Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Secularism Confronts Islam: Part 1

I have been trying to write on Olivier Roy’s Secularism Confronts Islam since the past few weeks but was too occupied with some other things.

In the meantime, latest political development in relation to the much talked about “cross-over” of BN MPs to Pakatan Rakyat took an interesting turn. I was on a short research trip to Sabah in the final week before Yong Teck Lee’s showdown with the BN. People whom I met, including some local politicians, talked openly about a BN component party leaving the BN.

The showdown therefore didn’t surprise me except for one thing - Yong Teck Lee stopped short of pulling SAPP out of BN. What made him changed the “script” is not exactly known by anybody else except the “main players” and the “political operators” involved in the political game.

I have been abstaining myself from writing a piece on the much talked about cross-over or pulling-out for two reasons. First, information on the supposed cross-over can hardly be verified. Pakatan people kept telling me (or us) that Anwar already had 30 to 40 BN MPs in his hands. Well even a few days after the March general election, to be exact on 11 March, I had been told by a senior PKR leader that 30 BN MPs were ready to cross-over. But BN sources told a different story. The most (I repeat, the most) Anwar can get is less than 10. The truth can be somewhere in between.
Even if the information can be verified, the span of its validity is highly uncertain. According to a reliable source, the situation kept changing by the hours rather than the days. The high level of volatility in the "negotiation" processes does not allow anyone to come up with a concrete analysis of the situation except to state the obvious - the only certainty in politics is uncertainty.

Second, as a “rookie” political scientist, I have been cracking my head for a suitable theoretical framework to ground my analysis. William Case’s intra-elite relations - where political change is more likely to happen when the elites are disunited - could be a good idea to begin with. (See Case, William. 2002. Politics in Southeast Asia: Democracy or Less? London: Routledge).

Thailand can be a good example. Self-serving elites, knowing that they could benefit more from the intra-elite conflict, continue to engage in protracted rivalries for political power. This resulted in frequent regime change, including military coup d’etat, which produced a political system that moved back and forth from stable authoritarianism to unconsolidated democracy.

Using this framework, I can safely argue, or try to show that, the possibility of cross-over will likely to result in political instability. Should the political leadership fail to manage (or discipline) the elites (through coercion or persuasion), the self-serving among them may continue to negotiate with the “government-in-waiting”, while at the same time put the government of the day to ransom. Then, this is perhaps something new about the “new” Malaysian politics. It ends the long fifty-year notion of “political stability”.

But there is yet another equally suitable framework to use. I remember reading Hari Singh’s work on the 1998 Reformasi when I did literature review for my thesis. Hari Singh asked two pertinent questions: Is the Reformasi a real process of democratization or just an attempt at oligarchic restructuring? (See Hari Singh. 2000. “Democratization or Orligarchic Restructuring? The Politics of Reform in Malaysia”. Government and Opposition 35(4): 520-46).

As a process of democratization, Reformasi was a culmination of a long process of social change marked by the emergence of a sizable middle class and the more open debate on “expressive” issues of freedoms and human rights. Anwar’s sacking and his campaign against the semi-authoritarian regime struck a chord with the existing democratic forces in the society thus culminated in public calls for political change along the more democratic lines.

But as an attempt at oligarchic restructuring, the 1998 Reformasi was just a “spill-over” effect of an internal power struggle in the UMNO “oligarchy”. Using this model, Anwar, as a former member of the oligarchy turned to the masses for popular support after failing to oust the oligarchy’s paramount leader. Should Anwar have been successful in his attempt, there would be just an oligarchic restructuring without democratization.

Both of Hari Singh’s democratization and oligarchic restructuring models could partly explain the recent development pertaining to the much talked-about cross-over. There is no denying that the calls for more democracy are real, but as cross-over plainly means shifting alliance among existing members of the “oligarchy” - from the existing not-so-paramount leader to a former heir-apparent leader - the much talked-about cross-over, if it ever materializes, could just be another attempt at oligarchic restructuring.

If I were ever to write on this subject, I will seriously consider these two frameworks. At this moment, I will just wait for the unfolding events in the realm of “low-politics” to unfold completely.

In the meantime, let me draw my attention to another subject which is closer to my heart - i.e. the confrontation between Islam and secularism, which I shall call “high politics”. As Karl Marx told us that base (economic relations) determines superstructure (ideology), I will try to show that, in Malaysian context, the “low-politics” determines the “high politics”. I will turn to this subject in my next posting.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Muslim's Perception Toward Non-Muslim Houses of Worship

Selangor health, plantation workers, poverty and caring government committee chairman, YB Dr Xavier Jayakumar, announced last week that non-Muslim places of worship in Selangor will have a higher annual allocation and the current 930 sq m limit on the land size removed. He was reportedly said that the current RM3mil allocation from the state government was too small compared to large population of non-Muslims in the state. He however declined to reveal the amount sought for (See The Star Saturday June 7, 2008).

The building of non-Muslim houses of worship has been a cause for concern for non-Muslim communities in Malaysia. There had been complaints about difficulties to get suitable land from state authorities for the building of such places. Many of the worship places, especially Hindu temples, ended up being built on government and private lands without license. Problems cropped up when the lands, often situated in strategic areas with high commercial value, were developed. Inevitable demolition of the illegally built temples to give way for “development” easily turned into an emotionally charged political issue.

However, in this Muslim-majority country, little attention is given to Muslim perception toward non-Muslim houses of worship. How do they view the existence of non-Muslim houses of worship in their areas? Are they concerned with the number and size of the houses of worship as well as the activities going on at such places? Previously, there had been clashes between Muslim and non-Muslim community over the activities at their respective houses of worship which are situated closely to each other. The Kampung Rawa Muslim-Hindu clash in 1998 was one of the incidents which was widely reported in the media.

In October 2007, I worked with a team of researchers from Merdeka Center for Opinion Research in a survey to identify Muslim’s perception toward non-Muslim houses of worship in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. This is an important indicator to gauge the level of religious tolerance among Muslims living in highly urbanized and racially mixed areas. The survey was commissioned by Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia (YADIM).

We found that, in tandem with other earlier studies on inter-religious relations in Malaysia, there was a high level of religious tolerance among Malaysian Muslims. Over 700 respondents interviewed in the survey, 92% respected the right of people of other religions to practice and profess their religions. However, the same proportion of respondents also felt that non-Muslims should not be allowed to preach their religions to Muslims. Interestingly, 55% of over 200 non-Muslim respondents also shared the same view.

A majority of Muslim respondents did not see non-Muslim houses of worship as causing problems to them. 99% of Muslim respondents were aware of the existence of non-Muslim houses of worship in their vicinity. Out of this, 85% said that they were not disturbed by the activities going on at such places. Only 14% felt disturbed. Most of them cited noise and traffic congestion as the main forms of disturbance.

However, the Muslims seem to be quite concerned with the number and size of non-Muslim houses of worship in their area. 90% disagreed if non-Muslim houses of worship outnumbered Muslim houses of worship in their area. Similarly, 83% of them disagreed if the non-Muslim houses of worship are bigger in size than the Muslim houses of worship.

Human rights and religious freedom had often been cited as the basis for building of houses of worship. We asked the respondents whether the building of non-Muslim houses of worship in Muslim-majority areas can be justified on that basis. 82% of Muslim respondents disagreed. Interestingly, non-Muslim respondents are divided over this issue. 42% of them agreed while 40% disagreed.

This survey shows that while the level of religious tolerance is high among the respondents (Muslims and non-Muslims alike), there are some aspects concerning the building of non-Muslim houses of worship that can be deemed “sensitive”. This is particularly so when it comes to building of such places in Muslim-majority areas. While the Selangor government’s initiative may be lauded, due attention must be given to these sensitivities.

Beyond, the issue of perception, there are practical issues of enforcement and planning. Our studies show that, in Kuala Lumpur alone, there are about 64 churches, 192 Hindu temples/Sikh’s Gurdwara, 819 Buddhist temples, 59 mosques and 218 suraus.

As Kuala Lumpur has a high density of squatter areas - populated mainly by Malays and Indians - many of the suraus and Hindu temples are built illegally on squatter lands. Problems cropped up when local authorities moved in to “clean” the squatter areas, causing the places of worship to also be demolished. As for Hindu temples, many of them also ended up being built on government land along busy roads, railways and on river banks. It normally started as a small shrine, but later expanded into a full-fledged temple.

The demolition problem could have been avoided should there have been proper planning and enforcement. Suitable land must be allocated for the building of places of worship based on the needs and “sensitivities” of local residents. At the same time, local authorities must move in early to prevent the building of illegal houses of worship on government and private lands as these lands are likely to be developed later. Early enforcement could have avoided unnecessary demolition problems, which normally caused racial and religious sentiments to run high.

In multi-religious society like ours, town planning and enforcement also plays a major role in promoting religious harmony.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Minyak Oh Minyak!

Utusan Malaysia hari ini melaporkan bahawa Perdana Menteri Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi tidak bimbang populariti kerajaan pimpinannya terjejas ekoran kenaikan harga minyak sebanyak 40 peratus kepada RM 2.70 seliter.

Pungutan suara oleh Merdeka Center for Opinion Research pada bulan Ogos 2005 mendapati populariti kerajaan menjunam daripada 85 peratus kepada 74 peratus ketika harga minyak dinaikkan sebanyak 30 sen pada ketika itu. Populariti kerajaan terus merosot kepada 68 peratus ketika harga minyak dinaikkan sebanyak 30 sen lagi pada bulan Mac 2006. Ekoran isu Hindraf pada akhir tahun 2007, populariti kerajaan menjunam lagi kepada 61 peratus. [Lihat di sini].

Dalam satu lagi pungutan suara yang dilakukan oleh Merdeka Center sejurus selepas pilihanraya umum ke 12 pada bulan Mac 2008, populariti kerajaan pimpinan Abdullah berada pada tahap yang paling rendah iaitu 53 peratus. Berdasarkan pecahan kaum, 58 peratus responden Melayu berpuas hati dengan kepimpinan Abdullah. Hanya 53 peratus responden India dan 47 peratus responden Cina berpandangan sedemikian. [Lihat di sini].

Ketika Abdullah mula memimpin negara pada akhir tahun 2003, 91 peratus responden berpuashati dengan kerajaan.

Ekoran kenaikan harga minyak yang berkuat kuasa hari ini, tidak sukar untuk menjangka bahawa populariti kerajaan pimpinan Abdullah akan menjunam lagi.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Sir, What is Malaysia Today?

One of my students who read my previous posting asked me about Malaysia Today. What is it all about? Who’s behind it?

I briefly explained that Malaysia Today is one of the most popular internet news portal in Malaysia. Raja Petra Kamaruddin is the one who is running it. Then he asked me about Raja Petra. I told him that Raja Petra was former Director of Free Anwar Campaign, a website which was set up for the purpose of getting local and international support for Anwar’s release. The website was closed after Anwar’s release in September 2004. Raja Petra then started Malaysia Today. But Malaysia Today gained much publicity when it became Former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir’s tool to attack Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Well, in fact, Raja Petra had been attacking almost all UMNO top personalities including Dr. Mahathir himself. [The student was puzzled at this stage].

But I went on telling him that Raja Petra also has a soft spot for Islam in his writings. Then the student asked me whether he is an ulama’ - a learned and pious one? I said I’m not sure about that. But I asked him to read Raja Petra’s postings and decide for himself whether he is an ulama’ or not. I don’t like to judge people.

But my student was still curious to know more about Raja Petra and Malaysia Today. I was so sorry that I couldn’t tell him more. But I did ask him to search in Wikipedia and promised to post in my blog a news report about Malaysia Today which I keep for my own research purpose.
Here is the news report:

Malaysia Today thrives on Umno rivalry
Bede Hong
Dec 8, 06 12:06pm

Rivalrous Umno politicians are feeding political website Malaysia Today with its content, claimed the organisation’s founder Raja Petra Kamaruddin.

“We are perceived as an opposition website, despite the fact that we have been fighting the opposition. But you would be surprised, the bulk of our readers are actually from Umno. The bulk of information we get is from Umno.

“As an opposition aligned website, it’s impossible to get that information,” he said.

Raja Petra (left), who penned the infamous Khairy Chronicles that colourfully detailed the personal and political life of the country’s youngest political stalwart Khairy Jamaluddin, was speaking at a media forum organised by the Asian Institute for Development Communication (Aidcom) in Kuala Lumpur yesterday.

He said Malaysia Today benefited from the infighting in Umno and competition among its members.

“I mean, if you are president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, so what. How far do you go? But if you are president of Umno, you become prime minister, so everyone wants to be president of Umno. So in that sense, there is a need to topple and sabotage each other. So those in the ruling party use us (Malaysia Today) as prostitutes, if you wish.

“They give us information, because so and so wants to smear the other guy, so he can topple the other guy, so the other guy can topple the other guy. Everybody gives us information because everybody wants to topple everybody. This is how we get information,” he added.

Sex and politics

According to Raja Petra, controversies are Malaysia Today’s boon.

“Anyone in the media will tell you that only two things sell. Sex and politics! And since most politicians here are involved in sex scandals their (stories) sell even more,” he said.

He also defended Malaysia Today against critics who accuse it of publishing unverified information.

“How do you ‘quantify’ certain information when an Umno meeting or cabinet meeting is going on? One of the guys (at the meeting) sends us an SMS and says ‘you know what the prime minister just said, you better whack it on the Internet’.

“The mainstream media cannot publish (these things) so we need the alternative media. We have to trust the source, of course. After we publish it, there will be many denials. Ninety-nine percent of the time, what we have been told is true,” he said.

On the same note, Raja Petra conceded to keeping certain news items ‘cloudy but short of distortion’ in order to elicit a response from the government.

“There are times when, I won’t say we distort the news, but we keep it a bit cloudy because we want them (the government) to admit. There would be cases where we report certain things, and we leave certain things out, because we know the government would deny.

“And if we do not have the (full) evidence, we report part of the story, knowing that the government is going to give the proper story, which is actually the story we want anyway. And we just want them to admit it,” he added.

Mahathir era was freer

Raja Petra also pointed out that the alternative media received its ‘best endorsement’ from its former nemesis Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

“On the eve of the Hari Raya celebrations, Mahathir said the people should not trust the mainstream media. He said to go to the Internet for the truth,” he said.

Despite being held under the Internal Security Act during the former premier’s tenure, Raja Petra claimed that the Mahathir era had more room for freedom of expression compared to the current administration under Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

“During Mahathir’s time, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah went against him, crisscrossing the length and breadth of this country with (former deputy premier) Musa Hitam (to criticise Mahathir). And Mahathir did not stop them. Tengku Razaleigh was able to rent halls and get police permits for his talks.

“That being the yardstick, Mahathir allowed criticism. You are free to speak, but you are not free after you speak.

Racial sentiments

Meanwhile, malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan, who was also one of the speakers at the forum, said the government should not blame the media for stoking up racial sentiments and contended that it was politicians themselves who were guilty of the act.

“The government has been emphasising that journalists be responsible, that there is no such thing as absolute freedom. That is increasingly becoming like an old record. It’s playing the same old tune but Malaysians have grown up.

"The people who are really fanning racial sentiments are not the reporters, they are the politicians. The people who are talking about bathing in blood, they are the politicians, not journalists. The people who are talking about using the keris, they are the politicians, not journalists,” he said.

The two-day forum, funded by ECM Libra Avenue, also saw the participation of Berita Publishing editor-in-chief Kadir A Jasin, Bangkok Post editor-in-chief Pichai Chuensuksawadi, News Straits Times executive editor Rajan Moses and political blogger Jeff Ooi.
Well, I hope this helps my student to figure out the answer to his question.

Monday, June 2, 2008

[ABIM Press Statement] "Expletive Deleted": A Response to Raja Petra Kamaruddin

The Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM) was recently assaulted by Raja Petra Kamaruddin in his Malaysia Today column "No Holds Barred". A response is in order, with the expletives he has resorted to not included. At threshold, one should note that Muslims and all civilized people are encouraged to rationally and responsibly discuss issues, and discouraged from using inappropriate language. ABIM believes in civilized resolution of conflict, not accusatory statements, especially those without substance and stated in sailor's language.

Firstly, RPK has associated ABIM with a political movement. He has no knowledge, and if he does he does not evince it, of ABIM's historic role as a leading Islamic NGO, which by definition is a non-political and non-partisan organization. By merely calling upon a political party or grouping, namely BN and UMNO, to explain its proposed percentage changes on a matter of importance to Malays and other ethnic groups in Malaysia is not to be part of that group, but to seek satisfactory explanation for its deviance from the accepted "social contract" of this country. It is fixed under Articles 153(2) and 153(3) of the Federal Constitution of this Country. The mere uphold of these provisions does not make one UMNO; it merely suggests a compliance with the normative rules of a democratic majority.

Furthermore, one need not look further than the other demographic segments of our society to see the overall reluctance of these groups to abandon ethnic identity and be treated as "Bangsa Malaysia". ABIM acknowledges and participates in our multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, not only for the benefit of Muslim youths but for the benefit of all in our society. To allege otherwise and identify this NGO with the political policies and agenda of one party is a serious accusation without any foundation. ABIM seeks to have government - meaning both the majority and the opposition - act ethically and legally, and seeks this for the benefit of all Malaysians regardless of the ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Secondly, by RPK calling us munafik and fasik has in effect equated us as non-Muslims. He has accused us of being "b...s...t" and hypocrites. In point of fact, ABIM has not objected to RPK's right to speak and argue his points, even though as individuals and as a group we may disagree with particulars. We feel, however, that the use of his media for the purpose of defamation of an Islamic organization is a breach of his responsibilities as a Muslim, a Malaysian citizen and as a journalist blogger. Our important duty as a Muslim is to engage in RESPECTFUL and APPROPRIATE discussion and debate. Using "b...s...t" as an adjective is neither of these requisite elements to discussion and presentation.

RPK has neglected some major facts: Islam itself acknowledges and respects diversity and plurality in society. ABIM treasures this, and works in conjunction with friends from other non-Muslim groups and NGOs so that Islamic principles are given voice and taken into consideration along with other perspectives. Secondly, he fails to note that ABIM seeks to encourage inter-faith and inter-ethnic dialogue that continues and deepens current mutual understanding. The underlying assumption of the NEP is one matter in need of protracted and open discussion between the demographic groups, and is encouraged by ABIM. Factually, ABIM has no identity with any political party. If such an identity exists today, it would not be with the ruling party: previous leadership of the organization alone would lead to that assumption. But ABIM has always remained non-political, non-partisan and any assumption or argument to the contrary is faulty, misguided and used by the speaker or writer to further his own agenda.

RPK places emphasis on party loyalty. In fact, ABIM urges all to answer the higher call of being a servant of Allah before being loyal to any other. At no time in its history has ABIM confused its greatest loyalty, which is to our Creator, Allah the Almighty. If anything, ABIM asks our leaders and members to have the same dedication. While we sympathize with RPK's confused misunderstanding of Islam, we are appalled at how ironical it is that RPK in his vulgar-languaged polemic feels that some of the political leadership think that they are guaranteed paradise by their actions. To be guaranteed paradise is to only do acts for the pleasure of Allah. Apparently, politicians and certain political commentators do not follow this simple intention.

ABIM is always anxious and willing to engage in a REASONABLE, RESPECTFUL and APPROPRIATE opportunity to exchange views with all members of Malaysian society, its critics included. But attacks and baseless allegations do not encourage such dialogue; to the contrary, they impair and disable it. RPK has not only darkened his reputation as an observer and commentator, he has also sought to darken that of a viable, honest and valued Islamic NGO within Malaysian culture. He does himself, ABIM, and its objectives of dialogue between all of us a great disservice.
And Allah knows best.

Azril Mohd Amin
Vice President of ABIM

Is It Racist to Talk About Race?

Is it racist to talk about race? Yes, it is. And for Muslims, not only are they racists, but also “fasiq” and “munafiq”. [See Raja Petra Kamaruddin's posting here]. As Muslims, they have to be fair and just and treat others equally. They cannot talk about themselves being Muslims, assert their identity or fight for their rights. As majority of Muslims in this country are Malays, they also cannot talk about themselves being Malays, assert their Malay identity or fight for Malay rights. If they do, not only are they racists, but also fasiq and munafiq. Perhaps, Benedict Anderson has to come up with a whole new book on this new form of religio-nationalism.

Going by this logic, then this country was built by the “fasiqun” and “munafiqun”. Our forefathers who talked about Malay interests, Chinese interests or Indian interests when they negotiated for independence back in 1957 were “fasiqun” and “munafiqun”. [Well, perhaps, non-Muslim Chinese and Indian leaders should not be capped under the same category of “fasiqun” and “munafiqun” I guess, unless there are equivalent concepts in Buddhism and Hinduism]. Not only that, the Malays who attended Malay College of Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) - an elite school specially built for the sons of Malay aristocrats and royalties - were also “fasiqun” and “munafiqun”. The list will go further down to include all Malays who received scholarships from the government, worked in the civil service or secured government contracts [Again, non-Malay/non-Muslim tycoons who received awards of multi-billion ringgit worth privatization projects should not be capped under the same category, unless there are equivalent concepts under their religions].

Again, if there are equivalent concepts of “fasiqun” and “munafiqun” in Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Taoism and Sikhism - going by RPK's logic - the non-Muslim Chinese and Indians who attended Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools are also “fasiqun” and “munafiqun”. The same goes to non-Muslims who promote the rights and interests of their respective religious communities. The Chinese educationists as well as the members of Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) will be shocked to find that they are actually in the same category as those people in ABIM and PAS. The same goes to supporters of UMNO, MCA, MIC, Gerakan, PPP and DAP. PKR supporters too, I believe, are not spared from this trap.

Pheww … then we suddenly realize that almost everybody in this country is racist, fasiqun and munafiqun. So, let’s talk about race - and religion - anyway.

I’m not trying to be sarcastic about this. My point is, it is not wrong to talk about race or to promote the interests of one’s ethnic (or religious) community as long as it remains within the confine of the law and is done with full respect and understanding of other communities’ concerns and needs.

We also have to come to grasp with political realities of our Malaysian society. This society was built not so much on the sweat and blood of territorial fighters, but on the compromises achieved by different ethnic communities who believed that for them to share a home they called Malaya, they should - to certain extent - forego some of their “redemptive rights”.
Let's have a short journey to history.

In the formative years of modern Malayan society, different ethnic communities who inhabited Malaya held different visions about their place in the new state that they would give their loyalty to. Achieving communal compromises was therefore not an easy task.
The Malays believed that they were the original inhabitanst of this land and they should therefore have the final say in determining the terms of the communal compromises. In a memorandum sent to the Cheeseman Consultative Committee on the Constitutional Proposals in 1947, the Malay Association of Ulu Terengganu said:

Malaya is a Malay country which has been acknowledged to belong to the Malays from time immemorial. Therefore, (the position of Malay language) is extremely important and must be given priority …. If the Malay language is not given preference, the Malay race may be regarded as not being in existence and it means that this country does not belong to the Malays … the religion of Islam should be included in the proposals otherwise Islam may be endangered by Christianity and other religions

The Ceylon Federation of Malaya said:

The Ceylonese community came in large numbers to assist the development of Malaya … They had made Malaya their permanent home … and …with traditional loyalty and conservatism have given their entire lives exclusively to the service of Their Highnesses and the British administrators, while other races ventured into vocations of great gains, namely, planting, mining, trading and industry.

As such, the federation argued, it would only be appropriate if the residential requirement for Malayan-born Ceylonese was relaxed, the interests of Ceylonese government servants and of those in other employment should not be jeopardized, and the Ceylonese community be represented in the Federal Legislative Council.

In asking for generous citizenship requirements, the Indian Association of Terengganu claimed:

Men’s memories are short and hence the tendency is to regard Indians as unwelcome intruders whose contribution to Malayan economy is nil and their only contribution is to the English language of the word “coolie” which has found a place in school text-books … the Malay community may be excused for short memories but the Raj cannot dispute the contributions of India and Indians to the extension of its influence in this part of the world from the founding of Singapore in the early part of the nineteenth century to the liberation of Malaya a few months ago.

The Chinese also claimed that they too had contributed a lot to the country and therefore should be given more rights. Two Chinese leaders, HS Lee (later Tun) and Leong Yew Koh (later Tun), who sat on the Cheeseman Consultative Committee argued that the Chinese and Malay population were about equal, and by reason of their early association with Malaya, a great number of Chinese had as good claim to be regarded as the sons of the soil as the Malays.
They also argued that as the Chinese had to pay about 70 percent of the total taxes in the country, they had borne a greater burden in the country’s economic development. Apart from that, they reminded that the Chinese had made a noble contribution toward the defence of Malaya and borne the brunt of the Japanese fury and terrorism during the Japanese occupation. This, they said, was the price for, as well as the symbol of, the Chinese community’s loyalty for the country. As such, the two Chinese leaders demanded that the number of Chinese representatives in the Federal Legislative Council should be about equal to the number of Malay representatives. All Malayan-born Chinese should also automatically acquire Federal citizenship.

Even a multi-communal coalition of Malay left associations, radical-nationalist political parties, Chinese-based associations and trade unions called PUTERA-AMCJA, apart from demanding a united Malaya inclusive of Singapore, self-government through a fully elected central legislature for the whole of Malaya and equal citizenship rights also talked about race and religion. They demanded that the Malay Sultans should assume the position of fully sovereign and constitutional rulers; matters pertaining to Islam and Malay custom should be under the sole control of the Malays; and special attention should be given to the advancement of the Malays. [The last three demands were proposed by PUTERA, a coalition of Malay left associations].

By the time Malaya gained independence in 1957, a formula of communal compromise was agreed upon by the leaders of the Alliance parties. The main thrust of this formula was the preservation of special position of the Malays and the safeguarding of legitimate interests of other ethnic communities.

While moving the constitutional proposals for the independent Malaya in the Federal Legislative Council in July 1957, Tunku Abdul Rahman spoke about the communal formula which laid the basis for the Federal Constitution:

A formula was agreed upon by which it was decided that in considering the rights of the various peoples in this country no attempt must be made to reduce such rights which they have enjoyed in the past. As a result you find written into this Constitution rights of the various peoples they have enjoyed in the past and new rights, in fact, accorded to new people whom it was the intention to win over into the fold of the Malayan Nation. I refer to the Citizenship rights. It is a right which has given the Malays very grave concern and fear. Nevertheless because of their desire and anxiety to put Malaya on the pedestal as an Independent Nation, they are prepared to give that right to the new people.

There was no smooth sailing for the formula though. A Chinese legislator remarked that the Constitution created two classes of citizens. He argued:

The second class citizens may say that since we are only entitled to three-fourths of the special privileges, therefore, we in the like proportion will bear only the three-fourths of the responsibilities. I say that in time to come it will create discord and dissatisfaction … I think that all the Chinese and the non-Malays will agree that a greater share of the privileges must go to the Malays until they reach parity of wealth with the non-Malays … [but] if the provision is put in the permanent part of the Constitution it will tarnish the fair name of our country. The world would say that in this country you have one law for one race, another law for another race.

An Indian legislator joined the fray. Arguing that no majority groups in any country in the world sought protection under the country’s Constitution, he warned:

This special position of the Malays has acted to the detriment of the Malays – not the non-Malays. The non-Malays have improved because they are not given a special position … if the Malays had had competition, keen competition, from the other communities, they will be as much forward economically as the other races.

Defending the Malay special privileges, a Malay legislator, Encik Ghafar Baba (later Tun) said:

It should be noted that even the proposals by the Alliance have not satisfied the entire Malay masses of the Federation. There are sections among them who have claimed that as natives of this country they deserve things far greater than what had been decided by the Alliance, but to be fair to the other races the UMNO had to steer a middle course; … Sir, I am surprised to learn that some sections of the population are demanding for equal rights in addition to their demand for relaxation of the present citizenship law … to these people I would say that their action is nothing but merely directed to arouse the anger of the Malays … this (further) relaxation, if carried out, would reduce the Malays to a minority in their own country in a few years time.

To this, Tan Siew Sin (later Tun) of MCA said:

The Malays cannot be expected to give up what they already have in the same way that they do not expect the other communities to give up their existing rights. Far more important, however, is the indisputable fact that as a race the Malays are economically backward and well behind the other races in the field … It has also been asked why it has not been explicitly stated that this provision is only temporary. I would remind our critics that the Malays are a proud and sensitive race. They are also an intelligent race, and I know that they appreciate the significance and implications of this provision far better than most people realize. I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that when the time comes, the Malays themselves will ask for its abolition, but this is a matter which we must obviously leave to them to decide.

Lashing out at the critics of the communal compromise, V.T Sambathan (later Tun) of MIC said:

We hear it spoken, Sir, of first class and second class citizenship. Is the first class citizen one who is badly provided with roads, has leaky roof over his head, cannot even get a doctor on a rainy-day even if his child is badly ill? Is that person, be he in the kampong or estate or new village, the first-class citizen or is it he who has a bungalow in the Federal Capital, one possibly in the Cameron Highlands and a couple more at a seaside resort who is the first class citizen, I ask … An unbalance exists and it exists for various reasons. It may be that colonial rule, with all its defects, its sins of omission, has rendered these things so. Freedom with its new outlook and an economy based for the purpose of helping the people will certainly solve most of these problems.

Looking back in retrospection, all that had been said by our forefathers some fifty years ago are still not far off from us now. We are still listening to the same arguments, the same concerns, the same polemics. Racial (and religious) interests, alongside with the more "expressive" issues of human rights and freedoms, will continue to be one of the main planks of political discourse in multiracial and multireligious Malaysia. We can't terminate those concerns, but with a bit of wisdom we can surely manage it well beyond expectation. May be it is time for us, the children of this blessed land, to once again embrace the spirit of tolerance, compromise and mutual respect, as was examplified by our forefathers, so that we can move forward with vigour and resilience as one united nation.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Star: Malay Students Affected

2 June 2008

PETALING JAYA: Increasing the quota for non-bumiputras for Public Service Department (PSD) scholarships without increasing the actual number of scholarships has drastically affected the bumiputras, the Umno Youth Education Bureau said.

Its chairman Ahmad Ikmal Ismail said while the bureau agreed with the Government to give more scholarships to non-bumiputras, it did not agree with the way it was done.

“The quota for non-bumiputras has increased from 10% to 45% but the number of total scholarships has remained at 2,000.”

Ahmad Ikmal said this meant that scholarships were being taken from the bumiputras to be given to the non-bumiputras.

“We object to this move because it now means that 700 scholarships for bumiputra students are gone,” he said.

Ahmad Ikmal said a better way would be to use the New Economic Policy concept to increase the number of total scholarships. He said this was to ensure that the bumiputras were not affected and the non-bumiputras would get even more opportunities.