Malaysia: What Has Become of the 50 years of Nation-Building?

Updated On: Dec 28, 2007

The boast that Malaysia is “truly Asia”, a melting pot of cultures and races co-existing peacefully, is beginning to ring false with Malaysia’s ethnic democracy fraying at the seams.

Recent events have shown that Malaysia is not as idyllic as its purports itself to be in its tourism clip. After a string of difficult courtroom battles on religious conversions in the past 2-3 years, and the latest “uprising” by the nation’s ethnic Indian minority highlighting the marginalization of their community, not only the Malaysians themselves, but the world is watching and waiting to see what concrete actions will be taken by the Malaysian government to address some of the thorny issues – perceived Islamisation of the society and increasing intolerance of other religions, special privileges of the Malays, creeping racial tensions - facing the nation after 50 years of nation-building.  The Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi has warned the people to “watch out for religious extremists” tearing apart the multiracial nation.  He urged the majority moderate Malays to hang on to the “middle position” and not to allow extremists to dominate. 

However, such words are not going to mean anything as the most recent court case involving issues over religious conversion reflect the dilemmas of a purportedly multi-racial and multi-religious society which in reality sanction the “special” position of a specific race and religion in society.  Today (27 December), Malaysia saw its landmark case over a matrimonial/custodial issue. In March, the Malaysian courts permitted Muslim convert T. Saravanan alias Muhammad Shafi Abdullah, to go to the Syariah court to begin divorce proceeding against his Hindu wife, R. Subashini. Subashini appealed to the Court of Appeal and Federal Court “to temporarily prevent Saravanan from commencing proceedings in the Syariah court over their marriage or conversion of their younger son”. The older son has been converted to Islam already along with the father.

In the final decision today, the Court of Appeal “threw out on Thursday a bid by a Hindu woman to stop her estranged husband from converting their youngest son to Islam” on the basis that as the husband was now Muslim the matter was “governed by Islamic law”. The courts have made it clear that Muslims rights precede minority rights; for otherwise based on the wife’s religion, the matter could remain in the civil courts. Nonetheless, the ruling remains vague as the court said that while “marital disputes involving a converted Muslim spouse and a non-Muslim partner should only be decided in a civil court and not in the Islamic Court”, the Muslim convert “has the right to approach the Syariah court to seek redress”.

This comes just after the Malaysian government has declared it will protect Hindu temples, in an attempt to placate the enriled Indian population. PM Badawi has asked Samy Vellu, an ethnic Indian minister in the Cabinet and the head of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), coalition partner of the Barisan Nasional, to “continuously monitor" all the temples in the country and submit information on their status periodically”. Samy added that in the case of demolition, “suitable alternative sites must be allocated so that Hindus can continue to worship” as no temple could be demolished without careful consideration. Additionally, Samy intends to grill the Public Services Department (PSD) director-general Tan Sri Ismail Adam on “employment and promotional opportunities for non-Malays, especially Indians in the public service sector” as he was curious over a report that Indians were apparently “not interested” in the civil service. Samy said, “I am surprised over the report. I want to know the latest statistics, after which I will prepare a detailed report to be submitted to the Cabinet, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister.”

On another related note, Malaysia’s Internal Security Ministry has declared a ban on other religions from using the word “Allah”. It has warned a Catholic newspaper not to use “Allah” in its Malay-language edition or else its licence will not be renewed. Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharum, said, “Only Muslims can use ‘Allah’. It’s a Muslim word, you see. It’s from (the Arabic language). We cannot let other religions use it because it will confuse people. We cannot allow this use of ‘Allah’ in non-Muslim publications, nobody except Muslims. The word ‘Allah’ is published by the Catholics. It’s not right.” This flies in the face of fact where the words “God” and “Allah” mean the same thing in different languages –one in English, the other in Arabic.

Reuters’ recent special report on Malaysia observes that Malaysia is losing its competitive edge and losing allure for foreign investments due to corruption and an inefficient bureaucracy. Investors say “regulatory authorities sit on applications to set up office” while “local businessmen allege that government officials have asked for payment in return for state contracts”. Another significant hurdle for foreign businesses is that listed holdings need to have a “Bumiputra” Malay person holding at least 30% of the company shares. Opposition politician Lim Guan Eng stated, “If the government is serious about facilitating rather than imposing barriers for foreign investors we must actually address fundamental problems.”

In light of such events, and with serious flooding deluging several parts of Malaysia at the end of the year, Ooi Kee Beng, has reviewed the year for Malaysia, noting that the way the Badawi administration is handling these racial, ethnic, economic and political tensions is ending 2007 on a “sombre” note for a otherwise supposed good year for Malaysia celebrating 50 years of its independence.


D-Day on two landmark cases (Star, 27 December 2007)

Malaysian Hindu loses bid to ban Muslim conversion (Reuters, 27 December 2007)

Malaysia's highest court rejects plea to block divorce case from going to Islamic court (AP, 27 December 2007)

Samy to query PSD chief over report (Star, 27 December 2007)

Sombre end to a celebratory year (Today, 26 December 2007)

FEATURE-Malaysia's stalling reform threatens investment (Reuters, 26 December 2007)

Malaysia to Protect Hindu Temples (AP, 25 December 2007)

Samy Vellu Puzzled Why Indians Lack Interest in Govt Jobs (Bernama, 25 December 2007)

Ong: Malaysians can enjoy Xmas with Christian friends (Star, 25 December 2007)

Malaysia needs moderation, not extremism, says PM (Star, 25 December 2007)

Put country’s interest first, says PM (Star, 25 December 2007)

Prevent Extremist Tendencies From Taking Root – Abdullah (Star, 25 December 2007)

Moderate but Joyous Christmas (Star, 25 December 2007)

Is dialogue what we want? (Star, 25 December 2007)

Malaysia Takes God’s Name in Vain (Asia Sentinel, 24 December 2007)

Oh God! Malaysian Christians barred from saying ‘Allah’ (Daily News and Analysis, 23 December 2007)

Malaysia's worst flood in 100 years destroys over 60,000 homes (Pravda, 21 December 2007)