Building a Middle Malaysia and the Great Malaysian Understanding

Understanding/empathy without necessarily compromising on one’s own belief-systems and convictions.

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Published by AstroAwani, image by AstroAwani.

What does it mean to be Middle Malaysia – understood as representative of the nation’s soul/spirit and identity as a whole?

What are the fundamentals/fundamental principles – that need re-appropriation and retrieval – so that we as a nation and society stay true to the “right” path and course in nation-building and national development?

It behooves us to “rediscover” the genius and beauty of our Federal Constitution all over again – as defining and characterising and epitomising the concrete-specific context of beloved nation in shaping Middle Malaysia.

Despite the official status of Islam as the religion of the Federation and the constitutional recognition of the Malays alongside the Orang Asli as well as the pribumis of Sabah and Sarawak as enjoying a special position as indigenous (native) peoples of the land, the rights of other citizens are explicitly/expressly guaranteed and upheld.

Take for example, Article 3(1):

“Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation”.

Or Article 136 which reads:

All persons of whatever race in the same grade in the service of the Federation shall, subject to the terms and conditions of their employment, be treated impartially”.

Or Article 153(7):

Nothing in this Article shall operate to deprive or authorise the deprivation of any person of any right, privilege, permit or license … in the ordinary course of events”.

Notwithstanding, we still have politicians till this day who’re keen and zealous on stretching the character and provisions of our beloved Federal Constitution to the extremes.

They’re always testing the boundaries, and if given sway and power would essentially pervert the original intent and meaning of the Federal Constitution.

Unfortunately, they can be found deep within the institutions and apparatus of the State (both federal and state – including certain religious authorities on issues relating to unilateral conversion, sadly speaking, for example) also – as embodied by the term, “Little Napoleons”.  

These folks put to practice the toxic and combustible mix of ethno-religious rhetoric and discourse.

On the one hand, we can never completely and outrightly eradicate the evil of extremism, especially in relation to the duo of race and religion (unlike the militant/violent manifestation and offspring of the Communist ideology as this past national threat was utterly defeated and eventually became extinct thereby).

On the other hand, however, it’s crucial to ensure that we don’t normalise or become resigned to believing that we’re “fated” or “consigned” to the evil of the “extremisation” of ethno-religious politics as something entrenched and irrevocably seared into the soul of our nation.

The gangrene and disease can be expelled and cut off, even if not totally or completely.

It requires a combination of political will and dexterity/adroitness in navigating the “operating terrain”.

And by this it’s meant in the course of building a Middle Malaysia and avoiding the two extremes on both sides of the spectrum (the twin of ultra-liberalism and ultra-conservatism), we need to possess that sensitivity-empathy (“social intelligence”) in order to ensure that the “national coalition” is big and wide enough to accommodate diversity and plurality of views as precisely reflecting the multi-ethnic and multi-religious/cultural facets of our society.

This is where the Great Malaysian Understanding (GMU) comes in.

We need to recall and re-apply this fundamental paradigm to move forward and onward.

As it is, the GMU is reflective of that pragmatic/un-ideological attitude and predisposition of our Malaysian mindset as embodied in the “give and take” principle.

The genius and beauty of the GMU is that we don’t need to submerge our differences (in outlook and worldviews) whilst at the same time suppressing the prejudices that’re a stumbling block in the quest to achieve true and genuine national unity.

Whilst this may not necessarily be unique to our society as such, we can take the situation further and bring out the best in our nation’s soul and character.

So, we can mutually accept, tolerate and celebrate and uphold the differences among us within the broad confines of Middle Malaysia – as long as the middle path (wasatiyah) is subscribed and adhered to.

We need to have and maintain and defend that understanding and general worldview that’s grounded in a part of “natural law” (see EMIR Research article, “The psychology of race & religion baiting in Malaysia”, March 10, 2023), i.e., what it means to be human and what it takes to live in a community of fellow human beings. In the context-specific context of Malaysia – as defined by our Federal Constitution where Islam is the official and established religion co-existing with secularism which isn’t to be understood in the Western liberal sense at all – religious sensitivities must be respected at all times whilst avoiding extremism on every side.

This means, for example, that figures like Professor Dr Tajuddin Rasdi (who’s known for his very Malaysian articulation and practical approach to inter-religious/faith relations) and veteran journalist Wong Chun Wai (a well-known proponent of moderation) is as much part of Middle Malaysia as are Muslim intellectuals such as Professor Dr Ahmad Fauzi  (a leading expert on political Islam) and Uztaz Badlishah Alauddin (renowned preacher known for his appearances at Forum Perdana Hal-Ehwal Islam).

The fact that certain values and practices of both sides are definitely at odds (as signally and saliently embodied by the Islamic precept of haram and halal) doesn’t preclude mutual understanding/empathy and give and take and consensus on what moderation means and entails in the context of Malaysia.

This means that, for example, the sale of alcohol in Muslim-majority areas is definitively not suitable and downright offensive – except for certain situations like tourist hotspots (e.g., confined/restricted to renowned/big hotels in Langkawi).

Conversely, festivals such as Bon Odori (for all Malaysians) and Oktoberfest (for non-Muslims only and celebrated within physical limits/confines) are an integral part of our multicultural society – over-against the extremists (on the other side).

Understanding/empathy (without necessarily compromising on one’s own belief-systems and convictions).

Give and take.

Consensus.

As for the dress code issue which has been in the news time and again, civil servants have a duty to serve the rakyat even if “strict compliance” is lacking unless it takes extreme forms, as confirmed by the government e.g., YB Azalina Othman, Minister of Law & Institutional Reforms, except in exceptional circumstances (e.g., as in the case of making a police report for being robbed of one’s wallet/purse and outer clothing).

To quote the minister, again we see here the Malaysian context in play: “the public can wear appropriate clothing which is in line with tradition and [E]astern values when going to government offices”.

Moving forward, EMIR Research would now like to urge our unity government to:

  • Take decisive action against hate preachers

Until today, we have no updates on the many police reports lodged by a prominent NGO against hate preachers who peddle lies and objectify non-Muslims (as targets of hate and contempt).

A strong, clear and resounding message has to be sent out to these subversive and treacherous elements – in line with our Prime Minister’s stance that there’ll be no compromise or allowance given to those who threaten national harmony and the well-being of inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations.

These extremists also lend theological legitimacy/justification to terrorist groups like Isis who have had a quite a local following in recent years – judging by the number of arrests made.

That is, the very dangerous progression from theory to action.

We, therefore, echo the call by the Bar Council as articulated by President Karen Cheah for the National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill and Hate Crimes Bill to be passed by Parliament to tackle hate speech and hate crime (“Bar revives call for national harmony commission”, Malaysiakini, March 21, 2023).

  • Root out extremist elements within religious authorities – federal (Jakim) and state

Due to the political agenda of a previous Prime Minister which was then “carried over” by immediate successors, Jakim (the federal religious agency under the Prime Minister’s Department charged with management of Islamic affairs) have not only overlapped some of its functions with the state authorities but also been accused of having its remit exceeding the Federal Constitution and, by inclusion, the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong.

There have also been allegations that the federal religious agency was also infiltrated and subverted by extremist influence originating from abroad and which is therefore not suitable to the specific context of Islam in Nusantara.

Such elements have no place in Malaysia as they would only create and deepen divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims based on the “othering” of non-believers.

By extension, it also entails separation and segregation and parallel lives – which reeks of the colonial construct of “divide and rule”.

At the same time, we need to isolate and insulate extremist views – by addressing concerns of the extremists (mainstream and militant/violent).

Just recently, an outrageous event called “Thai Hot Guy” which features “hunks” performing in lingerie has attracted opprobrium by PAS. The excessive and very over-the-top nature of such an event – which is actually a form of lap dance – is also contrary to Middle Malaysia as embodied in Malaysia Madani.

Rightly so – as the underlying values are contrary to Malaysia Madani as the contemporary guardian and custodian of Middle Malaysia.

To ensure that Middle Malaysia continues to move forward under the unity government, it’s essential that we de-fang and de-legitimise extremism by pushing it out on to the fringes and margins of our society.

But this can only be done with wisdom (hikmah) and sound reasoning (ijtihad) – whereby common ground is also sought with the concerns of mainstream extremists where valid and consistent with the Malaysian context as defined and characterised and epitomised by the Federal Constitution.

The goal is to (tectonically) shift the ground of their thinking (by way of a “crustal displacement” where the core remains intact but the paradigm is adjusted/re-adjusted to fit the GMU – understanding/empathy, give and take and consensus) so that they too can be co-opted into Middle Malaysia sometime into the future.

It’s like a form of “rehabilitation”.

This intensifies the gap/chasm and exposes a clear dividing line in the sand between the militant/violent extremists with former extremists.

Then the whole country can be truly united in combatting not only the militancy expressing extremism but also the ideology behind it.

Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focussed on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research

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