Race and Religion on the Boil Again in Malaysia

Ethnic and religious tensions may be rising again in Malaysia after having largely been set aside by the political shock that followed the March 8 general election that nearly toppled the country’s ruling national coalition.

With the United Malays National Organisation weakened by an internal power struggle and its poor showing in the last general election, critics say the party is again intensifying its racial and religious rhetoric. The party is particularly worried about an August by-election in Penang that is expected to see Anwar return to parliament, possibly to claim power for the opposition. Anwar was sacked as deputy prime minister and finance minister by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and jailed for six years on charges of abuse of power and sodomy. The sodomy conviction, which is largely seen as trumped-up, was eventually overturned in 2004 and Anwar was released.

Partly because two Malay parties, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People’s Justice Party, headed by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, and the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, are allied in an opposition coalition, tensions between Malays and ethnic Chinese and Indians have been deferred as a political issue by UMNO in recent months. The population is about 50 percent Malay, 24 percent Chinese, 7 percent Indian and 11 percent indigenous and others.

But two incidents in the last week have raised concerns. The first was last Saturday when a forum organized by Malaysia’s Bar Council to discuss the overlapping jurisdictions of civil and shariah courts was halted abruptly as scores of protesters from Muslim organizations barged into the hall.

A man who said he was from UMNO, the leading party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, grabbed the microphone and shouted: "We want to give advice ‑ next time, don't have things like this that challenge the people of Islam."

About 1,000 demonstrators, including activists from UMNO and PAS, gathered outside the Bar Council building holding placards that read "Don't challenge Islam," "Long live Islam" and "Bar Council, don't play with fire”; racial slurs like "pig", "traitor" and "go back to China" were also thrown about.

Then, this week hundreds of ethnic Malay students demonstrated at the office of the new Selangor State Chief Minister Khalid Ibrahim, a member of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat, after he suggested that 10 percent of Universiti Technologi Mara slots be opened to non-Malay and foreign students. The demonstrations, which accused Khalid of selling out the Malay race, were sparked university vice-chancellor Ibrahim Abu Shah, and the UMNO minister of higher education, Khaled Nordin.

The incident last Saturday spurred Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi to threaten use of the Sedition Act and the draconian Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial, on those who discuss "sensitive" matters of race and religion. Abdullah told the local media on Monday: "That which is enshrined in the Federal Constitution need not be discussed."

"If there is insufficient evidence to act, then there will be no action [by the government],” Badawi said. “But if there is hard evidence for action to be taken, then it's up to the KDN [Home Ministry] to decide."

Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, deputy president of the UMNO women's wing, told reporters last week that she had declared "jihad" against the opposition Pakatan Alliance in the Penang by-election. "It is a jihad because this individual [Anwar] should not be given the chance to destroy the country’s political stability and prosperity. If we allow him to lead the country, he would lead us to destruction," she told reporters.

Relations between the three parties in the opposition coalition also have been occasionally strained by religious and cultural tensions. In early July, PAS followers set upon the leader of a Malay punk band called Carburetor Dung at an opposition protest rally after he turned his back and dropped his pants in the middle of a song. The musician had to be rescued by police after he was beaten with bottles.

Prior to the March election, tensions rose over several issues, including a long and unsuccessful campaign by a Malay woman named Lina Joy to have her religion changed to Christian on her identity card, which is against the law for ethnic Malays. In political rallies, UMNO politicians often referred to the necessity of so-called “Ketuanan Melayu” or Malay superiority.

Meanwhile, the government has accused Christian church newsletters of delving into politics and degrading Islam. The Herald, a Catholic weekly with about 12,000 readers, received a show cause letter on July 16 from the Home Ministry over a June 22 article, “America and Jihad,” questioning if it degraded Muslims. Che Din Yusof, of the government’s Publications Control and Al-Quran Texts Unit said that the "reminder” was not a show-cause letter, per se, but was issued because the newsletter "focused on political issues on Anwar Ibrahim."

"In our reply to an earlier warning letter from the same person… we remarked that the Home Ministry had not defined the concept of religion in the application form for the renewal of printing permit, nor is there a definition of religion found in the Federal Constitution,” wrote Father Lawrence Andrew, the editor of the publication, in an editorial. “ So we asked them to point out where we had gone wrong. We are awaiting their reply."

He defended the article, saying it does not degrade Islam or any other religion. "The article was an ethical analysis about the world after the Sept 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers," he told Malaysiakini, one of the top local political news Web sites, on Monday.

The Herald was already put on notice last December when the government attempted to force it to stop using the world “Allah” interchangeably for “God” in its Malay language pages, charging that use of the word might confuse Muslims. The government eventually backed away from the ban.