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Malaysian “angst” at 50

Updated On: Sep 04, 2007

As Malaysia celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence in the midst of extravaganza, there are signs of increasing “angst” over the state of racial and religious relations.

In the run-up to the Malaysian National Day, a debate raged over what kind of state Malaysia was. It was sparked by deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak who said Malaysia was an ‘Islamic state’, triggering fears that the country would embrace increasingly conservative values. In parliament, the opposition leader, Lim Kit Siang asked if the Cabinet agreed that Malaysia was a secular country with Islam as the official religion, and was not an Islamic state.

The Prime Minister Badawi skirted the issue by saying that Malaysia was ‘negara Islam’. This can be translated either as an ‘Islamic state’, suggesting a theocracy, or a ‘Muslim country’, which implies that the nation is underpinned by Islamic values. He reiterated that Malaysia was neither a secular nor theocratic country. Instead it was a Muslim country and governed according to Islamic principles. He also urged a stop to the debate on the issue saying, “We must realise that too many things are at stake here - the economic, political and social stability will crumble if religious or racial sensitivities are not considered.”

Indeed, there are signs that racial relations are deteriorating.  Five men were arrested by the police for sending SMS (Short Message Service) alleging that Malays and Indians had fought in Pasir Gudang and Masai in Johor and that rioting would take place on National Day (31 August 2007). There had also been rumours that a drunken brawl between Malay and Indian youths in Penang (which resulted in the death of a part-time insurance agent) was racially motivated. In another incident in Penang, two Indian youths were assaulted by a group of Malays. The police has arrested seven youths over the latter two incidents.

The Malaysian government received a reminder that its “fraying” domestic order also has implications on its external relations. An Indonesian referee was allegedly mistreated by the Malaysian police.Indonesia’s chief karate referee, Donald Pieter Kolopita was severely beaten by four plain clothes Malaysian policemen on Friday (24 August) while he was on the way to a restaurant. The policemen claimed that he resisted arrest while Donald claimed that he thought the men were robbers. He suffered broken ribs, a swollen testicle and serious bruising. News of the beating led to demonstrations outside the Malaysian embassy and consulate in Jakarta and Medan. Another group also demonstrated outside the hotel housing the Malaysian badminton team in Surabaya.

Relations between Malaysia and Indonesia have already been stained with Indonesian anger over treatment of Indonesian maids and migrant workers in Malaysia, as well as border problems and illegal logging issues.

To defuse the tension, Badawi called Indonesia President Yudhoyono to apologise on the eve of Malaysia’s National Day. The Malaysian ambassador had earlier also visited Donald Kolopita at the hospital to apologise. The Malaysian Inspector-general of Police also apologised. Foreign Minister Syed Hamid urged the Indonesian media not to ‘blow up’ the issue in the interest of bilateral relations. He also said that the policemen were suspended.

Despite calls by the House speaker Agung Laksono urging the government not to attend Malaysia’s national day celebrations, Vice-President Jusuf Kalla attended on behalf of Yudhoyono. Yusron Ihza Mahendra, deputy chairman of the House of Representatives (DPR)'s Commission I, said on Friday (31 Aug) that the apology made by Badawi was sufficient and demanding more would be ‘acting excessively.’ A member of the House of Representatives' Commission I on security and international affairs Djoko Susilo urged the government to continue monitoring the progress of the assault case and abuse cases against Indonesian maids.  (3 September 2007)

Sources:

Syed Hamid: Don't Let Karate Referee Issue Spill Into Bad Blood (New Straits Times, 3 September 2007)

Unity a key theme as Malaysiacelebrates(Straits Times, 1 September 2007)

Police team to probe SMSes on 'racial riots' (Straits Times, 1 September 2007)

'Use anger at Malaysiato seek better treatment of workers'(Jakarta Post, 1 September 2007)

PM Abdullah apologises to Indonesia(Straits Times, 1 September 2007)

Celebrations galore as Malaysiaturns 50 (Straits Times, 31 August 2007)

Strive harder, Malaysians urged (New Straits Times, 31 August 2007)

Malay nationalism then and now (Straits Times, 31 August 2007)

VP Jusuf Kalla Attends M'sian IndependenceDay Celebration In KL (Antara, 31 August 2007)

Legislator Appreciates Malaysian PM's Apology(Antara, 31 August 2007)

Malaysian PM's Apology Must Be Appreciated: Legislator(Antara, 31 August 2007)

MalaysiaFinally Says Sorry For Attack (Jakarta Post, 31 August 2007)

Say sorry for assault: Indonesia (Jakarta Post, 30 August 2007

4 Malaysian police suspended over beating of Indonesian sports official (Associated Press, 29 August 2007)

Malaysia a 'negara Islam' but not a theocracy (Straits Times, 28 August 2007)

Abdullah Chides Opposition For Spinning Out Issues (Bernama, 27 August 2007)