Is Malaysia's "tolerant, multi-faith" model under siege?

Updated On: Nov 03, 2006

While Malaysia basks in the pride of the British Government’s recent interest to “learn the Malaysian secret of creating a peaceful and harmonious society”, it is worthwhile to recall the numerous disturbing signs pointing to a growing lack of inter-faith tolerance which is resulting in increasing pressure on the country’s multi-faith credentials.

During his visit to Malaysia this week (28-31 October), British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott expressed interest in the apparent success of Malaysia’s inter-faith dialogues in promoting racial tolerance among Malaysians, and the freedom of non-Muslims to practice their faith in a country where the official religion is Islam. Prescott’s Malaysian counterpart Najib Tun Razak declared Malaysia as “happy to share our experiences in creating a peaceful and harmonious environment”. In September this year, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi too discussed Malaysia’s success in the areas of race relations and inter-faith issues at the Sixth Asia Europe Meeting.

Despite having forged for itself a reputation as a successful multicultural society over the decades of self-rule, the irony of the celebration of Malaysia’s “tolerant, multi-faith” model given the current climate in the country will not escape observers. A series of high-profile incidents since last year have lent themselves to increased visibility of the growing racial and religious intolerance and segregation in Malaysia. Several incidents point to this worrying trend:

  • Demolition of the compound of, and trial of the members of declared cult Sky Kingdom in 2005,
  • Demolition of a new church in Johor in late 2005,
  • Demolition of Hindu temples in early 2006,
  • Non-Muslim policewomen were ordered to wear Muslim headscarves for their annual parade,
  • Some local authorities are banning or restricting dog ownership and prosecuting couples for holding hands or kissing in public, including the religious department’s controversial khalwat (close proximity) raid on a married, Christian, American couple,
  • Case of a legal tussle sparked by the Syariah Court’s award of the custody of children to the parent who converted to Islam,
  • Prevalence of the Syariah Court over the civil courts when the former ruled that a deceased man be buried according to Muslim rites on the grounds that he had converted to Islam, despite his widow’s contention that he had been a practicing Hindu before his death; and,
  • The High Court’s ruling against the change of religion for Christian convert Lina Joy on the grounds that the jurisdiction in conversion matters lies solely in the hands of the Syariah Court.

Non-Muslims in Malaysia have expressed fears that the delicate balance between themselves and the majority may be shifting. Fong Po Kuan, a non-Muslim opposition MP said, "There's a creeping Islamisation in our society and this isn't appropriate because we're a multi-religious, multi-racial country." That Islamisation partly stems from the 1980s and 90s when government and opposition both tried to play up their Islamic credentials to win the battle for the Malay vote. But now even some Malay Muslims are starting to look at events with concern. Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, widely seen as an architect of Malaysia's Islamicisation, thinks that local government and religious officers have been given too much freedom and not been held to account.

Several sources seem to suggest however, that it is less an issue of Muslim intolerance and more one of right wing Malay ethno-nationalism. Indeed, many young upstarts seek to boost their political careers by playing the race card, something even Abdullah’s son-in-law, Umno Youth Deputy Chief Khairy Jamaluddin, is wont to doing.

It must be noted that Abdullah; both a Malay and respected Islamic scholar, is the man who many non-Muslims put their faith in to protect their rights. Not one for speaking out, the “Mr Nice Guy” of Malaysian politics has so far avoided a showdown over these religious issues. However, he has responded to the most recent controversies - calling for inter-faith respect during the DeepaRaya uproar over a call for Muslims to stop greeting Hindu’s ‘Happy Deepavali’, and for the understanding of and maintenance of the status quo when a think-tank report challenged Malaysia’s affirmative action policy.

Beyond mere talk however, observers fear the political leadership has no appetite or gumption to tackle the problem. As with many of Badawi's policies, they say, theory has lacked follow-through. The worry is that hardliners are starting to derail Malaysia's traditionally moderate brand of Islam. Indeed, Muslim demonstrations against and the subsequent government gag-order on discussions pertaining to the possible formation of an Inter-Faith Commission to address the controversies listed above have proven to be the most worrying incident to date. By putting the lid on further discussion, the prime minister seems to have given the Muslim forces reason to believe they have succeeded in winning the debate. Given the government’s current response, sustaining Malaysia’s much-vaunted “tolerant multi-faith” model will prove to be a crucial challenge ahead.


British DPM seeks our tips (The Star, 31 October 2006)

Inter-faith dialogues a good thing, says British DPM (New Straits Times, 31 October 2006)

Pressure on multi-faith Malaysia (BBC, 16 May 2006)

The slide in ethnic relations (Aliran, 7 October 2006)

Badawi's interfaith talk faces test at home (Aljazeera, 3 October 2006)

Religious department defends khalwat raid on Americans (The Star, 1 November 2006)