What are some of the actions Malaysians can take to promote dialogue among believers? This is a question that I am always asked. There are a limited number of organisations actively promoting healthy race relations currently in Malaysia. The need for a “race relations act” is still being discussed heatedly. There is a Malaysian Interfaith Network, and from time to time, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism (MCCBCHST) pops up when an issue rears its head. In short, the promotion of multiculturalism in Malaysia is rather stagnant.

I would like to propose a few suggestions. These recommendations are informed by my personal experience rather than exhaustive research.

Create space

We must create a space for engagement. Forums are not enough. We can’t afford to be skittish about religion anymore. Broadcast, print, internet, this is one form of communications which shies from a proper engagement of faith and culture in the country. When it does attempt to be ‘liberal’, ‘open’, the results are as follows: a watered down discussion of religion politics and culture, or sensationalised or angry features on faith injustices.

I suggest then that our media devote a whole section to the anthropology of religion.

The Star newspaper publishes an article written by IKIM (Institute of Islamic Understanding, Malaysia) scholars on a bi-monthly basis. Harakah, PAS’s mouthpiece, marries politics, religious education and oddly enough, Malay traditional medicine. The Malay newspapers devote features on religion which weigh heavily on aqidah (the righteous behaviour of Muslims) and current religo-political issues. The reader will not see articles on other faiths. If he or she does, perhaps during festive occasions, then the prerequisite and obligatory articles masked as how multiculturalism thrives in the country are published. The lifestyle sections of newspapers do publish on culture, but again, this is not on a daily basis.

Compare this rather pathetic attempt at educating Malaysians on cultures and beliefs, to those in Western, secular countries, such as the UK, USA or Europe, which publish newspapers and websites that have sections on news and blogs on religion. Here are some of the more popular ones, to name a few:

The sections or websites are attractive, of various religious and political leanings, and the articles are well-written. They inspire debate, and a loyal readership. This is an editorial dream come true.

As a media professional, newspapers (online and print) have the power to introduce, negotiate and create avenues for ambassadors of faith, and also educate citizens. They have the reach, and also can extend their role out of the newsroom by organising qualitative surveys as most newspapers have marketing teams. Surely, they can do more than just find advertisements to pay for the printing of newspapers? What about forums, and activities which promote multiculturalism. The platform is already there: Maximise on it. If we don’t do it, dialogue will remain in the domain of the power and intellectual elite.

If at one point, the idea of an alternative media was unthinkable, and has proven to be a hit, why not a section devoted to religion?

The internet has been a saviour (somewhat)

A Facebook (Closed) Group I created a month back has been a revelation. I had created the page, solely for selfish reasons. I wanted the ‘noise’ on my personal Facebook wall out and also to update my readers of events and the work I do. I am delighted to see that the citizens of the page have taken upon themselves to ask the very things they would not in public for fear of rebuke. They feel ‘safe’ because the group is closed, and the membership is curated by myself and a couple of specially selected administrators. While it would seem that the more traditional Muslims are silent, while the liberals and vocal gambol about on the page, there is discussion. It is heated though, but this was one reason I created the page: To view fellow Malaysians and expatriates discuss the inane to political matters. What struck me again is the little knowledge we all have of each other. What is apparent is a collective voice of anger and frustration from both camps. Either side feels side-lined. Among the Muslims, there is also dissatisfaction of not being able to voice out their true feelings.

In this sense, the Internet has been a powerful and wonderful tool of creating spaces for discussion. It allows for like-minded, or an eclectic bunch of people to come and discuss matters and issues close to their hearts. However, discussion in a safe space may not be realistic. Safety in numbers ergo a sense of false security. We must take this out into the open.

However, there is some debate on the effectiveness of inter-faith dialogue. Many activities and programmes can be organised but do they really influence people?

A reader who connected with me on LinkedIn shuddered at the thought of having the layman speak his mind.

“The participants to the dialogue should be well rounded and polished scholars and theologians who can articulate with diplomacy through their acquired wisdom and logical reasoning. They should also be knowledgeable and well versed with other Scriptures. The late Ahmad Deedat from South Africa, Sheikh Yusof Estes (a former Catholic priest), Yusof Islam and Ustaz Zakir to name a few are renowned internationally for engaging in public discourses and dialogues on Islam. Behind every deed lies intention. Only GOD can turn the hearts of His beings.”

“… personally I have reservations about inviting the layman to spew out his views at a dialogue forum. Imagine what would happen if the authorities decide to open the doors of parliament house to the ordinary folks to air their views. Emotions will rule the day and brawls will erupt. There will only be mayhem with no solution to the issues. The cow head and pig head incidents, and recently the ‘butt wriggle’ incident are disgusting examples of what could happen when goons are allowed by nonchalant authorities to express their views.”

Is the ordinary individual to be denied then? Would you consider this remark (1) condescending (2) astute, and (3) do you think the elites are in touch with the real issues of the common man?


I am hopeful about my country. This is based on my readings and observation on social media, where comments by Malaysians can be vile, condescending and downright hilarious. For example, this tweet I read a few weeks back, on Muslims visiting a church:

“@rdzaminhatL If you go to church, you become Christian, how come you go hospital, you still not a doctor? Jangan jadi mangkuk please.”

The tweet explains that by no means does a Muslim become a Christian by visiting a church, as people who enter hospitals do not leave them as doctors. The writer begged his audience not to be idiots.

Another blog, Aduan Rakyat Online (Online Citizen Complaint blog) announced how a popular pizza chain was housed beneath a church, and was detrimental to the faith of Muslims. Without a doubt, there were many who were appalled by the idea of eating in the same building which housed a church, but there were a good number of commentators who retorted and said their iman (faith) was not shaken by it. In short, the arguments said that such xenophobic thinking would only increase non-Muslims’ intolerance towards Muslims, and that Muslims themselves should learn from other cultures, and that their faith would not be shaken.

We already have world examples of how working with religious leaders can breed success right smack in Malaysia. The controversial but now accepted Methadone programme which assists injecting drug users in their battle against substance addiction, has found an ally in a mosque right smack in Kuala Lumpur city centre.

I strongly believe we can replicate this with interfaith dialogue. Ustaz Ismail Kamus, a popular Muslim preacher, healer and teacher, constantly talks about acceptance in his classes. There are also members of the clergy, such as Pastor Sivin Kit, who is an active faith activist and has a strong youth following.

A brief e-mail exchange between Fuad Rahmat of Projek Dialog and the Islamic Renaissance Front is repeated below. Fuad and his peers are pushing Projek Dialog to get the masses chattering about faith and culture. I had asked him on how he intended to measure the success and effectives of such dialogues.

“It is hard to really measure the effectiveness of faith and cultural dialogues. For one, our objectives are not quantifiable: mutual trust, openness, the readiness to listen and share, to be vulnerable – really, to feel safe – these things demand real meaningful internal reflection at rather deep and personal levels. We can only gauge any real improvement in that state of affairs over time, in the long run.”

“What is more difficult is that try as we might our work is happening at the same time as the rise of an increasingly popular literalist and conservative brand of Islam, which is by and large hostile to any notion of dialogue, never mind interfaith equality. Its starting point in matters of interfaith relations is suspicion, which has translated to actual teachings and practices, for example Muslims being increasingly urged to bring their own silverware when eating at a non Muslims house, and that too after making sure that all the food is officially certified halal and all that.”

“The reality is also that prejudices are rarely unrelated to other more structural insecurities. InMalaysia, the unspoken subtext for the longest time is that there is an on-going competition for power and wealth between the two main races. This has led to conflicts, all of which have never really been collectively confronted or thought through in any meaningful way. This, in turn over the decades, has led to a prevalent mood of cynicism towards any need or even possibility for genuine for multicultural harmony.”

“All this has had the totalising effect of dampening spirits and hopes. Identity is interrelated. People are more comfortable recoiling into their middle class consumerist comforts than having to talk or think about the more delicate issues of power and justice.”

Closing remarks

In any case, we should start small but know that the reality is that there will never be 100 per cent true assimilation and tolerance. Perhaps, that is enough for now.

Dina Zaman is an Asia Pacific Intellectual (API) Senior Fellow 2012-2013 and her research is on saints and their impact on Malaysia. Her column Holy Men, Holy Women is published by The Malaysian Insider and is on hiatus, as she pursues research. She has a keen interest in socio-religious issues and hopes to work on inter-faith dialogues and matters in the future.