Political Concessions in a Complex Country
Farish A. Noor
Malaysia has been making international headlines over the past few weeks for all the wrong reasons, yet again. The spate of arson attacks on Churches, Temples and Mosques is a worrying sign that the fragile social contract — if there ever was one — that underlies the Malaysian multicultural project is in danger of falling apart if centrifugal forces aligned to communitarian groups and lobbies are not kept in check.
Ostensibly the controversy began as a result of protests on the part of several Muslim groups in the country over the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims, in particular Christians, in the country. But one needs to take a step back from the furore to understand the other structural and socio-economic factors that may have played a part in this sudden mobilisation of mass communitarian anxiety.
After all, why now?
Christians in many parts of the country, notably in East Malaysia, have been using the term “Allah” for decades, in fact long before the states of Sabah and Sarawak even joined Malaysia in 1963. If this was not an issue of concern over the past four decades, then why has it been made an issue now, and by whom?
The government of current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is therefore caught in a double-bind, thanks in part to the communal nature of Malaysian politics that has been normalised over half a century.
Despite talk of “1 Malaysia”, “Middle Malaysia”, “Malaysian Malaysia” by politicians in power as well as the opposition, the reality is that there are many Malaysias that have remained largely isolated and alienated from each other, developing in tandem but without ever seriously communicating.
Malaysian society remains a distant idea as the communities of the country remain living in their private comfort zones with little real contact and understanding of each other.
Now the nature of Malaysia’s communal politics also means that anyone who aspires to power has traditionally had to appeal to all the different communities and pander to their private, short-term and at times exclusive demands.
Successive Malaysian governments have conceded ground to communalist lobbies of all hues, be their language and culture activists, religious activists or proponents of narrow localised politics. Today the “Allah debate” has brought to the fore two lobby groups that represent the interests of Muslims and non-Muslims in general.
How the government appeals to these groups will determine the future outcome of the “Allah controversy”, but also the future development of Malaysia.
The two choices seem equally stark and self-defeating:
- Should the government concede to the demand of the Muslim lobby groups, they will regard this as a victory on their part. The government may claim some credit for this and claim that they have appeased the demands of the majority Muslim community, but to what end? This will signal a victory for Muslim communal groups that may embolden them to make more demands, and which will force the government to concede further on other issues.
It will also be seen as a token instance of rewarding communitarian ethno-religious mobilisation that ends up securing the comfort zone of one community while alienating others. And what of the sensibilities of the Christian minority, particularly in East Malaysia, who have been supporters of the BN for so long? One consequence might be the alienation of the Christian vote which would not help raise the fortunes of the BN in general.
- To concede to the demands of the Christian groups on the other hand also has its consequences, and would be seen as a case of being “soft” on matters of religion and identity that has been the complaint against both the Abdullah and Najib administrations.
It may also shore up support for the more conservative ethno-religious lobbies and to push them even further in their demands.
To concede to the demands of the Muslim lobby would be to deny the historical and cultural claims of East Malaysian Christians who have been using Allah even before they were part of Malaysia, and does not send the right message as far as the project of nation-building is concerned.
Yet the irony is this: Since the time of former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to the present, no Malaysian politician (be they of the ruling government or opposition) has had the courage and common sense to note that Malaysia is a complex country and like all complex nations there are bound to be contradictions that can never be resolved.
No politician (from the government or opposition) has suggested that perhaps the only way out is for Malaysians to grow up to be a mature nation that can live with discomfort, complexities and ambiguities; not least the complexities of multiculturalism.
The constant calls for national unity belie the simple belief that complex nations can be rendered homogeneous and unified, but perhaps at the expense of the loss of particular identity. This would be a high cost for communities who feel that they have more to lose than to gain by being part of such a project.
Would East Malaysians have to deny or erase their history and their historical use of the word Allah just to be part of 1 Malaysia?Perhaps that is simply too high a price to pay for them.
In the long run however what the country needs now is cold reason and a return to real concrete political-economic and structural issues, such as the desperate need for Malaysia to re-engineer its economy in time to meet the demands of an accelerated economic race in Asia. Bickering over semantics and customs may be the staple diet of shallow populist politicians who just want to win some votes and end up on Youtube, but it is not the stuff that real development and nation-building is all about.
Malaysians need to live with complexity and diversity and learn to accept differences among themselves. In the meanwhile, other pressing economic and structural matters need our attention.
The world is not going to stop or slow down to give Malaysia a chance to catch up. In fact the world is not going to give Malaysia a second chance at all.
We either resolve our differences and accept that we are a complex nation and move on; or we can continue to play the game of narrow communal kampung politics and commit collective economic suicide while the world walks past Malaysia, passing us off as yet another basket-case failed state embroiled in infantile communitarian politics. The choice, my friends, is as simple as that.
Ulema Calls for Ban on Noisy Loudspeakers
9 November 2009
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The South Kalimantan’s chapter of Indonesian Ulema Council has proposed an edict that bans the use of loudspeakers if it is considered to be disturbing OTHER people, even though they are used to broadcast the call to prayer five times a day or a sermon.
Council member Muhammad Noor, who is a lecturer at Antasari State Islamic Institute in the provincial capital of Banjarmasin, told Antara state news agency Monday that a group of ulema attending a discussion in Tabalong regency recently concluded that deafening loudspeakers, albeit for good purposes, could spark disagreement among Muslims and non-Muslims due to the noise and discomfort caused.
Noor said the ulema suggested that Muslims exercise their freedom of religion without sacrificing the rights of other people.
Participants of the discussion agreed that the use of loudspeakers was aimed at propagating Islam, but its excessive application might be counterproductive.