Khairy steps up the race card amidst increasing religiosity in Malaysia

Updated On: Sep 08, 2006

The recent survey conducted by University of Malaya Associate Professor Patricia Martinez, a scholar of Islam, in which over 1,000 Malays surveyed nationwide said they viewed themselves as Muslims first, Malaysians second, and Malays third (SEAPSNet News – 22 August 2006), has sparked concern over the implications of growing religiosity within this multi-religious country's dominant ethnic group. 

The growing orthodoxy found in the survey clearly illustrates how Malaysia’s silent majority of Muslims view the world differently from their liberal counterparts.

Politically, opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) believes the survey results is a 'significant signal' that religiosity is taking priority over being Malay, and believes this will be beneficial to the party, whose primary platform is religious.  However, the ruling Umno party also has a strong Islamic appeal, and in matters related to religion, there is often little to differentiate the two parties.  Indeed, religion has long dominated politics and public discourse as evidenced by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's speeches, which refer frequently to religion.

There are also concerns that when Muslims take on a stronger Islamic identity, delicate race relations will be aggravated – especially so at a time when new divisive lines are emerging.  The well-publicised tensions that have risen over recent developments, in particular the question of whether Islamic (Syariah) law or the secular Constitution is supreme, remains a cause for concern as close to three months after her hearing, the country’s highest court has yet to deliver its ruling on the case of Ms Lina Joy – the Malay woman who appealed for the removal of ‘Islam’ as the religion stated on her identity card following her conversion to Christianity.  High-profile cases aside, concern is even more warranted in the “everyday little blisters”.

A strong Islamic identity also translates occasionally into overzealous rulings, such as a recent controversial decision by the influential National Fatwa Council, a body comprising Islamic religious officials, saying that government organised “open house” celebrations held during major festivals should be reviewed as they may contravene Islam.  Worries are that this overzealousness is resulting in a growing divide and impacting race relations.

Fears are that racial harmony could fray, and while most government leaders have tried to rein in the trend, yet others have capitalised on the increasing religiosity to score political brownie points.  Abdullah has tried to promote a progressive form of religion called Islam Hadhari, which emphasises moderation, but it does not appear to have taken off – the survey shows that few even understand what it means.

The same cannot be said for Umno Youth No.2 Khairy Jamaludddin however.  Once looked up to by non-Malays as the epitome of the new Malay and viewed as a source of hope, Khairy has instead earned disappointment from non-Malays for what appears to be his taking of the well-trodden path of Malay ultras.  Fresh from creating an uproar last month when he suggested that non-Malays would take advantage of a weak Umno, Khairy stoked fresh anger among Chinese last weekend for his remark that Malays are lagging behind in other races in the economy in Penang because the state government has not given enough support.  This despite the fact that Khairy has yet to be forgiven by the Chinese community for his earlier offence, for which Wanita MCA had called for an apology that Khairy refuses to give. 

Though the mood outside Umno has been disapproving, the Umno ground does not see anything wrong with Khairy’s statement.  In fact, Khairy has been deluged by supporters who see him as penjuang bangsa (champion of the race).  Though the non-Malay community may disagree, being branded a Malay ultra is likely to be a catalyst for Khairy’s career as Anwar’s (the former deputy Premier).  Analysts believe that Khairy could be going too far in playing the racial card as he aims to rise further in politics.  Non-Malays are disappointed that someone of Khairy’s intellect and charisma felt it necessary to resort to the race card, and so early in his career.

The forecast is not all bleak however.  Malaysia is not yet hurtling down an extremist path.  What has largely gone unnoticed is the more comforting findings from theUniversityof Malaya survey that indicates a greater level of acceptance of the reality of Malaysia's diversity than appears in current public discourse, and that suggests that, despite increased religiosity, Malaysia's Muslims remain pragmatic.


Increasing religiosity in Malaysia causes a stir (The Straits Times, 5 September 2006)

Khairy stirs fresh anger among Chinese (The Straits Times, 5 September 2006)

Umno Youth chief battles fires (The Straits Times, 6 September 2006)