By Baradan Kuppusamy
Kuala Lumpur, Aug 6 (IPS) - Malaysia celebrates, this August, 50 years of independence under the slogan ‘one legacy, one destiny,’ reiterated through posters in public places depicting representatives of various races happily holding hands and walking into the sunset.
But through the contrived camaraderie deep divisions have surfaced among the majority Malay Muslims and minority Chinese and Indians over the future shape of the country.
Simmering discontent exploded into bitter public debate after the country’s deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, a product of elite British boarding schools, stunned the nation with an announcement in July that Malaysia is an Islamic state.
"Malaysia was never a secular nation," he said, shocking Malaysians and raising fears that the secular constitution and the inherited British common law legal framework that holds the country -- a former British colony -- had come under serious threat.
The declaration sparking divisive debates is a culmination of years of disagreement over Islam and the secular constitution, a tussle some fear is being won by religion that was first brought here by Indian traders in the 13th century.
"The statement that we are Islamic and not secular has put the country squarely at a crossroads at a time when we should be celebrating the secular constitution," said opposition leader Lim Kit Siang.
"Instead of celebrating 50 years of multiculturalism and restating the secular foundations of our plural society and the supremacy of the constitution we are at loggerheads over religion," Lim said.
"Our short-sighted leaders have put us in this quandary by playing to the Muslim gallery," Lim who is ethnic Chinese told IPS in an interview. "The statement that we are Islamic and not secular panders to narrow religious sentiments and seriously damages the country’s secular core."
Before granting independence in 1957, a British-appointed commission travelled the country, inviting views and a year later proposed a constitution that was in effect a compromise between native Malays and Chinese and Indians, descendents of turn-of-the-century immigrants from China and India.
To satisfy Malays, who form 60 percent of the 26 million population, the drafters retained Malay traditions, with Islam as the ‘religion of the federation’ and retained the Malay rulers as constitutional monarchies.
Immigrants and their children born after 1957 were given near automatic citizenship and a place under the ‘Malaysian sun’ and guaranteed that they can practice their religions freely.
Malays, economically backward compared with the more vibrant Chinese community, were compensated with special privileges, quotas and other instruments to ‘catch up’ with the minority races.
The privileges were to end after a time.
However, after five decades of independence Malay privileges have only grown and expanded and become entrenched and institutionalised. Islamic values and tenets have become official government policies.
Non-Muslims’ fear that ‘creeping Islam’ was eroding the secular constitution and endangering secular rights has heightened and is a main theme of the country's public discourse.
The fears worsened after former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, unilaterally declared that Malaysia was Islamic and not a secular nation on Sep. 29, 2001.
The discourse had at times turned ugly with some radical Muslims preventing moderate Muslims and non-Muslims from forming alliances, organising forums and publicising their concerns.
Proponents argue that religion is a private matter and that the constitution is the supreme law of the land binding on all citizens, not Islam, although the constitution states that Islam is ‘the’ religion of the federation.
The debate came to a head in June when a higher court effectively ordered non-Muslims to submit to the Islamic Shariah laws when entangled with Muslims over marriage, divorce and custody of children.
In July, the country’s highest court ruled that Muslims cannot leave Islam even though the constitution clearly guarantees freedom of worship for all citizens.
In the most recent case, last month, Islamic officials forcibly separated a Hindu from his Muslim wife of 21 years and their six children.
The husband eventually won custody of his children, but the couple is barred from living together legally, a judgment that won Malaysia worldwide notoriety for putting Islam over humanity.
Despite the disputes Muslim view of the issue has consistently been that Islam is an all encompassing, ‘way of life’ and cannot be pigeon-holed into a ‘private’ sphere.
"Islam is all encompassing…a total way of life," said Dr Zulkifli Ahmad, director of research for the fundamentalist Pan Malaysian Islamic Party or PAS, in a recent interview. "It’s complete, perfect and Muslims must give pre-eminence to it.’’
As the nation ‘celebrates’ its 50th anniversary, the independent Centre for Public Policy Studies issued a public statement on Aug. 1 calling ‘Merdeka’ or Independence Statement that seeks to reinstate the founding principles of the nation. It called for political, financial and social reforms to promote a just, fair and united society and has been endorsed by dozens of think tanks and human rights, economic and religious organisations and NGOs.
"Recently the state of unity has been fraying at the edges," the statement said adding, "ethnic, linguistic and religious divides have deepened and are causing genuine pain and hurting the nation."
The movement demanded the government set up an independent panel to review all laws and policies that might undermine harmony and the secular foundation and investigate complaints of ethnic and religious discrimination.
It also wants a truth and reconciliation commission to help Malaysians come to terms with the past so that the nation can move forward.
Even as Malaysia celebrates the country's international reputation as a bastion of tolerance, moderation and multi-culturalism, questions are being asked about the new and pronounced Islamisation.
Increasingly critical voices are being heard -- from individuals, religious leaders and civil society organisations -- demanding an end to uncertainties and clear re-statement that the constitution is the supreme law of the land. Cracks have appeared in the monolithic, united face of the government.
Last January, nine out of 10 non-Muslim ministers handed a memorandum to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi asking him to review all laws that put non-Muslims at a disadvantage.
But under pressure from Muslim groups the ministers retracted their memorandum, but the incident illustrates the deep schism even within the government over the future shape of the country.
Disagreement surfaced again last week when one minister publicly said he disagreed with the notion that Malaysia is an Islamic state as pronounced by Razak.
Minister Bernard Dompok, a Christian, said the founding fathers did not intend to turn the country into an Islamic state. His comments were, however, blacked out by the powerful mainstream media.
Another voice that is gaining momentum is that of the crown Prince of Perak state, Dr Nazrin Shah, an Oxford and Harvard-educated reformist who is championing an "open, tolerant and forward-looking" society without extremism, chauvinism and racism.
"The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It guarantees the rights of every Malaysian. The integrity of that do*****ent must be protected at all cost," he declared to applause at a summit of student leaders on Sunday.
Matters of faith, he said, have become issues of immense controversy. "They promote overzealousness and coercive action, and drive Malaysians further and further away from each other," he said.
The solution, he said, is to uphold the Constitution, ensure economic and social justice for all and practice good governance and civil society.
"We have to believe it and work at it," he said. "Every voice counts,''''Shah said. (END/2007)