Categorised | Commentary, News

Malay rights, Islam and royalty

(Ahmad Ismail pic courtesy of Oriental Daily)

HARDLY a year goes by in Malaysia without some kind of public dispute involving race and religion. The issue for 2010: “Allah“. 2009: Cow-head protesters and Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno‘s whipping sentence. 2008: Datuk Ahmad Ismail and his “pendatang” slurs against non-Malay Malaysians. 2007: Lina Joy‘s contentious conversion out of Islam.

These have all been issues of national importance, but attempts to resolve them through dialogue and discussion have repeatedly been thwarted by politicians and non-state agents. The conversation stoppers that have been employed have been, unsurprisingly, Malay rights; the religion of Malays in Malaysia, Islam; and every now and again, Malay royalty.

Why are arguments affecting public interest constantly linked back to Islam and Malay Malaysians by the most tenuous of connections? And why is royalty being invoked even when a public interest issue, such as the whipping of Kartika Sari Dewi Sukarno, is being debated by concerned citizens?

Perhaps it is because it is convenient to hide behind topics that are deemed to be unquestionable. The “special position of Malays” under the constitution has today been rephrased as inalienable “Malay rights”. Islam is God’s law and hence cannot be questioned. And to “raise discontent or disaffection” towards the monarchy would be seditious.

But hasn’t the whole “this is a threat to Malays and Islam” argument just been one gigantic red herring to avoid discussing real issues with real facts and sound arguments?

Asli report

Take the 2006 Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (Asli) report, for instance. A study prepared by internationally recognised Malaysian academics revealed that bumiputera equity ownership could be as high as 45% and not 18.9% as claimed by the government. This was more than the 30% bumiputera equity target under the New Economic Policy (NEP).

Asli’s then research director, Dr Lim Teck Ghee, also said there was clear evidence that bumiputera wealth had accrued in the hands of an elite group. His study advocated new policies to ensure sustained economic growth and more equitable distribution methods.

The study was soundly lambasted by the government, which declared that its methodology was wrong. Asli’s president Mirzan Mahathir withdrew the report, and Lim resigned in protest.

As the “this is a threat to Malay rights” argument began, the factual debate on the matter ended.

“[Asli] should correct the facts and figures because it could confuse the Malays,” said Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Mohd Rustam

“Let’s not draw up a report that triggers anger [among many people] and then simply concede to having made mistakes. The damage is done already,” said then Umno Youth deputy head Khairy Jamaluddin.

“I am very sceptical about the study which has been carried out by a particular race. They (the race) usually have their own agendas,” said Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia political science professor Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin

“If we make baseless statements it just hurts people’s feelings. Why would we do something like that?” said former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Amid the furore, the real issues raised by the report were completely lost.

What was the government’s methodology in calculating corporate equity ownership? Why was there a big discrepancy between the government’s figure and Asli’s? Why couldn’t the government make fully public the methodologies, classifications and assumptions it relied on?

Certainly, it was far easier for Umno leaders to use the red herring of “Malay rights” than to actually justify and rectify its policies about the NEP. And that they did.

Suqiu memorandum

Mahathir (Pic by Samsul Said @ Flickr)
Or take the 1999 Suqiu memorandum by a group of Chinese Malaysian organisations, which the cabinet reportedly accepted unconditionally prior to the general election that year.

The memorandum called for the introduction of needs-based instead of race-based affirmative action. It also called for reforms to improve women and indigenous people’s rights, to curb corruption, and for the abolishment of the Internal Security Act.

However, a few months later, reports said Suqiu was apparently intent on “abolishing Malay privileges”. Then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad compared them to communists and extremists in his national day speech on 31 Aug 2000. Demonstrations were held to force Suqiu to retract its statements.  

Any chance for rational debate on their proposal’s merits was thereafter lost.


It is becoming more apparent that the “threat to Malay and Muslim Malaysians” argument has really short-circuited our nation’s thinking process.

When Sisters in Islam and other women’s groups questioned whether it was fair, humane and just for Kartika to be caned for consuming alcohol, it was declared an insult to Islam. How showing compassion is insulting to Islam is, of course, never quite explained.

When civil society tried to organise interfaith dialogues to promote better understanding and harmonious living among Malaysians of different faiths, it was also an “insult to Islam”.

When pop band Michael Learns to Rock was scheduled to perform in Malaysia during the fasting month, Umno’s rival, PAS, branded the concert an insult to Islam.

And of course, when Catholic paper Herald sued the Home Ministry for banning the use of “Allah” in its publication, it was an insult to Islam.

An insult to Islam? A threat to Malay rights and the position of Malay royalty? Is that the best we can offer out of the contentious issues we face as a nation?

Holding on to power

When can we move beyond the constructed fear that non-Malay, non-Muslim Malaysians are hell-bent on threatening Islam and Malay rights, and that, by extension, the position of Malay royalty is also threatened?

Do our political leaders believe that by repeatedly silencing different views through fear-mongering rhetoric and feudalistic attitudes,  they can hold on to power forever? Wouldn’t it be more sustainable for power to be maintained through citizens’ genuine support for government policies and actions?

(Pic by Amparo Torres @ Flickr)
For now, in the name of Malay rights, Islam, and Malay royalty, dissenting voices are being silenced. Problems affecting minority rights are dismissed. And long-festering differences are swept under the carpet of Malay superiority.

And while our politicians continue with these tactics, we should be troubled by the signs. How did Malaysia become a country where, in the name of Malay rights, Islam, and Malay royalty, a non-Malay citizen asking for equality or a Muslim seeking compassion is demanding too much?

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15 Responses to “Malay rights, Islam and royalty”

  1. juzthinking says:

    Great writing. It seems that one of the easiest way to overcome a difficult question is through diversion. The great Houdini used this to mesmerize the Americans and the world at large. Hence, this tactic has become the torch for those who choose not to engage in intelligent but difficult argument. It has been used in Malaysia ever since, from the government to the ordinary teachers in school. Try questioning them further and they will resort to diversion tactic if they are not able to argue effectively. I cry for my country.

  2. “How showing compassion is insulting to Islam is, of course, never quite explained.”

    This is the only thing that I must disagree with, and the author should be fair in not misrepresenting the arguments of others, even if it makes one uncomfortable.

    Caning is understood to be a legitimate form of punishment in syariah. The debate only lies in whether it is appropriate to be used in contemporary times, with most of the debate among Islamic scholars overwhelmingly pro-caning. To date, the only significant opposition I’ve heard to syariah punishments deemed inhumane is Tariq Ramadan’s call for a moratorium on stoning, but I don’t think he mentioned anything about caning.

    Personally, I’m appalled at how people have started to intimidate SIS by launching into a series of police reports, but I wouldn’t dismiss the very real theological debates that hang behind the issue of syariah punishments. The fact is that society must be civil enough and committed enough to accept that there will be diverse views on religious matters, and to settle those issues through constant debate, not by trying to silence the opponent.

  3. Joy Lina says:

    NO COMMENT. I am very afraid as they can charge me with sedition, [or put me under] ISA for [speaking about] Malay rights, for insulting Islam, for insulting [the] Sultan, and etc.

  4. Nicholas Aw says:

    The non-Muslims can argue until the cows come home but one thing is for sure: the mindset of the [some] Muslims will never change as they operate on a one-track frequency. These are the people who feel insecure and fearful of threats to religion and race. They will go to whatever extent it takes to “protect” Islam and the Malay race. This feeling of insecurity is all in the mind.

    If Christians are out to propagate Christianity, I believe all those Muslims who attended Mission schools run by the La Salle and Marist brothers and the nuns would have been converted. As it was, many of our prominent Malay leaders – past and present – are products of these schools and are still devout Muslims.

    I am of the opinion that the rights of non-bumiputra citizens have been eroded further with the start of the Mahathir regime. Despite many leaving the country including bumiputras, creating a brain-drain, the government is still in denial mode. On the contrary, leaders like one Chief Minister who with tongue in cheek boldly stated that the bumiputras do not need the non-bumiputras (Indians and Chinese) and that they can go back to India and China for all he cares. Statements like this do not do any good for racial harmony and tolerance.

    As it is those who migrate are those who can afford it. I believe many more would have left the country if they could afford it. Alas, the majority are wage earners who are [eking] a living and would probably stay on right up to their dying days.

    It is sad that Malaysia is in this present state. Quoting Shakespeare, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”.

  5. eureka! says:

    if you analyse the message of the BN to Malay [Malaysians], it is not that they are superior.
    It is that they are weak: (they need NEP and affirmative action). But just look around you especially in the golf courses…

    That they are threatened…but just look at who is the head of judiciary, head of the police, head of a state, head of the army, head of the banks, heads of the universities…

    That they are of low intelligence (easily confused) – how they can keep on propagating this untruth without upsetting Malay [Malaysians] is really beyond me.

    That they are of little faith (easily converted) is again an insult to Malay [Malaysians].

  6. Anonymous Coward says:

    It’s funny how, in the course of Palestinian solidarity, the Malay [Malaysians] have identified themselves as anti-Zionists. Certainly, such a position is very noble and understandable, given the plight of the Palestinians. And yet, in their own way, the Malay [Malaysians] have become that which they hate: the Zionists.

    Whenever anyone criticizes the policies of Israel, there will be those who play the Holocaust card and the anti-Semitism card. Usually, when this happens, the critics are silenced. In their own way, the Malays have adopted this practice by putting themselves in a constant state of siege mentality, never mind that there is no empirical evidence that suggests they should be.

    I call on my Malay [Malaysian] brothers and sisters to stop this practice; stop silencing people who bring up important issues to discuss. It is in our own interests that we face reality and to tackle it head-on. It is simply time that we own up to our supposed “ketuanan” and lead this country out of its terrible state.

    No one else will do it and there are no magic formulas to memorize. We simply have to work together and solve our problems.

  7. nonensical says:

    They introduced Bahasa as medium of instruction to unite Malaysians? This language is now a source of disunity!

  8. minority says:

    Good propaganda, we need articles like this to support the tyranny of the minority and to stir up the sentiments of the majority. Majority does not count here in Malaysia, we don’t need democracy. The minority rules here, and has ruled even before Independence. Thank you, TNG, for this cheap propaganda, otherwise it would have been very expensive for us to start one. We MINORITIES are the biggest Tyrant in Malaysia. We are proud to be one.

  9. sam hu says:

    Thank you for succinctly summarising the tactics of the ruling elite to the underlying three “no fly zones” – race (only one race by the way), religion (also only one religion) and royalty.

    Allow me to add another – the “dumbing down” of the population through the total dismantling of the education system the British left us, and what we have today is just another means by which the elite control the people. After all, dumb people can’t think for themselves, can’t reason, are illogical, and most importantly can’t question and can be easily misled.

    Is it any wonder that Malaysia is left behind her peers from the 1960s and 70s – Singapore, Korea, and Taiwan. There’s only so much that a country can do with an uneducated population in a globalised working world. If not for oil, I fear Malaysia would just be another failed state.

  10. Sam says:

    If there were no Chinese [Malaysians] in this country, would this country be what it is today? It will be as rich as Haiti or Papua New Guinea? Would Malaysia be prosperous as it is today if not for the Chinese [Malaysians] who propelled our economy?
    Would there be money to pay the Malay [Malaysian] civil service if not the the Chinese [Malaysian] tax payers? Umno Malay [Malaysians] have become a very insecure race, living in fear [with] no confidence in itself.

  11. U-Jean says:

    Here’s a riddle:

    Q: What do SIS, interfaith dialogues, MLTR, and Herald have in common?
    A: They’re all “insults to Islam”!

    One day, even not being Muslim will be an insult to Islam. Wait, it has already happened with Lina Joy!

  12. Gopal Raj Kumar says:

    My greatest fear is that the provocation which extends beyond the Catholic Herald (which may not have been intended the way it has turned out) has become a platform for opportunists from within an aggressive and vocal minority of non-Malay [Malaysians] to antagonise Malay-Muslim [Malaysian] sentiment to a point they will react in a manner likely to repeat 13 May 1969.

    The pseudo-intellectual liberal media, of which yours is one, carries on with symbols and statements likely to give rise to such a situation.

    The use of the word Allah in a manner likely to give rise to passions and sentiments already near boiling point over the yet-to-be resolved and controversial High Court decision is a case in point.

    The exercise of restraint at a time such as this is a sign of maturity and genuine understanding of the issues that divide.

    It matters not who is right and who is wrong and by whose standards. It matters that public safety and harmony prevail at any cost till matters are resolved in a more civilised manner rather than through provocation.


    If and when such a situation occurs, there won’t be B52 bombers flying over KL or the Marines or 81st Airborne comming to the rescue. It did not happen in Indonesia prior to Suharto’s downfall in spite of Indonesia’s enormous strategic importance to the US and the West.

    Think of those people who are apolitical and who have no interest in these matters in our midst who often find themselves victims of a situation engineered by publications like yours who freely allow the venting of unsubstantiated, provocative material demeaning of others. Think.

    Patience must never be taken to be the virtue of idiots. A dormant volcano is only dormant till it explodes.

    Gopal Raj Kumar

  13. Merah Silu says:

    I can see that the issue about “Allah” is now being used as another platform to critise Malays and Umno. It is known that Yahweh, Jesus and Allah have been used to refer to the god of Jews, Christians and Islam. “Allah” is the name used by Muslims to refer to their one and only god, whether in Malay, English, Farsi, Chinese, Kazakh, etc. I don’t think the Malays will made a strong objection if “Allah” is used in the Bible of all languages. So, the exclusive use of “Allah” in the Malay language for Christians is the main issue. Futhermore, “Allah” itself is an Arabic word, and the translation of the word “god” in Malay is “tuhan”.

    @Sam wrote:
    “If there were no Chinese [Malaysians] in this country, would this country be what it is today? It will be as rich as Haiti or Papua New Guinea? Would Malaysia be prosperous as it is today if not for the Chinese [Malaysians] who propelled our economy? Would there be money to pay the Malay [Malaysian] civil service if not the the Chinese [Malaysian] tax payers? Umno Malay [Malaysians] have become a very insecure race, living in fear [with] no confidence in itself.”

    Well, Sam, we come back to this issue again. We all agree that the Chinese, Indian and other immigrants contribute significantly to this country. However, I wish Umno did not make that fatal mistake by agreeing to grant the citizenship to the economic-seeking-immigrants during Merdeka. I wish these immigrants could continue their life peacefully just like the Indonesian, Bangla and others. To Malays, this is their land, and of course they feel threatened to see the descendants of immigrants starting to dominate the political aspects of life in this country. They realise the new generation of Chinese and Indians no longer appreciate the generosity given by the Malays before. And they see Singapore as a good example of what has happened to Malays.

    But sincerely, this country will be better developed without these immigrants. The Malays do not need to share the country’s wealth with them anymore, and the people would not have the problem of identity. I would be the happiest person if they decided to return to their motherland, or migrate to other countries. However, as long as we are the citizens of this country, we need to follow the rules and regulations and make sure that we can live in peace and harmony.

  14. CS says:

    I deal nowadays with mid to senior level Malay [Malaysian] civil servants a fair bit and it never fails to surprise me the initial suspicion that is apparent on their demeanour when we first meet. But of course after about an hour of interaction and a display of genuineness on my part, that suspicion is almost always replaced with openess and respect. If it only takes about an hour of interaction for years of indoctrination to be set aside, I think the solution is less talk and more attempts and opportunities for interaction to remove the carpet from under the feet of these politicians.

  15. aizley says:

    In accordance with the constitution, anything to do with Malay [Malaysians] is protected by Article 153 and Article 10 para 4.4, which clearly states that non-Muslims have no right even to question the special position of Malay [Malaysians], ie Islam.

    Other laws curtailing the freedoms of Article 10 are the Police Act 1967, which criminalises the gathering of three or more people in a public place without a license, and the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, which grants the Home Affairs Minister “absolute discretion” in the granting and revoking of publishing permits, and also makes it a criminal offense to possess a printing press without a license.

    The Sedition Act in particular has been widely commented upon by jurists for the bounds it places on freedom of speech. Justice Raja Azlan Shah (later the Yang di-Pertuan Agong) once said: “The right to free speech ceases at the point where it comes within the mischief of the Sedition Act”.

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