Malaysia just got an endorsement from Australia, a country with which it had snappy ties for some time. During Mahathir’s time, Australia had been cast as a “racist lackey of a culturally imperialistic United States.”
Badawi’s Malaysia, in the Australian PM John Howard’s view, was a “great example of a moderate, constructive and competitive Islamic country” with a “critical role to play in promoting better understanding of Islam and its values”.
Responding to Howard’s overtures, Malaysian PM Abdullah urged both countries to focus on collaborations that can “stand the test of time” and which are “based on mutual trust and confidence.” He said “We’ve had ups and down in our bilateral relations. But the solid foundations of our cooperation, particularly in matters of defence, education and trade, have remained strong,” he said. His recipe for deeper exchanges was through student exchanges with Australia varsities and to encourage more Australian students to study in Malaysia.
Such bilateral friendliness is a testimony to Malaysia’s will to stay progressive, its encouragement of modernization and its success in preserving inter-ethnic harmony. While Malaysia’s successes are laudable, challenges remain ahead for its domestic configurations of racial and religious harmony as Malaysian Muslims struggles to define their Islamic identity amidst a global resurgence of orthodoxy in the religion.
One firestorm that emerged recently out of the struggles between moderate and conservative forces to capture the soul of Islam was the UMNO general assembly where sword-raising rhetoric unnerved both non-Malays and moderate Malay Muslims. UMNO has prided itself for being a centrist party that reaches out to other non-Malay political factions. That image saved the Party from PAS (Parti Islam SeMalaysia) challenges in the past when Chinese votes were mobilized to defeat ultra-conservative forces with a vision for a strong Islamic state.
However, political popularism seemed to be on the rise. UMNO delegates during the most recent UMNO Assembly appeared to be trying to “outdo” each other in racial and religious rhetoric. This is particularly bizarre since PAS is trying hard to recruit Yusuf Islam (former international rock star Cat Stevens) to soften its own hardline image. It is also going against the trend of moderation in an economically-prosperous Malaysia seen by many as a test case of Islamic progressiveness. Sword-raising antics played to an audience of international press can roll back Malaysia’s achievements as a tolerant cosmopolitan society.
PAS’s past stinging defeat has encouraged self-moderation which won it quiet allies from the Malaysian civil service and bureaucracy. Allies are invaluable in its struggle against UMNO. The mufti of Perak created a sensation recently when he proclaimed that 10,000 Muslims in Malaysia had given up Islam with 250 000 waiting in the wings to abandon the religion. The government’s response to the announcement and other similar inflammatory rhetoric of late was seen as weak by moderate forces.
Thus, some have argued for non-governmental moderate forces to fight the resurgence of “Malay-Muslim machismo”. This includes the mobilization of the Interfaith Council to promote interfaith dialogue, invocation of Article 11 of the Malaysian Constitution for religious freedom and the efforts of the secular mass media to join the struggle for Malaysia’s religious identity. Ultimately, we may see the beginnings of an alignment that crosses party lines – institutions that encompass moderate Islamic forces and non-Malays on one side versus conservative Islamic forces on the other.
Time for moderate Muslims to speak up (Straits Times, 3 Dec 2006)
Malaysia a role model for Islam, says Howard (Straits Times, 2 Dec 2006)