AgainstTheGrain: The old Malaysia is still with us

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 25, 2019 - March 03, 2019.
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Many Malaysians feel that the old Malaysia still dominates our country, despite the idea of “The New Malaysia” that emerged after the last general election. One issue that suggests the persistence of the old Malaysia is the continuing presence of racial and religious extremism and the manner in which the authorities deal with them. There seems to be a continuing practice of pandering to the xenophobic needs of a section of Malaysian society for fear of losing political influence and power. Recent examples prove this point.

One concerns the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. ICERD is a United Nations convention that condemns discrimination and requires states to embark on a course of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms.

In September last year, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad informed the United Nations General Assembly that Malaysia would ratify all six of the human rights conventions, including the ICERD. But in November, many Malaysians were dismayed to learn that the government had reversed its decision and would not be ratifying the ICERD.

Certain ultra-ethnic quarters had applied pressure on the government. Despite the government’s decision, tens of thousands of Malays gathered for a huge demonstration at Dataran Merdeka on Dec 8 last year. Mostly Umno and PAS supporters, the demonstrators claimed that Malaysia’s ratification of the ICERD would result in certain privileges for the Malays that are enshrined in the Federal Constitution being undermined. They also claimed that the supremacy of Islam in Malaysia would be affected.

They were, in fact, referring to Malaysia’s “social contract”, a decades-old agreement made between the majority Malay leaders and their minority Chinese and Indian counterparts. The agreement recognised the respective rights and privileges that would accrue to each of the ethnic groups regarding their rights and privileges as citizens. The result was the adoption of an affirmative action policy that tends to benefit the Malays.

The ultra-Malay nationalists, who have taken a position against multiculturalism and pluralism, concocted the idea that the ratification of the ICERD would result in the loss of Malay power and the undermining of Islam in the country. The fact is that Malaysia is only one of two Muslim countries that have not ratified the ICERD. The other 55 of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries have done so.

Another matter that tells us that the old Malaysia is very much the order of the day is the cancellation of the play, Love in Georgetown City, originally titled Sex in Georgetown City. The play was cancelled a few weeks ago after some Muslim groups protested against it.

The Performing Arts Centre of Penang said that this was “being done on the advice of Penang state law enforcement authorities in the interest of maintaining public order and to avoid any unfortunate incidents”.

The play was written, directed and produced by Fa Abdul, and consisted of 10 comedy sketches that featured couples in conversations about relationships, marriage and other social issues.

It may have been that the poster of the show titled Sex in Georgetown City, with a picture of a fully clothed couple in bed, had led some to think that the play had pornographic content. Some Muslim groups then lodged a police report against the play, saying that it promoted free sex as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) lifestyles.

Fa Abdul responded to these charges by explaining that the play was a comedy that dealt with a variety of social issues relating to marriage and the family. The police themselves had stated that the play was a comedy and did not contain any pornography or obscene scenes. Still, the protests continued with the aim of stopping the performance. Indeed, the police advised the production company to cancel the performance.

In both the ICERD and Love in Georgetown City cases, it looked like the authorities capitulated and submitted under pressure to the demands of the ultra-Malay nationalists and religious extremists. This is also true of the third issue that I wish to highlight, that is, the continuing hate speech against the minority Shi’ite Muslim community in Malaysia.

In the New Malaysia, Shi’ite Muslims continue to be vilified and demonised. For example, during the month of Muharram (2018), it was reported that Islamic authorities in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor attempted to prevent Ashura gatherings by Shi’ite Muslims by issuing leaflets that condemned “deviant practices”. The inability of the government to act in a fair and even-handed manner is reflected in a statement it issued that declared Shi’ite teachings as “deviant”, which allows state Islamic authorities to take action against Malaysian Shi’ites.

Those who perpetuate the anti-Shi’ite stance do not seem to realise that these practices put Malaysia among the most extremist of Muslim countries. Examples of official and legal persecution of Shi’ites in other Muslim countries are few. The top leadership in Malaysia’s government today, I believe, is not anti-Shi’ite. However, they do not seem to have the ability to take a strong position against the persecution of Shi’ites and to reign in the extremists.

In all three cases, rational arguments did not prevail. The intolerant groups and individuals who take racially and religiously extremist positions against ICERD, the Georgetown play and Malaysian Shi’ites can never be reasoned with as their agenda is other than diversity and pluralism. They rarely enter into rational arguments with those who oppose their views as their aim is not to get at the truth but rather to achieve certain political ends.

Most disappointing, however, is our new leadership. Many Malaysians would like to see them as playing a more decisive and forceful role, rather than giving in to the racial and religious extremist orientations that are promoted by certain groups, and keeping the general population poorly educated about these issues. The role of the government is to take a leadership position and educate the people in healthy and wholesome ideas, even if these ideas are not, at the beginning, popular ones.


Syed Farid Alatas is professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore

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