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PM Abdullah Badawi’s “middle ground” response to sensitive debate over Malaysia’s state identity

Updated On: Aug 07, 2007

PM Abdullah Badawi mollifies the debate on Malaysia’s secular/theocratic status, as Malaysians worry that the fragile racial and religious harmony has been strained.

Last Friday, forty-two non-governmental organisations issued a joint declaration, called the “Merdeka Statement” emphasising the need for increased efforts to keep racial harmony, and suggesting that a truth and reconciliation committee was needed to “deal with 'hurtful' incidents in the country's past to ‘heal the national psyche’,” reported the Straits Times. The groups ranged from the Malaysian Bar Council to the Sisters of Islam.

Their concerns were reiterated by Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Bernard Dompok, who in launching the Merdeka Statement became the first minister to publicly comment on the furore resulting from Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak’s comment that Malaysia was an ‘Islamic’ state. In the wake of a gag order banning all reportage on further debate in the mainstream media, Dompok was quoted by Malaysiakini, saying “I think my colleagues in the government will forgive me for saying that I will not agree that we are an Islamic state”. He continued, “I think people that I know would be very unhappy if this type of thing persists. But again the government has allowed a lot of divergence on views. I think we have to contend with that for the time being”.

Two days after the Merdeka Statement was launched, PM Abdullah Badawi was reported on Sunday clarifying that Malaysia was neither secular nor ‘Islamic’.  His conciliatory comments are a response to the public display of concern for the state of racial and religious harmony. According to Bernama, he said “We are not a secular state. We are also not a theocratic state like Iran and Pakistan ... but we are a government that is based on parliamentary democracy; a government that is responsible to the parliament and the people.” He affirmed the contribution of non-Muslims in the government, and advocated religious freedom for all Malaysians, Muslim or otherwise. According to the Star, he said “It is a government that is made up of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians, who work together and discuss together development policies for the nation,” and “Be it a suraumasjid, temple or church, when there is a need for it, the Government gives the necessary aid.” In contrast, he said “Secular nations do not practise such freedom. To them, religious practice can only be done at home,” reported the Star.

PM Badawi’s ameliorating remarks, while useful as an attempt to appease the non-Muslim public, cannot ignore the dicey fact that while Malaysia’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, it also declares that Islam is the federation’s official religion.

Badawi’s pacific middle ground strategy is meant to achieve two aims, some say. It placates non-Muslims, but also pleases the Muslim majority, for whom ‘secular’ denotes a rejection of religion in government. Malaysian elections are due before 2009, and some expect them to be held late this year or early next year.

On a related offshoot is the ongoing debate on cyberfreedom and its relation to racial and religious harmony. The recent controversy over blog commentaries scraping over sensitive issues of race and religion have inspired heavy-handed language by the Information Ministry. In an interview with the New Straits Times, Deputy Information Minister and Gerakan secretary-general Datuk Seri Chia Kwang Chye said that “Bloggers are like publishers. The only difference is bloggers do not need a licence to operate. Other than that, they have the same responsibility.” Thus if a blog defames anyone, there will be recourse to action. In order to ensure that blogs comply to the same civil and criminal laws as printed media, he said that “The best we can do is perhaps tighten existing laws.”

Although the tightening of civil and criminal laws is supposed to buttress racial and religious harmony, to some, it may only widen the gap between government and civil society. Transparency International Malaysia president Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam said if the government reacted too harshly in an aggressive and authoritarian way, it would cause greater problems than the bloggers themselves. He told the New Straits Times that the government’s stance was too harsh. “It’s not good. It’s not a civilised way to do it. And people will react to injustice.” Surprising, though the Information Ministry is considering tightening its laws against racial and religious commentary, it has not itself been particularly sensitive to the needs and moods of the people. In response to the Merdeka Statement submitted by the forty two NGOs expressing concern for racial and religious harmony, the Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin was dismissive, saying the state of unity was not as bleak as the Statement implied. “This is not a citizens’ wish but the wish of a handful of people. This is uncalled for,” Datuk Zainuddin said, reported the Straits Times.

As the controversy continues, PM Badawi will roll out yet another development masterplan, this time for the eastern side of the peninsular. It will encompass Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang, and will be called the East Coast Corridor. Plans are being finalized by Petronas, and will focus on petrochemical, handicraft and tourism, reported AFP. The East Coast Corridor is the newest addition to Badawi’s ambitious promises to the peninsular, and will stand alongside southern Johor’s Iskandar Development Region and the Northern Corridor Economic Region, and presumably shows that it has something for everyone. Conciliation and impressive outlays thus continue as Malaysia defines and redefines itself in this pre-election period. (6 August 2007)

Sources:

Muslim Malaysia is not a secular or an Islamic state, PM says (AP, 5th Aug 2007)

PM: Malaysia is neither a secular nor theocratic state (The Star, 5th Aug 2007)

Malaysia Not Secular, But Not Islamic State Either -PM (Dow Jones International News, 5th Aug 2007)

‘No one enjoys total immunity’ (NST, 5th Aug 2007)

Bloggers, netizens must behave like adults (NST, 5th Aug 2007)

Raja Nazrin outlines three essentials for effective nation-building (Bernama, 5th Aug 2007)

Indonesian Press Freedom Flourishing Since Existence Of Press Council (Bernama, 5th Aug 2007)

42 groups make joint call for racial unity  (Straits Times, 4th Aug 2007)

Malaysian minister gets 'rare support' for breaking rank on Islamic state issue  (BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific, 3rd Aug 2007)

‘Islamic state’ comment: Minister disagrees (Straits Times, 3rd Aug 2007)

Malaysia's eastern region development plan ready by year-end: PM (AFP, 3rd Aug 2007)