Something to think about

JULY 8 — The dust has somewhat settled since the Malaysian general election came to pass. News is lively — every week, non-mainstream media picks up on the latest fiasco related to the elections. This week, the Election Commission admitted in Parliament that food colouring was used during the elections, and not indelible ink. The Blackout 505 rallies have been organised almost consistently by opposition political parties, and their supporters, in protest of the elections and how they were conducted.

One cannot deny that with all things, especially politics, there is much gossip and rumour mongering. Malaysia is famed not just for its shadow puppet play theatre; similarly, much of her politics can be attributed to “wayang kulit” performances.

What is the future of Malaysia May 2013 onwards, and how does this future impact on race and religious relations of the country? What created the DNA of our current politics that has led to a division of loyalty among Malaysians?

A brief history of Malaysia, ethnicity and religion

To understand Malaysia in its entirety is to realise and accept that the majority of Malaysians are the Bumiputeras (“The Princes of the Earth”), and that the Malays make up the majority of the Bumis. Our constitution has deemed that all ethnic Malays are of Muslim. And yet these basic facts are the source of contention, even among Malay academia and intelligentsia.

There are a few matters to consider, that has led to Malaysia questioning her identity:

1. Christopher Rodney Yeoh stated in his paper on pluralism in Malaysia that Malaysia’s official religion is Islam, but it is not an Islamic state. “... despite the Muslim majority, Malaysia is not an Islamic state. Instead, Malaysia is considered to be a ‘Malay-dominated plural society’ and the freedom of practising other religions is granted to everyone (Shamsul 1998, p.29). This conception of Malay hegemonic rule is a result of the political bargaining between the major ethnic political groups of Malaysia, Umno (United Malays National Organisation), MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) and MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress) during the formation of post-colonial Malaysia (at that time called Malaya) in 1957. As a result of the bargaining, non-Malay ethnic groups such as the Chinese and Indians were granted citizenship and their ‘legitimate interests (economic rights), their rights of citizenship…and residence as well as their…freedom to preserve, practice and propagate their religion, culture and language’ were recognised” (Ibrahim, p.128).

2. In return, Malays “retained their major symbols of their nation, that is, their Sultans, their special position, their language (as the official language), and their religion (Islam as their religion)” (Ibrahim, p.128). In addition, special rights were granted to protect the Malays. This is enshrined in the controversial and often quoted Article 153 in the constitution of Malaysia. According to this article, those who “profess the religion of Islam, habitually speak the Malay language, and conform to Malay customs” are entitled for special reservation of quotas in three specific areas: public services, education, and business licences, without harming the rights of other ethnic groups. Thus it is important to emphasise that Malaysia is founded “not on individual rights but on what political theorists have come to refer to as ‘ethnically differentiated citizenship’” (Hefner 2001, p.29).

Zainah Anwar, founder of Sisters in Islam, feminist and columnist, in her column for The Star dated August 1, 2010, stated that political power would always remain in Malay hands. “The Malays make up the majority of the country’s 28 million population and the percentage will only increase substantially over the coming decades given their higher birth rate.”

“Political power remains in Malay hands. In spite of the Umno losses in 2008, Malay members of Parliament actually increased from 123 in 2004 to 130 in 2008, while Chinese representation decreased from 61 to 53. Umno still received the highest number of votes among all the parties in the 2008 elections, at 2,381,725 votes, almost 30 per cent of the total votes cast.”

“Together with PAS, which obtained 1,140,676 votes, these two Malay parties garnered 44.3 per cent of the total popular votes. This is not counting PKR, a multi-racial party with a Malay base, which garnered 1.5 million votes. Compare this to DAP’s 1.1 million, MCA’s 840,489 and MIC’s 179,422.”

However at one point in time, the Malays were a minority in their own country.

Hussin Mutalib wrote in his book “Islam and Ethnicity in Malay Politics” that the religious psychology and infrastructure were decided upon by the British rule, even though the Malays had a tradition of Islamic education from before their arrival. The British were not unsympathetic towards the Malays deep-seated faith in Islam, but they were instrumental in dividing the classes via education. “One of the main outcomes of British rule in Malaya was the emergence of a ‘plural society’, the result of non-Malays... the Chinese and Indians, being brought into Malaya in large numbers.” The immigrant groups were consciously not integrated into Malay society, as they were there for a purpose: to serve the British economic interests.

“In the twentieth century, for the first time, the Malays found themselves outnumbered by an ‘open-door’ immigration policy. In the 1921 census, Malays became a minority in their own country, constituting less than half of the total (Mills, 1942: 25; Sabarudin Cik, 1978).” (pg 15)

With a rising immigration population due to current labour policies and development, as well as expatriate packages that welcome permanent residences for well-heeled foreigners, outflow of Malaysian talent to foreign countries, and with an election outcome whereby the Chinese vote has shaken the current establishment, is the fear of becoming a minority (Malays) a possible materialisation?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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