Malaysia is not unique in its multicultural make-up, and the problems it faces. What makes Malaysia unique is Islam is the largest practised religion, (not unlike Indonesia) with a huge percentage of people who practise other faiths and beliefs. Article 3 of the Federal Constitution declares that Islam is the religion of the Federation, and that this does not affect the other provisions of the Constitution (Article 4(3)). Therefore, the fact that Islam is the religion of Malaysia does not by itself import Islamic principles into the Constitution but it does contain a number of specific Islamic features:

  1. States may create their own laws to govern Muslims in respect of Islamic law and personal and family law matter.
  2. States may create Syariah courts to adjudicate over Muslims in respect of State Islamic laws.
  3. States may also create laws in relation to offences against precepts of Islam but this is subject to a number of limitations: (i) such laws may only apply to Muslims, (ii) such laws may not create criminal offences as only Parliament has the power to create criminal laws and (iii) the State Syariah Courts have no jurisdiction over Islamic offences unless allowed by federal law (see the above section).

Much has been said about the country and its tolerance for the many faiths practised by its people. Malaysia makes for a fantastic advertisement on multiculturalism, and the infamous Malaysia, Truly Asia advertisement seen on television is proof of that.

The myth of ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’

Note the word ‘tolerance’, and herein lies the root of all the problems the country faces. In the past seven years, religious tensions dominate the news on a regular basis. “Perkasa (an all Malay ultranationalist group) ready to crusade against ungrateful Christians,” “Tension rise among Malaysian Muslims and Christians”, to name a few are some of the headliners seen by Malaysians and global community. These examples are rather tame, to put it mildly, especially when other news of animal heads being thrown into the compounds of mosques and temples dominate and promote an even more fearful, distrustful atmosphere.

Jakim’s (Malaysia’s Department of Islamic Development) guidelines for Muslims participating in non-Muslim festivals are cited as follows:

(Muslims may attend) the event (as long as it )is not accompanied by ceremonies that are against the Islamic faith (aqidah).

For example:

  • to include religious symbols such as the cross, installing lights, candles, Christmas tree and so forth;
  • to sing religious songs;
  • to put any religious markings on the forehead, or other markings onto parts of the body;
  • to deliver speech or gestures in the form of a praise to the non-Muslim religion;
  • to bow or conduct acts of honour to the religious ceremony of non-Muslims.
  • wearing red costumes like Santa Claus or other garments that reflect religion;
  • serving intoxicating food or beverages and the likes;
  • having sounds or ornaments like church bells, Christmas tree, temple or breaking of coconuts;
  • having ceremonies with elements of gaming, worship, cult, superstitions and the likes. [2]

Leaders of religious communities and political parties have condemned such actions, and Malaysians have taken it upon themselves to quell this paranoia. Among young people and up and coming activists, dialogues, forums and gatherings have been organised where ‘The Other Meets The Other.’

There have been studies on ethnic relations in Malaysia but on the macro level. If there are micro level studies, then these studies have yet to come into the public domain. Dr Patricia A Martinez’s survey on Muslim identities and their concerns, which is highly quoted and a reference, was published in 2005. The picture has changed in many ways, but this is best left to be discussed in another essay.

Merdeka Centre [pdf] publishes social surveys on a regular basis and its 2011 survey on ethnic relations showed that the divide is increasing; 39 percent identified themselves as Malaysians first, while 41 percent saw themselves as followers of a faith first. There was a 12 per cent decline in respondents who said that “ethnic relations were good.” “44 per cent thought it was just superficial unity. They (respondents) were mostly Chinese (50%), below 30 (52%), high educated and high income (> 50%),” the survey quoted. In another finding in the survey, “Those who stated ethnic relations have grown “further apart” were mostly are Indian & Malay respondents, male and younger people.” Yet, there is hope. 96 per cent said that inter-ethnic relations were very important, “… to avoid conflict, create unity among each other and understand one another (culture).”

An observation

As an observer and commentator of faith in Malaysia, I would like to say that this essay is by no means a solid study of inter-faith dialogue in this country. The work I do is a combination of research, interviews and observations. Some are anecdotal.

For instance, when the Jakim fatwa on non-Muslim celebration went viral on Facebook, and a debate on an AlAzhar University thesis which said that the hijab was cultural, more than a religious obligation, an outcry was heard. The one comment I kept hearing was that such incidents should not be exposed, as Islam and its people would be ridiculed and mocked at. It was interesting to observe the outcry: the liberals went to town within their own clique, and the conservatives raged in their own circles. When I suggested that perhaps a dialogue, however angry, should be held, between the two parties, the suggestion was turned down. Both parties had their own opinions and were not willing to discuss and negotiate. Also, “… an Islamic state (and her ruler) has every right to censor what may be unhealthy for the ummah. If a debate can split a people, then it must not be allowed.” This goes against the principle of Syura (consultation among those affected)

Another observation which was ironic and comic in a way: the hijab thesis sparked a debate among women, and these women were observant Muslims who wore the veil. The women who donned the hijab, but were exposed, educated abroad, well-read were more forthcoming and willing to meet halfway, while the women who were educated locally in predominantly Malay institutions (not universities), had little exposure to global affairs and reading materials were the current pop flavour of the month, were vehement and refused to engage, preferring to condemn the thesis and the debate which followed it. They were also of the opinion that non-Muslims should stay clear away from discussing Islam because “… they were not Muslims.”

If within a faith, the believers (and this is by no means just a Muslim problem. Even the Christians have their moments) refuse to engage with each other, how will this help inter-faith dialogue?

There have been many inter-faith dialogues organised but they tend to be urban-centric and attended by stakeholders, the elite activists and public intellectuals, the converted and the ‘urban-curious’ or ‘urban-concerned.’ Then there is the arrogance (defensiveness?) of believers and non-believers – I will listen to what you say, but my way is still the right and best. Add to the mixture the generation gap: The new wave of ulamas who want to engage and meet with their non Muslim brethren. Here’s the old guard who view such interactions suspiciously. At end of the day, the agenda is the same, we may live together, and tolerate each others’ sentiments, but remember that Malaysia is a Muslim country, and it is populated by a predominantly Muslim people. We must protect our people.

Some recommendations I would like to humbly suggest when dealing with such prickly topics. The culture of thinking and reading critically is largely absent from the Malaysian psyche. Even among academics, religious and cultural priorities may influence their work. Objectivity and emotional detachment are not easy to inculcate but are needed. Sadly, our national education system no longer supports the study of literature and the art of the essay. The list of complaints is long but what we must do is inculcate this culture in ourselves.

Second – we need to learn to agree to disagree. As a former editor at internet news websites, the commentators seem to be prone to hysterionics. Now that the Internet has allowed the space to vent, Malaysians, who are still infants at thinking and communicating objectively and critically, verbalise their thoughts, and not always in the most healthy fashion. The silent readers who are articulate and prefer to keep mum for reasons such as (a) being intimidated by a vocal crowd (b) not interested in being in a debate, should be encouraged to speak out. We must learn that disagreement does not mean to paint one in a bad light: it’s just an opinion.

Thirdly, the dialogues must move away from the cloistered worlds of NGOs and urbanites. It cannot be the domain of the intellectual and power elites, and the stakeholders.

Can the media help?

At the end of the day, news sells, and that is the business of the media, in spite of its lofty goals of upholding the truth. While it is responsible for the articles it churns out, it wants a readership. I am not saying that the media, mainstream or otherwise, create falsehoods to retain and attract readership, but sometimes both of them do not help the situation.

Just look for ‘Cow’s head’ ‘Perkasa’ ‘Muslim-Christian relations in Malaysia’ in the search engines of the media, and in Google. The reader would probably think that we are hammer and tongs at each other every day. Yes we do have problems, but it is not as if cows’ heads and porcine matter are flung at every mosque and temple on a daily basis.

And when a media organ seems to side a certain leaning – conservative, liberal, what have you – it stokes the ambers of fear and hate. It’s all very well to speak to the editors and ask them to tamper the contents of their newspapers, but realistically, editors have no time to deal with such issues, even if the issues are close to their hearts. Deadlines; content; sub-editing; closing the print newspaper; updating online on an hourly basis – the editor is a juggler.

We must also be mindful of contributing to the hysteria. The Internet which has allowed such sites like The Malaysian Insider, Malaysiakini and Free Malaysia Today to thrive, has created a monster in some of its readers. Columnists are well read and learned help very much in the fight against xenophobia, but with a population that is still struggling to understand the truth of its country and lacking the tools to do so, the fight can be futile. Internet penetration may be high, but is this influence positive? Are Malaysians reading more news, educating themselves about human rights and civil society, or are they watching pornography? What do Malaysians use the Internet for?

The European Travel Commission’s findings show the following,

Once online, Malaysians primarily use social networking sites. Almost three-quarters (71%) are keeping in touch with friends and family via these sites, a 24% increase from 2009. Instant messaging and reading local news rounded out the top three online activities. (The Nielsen Company, April 2011)

Malaysian internet usage is driven primarily by people in Central Region. The Central region, which consists of Negeri Sembilan, Selangor and Kuala Lumpur, led as the most dominant region for online usage, accounting for 54.4% of the total internet audience in Malaysia in August 2010, 51.3% of pages consumed and 52.6% of minutes spent online in the country, according to comScore.

Regional breakdown in Malaysia, August 2010 (Total Malaysia internet audience, Age 15+ – Home & Work Locations):

Total Audience: 100.0% of unique visitors

– Central Region: 54.4%

– Southern Region: 14.9%

– East Coast: 4.0%

– Northern Region: 14.9%

– Sabah: 5.9%

– Sarawak: 5.9%

The Star reported on October 13, 2010 that “Malaysians have the most number of friends on social networking websites like Facebook. They also spend the most hours per week on such sites. According to a survey conducted by international firm TNS, a Malaysian has an average of 233 friends in their social network, followed by 231 in Brazil and 217 in Norway. Japanese users had the least number of friends, averaging 29. The survey was based on recent interviews of 50,000 consumers in 46 countries.”

In light the abovementioned, how is the media to assist with such dialogues when Malaysians prefer to Facebook?

Next: The solutions?

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.