Placating the non-Malays and non-Muslims in Malaysia?

Updated On: Dec 19, 2006

The one-time prodigy of former Prime Minister Mahathir has spoken out. And so has the heir apparent of the Abdullah Badawi tribe.  

Both Anwar and Khairy have warned the Malaysian political establishment of the damage done by the fiery rhetoric in the recent UMNO General Assembly that came laden with a sword-waving stunt. All over the Malaysian political universe, voices are emerging to urge all sides to stop harping on race issues, especially in using them as a means to advance one’s political career.  

UMNO Youth Deputy Head Khairy, the son-in-law of Prime Minister Abdullah, warned Malaysians not to abuse the freedom they have to openly debate race issues. Proclaiming that playing on race issues would boomerang on those who deploy it in the first place, Khairy made this warning in the name of democracy. 'We cannot push it too far, too soon, as we are still a maturing democracy…Racial sensitivities still exist, and we should respect these boundaries,” he said on 16 December 2006 Saturday. Without specifying the target of his warning, Mr Khairy appeared to stand up for minority rights by saying that Umno Youth has asked the government to take action against those who ignore these limits in pursuit of their own agenda. This middle centrist line is likely to win this political newbie some political allies (especially moderate Malays and the economically-influential Chinese business lobby) in his own quest for political supremacy.  

Other than this young politician vying for the leadership position, Datuk Seri Anwar, the veteran politician and fallen heir apparent during the Mahathir administration, also confirmed that he would contest the next general election. His opening salvo was also aimed at the recent racial debates, justifying his opposition to the recent racial debates in the name of national unity. Anwar argued that the current debates were too divisive.  

Appointing himself a champion of minority rights, Anwar noted that, while Muslims feel their position and their power are being eroded, he noted that “the position by the prime minister and the government to deny the rights of non-Muslims...or deny an open public discourse on the subjects...has exacerbated the entire problem.” “The worrying thing is the Muslims feel their position and their power in religious discourse is eroding. The non-Muslims feel they are being marginalized and discriminated against," added Anwar, the adviser to the opposition People's Justice Party headed by his wife, Azizah Ismail. 

Many see Anwar’s strategy as an attempt to expand the political power base of his party to gain support from Chinese and Indians, both of whom have economic power disproportionate to their shares of the population makeup. In the past, at the peak of the political opposition’s challenge to the ruling UMNO party, the former lost out when they (especially PAS) engaged in rhetoric perceived as detrimental to Chinese and Indian rights. Anwar hopes to rectify this mistake made by the opposition. Anwar’s wife was even more frank with this early political campaigning. Azizah admitted to the media that her party was already geared up for the elections. "The mood is with us on the ground," she said, adding that there is a negative feeling against the government. 

However, beyond this early campaigning and political opportunism are real issues and genuine grievances that highlighted the dilemmas of multi-racial, multi-religious societies and the unclear situation of which court to turn to – Syariah Court or the civil courts – when there are disputes involving Muslims and non-Muslims. Several cases involving religious conversion and tussle over religious identity in the last year have raised disquiet.  The Malaysian government can no longer ignored these issues and have to think of a long-term solution as society gets even more complex with growing number of mixed marriages. 


Don't abuse freedom to debate, says Khairy (Straits Times, 18 December 2006)

Malaysia's Anwar: Government stifling non-Muslims' rights (AP/IHT, 16 December 2006)

KL can’t ignore religious battles in court anymore (The Straits Times, 18 December 2006) 

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