International Herald Tribune
Philip Bowring: Malaysia's racial politics
JAKARTA Malaysia's identification of the Malay race with the Muslim religion is exacerbating strains within Malaysian society - between Malays and non- Malays and within the Malay community - as both Malay and Muslim identities compete for the majority's political attention.

Nor is this helpful to Malaysia's giant but poorer neighbor, Indonesia, with its 80 percent Muslim population, which is committed to a secular, plural polity embracing its Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities.

To much of the world, Muslims and nonbelievers alike, the strength of Islam has been based on two principles: the notion of one god, not complicated by a trinity, let alone by other deities; and a universality that has generally kept it free of the tribal, racial or class notions that underpin some other belief systems.

In Malaysia, however, where political organization has long been largely on racial lines, Islam has at times become a device for use in racial politics, a yardstick for measuring the commitment of competing parties to Malay racial advancement.

Currently attention in Malaysia is focused on a high-profile case, now before the Appeals Court, as to whether a person has the right to cease to be a Muslim and (in this case) become a Christian and hence no longer subject to the Shariah courts. At the most obvious level it is a clash between a secular Constitution that guarantees freedom of religion and the notion of apostasy - that a Muslim must remain Muslim - in a country where Islam has a privileged position.

But it could equally well be seen as an issue of the contest for the votes of the many Malays who have come to believe that race and religion are synonymous.

Malaysia regards itself a model moderate Muslim nation, committed to education and economic development of a plural society in which 60 percent are indigenous peoples and about 55 percent are Muslim. Its coalition government, led by the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, has a generally secular outlook and Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is known for his commitment to an open, tolerant Islam.

But UMNO must compete for Malay votes with the much more conservative Parti Islam, or Pas. As a result, many senior UMNO and government figures who otherwise would have no great concern about a court decision allowing conversion from Islam are worried that a decision in favor of religious freedom would be seen not just as a blow against the primacy of Islam in Malaysia but as an attack on all Malay privileges - and hence would play into the hands of Pas.

The identification of race and religion was understandable when the Malay sultanates had to stand up to the impact of British colonialism and the Chinese and Indian immigration that the British fostered. The Malay privileges were created in the first instance to protect Malay political dominance and advance economic equality at a time when the Malays were poor relations to the other races in their own land. But Malaysia is now not only an independent multiracial country but also includes two states on the island of Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak, where Muslims are a minority among the indigenous population.

The economic privileges have since become as much a form of patronage for the elite and of job creation for the less educated. Many Malays believe that it is time to start phasing them out, given the Malays' economic advances and political stranglehold.

The closer the economic privileges become entwined with the identification of Malays as Muslims, however, the harder it is to change. The UMNO elite needs to be seen to support Islamic privileges into order to protect economic privileges that benefit itself more than lower-income Malays. The non- Malay elites complain but are currently too comfortable to break with UMNO and race-based politics.

It is possible that the nominally multiracial party formed by the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim might act as a catalyst for forces that want to move away from race-based politics and privileges. But its acceptability to the Malay majority is in doubt, as is Anwar's commitment to reform for its own sake rather than as a slogan that will help him return to the UMNO fold and give him a chance of becoming prime minister.

Malaysia may have a lot to learn from Indonesia, where some elements of anti-immigrant bias against the Chinese minority remain but where the vague national ideology, pancasila, embraces all religions and underwrites (except in Aceh Province) a secular system.

Closer to home the Malay elite could learn from Sabah and Sarawak, where ethnic diversity is greater and there is less identification of race with religion. For example, the Kadazans, the largest indigenous group in Sabah, are mainly Christian but a large minority are Muslim. Society in both states is visibly less divided by race and religion than on the peninsula. Given that the two states between them account for 20 percent of the Malaysian population, an Indonesian-style adherence to religious diversity could be important to national integrity as well as to racial harmony.