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Religious Assertion in Malaysia

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  • February 20, 2009
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: Sudhir Devare
    Discussants: Baladas Ghoshal and C. S. Kuppuswamy

    The major argument of the paper was that the government’s stance with regard to constraining religious assertion in Malaysia has been biased against non-Muslims. The government and society are carefully balancing their economic and religious interests, so that the situation does not get worse. The internal security act has helped in constraining the influx of rigid religious assertion, but the subdued disposition of civil courts and predominance of Shariah courts has created dissent among Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. Economic development has led to the projection of Malaysia as one of the model states of development, but religious assertion by the majority has created rifts within society. The emergence of a strong opposition and the probable change in leadership of the ruling coalition would mean that religion would become a more important factor in the coming years. Within Malaysian Society there has been awareness that increasing Islamisation or religious assertion threatening social religious harmony would not augur well for the future, but religious issues have not been adequately addressed so far and neither has inter-faith dialogue been promoted. While the current situation is not alarming, the future role of religious groups as well as political parties would determine whether Malaysia would stay on course as an economic power in the region or be derailed by religious polarisation. The constraints imposed by the state are working but there are strong indications of religious assertion having proliferated in society.

    Ambassador Sudhir Devare chaired the seminar. Prof. Baladas Ghoshala and Shri S.C.S. Kuppuswamy were the external discussants; and Alok R. Mukhopadhyay and Udai Bhanu Singh were the internal discussants. The following points were raised during the discussion:

    • As the lower income Malay Muslim is not economically strong, he is worried about the political rights of the Chinese who are the economically stronger section of the population.
    • Modernization is perceived as an attack on Islam.
    • The question of Malaysians demanding the status of ‘Bhumiputras’ was raised and it was stated that they are an ethnically mixed race. Malaysia is the only country in Asia where ethnicity is synonymous with religion. Malay means Muslim.
    • Doubts were also raised regarding the figures which state that Malay Muslims constitute 60 per cent of the country’s population.
    • The influence of the Deobandi sect reaches Malaysia from Bangladesh.
    • The Iranian Revolution presented a utopian world to the Muslim mindset; a Muslim country under Muslim laws could be established.
    • Migration of rural Malays to urban areas and the consequent social dislocation has led to people leaning on Islam as a crutch, thus facilitating the emergence of Islam as a factor in politics.
    • Islamic schools are no longer under the control of the government but under the control of the Ulema.
    • There is also a heightened sense of insecurity among Malay women and a lot of social pressure.
    • The younger generation is becoming more religiously inclined and radicalized.
    • Ongoing changes in Malaysia might affect bilateral ties with India. Though Hindraf is seen as an internal issue, India has raised this issue during bilateral talks.

    Prepared by Gunjan Singh, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi