We have to stop looking at things through the lens of race and religion if we want to foster harmony in the country, says the interfaith council.
QUIET persuasion has always been the mode of choice for the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) when resolving potential racial and religious conflicts in the country.
With the rising cacophony of extreme voices lately, however, the council feels the time may have come for it to be as loud as the rabble-rousers, if not louder.
“The moderates have been quiet for far too long,” says MCCBCHST president Jagir Singh, evoking American civil rights fighter Martin Luther King Junior’s words, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
Not speaking up will be something we regret later, Jagir reiterates.
“The extremist groups are effective because they are loud. They grab newspaper headlines with their antics and fanatical words.”
But Jagir is not talking about getting into a war of words with the religious conservatives and ultra-racialists. Instead, the lawyer who is also a member of the National Unity Consultative Council is asking people to set the record straight when the extremists rant on erroneously and demand for justice when they think it is due.
Take the “kangkung protests” in Penang, he says.
“The kangkung (meme) caught on because the issue was about cost of living, something that concerns everyone. All the spoof videos tried to show how people are suffering from that, there were no racial undertones and no ethnicity was involved.
“But it was given a racial twist by some people and posters that said: ‘Please come and defend your race and ruler’ and so forth. How could this have happened? How can a simple matter like this be pulled into a racial issue?” Jagir laments, citing the protest by some ultra-Malay rights activists in retaliation of a Kangkung Flash Mob organised by a PKR politician in Penang last month.
Another is Seputeh MP Teresa Kok’s CNY greeting video. The video poked fun at a number of current issues that affect Malaysians, but again some chose to turn it into an issue of race and religion.
“Now, everything and anything can be turned into an issue of race and religion,” says Jagir, calling for everyone to reject anything that is wrongly judged through the lens of race and religion.
One concern is that this entrenched practice will hamper our freedom of speech and expression, he adds.
“Any issue that you bring up is turned into an issue of race and religion. How can we have a healthy debate if people are sensitive about everything?”
Ultimately, he stresses, our leaders need to come out and make a strong stand against, or put a stop to, the culture of seeing through the lens of race and religion.
“They need to just come out and say that we cannot continue to look at issues through the lens of race and religion. They cannot let basic economic issues or basic living issues be hijacked and turned into race and religion issues. But it will be difficult until the Government itself practises what it preaches.
“Jagir is nonetheless confident that the racial and religious tension permeating the country now will not escalate into real violence, yet.
Drawing on the Penang kangkung protest again, he opines that the ultra groups have not garnered support from the ordinary person on the street. They had called for 10,000 people to join them in the protest, he says, but only around 500 turned up.
“As I see it, although their posters incited violence – they had pictures of parangs in some of their posters – they were not able to fire up enough people. So, I don’t think they will be able to cause real violence, because the average Malaysian knows better. They don’t support these extremist groups.”
But he believes strongly that it is imperative for the authorities to take tough action on the “culprits” soon, if they want to prevent the simmering tension from exploding into full-blown violence.
The last few years have seen an emergence of new radical groups who harp on race and religion all the time, he claims. Worse, the silence and lack of action against them has given the impression that their radicalism is being condoned and supported by the authorities, Jagir alerts.
“Many feel the extremist groups seem to be getting away with it due the inaction of the authorities. Some of the groups’ comments are vicious and clearly seditious while many of them can be charged under the Penal Code Section 295-300 (for causing hatred and disunity among others). But no action whatsoever has been taken against them, giving the ordinary man the impression that the higher-ups are involved or that they are giving their blessings for those brewing up tension.”
If our top leaders really want to foster harmony, they need to show they not only can walk the talk, but also do it fairly.
“They have to show that they are not giving the extremist groups impunity from the law. They also have to show that there is no selective enforcement and persecution for racial and religious issues – if anybody has broken the law, the authorities need to enforce it, only then will people get the message,” he argues.
How did we get here?
Malaysia has worked hard to build a global reputation as a model of multicultural and multi-religious harmony in the last 50 years.
However, our image as a moderate Muslim country is taking a beating.
A recent report by Washington-based research organisation Pew Research Centre alleged “that the Malaysian government sets very high restrictions on religion that are on par with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Afghanistan.”
According to the report, although our Federal Constitution (Article 11) provides for “freedom of religion”, there is a “substantial contradiction” and only some religious practices are protected.
The report said the Government prohibits worship or religious practices of one or more religious groups as a general policy, adding that Malaysia’s government has also preferred one religious group over others, and deferred in some way to religious authorities, texts or doctrines on legal issues.
Religious issues have been driving a wedge into the society, it highlights, pointing at the ongoing “Allah” dispute as one dividing factor, pushing the majority Malay-Muslims and the “minority” non-Muslims on opposite poles.
Jagir agrees that the “Allah” issue needs to be resolved soon before the divide grows deeper and to prevent any more religious vigilante acts like the recent Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (Jais) raid on the Bible Society of Malaysia. (Jais seized 331 copies of Malay-language and Iban-language Bibles.)
He feels at times like this, a neutral mediator is needed – a role that the Government can play.
“We need to come to a compromise, and the Government can take a strong but neutral position to help us come to that compromise. At the very least the leaders should get advice from independent legal and international experts before making an informed decision,” he says.
A “fair compromise” for him, says Jagir, would be that “the word Allah could be used by anybody, during a prayer within a house of worship. But its use cannot be abused, such as for proselytisation, or be used in a derogatory manner.”
Drawing on the Sikh Holy Scriptures, where the word “Allah” is mentioned 44 times, he said, “I don’t know what will happen if our holy books are seized too, because there is no way the word can be excluded since we believe our holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, is pure and not tampered with, just like the holy Quran for Muslims.”
The Guru Granth Sahib is a collection of teachings and writings by the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, and other Gurus as well as Hindu and Muslim saints.
Jagir, who is also the Malaysian Gurdwara Council president, said that Sikhs throughout the world have used the word for the past six centuries.
“Even in the Gurdwara, if we use the word Allah wrongly, God will punish us. So don’t be scared that we are abusing it. We hold our Book in so much reverence in our prayers, within the house of worship.”
He adds that several provisions in the Federal Constitution (under Article 11) guarantee that every religious group had the right to profess and practise its religion as well as manage its own affairs, to acquire and own property and to hold and administer it in accordance with the law.
And while Article 11 (4) permits state legislature to restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine among Muslims, Syariah Law has no jurisdiction over non-Muslims.
“You can’t tell us how we should pray in our house of worship. It is only wrong if we are promoting Sikhism to the Muslims.”
He reiterates that the authorities need to take stern action against those who violate the constitution.
“For example, if someone breaks into the house of worship of others, then he is the aggressor. The police must take action against him and enforce the law.”
Jagir reminisces over the days when religious conservatism was rare.
“Before the 1970s, the centre (of the social political spectrum or the moderates) was strong. Then, all the races could be like brother and sister. After 1970, something happened. The fatwas started coming in, separating Muslims and non-Muslims. We even have a fatwa that says visiting non-Muslim houses is disallowed.
“This is when we started seeing things through a racial lens. Islamisation started. Everything was being identified through religion and race.”
A step that we can take towards fostering better interfaith understanding is to embody its basic principles, he says.
“The basic requirement is that each of us must respect the diversity of the religions and cultures in the country. We should also accept that all religions are revelations of God – that they come from God and came into existence only by the will of God. If you accept that we are all the creation of the one creator, you accept that cultures are also the will of God. So, the diversity and plurality that we see in the country is also the will of God.”
“If God wanted, he could have created one single culture and race but in his wisdom he created many cultures and races. In the universe there are many species of animals and plants. So when we look at the creation, we can see that it is a blessing.”
He adds that the difference must be seen as a blessing. “It will enhance the beauty of the country. It can bring more tourism and foreign investment into the country.”
The introduction of policies that work on the base of race has also inadvertently made negative impacts on the country, he opines.
“Racial discrimination is now institutionalised in society, and the divide will be perpetuated if we don’t tackle it right away,” he says.
Just look at our civil service, he explains. “We have seen a decline in the intake of non- Malays into the civil service. The civil service should reflect the different cultural heritage and ethnicity of the country that should give an indication to the people that we want to be together and in harmony.”
Another institution that needs to be reviewed is the Biro Tata Negara (National Civics Bureau) or simply BTN, an agency of the Malaysian government in the Prime Minister’s Department.
“I estimate more than three million people have gone through the BTN. And we have heard so much about the indoctrination of BTN.”
Jagir says the best way back for Malaysia is to move to the centre.
“We need to rehabilitate all institutions if we want to go forward. They need to function without discrimination. We need equality. In the long run, it will be in the best interest of the country. If you are not competitive in the present world, Malaysia will lose out in the global economy.”
One way is to fall back to the principles of our founding fathers who agreed that equality would be the basis of the country when they wanted to unite people for Merdeka, says Jagir.
“If one group considers itself to be more superior, how can we have unity? There can only be unity when there is equality.
“Even in religion, it is stated that everyone is created equal.”
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