By Chin Yee Whah
While we are proud of our multi-racial and religious diversity, these very elements have also created tension among our societies for decades.
Unequal access to economic and education opportunities, and the treatment of ethnic minorities as second-class citizens, among others, are factors that persistently cause a divide between bumiputra and non-bumiputra.
The unilateral conversions of minors to Islam received much media coverage. It certainly hit a vulnerable spot of sensitivity, jeopardising inter-ethnic and inter-religious understanding and tolerance.
Adding fuel to this is the unwanted narrow mindedness of certain politicians displaying their shallow level of tolerance of cultural practices – whether done in ignorance or to achieve vested political interests, one can never be too sure.
Will our multi-racial society continue to withstand the growing dominance of the majority race, or would the supposed cohesiveness enshrined in our Constitution slowly erode over time with frequent unresolved tensions?
As we celebrate our Malaysia Day, let us reflect on what has bound us together as a nation since its formation and how we can progressively sustain building our nation in a multi-racial and multi-religious setting.
Issues and responses
The recent news about the unilateral conversions of Loh Siew Hong’s three underage children by her Muslim ex-husband is not new.
Loh’s case reminds us of Indira Gandhi’s nine-year legal custody battle for her children. In 2018 the Federal Court nullified Indira’s children’s unilateral conversion to Islam by her Muslim ex-husband.
They were other legal battles involving unilateral conversions: for example, S Deepa’s and S Shamala’s children, after their respective husbands converted to Islam.
The cases of unilateral conversion of minors to Islam inevitably trigger tension between non-Muslims and Muslims.
Such cases often spark an outburst of public anger at all levels, ranging from NGOs to influential groups, academics, professionals and individuals in the mainstream and social media. They often challenge what they view as biased justice as families unnecessarily get torn apart.
Such social tensions fray our delicate social fabric, widening the divide between non-Muslims and Muslims.
Things get worse when political parties exploit these opportunities for selfish gain. They provide no clear solution to the issue, but fan the flames of ethnic tension. The old divide-and-rule practice, instituted by our colonial masters, continues in this manner.
Hitherto, only one Muslim MP, Nazri Aziz, voiced his disagreement to the unilateral conversion of children to Islam.
The government seems indolent not only in Loh’s case but also in previous cases. Its reticent approach to the public’s anger and frustration over the unilateral conversion of minors certainly raises questions if they are being swayed by politics, rather than the Constitution.
Although the High Court accorded Loh custodial rights for her three children, their religious status remains unclear.
Rather than remaining irresolute, the government should firmly uphold the Federal Constitution and abide by the 2018 Federal Court decision in Indira Gandhi’s case, which had nullified the unilateral conversion of any child under 18 to another religion.
A reflection of the development and success of Malaysia as a multi-racial and multi-religious country since its formation is pivotal. The backbone for unity among the people is the Federal Constitution. This Constitution has bound us together for six decades.
Countless campaigns and plans come up every year leading to Malaysia Day, yet cohesive unity remains a distant dream. Will this year’s Malaysia Day be no different from last year, or the year before?
Last year, the government launched a national unity plan. The backbone of the plan is the Federal Constitution and the Rukun Negara (guiding principles of the nation).
The unity plan highlights the importance of our history and the spirit behind both the Federal Constitution and the Rukun Negara. It also gives importance to the need for these to be appreciated and accepted by all levels of society.
Retrospectively, let us learn how we have coexisted as a multi-racial and multi-religious nation. Let us trust wisdom to prevail in dealing with issues involving religion and ethnicity.
For a united Malaysian society, the authorities must uphold the Federal Constitution. Uphold the doctrine of the separation of powers.
The government must act according to guidelines outlined in the national unity plan to foster, strengthen and preserve harmony and unity among all Malaysians.
For a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural society, unity must be the main agenda to guarantee peace and sustainable development in the country.
Role of government and civil society
To strengthen our social cohesion and national unity, we must see the government and society as a duality. Both must work together to defuse any inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions.
Every level of society must play its role in making intentional efforts to strengthen the social cohesion we already have. Use the existing diversity to strengthen our nation socially and economically and prevent irresponsible quarters from exploiting it to divide us.
With proper tolerance and acceptance of one another, we have lived in peace, stability and harmony. Since the birth of our nation, our forefathers have defended and nurtured our pluralistic society.
Malaysians successfully fought against the communists during the ‘Emergency’. We also maintained the sovereignty of our nation during the undeclared war or the “Confrontation” when Indonesia sent its military to attempt a coup. We were then a fragile but united nation.
We have also outlined the same commitment and recognition of our diversity in the “shared prosperity” vision for 2030; ‘Unity in diversity’ suggests a continual effort to make the people more appreciative of the diverse ethnicities, religions and cultural backgrounds in Malaysia, making this as the foundation of the nation state. The people would also benefit from a fair economic distribution across income groups, ethnicities, regions and supply chains.
Healing the nation
Conflicts and tensions will always exist, but we must learn to tolerate and identify the whats and the whys. Truthful social diagnosis will often also lead to the hows or potential solutions.
It is equally important that decisions and actions taken by the government must be in line with the policy of national unity for Malaysia to achieve a united, harmonious and prosperous nation.
Perhaps the spirit of keluarga Malaysia (Malaysian family) can find its relevance in healing the nation if the government leads by example. Otherwise, it will be just another Malaysian cliché – another slogan by another leader.
All religious groups and personalities must work towards harmoniously resolving the tensions that have prevailed.
All of us share a stake in this nation. It belongs to all Malaysians and we must therefore push for the nation to heal – empathy, understanding, tolerance and respect for each other are key to defusing any inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions.
Malaysians came together as a nation, regardless of our backgrounds, during the recent Covid pandemic. Despite the many limitations, we pulled through.
I choose to believe that Bangsa Malaysia (a sense of being Malaysian) is our DNA. Let’s not only live out Bangsa Malaysia during hard times; let’s enjoy our diversity and one another as we celebrate independence and Malaysia Day.
Professor Chin Yee Whah from Universiti Sains Malaysia, an Aliran member, chairs the social cohesion and national unity cluster of the Academy of Professors Malaysia