During the recent visit to Malaysia, the Australian Prime Minister (PM) John Howard told the press that Malaysia was "a great example of a moderate, constructive and competitive Islamic country" and "had a very important role to play in promoting better understanding on Islam and its values" [Bernama, 03 nvo'06]. This notion is nothing new. In the World Economic Forum in New York in 2004, the former PM Dr Mahathir Muhammad also told the delegates that 'Malaysia was a modern secular state, not despite but because of Islamic'.
Depiction of Malaysia as a 'modern, secular and democratic Islamic nation' in the media has been too pervasive over the last few years. Some statements like those of Dr Mahathir Muhammad even give an impression that modernism, secularism, democracy and multiculturalism etc. may have evolved out of Islam and Malaysia. This is hardly strange when many reformist Islamists, taking cues from the verses of the Koran and examples from Prophet Muhammad's life, even claim that democracy was seeded in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century by the Prophet of Islam. Malaysia can not only be a model for the Islamic world, but the Western governments struggling with the integration of their Muslim immigrant communities are also looking to Malaysia for importing its multicultural and multi-ethnic socio-political model for a solution at home.
Looking at the images of Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, on the TV screens, one will have little scope to doubt that Malaysia is indeed a modern and well-developed nation. Also when troublesome religious and political turbulences overwhelm almost all Islamic countries, Malaysia remains a relatively peaceful multi-religious and multiethnic society. Hence, the Western world might rightly look to Malaysia for solutions of the many troubles their own countries facing in religious-ethnic integration.
Yet, it requires as a thorough investigation of Malaysia's religio-political and ethno-cultural system before it should be accepted as a model for a multicultural and multi-ethnic society. From the reading of the press reports and Malaysian government's policy files, what happens to the non-Muslim communities of this allegedly ideal secular, democratic, multicultural and modernist Islamic nation, is quite shocking. Some of the most recent media reports of events in Malaysia, including the recent annual meeting of the ruling party, do not quite paint a picture of tolerant, secular and democratic country for Malaysia.
The Malay Muslims, also called the bhumiputras (sons of the soil), are a privileged religio-ethnic race in Malaysia. The treatment of the non-Muslim, namely the Chinese, Indian and other indigenous tribe communities are simply bad. They are being systematically discrimination from government-sponsored education (schools, Universities, Scholarships), jobs and business initiatives as the constitutionally legal state policy. Such prevention of an ethnic or religious community from getting equitable opportunities for education, jobs and businesses, does not make Malaysia secular, democratic and multicultural society at all.
Of course, there are other religious discriminations, too. Preaching of non-Islamic religions is banned in Malaysia. A few months ago, two Americans were arrested for circulating Christian pamphlets. The Muslims are not allowed to leave Islam even on their own will. Thousands of Muslims are waiting to leave Islam but are not allowed or recognized by the state. On the other hand, grassroots Islamic bodies for converting the non-Muslims to Islam have been set up all across the country. Former PM, Dr Mahathir Muhammad, considered to be the father of Islamic moderation, modernism, secularism and democracy, recently became the patron of this racist organization.
Any dispute between Muslims and non-Muslims on religious issues must be mediated by the Sharia court to which the non-Muslims have no access. Recently, non-Muslims were buried as Muslims on flimsy claims of their alleged conversion to Islam. When the family member of the dead men disputed the alleged conversion, the cases were referred to the Sharia court because of the religious nature of the dispute but they could not defend their case because of non-Muslims' inaccessibility to Islamic courts. Their pleas to transfer the cases to the civil courts were ignored. In the latest incidence, a Christian man was tried to be buried as a Muslim on the claim that the man had lived both a Muslim and Christian life. Strangely, his family was unaware of it [Bernama, 7 Dec'06]. However, in the face of vigorous protests from the deceased's family and governments' intervention, the Islamic court relented.
After the current PM Badawi took the leadership in 2003, there have been systematic attempts to impose the Islamic values and rituals on the non-Muslim communities. Holding hands by lovers and married couples has been banned in public places. The initial attempt to extend this ban to non-Muslims was removed only after vigorous protests over them.
Recently, wearing the Islamic head-scarf (Hijab) was imposed on policewomen, regardless of their religious affiliations, against great dissatisfaction and protests from the non-Muslim communities. In the latest incidence, the authority in Kota-Baru imposed a hefty fine on all retail and restaurant workers if they dress indecently (such as not wearing tudung/Hijab) regardless of religion and race [The Star, 06 Dec'06]. The Islamic party-ruled state of Terengganu imposed dress-codes on the non-Muslim citizens in January 2004. Recently Hindu a temple was destroyed defying vigorous protests from the Hindu community. The list may continue growing.
Despite all those privileges, the Muslim community remains poor in Malaysia. Over recent months, the ruling government party politicians have been talking up about giving them even more privileges in order to raise them to level of the severely disadvantaged, yet better-off, non-Muslim Chinese and the Indians. In protest, the minority communities have, instead, raised voices for removing the policy of apartheid imposed on them. Against this background, the issue of privileged rights of the Malay Muslim community reached a fever-pitch in the recent annual ruling party congress. In emotive speeches, some Muslim delegates even talked of blood-bath in defense of the Muslims' rights while party's youth chief unsheathed a sword (keri). These incidences caused alarm amongst the non-Muslims.
The previous administration of Dr. Mahathir Muhammad, despite following discriminatory pro-Muslim policies to placate the Muslims and a resurgent Islamic opposition, had kept the talking of Islam as low-key as possible other than warning, countering and reprimanding the Islamist opposition. But the current PM Abdullah Badawi, who allegedly is a scholar of Islam himself, has taken the cause of promoting his so-called Islam Hadari (traditional Islam), which has effectively put Islam as the integral part of the government's policies. The recent banning of holding hands in public by couples, imposing Hijab on even non-Muslim policewomen and the recent imposition of fines on indecently dresses retail and restaurant workers regardless of religion or race clearly point to how current PM Badawi's Islam Hadari is making its march across the Malaysian society and affecting the non-Islamic communities.
Despite these extremely discriminatory government policies over the last few decades, Malaysia has remained relatively free from social, religious and ethnic friction and violence and has made commendable economic progress. When governments of the West struggle with an increasing difficult and clueless battle of integrating their immigrant Muslim communities, they could probably look to Malaysia in order to find ways of dealing with their won troublesome Muslim minorities. However, the non-Muslim minorities, namely the Hindus, Buddhists and Jews, have been able to integrate better and are not creating any kind of troubles for the Western society. Instead, they have been playing positive contributory roles to the host nations. Hence, if the West looks to Malaysia for policies to apply across all religious minority communities, it will be a great loss to the centuries of achievements in human rights and dignity and in social justice.