|The following interesting letter is found in Malaysiakini dated June 6, 2007 and I believe it is worthy as food for thought: |
Malaysia need not go Lebanon’s way
The Lina Joy case has brought into light Malaysia's U-turn from being a secular state. It is an acknowledgment of a reality that many find unpalatable and I believe, an equal number may find comforting.
In 1992, the year I entered university in Kuala Lumpur, the trend was clearly underway. The clearest sign of a significant social shift could be witnessed in increasing numbers of female students taking to wearing the veil. Most did it out of peer pressure but there was a significant number who did it out of conviction that somehow they had connected with an international movement associated, at that time, with Bosnians prosecuted for their religious faith. (The following year Bosnian Muslim refugees visited Universiti Malaya).
By 1996, the year the Internet made its appearance in campus, the idea that the veil was accompanied by a distinct-type of attitude was firmly entrenched. There was a clear schism in social interactions. As an English-educated Chinese person, I was in between a growing ethnocentrism and an emergent middle-class bourgeois Islamism. The gap was too wide to bridge. Today, that gap is a chasm.
Just before he left office, Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced that PAS' platform was no longer relevant. Malaysia was, by all accounts, an Islamic state. Of course, to the fundamentalists, this was nonsense but today, reality speaks louder than words. We are an Islamic state in the most awkward sense of the term. Malaysia is an Islamic state when it comes to its Muslims and a secular state when it deals with its non-Muslims. Through adaptation to local conditions, this strange double-feature of our legal system has emerged. But this is an untenable bifurcation as the civil service, including the law courts, are increasingly dominated by Muslims.
Today, the problem is not felt by non-Muslims but by some Muslims themselves. Why, a Malay friend asks, should Malays be restricted by another set of rules? The answer is quite simple (again in Mahathir's words): it is the price a Malay pays for his privileges. This view is based on the fact that Malay rights and Umno dominance cannot be upheld without the pairing of religion and ethnicity. PAS will never come to power if the Islamic state it promotes gives equality to all Muslims regardless of ethnicity for then, the non-Muslims might convert and then where will the Malays be?
But this is not a long term solution. Optimists will say that this is but another example of Malaysian adaptation, its flexibility that has so far ensured its survival. Think of our two educational systems, our public and private sectors, our mutually exclusive lives.
There was another country, some decades ago, that had a similar bifurcation in many aspects of its national life. It flourished for a while but then got mired in larger international wars. Lebanon was one of the Arab world's most progressive states but today it is in shambles.
Malaysia need not go down that road. But neither can we take for granted the freedom that we have to determine our national development. From the standpoint of Malaysians who believe in secularism and the idea that the ‘church’ and state should be mutually exclusive, it is obvious that this aim is not really achievable. For the Islamists who believe in a full-Islamic state, a theocracy where mullahs decide on public policy, the fight will be self-destructive.
Recent history has shown that Malaysians are a docile lot. A people who ‘forget easily’ the mistakes of government, the trespasses of politicians. We all have what the Malays call a ‘tolak ansur’ (push and retreat) attitude.
But this is not historically always true. Not when both groups feel their back is to the wall. There are some Muslims who feel that they have already compromised too much and there are non- Muslims who feel cheated by the promises of nation-building participation. There is very little middle ground between the two groups.
In such a situation, it is easy to give in to despair. But doing so leaves the real problem untreated. The more we bicker amongst ourselves, the more likely we are to be left behind globally. The more distracted we are about politics, the less we focus on the important issue of transforming our
workforce so that it can better integrate into an economy beyond manufacturing.
There is also the issue of recycling and future water and energy woes. Perhaps, if we paused for just a few minutes a day, we might realise that we have to deal with all these important issues.
But alas, a frog in a well, as an old Malay proverb tells us, has its eyes fixed only on the sky.