Other problems than Mahathir?

Updated On: Jul 25, 2006

Former Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir is back from his holiday with another barrage of attacks on the Abdullah administration. 

He showed no signs of wanting any sort of reconciliation with his successor, PM Abdullah Badawi, though the latter had signalled that he would “get on with his work of governing” rather than engage directly in any “mud-slinging” matches.  And the Abdullah administration does seem to have other worries than Mahathir.

A growing concern over ethnic tensions and an increasing strain between Malaysia's Muslim majority and members of other faiths appears to have led the government to unveil a new RM100 million five-year unity plan – the country’s first, to mixed reactions from the public.

Aimed at stemming racial segregation and building stronger ties through the creation of multiracial activities in schools and institutions of higher learning, the 2006-2010 National Unity and Integration Action Plan recommends, among other initiatives, that schools seat pupils of different races next to each other and encourage free multi-racial interaction in activities.  A controversial Ethnic Relations course, recently made compulsory for all public university students, is also listed as one of the recommended measures in the plan.  The course had drawn heated debate following the discovery that the Universiti Putra Malaysia’s guidebook for the course blamed the Democratic Action Party and Indian youths for May 13 and Kampung Medan clashes respectively; sparking concern about what was being taught to university students.

National Unity and Integration Department director-general Azman Amin Hassan said the plan was needed to head off the polarisation in schools and universities.  Azman said the department was also developing what could be the world’s first computerised early warning system on racial conflict, processing a database of information and reports on unity in every district in Malaysia, then deciding how prone each area is to conflicts involving race and religion, in order to have a better chance to prevent an incident.  

As expected, the proposed plan has elicited a variety of reactions from the public.  Asli Centre for Public Policy Studies chairman Ramon Navaratnam went straight to the point, expressing his concern that the plan’s “superficial micro-approach” did not address the root causes of disunity in the country.  He felt that non-Malays were not being treated equally from the time they went to school, applied for scholarships and entered universities.  Efforts should be made to look at the New Economic Policy and whether it was relevant and fair, said the former deputy secretary-general of the Finance Ministry, who, as an economic officer, was involved in the drafting of the original policy which had been aimed to help any poor person, not just one race.

On the religious front, a recent series of court cases has brought matters to a head on Malaysia’s treatment of those who have renounced the Muslim faith, revealing a sharp divide in this mainly Muslim nation over the issue. 

Amid concerns that Islamists are trying to impose their values on the country, an umbrella body of 13 civic groups, Article 11 Coalition, named after the constitutional provision on freedom of religion, have banded together to push for Malaysia to honour constitutional guarantees enabling all citizens to practise their faith.  While Malaysia's constitution enshrines freedom of religion, Muslims cannot officially renounce Islam – those who do so risk being jailed by a local Islamic court, leading Article 11 Coalition to champion the cases of Muslims who have fought to leave their faith.  

In May, a mob of 500 ethnic Malay Muslims forcibly stopped Article 11 Coalition's forum on freedom of religion in Penang.  In a repeat of events, a forum on the topic of “Federal Constitution: Protection for All”, drew anger from some 400 Muslim protestors; including representatives from Pas Johor, Umno Youth and non-governmental organisations such as Jemaah Islam, in Johor Baru last week, prompting police to issue a “friendly recommendation” that organisers cut short the question and answer session at the end of the forum.  Later, Johor Mentri Besar and state Umno chief Abdul Ghani Othman expressed the party’s disappointment that the forum had been held, “as it is already stated in the Constitution that Islam was the country’s official religion”.

Malaysia’s religious right is fighting back against what it sees as a liberal tide sweeping the judiciary and viewed as a threat to Islam's position in the country.  More than 50 groups representing Muslim lawyers, clerics, professionals and students met a week ago to plan a campaign and launch legal challenges to protect Islam. They formed an umbrella body known as Pembela Islam (Defenders of Islam).  Muslim Youth Movement secretary-general Khairul Ariffin said a series of forums was being planned by Pembela Islam to spread the message to Muslims on the need to ‘defend the faith’.  The organisation plans to use its network of religious experts to campaign against the civil courts being used as a way out of the religion for Muslims.  

The campaign by Malaysia's right is by no means confined to clerics and the heartland.  It has received an added fillip from a growing group of Muslim lawyers led by former Bar Council chairman Zainur Zakaria who helped launch a group calling itself Lawyers in Defence of Islam last week.

On Malaysia’s development front, with the implementation of the first 9th Malaysia Plan (9MP) project last week, calls were made for the government to give 9MP projects “to only the qualified”.  In the lead up to the unveiling of the 9MP, much had been made of the glaring failures of previous projects such as the Kuching Prison, which, after 10 years and two developers, remains nowhere near ready for use.  Civil society experts have thus called for 9MP projects to be given to qualified and experienced contractors so that the Government does not waste its resources spending millions again to repair any damage later on.  They also called for the establishment of a monitoring system and control mechanism to ensure transparency about the tender system and progress of the projects.

The first ministry to start implementing the 9MP project, the Education ministry is adopting a tougher stance on irresponsible contractors.  Education Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein said, “I do not want to see our action plan under the 9MP disrupted due to issues of graft, bureaucracy and the self-important attitudes of parties involved.” 


Mahathir’s back … and on the warpath (Straits Times, 23 July 2006)

RM100m 5-year plan for unity (New Straits Times, 23 July 2006)

Action plan not the last word on ethnic relations (New Straits Times, 24 July 2006)

Reinforcing the positives (New Straits Times, 23 July 2006)

Article 11 forum disrupted again (New Straits Times, 23 July 2006)

Malaysia Islamists protest religious-freedom forum (Reuters, 22 July 2006)

Malaysia faith forum to defy mob (BBC News, 21 July 2006)

Forum goes ahead as police keep close watch (The Star, 23 July 2006)

Religious right vows to uphold status of Islam (The Straits Times, 24 July 2006)

Give 9MP projects ‘to only the qualified’ (The Star, 23 July 2006)

54 school projects under 9MP identified (New Straits Times, 21 July 2006)

Ministry to vet builders bidding for 9MP projects (The Star, 23 July 2006)