By Julia Yeow, dpa Bangkok Post
(NOTE: Malaysia independence Day is Friday, Aug 31)
Kuala Lumpur (dpa) - As festivities start building up in conjunction with Malaysia's planned celebrations of its 50th year of independence, a growing insecurity and sense of uncertainty among its minority races seems to be looming over the outward show of revelry.
A month of festivities ranging from motorcar events to massive fireworks displays will culminate with an annual flower and march-past parade on August 31, when the nation will celebrate 50 years of freedom from former British rulers.
On the front, there is much to celebrate: Malaysia has flourished from a former agriculture-driven backwater to become one of the most advanced nations in Asia with an economy poised to grow about 6 per cent this year and next.
Over the past 20 years, economic development has seen tremendous growth, in particular the export sector as well as building of large-scale infrastructure projects.
But aside from the megaprojects, the world-class buildings and infrastructure and relatively steady economy, the government's pride for years has been the ability of Malaysia's many ethnic and religious groups to co-exist in relative peace for the past 50 years.
The nation is made up of some 60 per cent of ethnic Malays, who by definition of the constitution are all Muslims. The ethnic Chinese comprise about 25 per cent of the population, followed by Indians with 9 per cent. Other races make up the remainder of the population.
However, behind the façade of a harmonious potpourri of ethnic groups and religions, lurks an undeniable sense of discomfort at rising racial tensions in recent times.
In May, Lina Joy - a former Muslim woman who had embraced Christianity for more than 20 years - lost a long battle in court to have her personal identification card state her new religion.
Under Malaysian Islamic law, a Muslim can not marry a non-Muslim without her partner also converting to Islam, meaning Joy could not marry her Christian fiancé until she could be legally recognized as a non-Muslim.
Joy had brought her appeals to Malaysia's highest court as a last-ditch attempt after several lower courts ruled against her, but she finally lost the right to officially change her religion when the Federal Court ruled against her. The decision sparked a nationwide debate on the freedom of religion in the country, or the lack of it.
Adding to the religious tensions, leaders from the United Malays National Organization party - the backbone of the ruling coalition - have outwardly declared the country an Islamic state.
In June, deputy prime minister Najib Razak said during a press conference that Malaysia "has never been a secular state, and has always been Islamic."
His comments drew criticism from all levels of society, from the Bar Council to Muslim and non- Muslim organizations, as the country's constitution clearly states that Malaysia is a secular state.
Recently, the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI) produced what it called a "wish list" of eight most urgent needs in the country.
Topping the list, which was compiled as result of opinions taken from 42 non-governmental organizations representing all major races, religions and rights groups, was a call for greater unity among the people.
"Recently, the state of unity has been fraying at the edges. Ethnic, linguistic and religious divides have deepened, causing genuine pain and hurt to many in the nation," the statement said.
"Such a fragile state of unity should not have happened after 50 years of nation building."
The report, called the 'Merdeka Statement,' also listed an urgent call to redress the imbalances in society, with the group noting with concern the growing income inequalities within the same ethnic groups, especially the ethnic Malays.
In 1971, the government launched the New Economic Policy which is a series of affirmative action policies designed to benefit Malays and certain indigenous groups known collectively as "bumiputera," or "sons of the soil."
More than 30 years later, critics say the policy failed in its objectives of eradicating the hardcore poor among the bumiputera, but instead has caused only certain groups of Malays to grow rich while the majority remain in poverty.
Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin dismissed the 42 NGO's as representing the general sentiment, and called the statement a "clever attempt to disunite the people in the country.
"This is not a citizens' wish but the wish of a handful of people. This is uncalled for," he said, adding that the government would not take into consideration the contents of the statement.
Tricia Yeoh, senior analyst at ASLI, called the government's rejection regrettable, and appealed for a dialogue and discussion to be held instead.
"Each of the organizations represent a large group of Malaysians in their own respective right, and together they cover Malaysians of all ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds," Yeoh said.
The worry hanging over the Merdeka celebrations is ironic in that unity - the very desire and goal which drove the country's fight for independence - is now threatening to tear the nation apart.
"There is a growing number of Chinese and Indians who are starting to seek permanent residence in alternative countries," said a political analyst on condition of anonymity.
"There is a sense of insecurity in our very citizenship, our right in this country which our parents and grandparents had fought to keep together. It's sad, but that's the situation now," he said.
Chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party, Lim Kit Siang, recently said that the nation's early aspiration to build a society identifiable as Malaysians and not different ethnic groups, has failed.
"Many people are wondering what is the meaning of this 50th Merdeka anniversary if they are feeling more alienated, more divided and more polarized," Lim said in an interview with the Sun newspaper recently.
Adding to the widening religious and racial divide, Malaysians will now prepare to celebrate their 50th year of independence while facing the fact that corruption remains high in the government, and there is an alarming increase in crime.
Perhaps, as Lim and many other Malaysians now feel, the way to move forward for the nation in terms of unity, is to look back.