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Religious tensions rise in 'One Malaysia'

Government's commitment to unity in diversity principle comes under scrutiny.

Last modified: 8 Jan 2010 08:15
Photo by EPA

The row over the use of the word Allah has escalated into violence:

Attackers threw a petrol bomb at church in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and tried to set two others ablaze in a nearby suburb in the early hours of Friday.

As I write this, Muslim groups are promising to stage protest marches after Friday prayers, and have received the tacit blessing of the prime minister:

He said people could express their views as long as it was done properly and in accordance with regulations.

This last statement has already caused a degree of mirth and anger, and there will doubtless be more.

Certainly the former deputy prime minister and current member of parliament and head of the opposition coalition, Anwar Ibrahim, would be justified in asking why his reform rallies so often seem to be an exception to this ruling; the Hindu organisation Hindraf was told that their desire to deliver a petition to the prime minister of the day fell outside of the right to "express views", and suffered tear gas, water cannon and the arrest of many of its leaders when they tried; and yet Muslim rioters were defended by the home minister during the now infamous "cow's head incident" last year, despite dragging a severed cow head, an animal sacred in Hinduism, which they stomped on and spat at under the gaze of the riot police. 

The prime minster has denied accusations that the move against the Catholic church was politically motivated, but has yet to offer a plausible explanation as to why his government decided to act on the issue in the first place.

Minister in the prime minister's department, Nazri Aziz, has offered this:

We have to take into consideration the culture and nature of Malaysia. What is considered normal in the United States and Europe is not necessarily normal here.

Which fails to explain why what has indeed been normal practice in Malaysia for a very long time is suddenly deemed otherwise, or how allowing it to continue suddenly presents a threat to Muslim sensibilities and social stability.

Since taking office, Prime Minister Najib Razak has been pushing a programme he calls "1Malaysia", on the face of it a recognition of - and an attempt to resolve - the ethnic and religious tensions in the country:

1Malaysia’s goal is to preserve and enhance [the] unity in diversity which has always been our strength and remains our best hope for the future.

But his commitment to the principle has come under severe scrutiny, precisely because of events like this, and the response of government ministers and police when tensions do arise.

The opposition coalition has gone so far as to ask for a Royal Commission on religion, saying:

Malaysians have almost fallen into the boiling pot of discord and tension that was caused by manipulation of religious differences

Or, as veteran DAP politician Lim Kit Siang puts it:

What we have in Malaysia is not 1Malaysia but 2Malaysia – where there is one law for Umno and their supporters and another law for the rest.