1 Malaysia No More?

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Church in Malacca, Malaysia, photo: HKmPUA /flickr
Church in Malacca, Malaysia, photo: HKmPUA /flickr

After a tense weekend, the Malaysian online news media is teeming with commentaries on the controversy regarding the use of the word ‘Allah’ by Christians in Malaysia and the subsequent arson attacks against Christian churches in and around the capital.

The camps, quite predictably, are divided along the pro-Malay, pro-government camp, made up primarily of pious Malay Muslims, devoted to the concept of a Malay-dominated Malaysia and opposed to the use of ‘Allah’ in non-Muslim contexts, and Malaysians (Muslims, Christians and Hindus) who wish to see historically divisive Malay-dominance dismantled and genuine pluralism embraced in its place.

Although Prime Minister Najib Razak was quick to condemn the attacks, even twitteringIt’s been a difficult weekend for all. I share your outrage. We must stand united & not allow these incidents to break us,” outrage and dismay over the government’s pro-ban stance is boiling over. So far venting from the pluralist camp has been confined to cyberspace, although it is not so clear how long non-Malay calm will last if ethnic rifts continue to deepen.

Razak, whose party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has continued to lose ground in an increasingly complex political environment where opposition parties made significant gains in 2008, is facing a tense situation in the country as a whole and within the UMNO-dominated ruling coalition. In recent years UMNO, which built its political power on a affirmative action agenda focused on the ethnic Malay population, has come under pressure from opposition parties that have embraced a more pluralistic platform in an effort to build broader coalitions.

In searching for a new, more modern and supposedly inclusive agenda for UMNO, Razak embraced the concept of ‘1 Malaysia’ and presented it as the organizing principle of a new and improved, post-ethnic country. Controversy, however, has continued to plague this glossy concept, with the current clash simply serving as an unpleasant reminder of its vagueness and lack of focus in the policy-realm.

Although Razak continues to urge politicians and Malaysians to discard their “ethnic silo mentality”, he has failed to either define the concept (as anything more than a PR slogan for his administration) or to address its problematic roots in the stark and historically deep ethnic politics that have pitted ethnic Malays against their non-Malay counterparts.

Given the need for ethnic harmony in a country where the dominant Malays make up only about 60 percent of the population (and where predominantly non-Malay Malaysian Christians, for example, make up 9 percent), and given Malaysia’s wish to be seen as a bastion of modernity in the region, this failure to take a more even-handed approach seems all the more striking. The government, as one editorial points out, could have taken a pro-active and politically sensitive approach to the dispute, promoting dialogue and respect for the rule of law instead of stoking fears and animosity in the name of political expediency.

In siding, at least until now, with the factions that demanded a ban on the use of the word ‘Allah’ (which, in any case, IS the term for God in Bahasa Malaysian and thus a word that any Bahasa Malaysian speaker would use for God, without even addressing the theological implications of one shared God between the Abrahamic faiths) the government seems intent on torpedoing its own ‘1 Malaysia’ initiative, seemingly content on placating the exclusivism of Malay Muslim groups and political factions.

Urging calm while members and associates of the government openly side with the pro-ban factions smacks of political opportunism and hollow promises of national unity. Instead of grabbing the proverbial bull by the horns and addressing religious and ethnic tensions by smart, forward-looking words and policies (statements to the effect that the use of ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims is an insult to Islam seem to be common), the government has allowed a debate over a symbolic issue to escalate into a divisive stand-off that threatens an already strained body politic (Swiss minaret ban, anyone?).

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