Home 2006: 6 The slide in ethnic relations

The slide in ethnic relations

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Johan Abdullah wonders whether we are now on a new threshold in ethnic relations as he senses a rise in the number of worrying incidents. He goes on to review how the character of ethnic relations may have changed over the years and provides a new context for understanding ethnic relations.

Sparks, fires and civil strife

The metaphor of “sparks” and “fires” has come to be used by scholars of ethnic relations to show how incidents of ethnic strife could turn into violent conflicts such as riots and pogroms. The answer to this perennial question would of course vary from context to context, city to city, country to country, region to region. To put the question across even more plainly, how many sparks does it take to start a fire? Or, how incendiary must the sparks be before a fire would start? Needless to say, in Malaysia throughout our modern history we have seen any number of sparks and some major fires and near-fires in our ethnic relations

Among the more significant events of ethnic strife were the following: the post-war racial clashes in 1945, the 1957 Chingay riot in Penang, the 1964 racial riots in Singapore, the Hartal riots of Penang in 1967, the May 13 1969 riots of Kuala Lumpur, the Operasi Lalang event of 1987, the Kampong Rawa incident of 1998, and the Kampong Medan incident of 2001.

As we head into the middle of 2006, I sense a precipitous rise in the number of sparks in Malaysia’s ethnic relations. Are we on the threshold of a fire? In the course of this short essay I will point to a number of recent worrisome incidents which may give some cause for alarm. However, before this let me briefly review how the character of ethnic relations may have changed over the years and thereby also provided a new context for what may be the factors behind racial disturbances, and hence, how we should understand and manage our ethnic relations in this day and age.


Early days

There have been different phases in Malaysia’s ethnic relations. As everyone has come to know, at the point of Independence, a ‘political bargain’ in ethnic relations was struck by leaders or elites of the various ethnic communities under the Tunku Abdul Rahman government and much of it was incorporated into the 1957 Malayan Constitution. Even at the eve of Independence, a spark during a Chingay procession in Penang in January 1957 caused Malay-Chinese rioting and shut down Penang for some 10 days.

Worse was to come in 1967, when the devaluation of the Straits dollar led to the Hartal (an economic boycott) riots between Malays and Chinese, which ended with five people killed and 92 injured. As many as 1,600 persons were detained and at various points, Penang was on a 24-hour curfew. Lim Kean Siew, the Labour Party leader was among those detained. The ethnic tensions also spread to Perlis, Kedah and Perak where curfews were also imposed.
Despite these fires, the political bargain between the ethnic communities seemingly held firm until the watershed event of May 13, 1969, which saw the worst outbreak of ethnic violence in the country to date. According to official figures, 196 were killed, 149 were wounded and many women were raped. There were 753 cases of arson and 211 vehicles were destroyed or damaged. An estimated 6,000 Kuala Lumpur residents — 90 per cent of them Chinese — were made homeless.


Near fire

After May 13, there was what one could call a new consociational (inter-ethnic) pact, paradoxically re-emphasing Malay or Bumiputera rights, or some would say, Malay supremacy, under the Tun Abdul Razak government. This took the form of the New Economic Policy. This pact has held up so far but in the 1987 Operasi Lalang – I would call this a near-fire— mass arrests were carried out because Malay-Chinese ethnic tensions had reached another breaking point in a situation almost mimicking May 13. No one agrees with the disingenuous reasons for the arrests of 106 prominent politicians and social activists and why one Chinese minister was able to abscond to Australia under the Mahathir government. However, the action did douse a series of highly incendiary sparks which most certainly would have caused a big fire had the escalation of ethnic tensions continued.

The next two events had different complexions in terms of ethnic relations. The Kampong Rawa incident in Penang turned out to be more of a conflict between mostly ‘Indian’ Muslims and Hindus. It saw the desecration or destruction of some Hindu shrines in Penang. While reportedly some 5,000 persons came from outside Penang to support their Muslim brethren, the incident was defused by the mediation of then deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. In the Kampong Medan story, still sealed in a veil of secrecy, despite an investigation by the government, we can safely say that it was a conflict that involved Indians and Muslims. The one-sided depiction of this event in the Universiti Putra Malaysia ‘textbook’ has become the subject of some controversy. One cannot understand why the government does not reveal the ‘true facts’ of the incident.

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Middle-class and all that

Many events of the recent past may give us pause for alarm. Some academics such as Francis Loh, Rahman Embong and I have written that, with the rise of a middle class among all the ethnic communities, we have seen a reduction of “ethnic politics”. With Malaysia’s impressive economic performance (despite all the economic scandals), a rising consumerism among all strata of society has meant that ethnicity may have taken a backseat or, at least, has not become as ‘troublesome’ as in the past.

That said, one cannot help but sense that by the middle of 2006, ethnic relations have taken on a more religious complexion these days and that could be equally as explosive as the old ‘ethnic politics’ of the past. Why do I say this? In some sense, the Kampong Rawa and the Kampong Medan incidents prefigure this new complexion in ethnic relations but more so, the changed context is the embedding of a policy of ‘Islamisation’ on the part of the government party, UMNO, and an even more thorough-going version of this by the opposition party, PAS. The implementation of such Islamisation policies tends to turn the attention and energies of political actors and civil society towards issues of religion rather than those of ethnicity and class.

There is also a palpable change in character of civil society itself. While some of us in the 1980s and more recently during the days of Reformasi were sanguine that a ‘new politics’ had emerged, melding together multi-ethnic and multi-class alliances within civil society and the political class, this has all but dissipated in the 2000s. Instead, civil society organisations have now more or less re-grouped into either the old ethnic mould, or more tellingly, into new religious groupings, with Muslim organisations becoming particularly prominent.

Contestation over Islamisation

At one level, the contestation over Islamisation reached a peak in the post-Reformasi period after PAS had captured Kelantan and Terengganu. Terengganu passed legislation to introduce a full complement of Syariah laws including its criminal aspects (Hudud and Qisas) and their enactment has only been stymied because federal enforcement agencies are not within PAS control.

To the further dismay of non-Muslims, then prime minister Mahathir got into the act by declaring that Malaysia was already an Islamic state in September 2001. While this was clearly a political ploy, PAS leaders were able to easily ridicule Mahathir with jibes of ‘instant café’ Islamisation.

After the departure of Mahathir as prime minster, Abdulah Badawi was successful in leading the BN government to an electoral victory in March 2004 which also saw the defeat of PAS in Terengganu. However, I would argue that with Abdullah’s introduction of Islam Hadhari, sometimes the line between advocates of Islamisation on the PAS side and the UMNO side has become rather blurred.

The contestation at the level of civil society has got particularly ugly. Here, let me turn to look at a series of events that began with the objection to the formation of the Inter-Faith Commission leading to the recent Muslim demonstrations against the forums sponsored by the coalition of civil groups known as “Article 11”.


From IFC…

Aliran Monthly has already carried articles and statements about the IFC episode. However, let me briefly recall the event. The idea of an Inter-Faith Commission was mooted by the Human Rights Sub-Committee of the Bar Council because of a growing number of knotty religious disputes and legal cases. In April 2005, a conference was held with about 200 participants representing all the major faith-based groups and various sectors of civil society. In the event, a coalition of 13 Muslim groups calling itself the Allied Coordinating Committee of Islamic NGOs (ACCIN) demanded that the government scuttle the idea of the IFC. The government subsequently obliged. The tone of the protestation was rather troubling. The spokesperson of ACCIN, Mustapha Ma averred that:

“… Malaysia would have achieved Islamic state status if not for the interference of the colonial masters and the arrival of non-Muslims. Are we now witnessing the regression of our country into a secular state with Islam as a mere ornament?” (Malaysiakini.com, March 1, 2005).

Since the abandoning of the IFC idea, there have been a number of significant unresolved legal tangles and controversies over the question of Islam, conversions and apostasy.  The most prominent cases, some still with pending court rulings, are:

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The Shamala case

This case revolves around the custody of children when one parent becomes a Muslim. Using the ruling of the Syariah Court in May 2003 Shamala’s husband was able to take custody of their two children (2 years and 4 years) whom he converted to Islam. The present status of the case is that Shamala is appealing to the Court of Appeal to nullify the conversion. Both parents are applying for sole custody.

The Moorthy case

Kaliammal Sinnasamy, the widow of M. Moorthy, sought the right in the civil courts to bury her husband according to Hindu burial rites on the grounds that he had been a practising Hindu despite the contention by the Islamic religious authorities that he had converted to Islam before his death. On 28 December, the Appellate and Special Powers division of the High Court ruled that it had no jurisdiction over the Syariah Court decision, even though it affected Kaliammal’s rights. Moorthy was buried on 28 December 2005 according to Islamic rites.  

The Kamariah Ali case

The 51-year-old Kamariah Ali publicly renounced Islam after being continually prosecuted and jailed by religious authorities in Kelantan who accused her of deviating from the faith. Her case is currently with the Terengganu Syariah Court after a Federal Court ruling that it had no jurisdiction over her case.

The Nyonya Tahir case

Nyonya Tahir was born in 1918 and raised by her Malay grandmother and her Chinese grandfather who had converted to Islam. She married a Chinese man when she was 18 and practised Buddhism most of her life. The Syariah Court declared her to be a non-Muslim and she was buried according to Buddhist rites.

The Lina Joy case

Lina Joy was a Muslim who embraced Christianity in 1988. She applied to the National Registration Department for a change of name and religious status in 1997.  In 1998, the NRD allowed the name change, but not the change of religion. Lina Joy appealed against this decision in the High Court in 2001. The High Court ruled against the change of religion stating that the jurisdiction in conversion matters lies solely in the hands of the Syariah Court.  In 2004, Lina Joy’s case to the Court of Appeal was dismissed on the grounds that her renunciation of Islam was not confirmed by the Syariah Court or any other Islamic authority. Her case is now with the Federal Court pending a ruling. 

… to Article 11

The Article 11 coalition, which has now held or sponsored three forums entitled “The Federal Constitution: Protection for All”, have made their objectives rather plain. Referring to the cases above, they seek constitutional and legal resolution on the issue of freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution and clarity in jurisdiction of the Syariah and Civil courts on matters of religion. They have collected 20,000 signatures and presented this to the government. The coalition’s stated objectives, based on the federal constitution, are pretty transparent but clearly not acceptable to many Muslim organisations.

On two occasions when Article 11 forums were held, one in Penang and the other in Johor Baru, Muslims held demonstrations to protest the group’s alleged ‘hidden agenda’ to revive the moribund IFC.  Their own hidden agenda was perhaps to de-rail all the activities of the coalition. In Penang, protesters heckled the panelists, which included speakers such as Shad Saleem Faruqi, professor of constitutional law at UiTM, Imtiaz Malik of the Bar Council and Zaid Ibrahim, Kota Bharu Member of Parliament, and forced the forum to end early, without all the scheduled speakers having their say. Similarly, in Johor, the forum was ended early but all speakers were able to deliver their talks.


… to no more forums

The prime minister has since ordered all future Article 11 forums to be halted. This came on the heels of a reported 10,000 gathering of Muslims at the Masjid Wilayah on July 24. Among the personalities who spoke at the forum titled ‘The Syariah and Current Issues’ were former Bar Council presidents Sulaiman Abdullah and Zainur Zakaria, Perak mufti Harussani Zakaria, constitutional expert Abdul Aziz Bari and Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM) president Yusri Mohamad. Other speakers were Syariah lawyer Kamar Ainiah Kamaruzaman, former Penang mufti Sheikh Azmi Ahmad, and forum chairperson Azmi Abdul Hamid, who heads the Malay-advocacy group Teras.

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According to a Malaysiakini report (24 July 2006), the speakers called on the authorities to continue with what they said was the historic tendency to strengthen the country’s Islamic institutions and not weaken them. “We have every right to seek the continuation of this process of Islamisation,” said Teras’ Azmi Abdul Hamid, who also accused certain quarters of using apostasy to weaken that process. Among the resolutions passed at the forum were:

  • The Federal Constitution and other laws be strengthened to stop attempts to use the courts to weaken the position of Islam;
  • All Muslims should act in unison in defence of Islam;
  • Every threat to Islam signifies a threat to the dignity and position of the Malay Rulers who are the heads of Islam in every state and to the integrity of the Islamic institutions;
  • Efforts to overhaul and erode the position of Islam in the Constitution and national laws should be stopped;
  • Religious rights and freedoms should be understood in the framework of Islam, not according to individual inclinations;
  • All state and federal legislative assemblies should pass enactments that prevent the propagation to Muslims of religions other than Islam, and these should be implemented immediately.
  • Statements of support by certain Muslim leaders that Islam is an individual and private matter are of concern;
  • Malaysian Bar Council has taken a partisan stand without considering the views of Muslim lawyers who make up more than 40 percent of the Malaysian Bar. The Council, in the name of human rights, has interfered in Islamic matters and this goes against the objectives of the founding of the Council.


Sparks but no fires

Are we at a new threshold in ethnic relations? I believe so. At the core of this new context of ethnic relations is an intra-Malay, intra-Muslim debate and discourse over Islam and religious rights. One side says that Islam is getting too strong and is impinging negatively on the lives and rights of ordinary Malaysians and we should look to the constitution for guarantees of civil liberties and freedom of religion. Contrariwise, the other side says that there has been an erosion of the status of Islam and all questions of religious rights and freedoms must be cast in terms of the dominant status of Islam as official religion of the state. The second group often refers to the amendment to Article 121 (1A), which gives Syariah Courts full jurisdiction over questions of Islam.

Inevitably the implications of such a debate and its resolution or lack of resolution would impact on Muslim-non-Muslim (in the old mould, Malay-non-Malay) relations. Undeniably, Muslim-non-Muslim relations have also been greatly strained because of such cases as Moorthy, Shamala and Nona Tahir as evidenced by the non-Malay Cabinet ministers presenting a memorandum on these inter-faith issues to the prime minister. At the civil society level, the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism (MCCBCHS) has also been highly concerned about such inter-faith controversies and has supported the formation of the IFC. It is also a member of the group, Article 11.

If Malaysian society is at the new threshold of a changed context of ethnic relations, what then would be plausible directions for a new political understanding among the political class and within civil society? The political leadership seemingly has no appetite or gumption to tackle the problem. Instead the prime minister took umbrage over his non-Malay ministers’ memorandum and ‘resolved’ it in the usual authoritarian manner. By putting the lid on further discussion by Article 11, the prime minister seems to have given the Muslim forces reason to believe they have succeeded in winning this round of the debate. This changed context of ethnic relations suggests that a new conservative political ideology may become embedded in Malaysia’s plural society. In the old days, it was ‘ketuanan Melayu’. Is it now ketuanan Islam’?

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The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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