“Deeparaya” controversy underscores increasing segregation and intolerance in Malaysia

Updated On: Oct 20, 2006

A most disturbing trend of increasing segregation and intolerance growing in Malaysia has come amidst an atmosphere of increased media exposure and wider public debate – making the divisive issue also a highly visible one. 

Most recently, the upcoming joint celebrations of the Hindu Deepavali and Muslim Hari Raya Puasa festivals created a storm of controversy.  Hindus will celebrate Deepavali on Saturday, just a few days before Hari Raya Puasa.  Malaysians have dubbed the extended holiday season 'DeepaRaya', but the melding of the festivals has drawn fire from Muslim leaders, who condemn joint celebrations as blasphemous.  Top Muslim cleric Harussani Zakaria of Malaysia's National Fatwa Council, criticised the joint celebrations as “against the tenets of Islam”.  Earlier this year, the government was forced to downplay calls from the National Fatwa Council to review joint celebrations, arguing they were in the interests of maintaining racial harmony.

In the latest incident, the leak of an internal memo from the religious head of government-linked Takaful Malaysia advising Muslim staff “who have inadvertently wished Hindus a happy Deepavali” to “immediately repent and not repeat it in the future”, drew widespread public attention.   Public expressions of outrage from Hindus and Muslims alike resulted in a public apology from Takaful Malaysia.  Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, himself a respected Islamic scholar, used his Islamic credentials on Wednesday (18 October) to put an end to the controversy by wishing Hindu Malaysians a ‘Happy Deepavali’; saying joint celebrations were good for national unity in a multicultural country like Malaysia. 

Though on the official front, Abdullah has seemingly laid the controversy to rest, the incident throws a spotlight on the underlying climate of intolerance and segregation within Malaysian society – a problem the government will need to address.

Another prickly issue that continues to divide Malaysian society is the racial equity debate.  Sparked by the release of results of an Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute’s study suggesting that the Bumiputera corporate equity ownership was as high as 45 per cent, the debate has continued to dominate public discourse for the last month, despite numerous calls from politicians from all Barisan Nasional component parties to put an end to the debate.

Since coming to power three years ago, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi made it his plan to create more 'openness' through rigorous public discourse.  But with the string of racially-charged debates on-going in Malaysia, some people are wondering if an over-encouragement of public discussion is to blame. 

Several politicians and non-governmental organisations have suggested that certain elements were trying to exploit the more open style of Abdullah to sow seeds of discord. Worried about the repercussions of an open debate on the sensitive issue, former deputy prime minister Musa Hitam believes the equity debate is being spun into highly charged emotional flashpoints and that the matter “has to be dealt with care in view of the coming Umno general assembly and the internal Umno situation, where different groups are willing to weaken the current leadership and play to the gallery”.

An interesting development resulting from this debate, however, is that Abdullah has acknowledged that young Malaysians have a lot of questions, and that the government needs to provide an answer.  Despite the string of controversies, it seems clear for now that Abdullah will continue to push for a more open Malaysia.  Growing pains aside, the increasing space for public debate in Malaysia is cause for hope.

Another development keeping Malaysian politicians hopeful is the announcement of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s agreement to meet with Abdullah to air his grievances.  Umno veterans are pushing for the meeting to take place before Hari Raya, but more importantly, before the Umno general assembly in November.  While it is hoped this meeting will heal the growing divisions within the Umno camp, as the former premier himself says, we will have to “wait for the meeting day”.


M'sian PM wishes Hindus happy Deepavali to end controversy (The Straits Times/AFP, 18 October 2006)

Malaysian PM backs mixed festivities by Muslims, Hindus (The Star/AP, 18 October 2006)

Takaful Malaysia apologises for official's stance on Hindu holiday (The Star/AP, 17 October 2006)

Deeparaya 'wrong' (Today/AFP, 18 October 2006)

Don't accuse govt of cheating: Abdullah (The Straits Times, 18 October 2006)

Is too much debate starting to hurt Malaysia? (The Straits Times, 17 October 2006)