Malaysia’s struggle for defining race and religion

Updated On: Dec 12, 2006

Malaysia is struggling to further define its multi-ethnic identity. 

Following the backlash against the fiery rhetoric during the UMNO General Assembly, the government seems to be taking firmer steps to address issues that are irking non-Muslims, non-Malays in an attempt to calm frayed nerves. 

For example, they have spoken up against the Kelantan state’s attempt to impose Muslim dress code on non-Muslims.  Secular voices in Malaysia has made the conservatives in Kelantan backed off on a threat to fine non-Muslim women for wearing skimpy outfits. The conservative state government clarified that only Muslim women wearing “indecent dressing” would be fined under new state laws. While victory was sweet for secularism, the conservatives warned: “However, non-Muslim women should respect Muslim sensitivities and dress decently when they go out in public. The dress code is an Islamic requirement to help protect the virtue of women. It is not imposed by PAS”. So says the Menteri Besaar of Kelatan Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat. 

In another Islamic heartland, Selangor, the Selangor state Islamic Authority (Mais) has withdrawn its claims over the body of a man (Anthony Rayappan, Aged 71) who had both Muslim and Christian faiths, triggering off a potentially divisive religious debate in Malaysia. Mais chairman Mohamed Adzib Mohd Isa proclaimed that evidence gathered by the Authority indicated that Mr Rayappan was not a Muslim when he died having reconverted back to Christianity in 1996. Isa said to the media: “We feel there is no new information which can support a claim to his body. As such we withdraw our case in court and will not make any claims to the body”.

Elsewhere religious and ethnic debates have exploded onto the scene, including the ownership of the media itself. The takeover of Nanyang Press Holdings by timber tycoon Tiong Hiew King, who already owns the other two major Chinese-language papers like Sin Chew and Guang Ming, was seen negatively by the Chinese community. Many in the community were worried that a monopoly over the Chinese-language papers would dilute the fierce tradition of independent reporting. There is also a general perception that these Chinese-language dailies were less compliant with political pressures of the Malay-dominated government in power and were in better position to fight for minority rights.

On the ethnic Malay side, another merger of New Straits Times Press and Utusan Malaysia also generated unhappiness as it is feared that the Malayness of Utusan Malaysia in its traditional role of a media defender of Malay rights may be dampened by the merger. Utusan is 50% owned by the dominant party UMNO. While religious forces are strong in obstructing this merger, capitalism may eventually decide its fate as the merger would provide the much-needed S$39 million needed to increase Utusan’s printing facilities in a bid to push up its current marginal profits.

The fierce religious debates that have burst onto the scene have prompted Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi to describe the state of ethnic relations in Malaysia as “fragile and brittle”. He appealed for pan-Malaysian unity: “What we want to achieve can only be reailsed through the efforts of all Malaysians, not just a select race.” His remarks came at a crucial time after the recently-televised sword-raising antics in the UMNO’s general assembly by UMNO Youth hief Hishammuddin Hussein. Badawi put a stamp of rejection on parochialism in ethnic relations by calling it a ‘disease’. It will take some time for this ‘disease’ to heal itself. 

It was also unfortunate that the idea of Islam Hadhari (civilisational Islam) promoted by Abdullah Badawi after he took office three years ago has never quite captured public imagination because it has not been explained and hence not understood by all. 


Islam Hadhari heard but not understood by all (Straits Times, 9 December 2006)

Kuala Lumpur probes religious burial row (Straits Times, 7 December 2006)

Najib uneasy over council ban on ‘indecent clothing’ (Straits Times, 7 December 2006)

Seeing red over ban on mini-skirts (Today, 7 December 2006)

Malaysian government steps in to probe religious burial row (Today, 7 December 2006)

Media mergers in KL spark political concern (Straits Times, 8 December 2006)

Islamic council drop claim to man’s body (Today, 8 December 2006)

Religious burial row settled (Straits Times, 8 December 2006)

Racial ties are brittle, Abdullah warns (Straits Times 8 December 2006)

Speak up or lose out (Today, 8 December 2006)

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