Elections this year will not be fought in Malaysia on economic and political issues alone, but also on questions regarding ethnicity and religion, whose role will be important in stabilising the internal balance of power. In fact, ethnic and religious minorities are a substantial portion of the population, about 64 per cent of the total, and include ethnic Indians, Chinese, and local ethnic groups, divided into Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and indigenous religions.
It is clear that in such a situation, it is paramount that the country's minorities and the dominant, largely Muslim, Malay group engage each other in a dialogue that does not shy away from expressing differences. The country's constitution and the laws adopted by the states of the Federation have given Malays a privileged status as an indigenous group (bumiputra) and as such they have a well defined culture and religion. Indians and the Chinese came to the Malay Peninsula later as a result of migratory flows from India and China as part of British colonial policy.
The old division of labour that reserved agriculture for the Indians, trade for the Chinese and government for the Malays no longer obtains, and has not done so for some years. The high levels of corruption at almost all levels of government and the strong desire of the Malay group to extend its power to agriculture and trade has undermined existing power relations. Under former Prime Minister Mahatir bin Mohamad and current Prime Minister Abdullâh Ahmad Badawi discrimination against minorities has become real.
In 2004 Badawi began promoting islâm hadhari, an ideology based on the idea of "civilisational Islam" whereby Islam as a state religion would be the binding force for all of the country's ethnic and religious groups. This would enable Malaysia to best express its multicultural and multi-religious vocation and allow the country to pursue its modernisation process. For Badawi "moderation" is islâm hadhari's foundation and ought to inform public policy and social relations, regulate inter-group relations and promote human rights, especially religious freedom. Then again this ideology has never been put into practice and recent popular protests by minority groups are a clearly demonstration of its failure.
Christians for instance have complained about limits imposed on religious freedom, about the continued discrimination of Christian women married to Muslim men who unilaterally convert their children to Islam without their consent, even though the latter is required under federal law, on the basis that under Muslim marriage law children are automatically Muslim. Although such cases have gone to the High Court of Justice, the latter has routinely referred them to the Syariah Court for judgement since in its opinion the cases in question are religious in nature and thus do not fall under the jurisdiction of the state. Obviously since Christians are barred from sitting on a Muslim court, they have refused to appeal to the Syariah Court, which thus ends up hearing only the Muslim party.
Such situations have often led to an institutional tug-of-war between the two legal systems, creating an impasse in which cases go unsolved. In the meantime children remain Muslim and Christian wives are denied justice.
For the Christian community there is also the matter of ethnic Malays who have converted to Christianity but have had to keep their new faith a secret for safety reasons. Once they die families inevitably have to reveal their religion if they want to bury them in a Christian cemetery. However, since the dead are Malay and therefore officially Muslim, police have seized them in their coffins and taken them to police stations in order to determine their religious affiliation, with the inevitable result of upsetting the families and causing them pain.
It is somewhat of a "paradox" that unless the rampant process of islamisation underway in the country is not halted, implementing the principle of "moderation" as Prime Minister Badawi would like will be difficult. Similarly, equating Malay ethnicity to Islam is at odd with the principle that people are free to choose their faith irrespective of their ethnic or cultural affiliation.
Lastly, Christians have had to put up with more discrimination. On 28 January for example customs officials seized a batch of Bibles again. A Christian woman named Juliana Nicholas on her way back from Manila (Philippines) brought 32 English-language Bibles for her parish Christian Training Centre. After inspecting her baggage a custom official confiscated the Bibles on the pretext that they had to be examined by the Publications and Qur'anic Texts Control Department of the Internal Security Ministry. Luckily, the Bibles were returned to their rightful owner on 5 February.
Incidents such as these, or a case like the ban on the use of the word Allâh for God in Christian liturgical texts or in articles written by non-Muslims, have become a source of constant bickering between government authorities and minorities.
The same is true for other discriminated ethnic minorities like the Indians. When some 130,000 of them took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur on 25 November in protest against their social marginalisation, police reacted violently, carrying out many arrests, and pushing for a tougher Internal Security Act (ISA), a controversial law introduced in 1969 as a "temporary measure" to fight a Communist rebellion. Under this law the authorities can detain anyone indefinitely and without trial on "security" grounds. It is no accident that it has been used to keep people and political adversaries in prison without specific charges and that it has come under great international criticism.
How can we break this "impasse"? It will be hard to do but not impossible. Undoubtedly we must go back to the principle of "moderation" and apply it at the cultural, social and political levels. We must talk to Muslim Malays, thus living up to Prime Minister Badawi's hopes, and tell them that they should not to see the country's ethnic and religious minorities as a threat to their identity but rather as an opportunity to develop the type of cultural and religious integration Malaysia needs.
Any solution to the problem must first be in education and only then in politics. It has to be about how people personally experience "true moderation" and openness to different cultures and religions.