Friday, April 13, 2007

Pluralism in Islam: Lessons from Malaysia

Pluralism works in Malaysia because Malaysia is a tolerant society says Professor Dato Dr Khoo Kay Kim

Dr Khoo Kay Kim, who wrote the Rukunegara - the Malaysian pledge of allegiance, painted a very rosy picture of the tolerant Malaysian society at a seminar earlier this evening.

Whilst we idealise a society should be tolerant of other faiths and groups events highlight the opposite. Malaysia has been through several major ethnic riots the biggest one being in 1969, which gave rise to the Rukenegara (1970). The government of Malaysia is by far a fair one; it is known to suppress its Chinese minority and the ethnic tension in the country still poses a huge problem for the Malaysians, this was admitted by Prime Minister Badawi just last month.


Against this backdrop Dr Kim was still hopeful that Malaysia should be seen as an exemplar of a pluralistic state, and a Muslim one at that. The talk was a contradiction in many parts, he claimed the Malaysians mixed unlike the British (and even the Indonesians); the Chinese, the Malays and the Indians integrated very well.

The Chinese in Malaysia make up a significant minority whilst the Malays constitute half the population, the Chinese make a quarter of it. However, 90% of Chinese students study in all-Chinese speaking schools, leaving them very little room to mix with their Malay "brothers."

Dr Kim supported his tolerant society with facts such as, the longest line of Buddha statues in the whole world existed in Kelantan, a Muslim party stronghold in Malaysia. He claimed only in Malaysia you could have such a situation, pluralism at its best almost, and hence tolerance exists amongst the Malaysian people...

However, Political parties in Malaysia are very communal, there is not a single major party that claims to represent the whole of Malaysia rather there are parties that represent the Muslim sect, the Malay sect, the Chinese sect or the Indian sect. With such ethnically-religiously driven political motives it's hard to see Malaysia as a role model of any type of state.

Islam and Education

Dr Kim perhaps spoke more sense when discussing Muslims and education. Often the anecdotes he presented us with insinuated it was the Malay Muslims that were the least tolerant of the Malaysian people. He emphasised greatly on the role of the Muslim with its non-Muslim neighbours. He was quite critical of the Muslim's attitude of exclusiveness and the Malay’s reluctance to enrol Chinese students onto Islamic courses and adopting Muslim mannerisms, such as greetings and dress.

Dr Kim also touched on the Islamic education of Malaysia. He claimed it was too superficial and the students did not learn the true essence of Islam or even the Malaysian national identity. The students were not learning the fundamentals, but a "fundamentalist makes a good Muslim" he roared (several times). The schooling nature was more about memorising than learning, a problem that's apparent in most Asian countries - students end up not really knowing anything but they are able to recite from memorisation very well.


There were some things Dr Kim said that worried me. He was of the opinion that colonialism in Malaysia was a good thing because it transferred the power from the rulers to the people. He kept repeating Britain colonised Malaysia post-Second World War, but failed to explain the significance of that, however the colonisation period did last only 12 years.

Colonisation is not merely colonisation of the land, but the mind, the people, the culture and the heritage; it takes people away from their own history leaving them forcefully to adopt an ideology of an other which is not fitting to their own regional context and envisaging the colonisers as their supreme models.

Although, Dr Kim was mournful of the situation that post-independence in 1957 no one gave attention to nation building rather people were too wrapped up around wanting independence that they lost sight of how to build their nation again. (I see parallels - cf. Bangladesh 1971)

The Rukenegara was meant to do just that, build up the Malaysian nation once again and stop ethnic conflicts. It was based on the Indonesian model of Pancasila, The Five Principles, a country the ‘Malaysians’ took as their role model. However now, Dr Kim sees the Malaysians have surpassed the Indonesians and are in fact better. Again going back to integration, this is because the Indonesians are too Java-centric; the Javanese do not know the Achenese, they are two mutually exclusive components of Indonesia, whereas that is not the case in Malaysia. Although many would argue Malaysia is Malay-centric...


In the 70 years Dr Kim has lived perhaps he has seen the ethnic situation in Malaysia get better and hence his reasons for being so hopeful. The seminar didn’t really address how Malaysia could be a role model for Islamic nations based on its Islamic principle as I hoped, it was rather focused on the people, leaving you to think the state’s role in maintaining a pluralistic society was actually futile(?)

1 comment:

Shak said...

Good dissection.