HONG KONGMalaysia is passably democratic, but manifestations of a "tyranny of the
majority" are damaging its reputation as a Muslim exemplar, a modern, open and
pluralistic nation. Two recent court cases have drawn attention to the status of
Islam and to Malaysia's almost unique identification of race with religion.
This identity makes it hard to
disentangle racial questions from religious exclusivism. These are further
complicated by the economic and social affirmative-action policies for ethnic
Malays long enshrined in national policy and accepted, albeit grudgingly, by
In one case, the highest court rejected
the request of some Malays to renounce Islam. These people had earlier been
jailed for apostasy for promoting a local religious sect deemed to be
incompatible with Islam.
In another case, a Hindu mother has been
battling for custody of her young sons who had been converted to Islam by their
Malay father without her knowledge.
These issues are divisive for a society
with large minorities of Chinese and Indians as well as indigenous groups who
are not Muslims. But while official polices as well as the constitution itself
give a special position to Islam, it is the ethnic Malays themselves rather than
the minorities who are often the main victims of the state's willingness to
allow religious authorities to exercise extensive powers.
The first case underlines the fact that
all Malays are deemed to be Muslims. It gives them no choice in the matter,
despite the constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion and worship.
Historically, the Malays of what was
mainland Malaya were all viewed as Muslims. But modern Malaysia is a more
complex place. Many of the indigenous inhabitants of its Borneo states, Sarawak
and Sabah, are Christians or otherwise non-Muslim. They benefit from
pro-indigenous social policies. Likewise, there are many Muslims of Indian
rather than Malay origin.
The ethnic and religious complexity of
the Borneo states makes them socially more relaxed, more mixed than the mainland
states, where the race-religion divide between Muslims and the rest appears to
have deepened in recent years.
The bottom line is that Malaysia is very
tolerant of other religions and indeed of non-Malays' right not to believe. But
it denies Muslims and Malays rights to their own views and interpretations of
Malaysia has a lot to learn from its
overtly secular neighbor Indonesia. In Indonesia there is a deep-seated
antipathy to identifying Islam with the nation. Indonesia is 80 percent Muslim,
Malaysia about 60 percent Muslim.
Malaysia's pro-Malay, pro-Islam
constitutional arrangements may have made sense at the time of independence,
when Malays were the poor underclass, and the economy was owned and run by
Chinese, Indians and foreigners. But it now looks out of place in a modern
Malaysia where Malays are clearly in charge and which aspires to join the ranks
of developed nations by 2020.
It will be no easy task, however, for
Malaysia to modernize its polity accordingly. First, democratic competition for
Malay votes from the fundamentalist Parti Islam has forced the governing party
into more overtly Islamic policies than its leadership would wish.
Second, the political system is based on
parties that are mostly identified by race. This inevitably means that the
issues of Malay economic privileges are difficult to separate from religious
ones. Race-based parties may have provided political stability and kept race
issues under control. But they have also reinforced ghetto mentalities and
retarded the growth of Malaysian national identity.
If Malaysia is to shed what its prime
minister has called a "third world mentality" and take full advantage of its
racial diversity and its open economy, it will have to address these issues. It
will have to assert the supremacy of the secular state over any one religion and
acknowledge that Malays and Muslims have the same rights and obligations as the