Malaysia: Essay: "The Threat to Secular Democracy In Malaysia"

The Other Malaysia
Farish A. Noor argues that "Any attack on the very idea of secularism is therefore an attack on the value of universal equality itself..."
"As far as complex plural societies go, Malaysia has to be one of the most complex and plural societies in the world at the moment.
There are few countries with a racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious mix like Malaysia’s and I have to confess that I am more than annoyed when I meet Middle-Eastern friends who occasionally offer me nuggets of wisdom when they pontificate about how religious pluralism can and should be managed in Malaysia.

An Egyptian colleague once opined that Malaysians can and should be more tolerant of each other; until I pointed out to him that in Egypt – which is 98% Muslim – the Catholic and Coptic minorities are in a rather sorry state despite the fact that as such a small minority they could not possibly threaten the Muslim identity of present-day Egypt. If some right-wing conservative Egyptian Muslims cannot abide by the idea of having a tiny 2% Christian minority in their midst, then how would they cope with living in a country like Malaysia where the non-Muslim population is nearly 40%?

This pluralism is perhaps one of the greatest assets Malaysia possesses and is blessed with. It is certainly not a problem and thus should never be pathologised as such. Religious diversity is not an illness that infects the body of the state or nation; nor should it be seen as a handicap.

But what the state has to do in such a context is to play the role of honest broker and to create those vital common public domains where interaction, cooperation, respect and recognition can develop. For any state to appeal and cater to the demands of only one group, and in particular the majority, reeks of bias and uneven compromise; which in turn can only lead to further majoritarianism dominating the arena of national politics.

Religious lobbying

Thus, it is with these considerations in mind that we look at the election campaign in Malaysia today. Over the past few weeks, a host of religious lobby groups and NGOs have called upon the government to take up the concerns of their respective members and constituents.

We are all familiar now with the demands of the Malaysian Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), that were couched in terms of a somewhat sectarian communal demand for the respect and protection of Hindu temples, among other things. The Malaysian Council of Churches have called on Malaysian Christian voters to vote wisely; while the Malaysian Consultative Council on Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism have called on the members of their respective faith communities to pray for the nation’s betterment and for election candidates who will uphold freedom of religion in the country. At the same time a coalition of Muslim NGOs and lobby groups have likewise issued their demands, calling on the political parties that are contesting in the elections to address their sectarian concerns which include the rejection of the idea that Malaysia is a secular state and of religious pluralism if it implies that all faith and belief systems are equal.What do these developments tell us about the state of Malaysia’s populist politics today?

Firstly, it would indicate that there is the emergence of an increasingly vocal, visible and powerful parallel civil society that operates along the basis of particularist religio-communitarian demands and which advocates the concerns of their specific targeted constituencies only.

With the rise of religious-based consumer groups, workers groups, professional groups, etc. it would seem that the space of secular civil society seems to be shrinking on all fronts. Issues such as workers rights, gender equality, environmentalism et al. that were once neutral issues in a secular public domain have now been “claimed” by exclusive religious groups instead; and we may eventually end up with the rather absurd situation where instead of having a universal (and secular) lobby on environmental concerns, we are left with Muslim-based, Christian-based, Hindu-based and Buddhist-based sectarian environmental groups instead.

The second observation is that Malaysian society itself seems to be splitting apart, thanks to these centrifugal forces let loose by five decades of divisive sectarian politics that was initially race-based and now increasingly religion-based. If this trend continues, and Malaysian Muslims think they can only find security among fellow Muslims, and the same trend takes hold in the other communities (made evident in Hindraf’s call for Hindu solidarity), then what will happen to the very idea and ideal of a universal Malaysian citizenship that equalizes all of us?

The third observation is that the Malaysian government – which should have dedicated its time and energy to uniting these communities and forging a common public space and common universal identity based on universal citizenship – has singularly failed in this task; and has instead perpetuated the logic of racial, ethic and now religious compartmentalism by catering to the exclusive demands of the sectarians instead. The erroneous logic of racial divisions that underlies the Barisan Nasional (BN) formula has now come full circle, and the rise of religious communitarian politics in Malaysia is the nett result.

What we are witnessing is in fact the slow and calculated dismantling of the ideal of a Malaysian Malaysia itself, thanks to the growing ethnic and religious communitarian politics that we see in the country. The few groups that are calling for the Malaysian state to affirm its secular stand and identity are doing so for the simple reason that they know that only a neutral secular state that treats all the religious communities on an equal basis can in fact stem the rise of divisive religious sectarianism in the country. But does the state listen, and will it heed these warnings?

This leads us to the most alarming observation of all: It is clear that with the present set up of the BN – with Umno dominating the coalition and dictating the terms of BN’s normative politics – that this religious communitarianism is not about to be contained. Instead, we have seen the Umno-led government cave in time and again to the demands of the conservative Islamists who today are even calling for the state to reject any claims of being neutral and secular. Umno’s dependency on the Malay-Muslim vote bank (for fear of losing seats and votes to PAS), means that it will turn to the Malay-Muslims for support. Yet historically, the Umno leadership has cultivated the support of the Malay-Muslim vote bank without attempting to reform or open up the mindset of the Malay-Muslims in the process.

BN’s divisive politics and Umno’s narrow ethnic and religious-based appeal means that it is now stuck in an impasse of its own making: dependent on the Muslim vote, it cultivates that constituency while allowing the communitarians to dominate it at the same time; which in turn means that the tone and tenor of normative populist Malay-Muslim politics remains sectarian and communitarian.

Losing faith

Equally worrying are the signs that non-Malay and non-Muslim communities are losing faith in the Malaysian project itself, and likewise replicating the communalist race and religion-based politics of the majority. In this respect, Hindraf is merely a symptom of a deeper problem in Malaysia, that of communalism taking to the path of political mobilisation.

This then brings us back to the question of what Malaysian identity means today, and whether the very idea of a universal plural democratic Malaysia still has resonance in the country. The results of the 12th general elections in Malaysia may hopefully provide us with some clues as to whether the Malaysian dream of creating a Malaysian Malaysia that is truly plural, democratic and secular still holds, or whether we have passed that invisible line and are now living in a thoroughly divided and sectarian society where the notion of a national body politic is merely a mirage. As a secular democrat, I hope and pray that it is not too late for us to rescue the idea of a democratic and secular Malaysia that is home to us all and with a government that treats all communities with equal respect.

But we end with this one simple warning: The challenge that stands before any government of a society as plural as ours is to develop a national politics that is inclusive and accommodating to all, giving every citizen a space and a place in the national narrative and national identity. The safeguard that ensures that such a politics of universal representation can take place is a secular democratic system where the state remains the honest neutral broker between all communities, and does not favour one community over others.

Any attack on the very idea of secularism is therefore an attack on the value of universal equality itself, and those who condemn secularism as being “un-Godly” or corrupt are really the ones who wish to destroy the secular basis of a free and equal society where every citizen is accorded the respect that she or he is due. When the attacks against secularism come from the representatives of the majority ethnic-religious community (such as was the case with the rise of Hindutva supremacists in India, and Muslims communitarians here in Malaysia), what we face is nothing short of the rise of the tyranny of the majority.

For all its weaknesses, secularism remains the only safeguard we have to keep our country on a democratic track. And for that reason, the democrats among us must be prepared to defend our secular democratic and plural public domain at all costs, come what may."

By: Farish A. Noor

22 February 2008