Ambiga, Allah and this Visit Malaysia Year

Did you know that 2014 has been designated Visit Malaysia Year? Following a successful campaign in 2007, this is my country’s ambitious attempt to draw even more visitors to its beautiful shores.

When it comes to tourism, the Malaysian government has learnt what to say. To lure the world, Malaysia’s racial, cultural and religious diversity are endlessly exploited. On a page entitled People, Culture and Language, my favourite part comes at the end of the first paragraph:

“Malaysians…respect one another, regardless of one’s race, religion and background. It is this ‘true’ Malaysian value that binds them together” (my emphasis).

Indeed. Malaysia is multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural. It has been this way for so long that we cannot remember a time when the country was monolithic, if indeed it ever was. And Malaysians do continue to live in relative peace and harmony with one another.

But intolerance has been on the rise. I have felt this myself. I am recognisably Chinese, and during my last three visits, I was stared at by cold eyes which said: SQUATTER! I know I was not imagining this, because there were plenty of others (thank goodness) who welcomed me warmly as a fellow-Malaysian.

Into this fray comes the word ‘Allah’. Allah is Arabic for God, though I would liken Allah more to Almighty God, a concept pertinent to the monotheistic religions of the world. Allah has been widely used – without any issue – by Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Middle East and elsewhere. Moreover, there are claims that the word Allah pre-dates Islam. (For anyone interested, here are a few links: In the Name of Allah, The Economist Oct 15, 2013; an informative blog from the Arabic Bible Outreach Ministry; also Christian Answers which states that Jews and Christians in the Middle East called God Allah for five hundred years before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad).

Within Malaysia itself, the word Allah has apparently long been used by Malay-speaking Christians, who knows for how long. Since 1615, claims the Asia Sentinel. Who can tell? All I will do here is to note that Portuguese traders actually arrived in Malacca (a well-known port in Malaysia) in 1511, and among their missionaries was St. Francis Xavier.

Does any of this matter? It wouldn’t, if the Malaysian government had not decided to ban the use of ‘Allah’ by anyone other than Muslims when referring to God.

This issue, which has simmered since 2007, is not just a matter of semantics: when the use of a word is deemed to be the sole preserve of a particular group, it encourages feelings of religious exclusivism, superiority even, which in turn, breed intolerance. The loop here is subtle, self-perpetuating and insidious.

I have already described the rise of intolerance in Malaysia in an earlier post (see Where is Home?). Since the Allah row broke out, a sinister new twist has been added: places of worship – a host of churches, a Sikh temple (because Malay-speaking Sikhs also use the word Allah), and in retaliation, Muslim places of prayer – have been attacked. I deplore all of these, acts which would have been unthinkable in the Malaysia I once knew. A country riven by division is not the country I want to see.

Unfortunately, we can hardly count on the current government to halt the trend, since it helped create it in the first place. Tensions rose again when Malay-language Bibles (with the word Allah) were seized by the religious department. In a gesture of peace and reconciliation, Marina Mahathir, daughter of Malaysia’s famous former Prime Minister, appeared with flowers at a church. This is the Malaysia I remember, yet she was far from universally applauded. Following this, the King declared that in Malaysia, the word Allah was only for Muslims. Right on cue, another church was firebombed with Molotov cocktails.

Diversity itself is not the issue. There will always be divisions in any society: brown/white; Muslim/non-Muslim; Sunni/Shia; rich/poor; Chelsea fans/Arsenal fans. This last is only half a joke, my point being that any division could be turned into a fault-line if it is ruthlessly exploited. Differences do not need to become fault-lines; they only become fault-lines when a corrupt government, hell-bent on staying in power, deliberately cultivates religious and racial tensions to divide and conquer.

The bigger question is this: what sort of Malaysia do we want? A country where all religions are truly respected, as the Visit Malaysia Year website tries to imply? Or a country where Islam is implicitly assumed to be superior and every non-Muslim deemed an infidel, tolerated only because s/he cannot be got rid of?

I keep being told that the majority of Malaysians are like me, that they want a pluralistic, progressive, tolerant society of the twenty first century. This may be true, but we face a problem: the majority stays silent. The silence of the majority has allowed the vociferousness of a minority to shape a political agenda which has slowly but invidiously changed the country. As this thoughtful opinion in the Jakarta Post notes: “there is only a thin line between tolerance and intolerance”. THERE IS ONLY A THIN LINE BETWEEN TOLERANCE AND INTOLERANCE. We should not be complacent.

In a clarion call last week, a courageous lady told Malaysians that we must resist our silence and fear. Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, former President of the Malaysian Bar, a woman honoured by Hillary Clinton with an International  Women of Courage Award in 2009 for her unstinting pursuit of judicial reform and good governance, made a speech reminiscent of Martin Luther King’s.

Here is part of it:  “When they speak the language of racism and bigotry, we must respond with the language of unity and togetherness. When they speak the language of ignorance, we must speak the language of knowledge. When they attack our brothers and sisters, we must defend them. We must respond from a position of knowledge if we see such ignorance. When they create fear, we must respond with courage, when they divide, we must unite.” (As reported by The Malaysian Insider, Feb 11 2014)

No one could have put it better. Fellow-Malaysians, our despair is the enemy’s biggest weapon. It is not too late to rise, to challenge bigotry when we see it, and reclaim the Malaysia we’ve lost. Because Malaysia Boleh (Malaysia Can).


Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia

7 responses to “Ambiga, Allah and this Visit Malaysia Year

  1. ghengsrs

    It’s multi religious except when other religions apart from Islam use the order Allah to define a Supreme Being ! What stupid and improper decision by the courts in a presumably Freedom of Worship of any religion country ! Gerald Heng Sr. Washington DC USA.

    Sent from my iPad


    • Thank you for this. I’m not sure I would characterise the decision as stupid; short-sighted yes, and calculated to appeal to a certain section of the population. (The fact that it is being laughed at elsewhere is not something UMNO would care about).

      It makes it even more important for all of us, wherever we are, to support those who continue to fight for a better Malaysia. Bersih of course, but others too, like the Royal Air Force major Zaidi Ahmad who is facing charges for daring to report that the supposedly indelible ink he was given in the elections last year could be washed off easily.

  2. Feelan C. Siak

    Well done.
    I understand and know exactly what you mean.
    The hypocrisy of it all.

  3. Sadly, any bad government start playing divide and conquer to gain elections. It takes mature civil society to not allow this to happen. I wish Malaysia to get to that maturity.

  4. Frieda Fuchs

    Sadly, its an age-old problem that we see happening over and over again. I just returned from a trip to Quebec where the premier’s policies (Pauline Maurois) are poisoning relations between Quebecois and immigrants, and especially targeting religious groups. These are long standing problems played out in the context of democratic politics. So why is it that a country such as Malaysia, known for its culture of tolerance, has become so intolerant? Is it simply a question of greedy or power hungry politicians manipulating social and economic cleavages for political gain, just like in Quebec? I wonder what other possible explanations have been given to explain this new trend in your country? Why is the majority silent? is it mere passivity?

    • Hello, I believe the situation in Malaysia is the same as in Quebec. The trend in Malaysia is not new: it started in the 1970s and has become markedly worse. The trend accelerated during the premiership of Mahathir Mohamed, chief rabble-rouser, who perfected divide-and-rule and how to share the spoils.

      Why the majority is silent in Malaysia is too complex to go into here. I believe it is due to a mixture of racist policies (see blog-post The Malaysia We’ve Lost) which inure its beneficiaries and the absence of any real tradition of protest. Even in mature democracies however, the majority is silent. After all, the majority of Germans did not explicitly support the Nazis; they simply allowed them to happen.

  5. dennis chua eow seong

    for the record, i learnt about non-violence, forgiveness, women’s empowerment, environment, compassion for animals, democracy, basic human rights, importance of education …………. from devout Muslims, in malaysia and outside malaysia.


    – dennis.

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