Church attacks — A national loosening of commitments
JAN 16 — Many relationships have changed in Malaysia over the last week, and most of them for the worse.
The attacks on churches throughout Malaysia — nine so far and counting — have shocked Malaysia-watchers throughout the world as much as it has stunned Malaysians of all races and religions.
What had seemed a problem with largely East Malaysian significance — since most Malay-speaking Christians live in Sabah and Sarawak — became a West Malaysian one when the first church was set on fire in Kuala Lumpur on Jan 7.
Earlier, the country’s Home Affairs Ministry — bowing to perceived pressure from vocal elements within the Muslim community — had signalled through its appeal and its success in getting a stay of execution that it did not accept the decision of the High Court made on Dec 31 that non-Muslims could legally use the term “Allah” as translation for “God” in Malay.
The fact that only one church has been badly gutted while all the rest received only superficial damage holds certain implications. Although it is often wiser to prioritise incompetence before intention as an explanation for irrational acts, one has to account for this seeming failure on the part of the extremists.
A probable conclusion is that these are not hate crimes. It would seem that the perpetrators did not wish to cause bodily harm, and were only following orders or were being paid to throw badly-made Molotov cocktails.
What these acts immediately achieve is to change the political scenario quite dramatically. Who will gain politically from it is still an uninvestigated question.
At the time of writing, no one has been arrested. The Home Affairs Minister’s publicly declared willingness to use the Internal Security Act (ISA) over the matter is quite incomprehensible, since we are here dealing with acts that are flagrantly criminal for which punishments exist in law. Threatening the use of the ISA is more an expression of helplessness on the part of an executive not readily willing to execute the law.
And yet, that is what is needed at this moment — a clear and impartial signal from the Establishment that it respects the law and demands the same of all citizens.
The church attacks have definitely damaged the credibility of Najib Abdul Razak’s 1Malaysia initiative, now making it practically impossible for the Prime Minister to have the words needed to convince at least Christians about the inclusiveness of his style of governance.
What may worry him even more, however, is the extent to which the violence and the threat of violence will affect politics in Sabah and Sarawak. Should his coalition lose control over one of these states, it will in all probability lose federal power.
As it is, with Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) taking a liberal stand on the “Allah” issue, Umno is strangely enough, despite its long-term incumbency, occupying the fringe where inclusive politics are concerned. Silence so far from its coalition allies feeds public suspicions that their views need Umno’s sanctioning before being aired.
Shock over the attacks has also brought many liberal Muslim voices to the fore, and this may yet discourage Malay politicians from keeping the issue alive in hope of political gains. Even the Islamic Society of North America has called for Malaysian Muslims to allow Christians to use the word “Allah”.
Where the economy is concerned, the recent events are not welcome news. The latest series of bad press comes at a time when the reports for last year show that Malaysia’s foreign exchange reserves fell by an amazing 25 per cent, with the economy becoming more and more dependent on government stimulus as private investments fall behind public investments.
Most tragic is the relationship between Malaysians and Malaysia. Official figures showed that 139,696 Malaysians had moved overseas for various reasons in 2007. Data recently released by the Foreign Affairs Ministry recorded 304,358 Malaysians leaving the country between March 2008 and August last year. Even after allowing for the longer period for the latter figure, the rise in migration is shocking.
By tying language to religion, and thus signalling that the national language of Bahasa Melayu is not totally a neutral medium of communication, Umno has inserted a new and unnecessary wedge into already badly-segregated ethnic groups in the country.
In a word, a lot of trust that had taken decades to build up is fast disappearing. With the Establishment trapped in divisive discourses despite its own talk of a united Malaysia, more than piecemeal reforms are needed if the country is to reverse its sad fortunes. — TODAY
The writer is a fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies. His latest book is "Arrested Reform: The Undoing of Abdullah Badawi" (Refsa).
*The views written here are the personal opinion of the columnist.