Share This

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Malaysia's future: A time for Malay renewal !

A time for renewal, too


The debate over Malay identity is fundamental to Malaysia’s future. Only when tensions within the Malay community itself are cooled will the resentment and grievances between Malaysia’s ethnic groups be resolved.

AS I reflect over the events of the fasting month – and indeed the past 12 months – I cannot help but conclude that Malaysian Malays are facing an existential crisis, which is primarily political in nature.

Moreover, because the Muslim/Malay community is dominant numerically; its tribulations will impact the rest of the nation.

In short, no one can be insulated from the community’s uncertainties.

Sadly, Malaysia’s communal peace has been further rocked by the Jais raid on the Damansara Utama Methodist Church (DUMC).

This has been accompanied by a steep increase in the number of claims of Christian proselytising amongst Muslims.

Such fears over murtad are nothing new.

They have been current for years, even decades, peaking in times of political uncertainty: witness the Maria Hertogh riots back in 1950.

However, we need to put things in perspective; 2011 is not 1950.

Malay/Muslims currently outnumber non-Muslims significantly. In short, demography favours the ummah. Moreover, the position of Islam is constitutionally-assured.

Nonetheless, the re-emergence of the murtad issue suggests a more deep-rooted anxiety among Malay-Muslims about the future.

Indeed, there are fundamental concerns about the Muslim response to both globalisation and modernity.

How do we maintain our faith and culture in an era when interaction with non-Muslims has become both a norm and a necessity?

The ummah has responded to such challenges differently and this reflects the Malay/Muslim community’s underlying heterogenity.

Contrary to Umno’s obsession with Malay unity, the community is by no means monolithic.

At the same time, political developments post-2008, have heightened and accentuated these shifts – lending them a partisan hue as PAS, Umno and PKR have weighed in on various issues.

As these differences of opinion surface, we are faced with a secondary challenge: how do we deal with disagreements over what it means to be Malay and Muslim?

Can we maintain our dignity, objectivity and calm when face-to-face with opposing views? How do we manage when our major political parties – PAS and Umno – assume conflicting positions?

Amid the debate, many are electing to withdraw, preferring isolation to engagement. Such a retreat makes dissent, however reasonable, even more complicated and potentially dangerous. To my mind, withdrawal is a disaster.

The Malay community has always possessed an outward-looking mindset. We cannot, and should not, abdicate from our engagement with the world. We have thrived by exchanging ideas and knowledge with others as traders, scholars and travellers. Indeed, the decline of the Muslim world came when we closed our hearts, minds and borders.

Still, I am not disputing the need for Muslims to maintain their faith, but the notion that the only way we can do this is by shunning non-Muslims and/or trampling on the rights of minorities is nonsensical.

Doing so will only reinforce the misperception that Islam is intolerant and regressive. It also hastens our own decline.

Given these concerns I’ve been heartened by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s recent attempts to recapture the centre ground.

His willingness to end censorship and reform the electoral system is most welcome.

It displays an openness (however belated) to listen to others. This is courageous given the narrow-mindedness of many of his fellow party members.

However, opening up in the midst of a debate is always tough. Will tentative changes be enough to satisfy an increasingly restive Malay (and Malaysian) public? Will it be too little and too late?

The debate about Malay identity is fundamental to Malaysia’s future.

It will become increasingly heated and painful. For example, Malay identity cannot be separate from the role of the Rulers. This bond has to be examined and questioned.

Given the depth and breadth of the upcoming debate we must ask whether Umno alone can manage this process? Indeed, has PAS’ greater moral authority sidelined the party of Merdeka?

The consequences of half-hearted reforms are obvious if we look across the Causeway to Singapore where the presidential elections have just been concluded.

While the PAP government deserves praise for allowing all four candidates to campaign openly – providing them with equal mainstream media coverage, there’s no doubt that many Singaporeans feel “shortchanged”.

Reforming from within rarely satisfies. Indeed, Dr Tony Tan’s incredibly slim margin of victory underlines the unhappiness of ordinary Singaporeans who expect much, much more from their politics.

Malaysians will be like their cousins across the Causeway. They won’t be willing to suffer timidity and half-hearted reforms.

Tentative steps will be swept away by a tide of popular resentment. Indeed, boldness will be the only solution.

At a time when the very core of Malay identity is being debated, piecemeal reform will not be enough. Reform will go nowhere unless the state loosens its grip.

The Najib administration must recognise that a mere shift in tactics will not be enough to win back Malaysia’s cynical and jaded electorate, especially the Malays.

The last three years have taught us that the Malay/Muslim community is becoming more complex and indeed, difficult to please.

As Umno and the Prime Minister discovered during the Bersih 2.0 debacle, it is no longer possible to succeed solely on emotive appeals for ethnic and religious unity.

Rather, Najib and his government must be willing to accept the diversity that now exists within Malay discourse, and tailor their policies accordingly.

Indeed, Umno no longer controls the debate.

For instance, economic policies need to champion the interests of middle- and working-class Malays, rather than expecting them to automatically back the ventures of the intra-ethnic elite.

Barisan has to keep asking themselves: what’s really in it for the people?

Furthermore, differing views over culture and faith must be allowed rather than repressed.

Indeed, one feels that such an approach may very well work among every race in Malaysia in general.

All the same, the resentment and grievances between Malaysia’s ethnic groups can only be resolved when tensions within the Malay community itself are cooled.

This Hari Raya must not only be a time of celebration for Malaysian Malays, but also renewal.

Related posts:

Malaysia still in pursuit of full independence 

The true meaning of independence

 Reviving our winning ways