By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Malaysia has been quite a successful multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-religious country for decades, even while giving primacy to the indigenous majority community, the Malays, who, by definition, are also Muslim.
But the scenario is changing, causing concern. Malay majoritarianism, combined with Islamic radicalism, has been gaining ground, threatening to tear the national fabric.
Last week, the Malaysian government set up a Unity Issues Management Committee (JPIP in Malay) to manage tensions over sensitive ethnic issues at the national level. According to the Malaysian news agency Bernama, the Deputy Law Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Mohamed Hanipa Maidin, said that the committee would serve as an official forum to identify issues and controversies that could threaten ethnic and religious harmony.
“The committee enhances the synergy of the agencies involved in tackling the unity issues in an integrated manner. It comprises various ministries and agencies, including the Home Affairs Ministry, Housing and Local Government Ministry, Communications and Multimedia Ministry, as well as Women, the Family and Community Development Ministry,” Maidin said.
The committee was initiated by National Unity and Integration Department with the cooperation of the National Security Council.
Since his return to power as Prime Minister in 2018, Mahathir Mohamad has been facing a decline in support from the Malays. The opposition parties, and not just the Islamic outfits, have been accusing Mahathir’s government of being “un-Islamic” and “liberal.” Liberalism is anathema to conservative Malays.
Catalytic Role Of Zakir Naik
Adding fuel to the fire has been an Indian Islamic preacher from Mumbai, Zakir Naik. He is a Permanent Resident in Malaysia but is wanted in India for alleged terrorist financing. Zakir has been creating tension between Malays and the Malaysian Hindus by publicly saying that Malaysian Hindus are more loyal to the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi than to the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhamad.
He has also accused the Malaysian Chinese of not being a traditional part of Malaysia. He described them as “old guests” while he described himself as a “new guest”.
For a government which depends on ethnic and religious unity (of course with the Malay-Muslim majority enjoying preferential treatment as the indigenous people or Bhoomiputras), Zakir’s attempts to stir up racial/ethnic/religious animosities have been a danger signal.
Four ministers demanded that he be deported. Mahathir, a friend and admirer of Zakir, himself felt constrained to tell him to watch his tongue and not go beyond preaching Islam. He said that as a non-citizen Zakir had no right to comment on Malaysia’s ethnic problems. Seven of Malaysia’s 13 states have banned him from delivering Islamic sermons.
However, Mahathir has not been consistent in his ideology. Descended from a South Indian Muslim immigrant married to a Malay lady, Mahathir started his political career as an opponent of citizenship for non-Malays. But later he gave up the opposition on becoming a leader of the multi-ethnic United Malay National Organization (UMNO)-led coalition called Barisan Nasional (BN). However, eventually, the UMNO itself took a Malay/Muslim supremacist line.
Writing in The Citizen, M.Mahalingam, says that the UMNO embarked on the ‘Malay First Policy’ which resulted in Malay hegemony in public spheres. As result, the minority Chinese and Indians got alienated from it. For more than 60 years, coalition partners like the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Association were too weak to oppose the leaderships’ majoritarian line.
However, eventually, Mahathir left the UMNO and formed the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM in Malay) in 2016, which is now heading the multi-racial coalition called Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope). The Pakatan Harapan is less racial, and more liberal and inclusive, Mahalingam says.
Being an Islamist at heart, Mahathir refused to extradite Zakir Naik to India to face charges of money laundering and terrorist financing. Naik would be “killed” there, Mahathir said.
However, in September he said that Prime Minister Modi did not ask for Zakir’s extradition at their meeting on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Summit. He contradicted Indian Foreign Secretary‘s statement that India and Malaysia were in touch on the Zakir Naik matter.
Mahathir said: “Not many countries want him [Naik]. I met Prime Minister Modi, he didn’t ask me for him. This man could also be troublesome for India.” He also said that Malaysia was looking for a place to send Zakir Naik. “We are trying to find some place he can go to but at the moment, no one wants to accept him.”
Be that as it may, Malay Mail reported Police Inspector-General Datuk Seri Abdul Hamid Bador accusing Opposition parties for attempting to destabilise the Pakatan Harapan government, amid a rise in as racial and religious tensions in Malaysia.
The South China Morning Post reported the police chief as saying that the situation in the country is ‘troubling’. Anyone found to be playing on racial sentiments and inciting religious sensitivities will be arrested without warning.
Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s media advisor Datuk A Kadir Jasin also warned of the situation taking a ‘dangerous’ turn should it remained unchecked, and echoed Abdul Hamid’s sentiments by fingering the Opposition parties of exploiting such issues to garner Malay-Muslim support. Home Affairs Minister Muhyiddin Yassin told a media conference that so far this year, there have been twice as many reports filed with authorities on issues concerning race, religion and the royalty compared to last year.
Free Malaysia Today news portal reported that on August 19, police arrested a man over a Facebook post seen as inciting Muslims in Malaysia to shed the blood of non-Muslims. The post contained a photo of a man waving a machete, urging Muslims to “sharpen their knives for the infidels”,
“Muslims must get their slaughter knives ready. Just to be prepared. Who knows, the kafir (infidels) are acting like cattle for slaughter,” said the post.
In the city of Ipoh in Perak state, 15 deities in a Hindu temple were smashed up. An Indonesian man with a spanner was arrested for the incident on August 17.
A move to introduce the Arabic script to write Malay discarding the Roman script in a primary school syllabus was shelved after being opposed by Indian and Chinese communities who viewed the move as an attempt at “Islamization.”
South China Morning Post quotes Prof Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani of the Political Science Department at Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) as saying that racial and religious issues are being exploited because the country practices race-based politics.
“I think the government needs urgently to improve our economy and this will silence most racial hatred among people. Once they feel comfortable, the people won’t quarrel about any issue including racial and religious issues,” Azizuddin said.
But a reading of Mahalingam would show that Mahathir cannot be trusted to be balanced on ethnic issues. According to Mahalingam, he wrote a controversial book titled “Malay Dilemma” in which he showed himself as a strong Malay nationalist. Though Mahathir put Malaysia on the path of rapid economic development, he was authoritarian. During his earlier 22 years as PM, he muzzled the judiciary and the media. He stifled dissent through Operation Lalang. He alienated ethnic minorities through pro-Malay policies. Through political means he created a Malay capitalist class to scuttle the dominant Chinese business elite.
While advocating a moderate and modern Islam, Mahathir declared Malaysia an Islamic state in 2001, even though the constitution was silent on whether Malaysia was a secular or an Islamic state, Mahalingam recalls. At any rate, Islamization of Malaysia was in full swing under his reign. He ushered in a new Malay identity during his long stint in office.
Given Mahathir’s split personality, there is a trust deficit among the non-Malays in general though they need him for political change, Mahalingam says. Mahathir has vowed to undo his mistakes in order to leave behind a right legacy, but the 94 year old’s prospective successor, Anwar Ibrahim, is also an advocate of a Malay majoritarian line, Mahalingam points out.
(The featured image at the top shows a demonstration for the sovereignty of Islam in Kuala Lumpur)