the 147 hotels in the State. The MCA questioned this ban immediately and did not take Article 11(4) into consideration.
Article 152(1)(a):This Article provides that the Malay language shall be the national language and shall be used for all official purposes. However, no person shall be prohibited from using (other than for an official purpose) or from teaching or learning any other langauage. The Court in Merdeka University Bhd v Government  2 MLJ 243 has distinguished between the right to learn a language and the right to learn in a language.This means that under the Constitution there is a protected right to teach and learn a language as a subject but there is no constitutional right that the language be used as a medium of instruction. Vernacular schools are permitted by the Education Act but they are not a constitutional right despite what some political parties represent.
In many other areas, the demagogues, the racists and extremists of all communities are preaching their own sectarian interpretation of our “document of destiny” and are fanning fears and suspicions. Extremism has become mainstream and moderation is seen as capitulation to other races and religions and as a betrayal of one’s own community.
Within society, extremist race and religious organisations are mushrooming. It will not be proper to call for their ban. They have a right to exist under the Constitution. But the authorities must ensure that (i) other moderate organisations are allowed to exist and function without unfair restrictions and (ii) the law is applied fairly and equally to all and there is no selective prosecution where transgressions of the law take place.
Inter-religious disputes are intensifying
- Around the world, attempts at proseylitisation often result in violent reactions. Malaysia has mostly been able to avoid religious riots but tensions remain high due to intense competition between Islamic dakwah and Christian missionary activities in regions inhabited by the orang asli and by the natives of Sabah and Sarawak.
- The use of the word “Allah” by West Malaysian Christians has aroused the anger of many Peninsular Muslims. The argument by some Christians that the word “Allah” is central to Christian faith and restrictions on its usage will hinder freedom of religion has not convinced Muslims, most of whom suspect that the new-found veneration for the word Allah in Christian dialogue is an adroit attempt to circumvent the pre-Merdeka restriction contained in Article 11(4) on propagation of other religions to Muslims.
- Some Muslims allege that the constitutional limitation on preaching to Muslims in Article 11(4) is often adroitly evaded or ignored.