By Tricia Yeoh
The season for cheer last December was slightly dampened by several events in the months leading up to Christmas. Christmas carollers were thrown into confusion over local police requiring them to apply for permits beforehand, something they never had to do previously. Various leaders then gave contradictory statements, saying simultaneously that permits were not needed but encouraged, and then, that they were not needed at all.
At around the same time, a New York Times article highlighted the uneasiness among Christians who feel that “they are being used as political pawns to win support among Muslim voters”, and that there are “accusations that they are trying to … [convert] Muslims, which is illegal.” (Gooch, December 12, 2011)
These recent stories are merely reminders of the complexities involved in managing the plural and particularly multi-religious society we have in Malaysia. Incidents have happened time and again throughout our country’s history which showed the tensions existing between different faith groups, and which are often swept under the carpet for fear that dealing with such problems will invite a backlash. There are approximately 61% Muslims, 20% Buddhists, nine per cent Christians, 6.3% Hindus and 1.3% adherents of other Chinese religions in Malaysia.
The reality is, however, that these are issues all stakeholders in society must face squarely in order to improve relations and create a more conducive environment for all to live in. For instance, prior to the 2008 General Election, one issue that caused tremendous dissatisfaction with the Barisan Nasional government was the demolition of ancient Hindu temples. On hindsight, one of the problems was simply the failure to conduct a registration exercise, which would have led to a more amicable resolution.
It is a delicate balancing act, and a government’s job is unenviable under such circumstances. The federal government, for example, formed a national interfaith committee, formally known as the “Cabinet’s Special Committee to Promote Interreligious Understanding and Harmony”, but has since not gained significant ground in handling tough subjects such as the alleged “Christianisation” of Muslims. The deafening silence speaks loudly of the difficulties leaders are facing.Ugly though the situation may seem, this is an area in which the Pakatan Rakyat (Pakatan) coalition can play a more significant role. The advantage of Pakatan lies in its willingness to engage with one another in an open fashion.
Pakatan-led states have led by example in recent years. One of the first things the new government did when taking over Selangor was to revamp the Selangor Non-Muslim Council. The council is jointly headed by three state executive council members – Xavier Jeyakumar, Teresa Kok and Ronnie Liu – and four other assemblymen, with members including seven representatives of the main non-Muslim religious bodies and various representatives from district offices, the Selangor Islamic Department (Jais), Public Works Department (JKR) and the Land Office (PTG).
The council conducted consultations with representatives of the major religious groups, which resulted in amendments being made to the council’s guidelines. These guidelines then ensured that there was now in place a transparent and clear method of dealing with non-Muslim places of worship. This was non-existent previously. The Selangor state factsheet on this issue states that “the Selangor government believes in the constitutional right of all Malaysians to profess and practise their respective religions freely” and that it is “committed to ensuring that adherents of all faiths receive the proper care and attention, and that their concerns are dealt with in a compassionate, reasonable and transparent manner.”
It is believed that such interfaith consultations are ongoing, whilst negotiations continue to take place with regard to allocation of land for schools and places of worship. To date, the state has approved 128ha of land for non-Muslim places of worship, coming from 90 applications altogether. (Of the total, 114ha are for Chinese temples, 7.67ha for Hindu temples, 4.74ha for churches and 0.74ha for gurdwaras, as of March 2011).Earlier this year, the Penang state government made the positive move of setting up a state interfaith council, significant because it exists as a separate and new executive council portfolio, the first such portfolio in the country. In the Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s statement, he said that this initiative reflected the state government’s “genuine concerns on all religious matters”. The state has since given land to schools and temples as well as at least RM1mil annually to the Hindu Endowment Board.
The setting up of these interfaith bodies has not come without opposition, though. Pembela, the Muslim Organisations in Defence of Islam, called their formation a threat to Islam’s position as the official religion. And other events of the year have also tested the fragile notion of “harmony” within the states as well. The controversial church raid in Petaling Jaya in August elicited different reactions from different groups within civil society – some Muslim non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were adamant the raid was valid, whilst other groups questioned its legitimacy.
The Pakatan coalition often finds itself in a fix, having to allay fears that it is not merely a “marriage of convenience” especially between the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan- Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), where the latter would impose its ideals without due consideration from the former.
Whilst it is true that they each have a different ideal “Malaysia”, it is also true that each party is committed to a process of negotiation, in the spirit of camaraderie. This openness and willingness to discuss matters is crucial, because it is only through such decent dialogue that a solution can be found, collectively. And these internal negotiations have obviously led somewhere, with the recent launch of PAS’s “Welfare State” document, signifying that its historical ideal “Islamic State” is now put on the backburner. Whilst it is well and good that the two state governments have formed non-Muslim committees and executive council portfolios to sort out the thorny issues non-Muslims deal with, surely there is a larger, more national-level role the Pakatan coalition can play. The interfaith committee at the Cabinet level exists for formal purposes, and in reality may not achieve very much due to political constraints.
Perhaps these state-level bodies can take on a greater responsibility and confront the difficult question of how all religions (and their adherents) can work together towards a united, harmonious and fair Malaysia. This would move beyond practical administrative tasks to a deeper, more philosophical discussion. Above all, Malaysian citizens would then have a glimpse into the sort of leadership an alternative government could offer. The deep divisions within Malaysian society may well continue, but the onus now lies upon Pakatan to show that it can offer a better deal, distinctly different from the current model and structure.
Tricia Yeoh has previously worked with the Selangor state government and is now attached to a market research consultancy.