Its 50 years since Malaysia’s independence. Merdeka!
An achievement fought without bloodshed or civil strife. Yet 50 years on and is the Malaysian experiment with democracy a success?
Some believe that after 22 years of a Mahathir dominated government new Malaysia is hanging together like Chinese paper and fire crackers on new years eve, at anytime it could go up in flames as had happened during the race riots of 13 May1969. That is why the new Badawi led coalition has embarked on a new progressive program called Islam Hadhari.
In these very precarious times where Islamic radicalism and conservatism has cast a long shadow across the Muslim world and the West has remained at an arms length, many are asking how Islam can work in a global community which is dominated by democratic principles of freedom and liberalism.
Most look towards Turkey to pave the way for a successful model of an Islamic secular democracy but others in South East Asia are optimistic or maybe I should say hopeful to see Malaysia succeed with Islam and democracy hand in hand.
Yet as we travel through KL amidst the impressive skyline which includes the Petronas Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world, we meet with government officials who try to explain the benefits of Islam Hadhari.
“So what do you know about Islam Hadhari?”, I am asked.
It is very hard how to answer a question when speaking to Malaysians because it is very easy to offend if you don’t say what they want to hear. I take the middle path and say that Islam Hadhari is a very modern approach to bridging Islam with modernity.
In the words of Abdullah Badawi, “It’s a new approach adopted by the government as a complement to the agenda of developing a glorious and civilized Malaysian society.”
Malaysia has on the surface become one of South East Asia’s wealthiest states and traveling through the country you can see that Malaysia has a fluid relationship with its 9 million Chinese and another 1 million or so Indians. Economically, the Chinese have made their mark and the country is relatively harmonious.
Speak to any Malay in the streets of KL and they will tell you just how happy everyone is under Islam Hadhari. Malaysia’s official religion is Islam. Its legal system operates on two levels; Shariah court and a civil court. In general this seems to work. Those who are Malay are automatically assumed to be Muslim which is indicated on their identity cards. The shariah court deals with Muslims and the civil courts deal with the Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs and Hindus. It all works out nicely until someone like Lina Joy, a Malay, comes along and wants to become a Christian.
Miss Joy met a Christian with whom she desired to marry but to do so she would require to change her status as a Muslim. This was dealt with in the civil court and she was directed to obtain a certificate of apostasy from the shariah court. It became a high profile case which could have been resolved if Miss Joy had gone to the shariah court but she has till now refused to do so.
Having two parallel systems in a society where it is not always black and white is fraught with danger. Generally speaking in the past two years there have been 16 apostasy applications and only two refusals. Whilst Malaysia does not want to admit there are many people leaving Islam, it is playing down the Lina Joy case. I speak to a Malaysian shariah court judge who says, “Changing your religion is not a simple matter, although we can issue a certificate of apostasy, we have to try to help that person in every way possible and then only and if only the applicant is beyond reconciliation with their faith we can issue a certificate and remove Islam from their identity.”
We meet with a delegation from the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) who show us a power point presentation about their view of things. Their fears are apparent, they are afraid of Islam taking hold of affairs and of losing democracy and their rights in a society which favours Malays. The MCA is an influential partner in a shaky coalition which has for many years withstood the challenges of time. But it appears that the two need each other more than ever as the Islamic Party (PAS) is gaining ground after its shock loss of the state of Terenganu. While MCA does not fully appreciate the benefits of Islam Hadhari, it prefers that to the Islamic Sharia state law advocated by PAS.
After a week of meetings and luncheons I left the country with a sense that not everything was right in the state of Malaysia but yet there was this uncanny reciprocity between Chinese pragmatism and Malay single-mindedness that was the glue between the two parties that contributes to the success of this ongoing experiment.
Kuranda Seyit is a documentary writer/director and was a part of a recent delegation to Malaysia organized by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.