Equal Rights for all Malaysians?

Updated On: Apr 06, 2007

The Raja Muda of Perak, Raja Dr Nazrin Shah gave a well-received speech stressing the importance of national unity and equal rights for all races and religions.

He said on 4 April, in a keynote address on “Prospects and Challenges for Nation-building” at the Young Malaysians' Roundtable Discussion on National Unity and Development in Malaysia, “Only when each citizen believes that he or she has a common home and is working towards a common destiny will he or she make the sacrifices needed for the long haul.” The New Straits Times’ headline summarized Raja Nazrin’s speech- “This country belongs to all Malaysians.” Unfortunately, two sensitive issues have overshadowed Raja Muda’s speech.

The first issue is racial. After some of the UMNO leaders warned the Chinese not to question policies favouring Malays last year, Chinese loyalty to the government has been shaken. The upcoming Machap by-election is seen as a litmus test of the extent of Chinese support for the national government. The Machap state Assembly seat became vacant after the death of the State Exco for Housing, Local Government, Environment Datuk Wira Poh Ah Tiam on 15 March. The Barisan Nasional candidate, Lai Meng Chong is facing Democratic Action Party candidate Liou Chen Kuang in a predominantly non-Malay constituency. An analyst at the independent news site Maalysiakini.com, James Wong said, “The by-election results will reveal how deep the hurt runs.”

This by-election has already seen several heavy-weights campaigning on both sides. Deputy Prime Minister Najib led a group of supporters to cheer Lai’s submission of the nomination papers. The DAP secretary-general, Lim Guan Eng led an equally large group of DAP supporters to accompany Liou’s submission. Malaysian Indian Congress President, Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu has also said that he would personally lead a house-to-house campaigning effort to resolve problems affecting the Indian community in Machap. The by-election will also see the likely return of former deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. He said, “Affirmative action should be for all needy Malaysians not just Malays…. I will campaign hard to convince voters to dump the government.”

Besides racial concerns, the government has to tackle religious tensions. A Hindu woman’s legal battle to prevent her husband from converting her one-year old son to Islam has once again raised issue of non-Muslim rights. The Civil Court has ruled that Mrs Subashini can seek redress only from the Syariah Court. The Court of Appeal has refused to hear Mrs Subashini’s case. Her husband, Mr Saravanan converted to Islam last year and converted their elder son, Dharvin Joshua (who is three) without her knowledge.

The Chairman of the fourth largest party of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, Gerakan, Mr Tan Kee Kwong said, “Many non-Muslims feel that their rights are gradually being eroded.” The president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, Mr Chee Peck Kiat said on 2 April that statements of concern would be read to congregations in temples and churches nationwide before a special prayer session that would be held for the restoration of religious freedom. The Woman’s Aid Organisation expressed alarm that civil courts could oblige non-Muslims to seek legal redress from the Syariah Court.

Mr Subashini’s case is only one of an ever increasing number of controversial cases involving inter-religious jurisdiction. In December 2005, a widow of former soldier Moorthy fought for him to have Hindu burial after the Islamic authorities claimed his body. In another case, Ms Linda Joy is awaiting for a decision from the highest civil court to allow her to renounce Islam so that she could be a Christian.

Both these ethnic and religious issues not only threaten Raja Nazrin’s vision of Malaysia but also the success of Badawi’s hopes of attracting foreign investment. Badawi’s attempt to relax some of the bumiputera policies in Johor to draw investments has already come under heavy criticism by former Prime Minister Mahathir for sacrificing Malay rights. The Johor’s Chief Minister, Abdul Ghani Othman was quick to assure the Johor Malays that the easing of rules will not “sideline” them.  To attract more investment, Badawi must first convince Malaysians that they are in it together. However, that’s often easier said than done.  (6 April 2007)


It’s still your place, Johor Malays told (Today, 6 April 2007)

Praise for Raja Nazrin’s Speech (New Straits Times, 5 April 2007)

Listen to the Young (New Straits Times, 5 April 2007)

Raja Nazrin: This Country Belongs to All Malaysians (New Straits Times, 4 April 2007)

Candidates Sing for the Vote (New Straits Times, 5 April 2007)

Those Involved in Scuffle ‘From Outside Malacca’ (New Straits Times, 5 April 2007)

Battle for Hearts and Minds of Chinese Voters in By-Election (South China Morning Post, 5 April 2007)

Democracy- Voters Must Be Wise, Says Syed Hamid (Malaysia General News, 4 April 2007)

Candidates Get Strong Backing on Nomination Day (New Straits Times, 4 April 2007)

Eyes on the Chinese Vote in Malacca Polls; Machap By-Election Draws Big Names As It is Seen as a gauge of Chinese Mood (The Straits Times, 4 April 2007)

BN to Work Hard for a Bigger Win in Machap, Says Najib (Bernama, 3 April 2007)

Court Fight Stirs Up Anxiety Over Non-Muslim Rights (Straits Times, 3 April 2007)

Malaysia Eases Ethnic Policies to Draw Investment (Agence France Presse, 3 April 2007)