HONG KONG — One ought to be able to laugh at the absurdity of it. But the message is one of ignorance, religious and racial prejudice and political opportunism.
Last week, the Malaysian government declared that Christians in one part of the country could use “Allah” as the word for God when speaking Malay, but that those in most of the country could not. This is the same government that is currently running a public relations campaign called One Malaysia emphasizing the common identity of the nation’s racial and religious mix.
In reality, a government dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) is using spurious religious/linguistic arguments to shore up its support among a majority Malay electorate, which has been fed for years with preferences and privileges. Meanwhile, non-Malay money and talent exits the country.
The government had earlier tried to stop the use of the word Allah by all Christians. This was successfully challenged in the High Court. But instead of letting the matter rest, the government declined to back down, setting the scene for the fire bombing of churches. While these could not be laid directly at the door of UMNO, hotheads in the party may well have taken their cue from what non-Muslims see as a deliberate attempt to stir up ethnic/religious issues for political gain. Last year it was Hindus who were the target of Malay provocation.
UMNO political calculation demands that the organization sticks to its demands about the use of the word Allah in peninsular Malaysia, where all Malays are deemed Muslims and where Christians are ethnic Chinese or Indian, but not in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak where there are large communities of Malay-speaking Christians. The UMNO-led coalition needs the support of the multi-ethnic parties in those states.
The word Allah has always been used without Muslim objection by Christians in the Arab world, as well as those in Malay-speaking Indonesia, where there are 10 times as many Muslims as in Malaysia. The word is itself derived from pre-Islamic Semitic language roots. Even Malaysia’s strictly Islamist opposition party, Parti Islam (PAS), agrees that all Abrahamic faiths are entitled to use the word Allah.
But such facts are of little relevance to UMNO politicians determined to drum up any issue that can be used to show their commitment to defending Malay and Muslim privileges and thus retain the support of a Malay majority against the appeal both of PAS and the multi-ethnic Keadilan party of the former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.
UMNO cannot claim to be a party of the pious. Half a century in power has turned it into a vast patronage machine that enriches the Malay elite, providing support for luxurious lifestyles. Its insistence that all Malays are Muslims (and cannot convert) is an attempt to give religious backing to the message of Malay racial preference. That is barely in accord with the universalist notions of global Islam but keeps the loyalty of many Malays otherwise resentful of growing income gaps.
However, the racial and religious divides among the opposition still make an UMNO-led government seem a better choice than the alternatives — most likely ones in which the fundamentalism of PAS would replace the opportunism of UMNO. So despite the deterioration of communal relations in peninsular Malaysia, no major changes are in sight.
This carries two main dangers. The first is the continuing large scale exodus of capital and of talented non-Malays. Five years of generally good prices for its main commodity exports, oil, gas and palm oil, have delivered huge trade surpluses and a current account surplus of more than 10 percent of gross domestic product. But economic growth has been slow due to very weak private investment, only partly offset by large government deficit spending. Once a major recipient of foreign capital, Malaysia is now a source of flight capital. This is only sustainable while commodity prices remain at double levels of five years ago and three times those in 2002.
A longer term danger, at least as perceived by some leading Malays, such as the former Finance Minister Tunku Razaleigh, is that a combination of religious intolerance and resentment of federal exploitation of their natural resources will generate secessionism in the Borneo states. They joined Malaysia in 1963 without much enthusiasm but as the best option open to them as the British withdrew from empire. They do not want their traditions of racial and religious diversity to be poisoned by peninsular prejudices. Their separate treatment on the Allah issue will have some immediate benefits for Kuala Lumpur, but can only underscore just how different they are.
In short, the episode is sad commentary on a nation whose mix of races, its fine infrastructure and wealth of resources has held such promise. If only there really were One Malaysia.