We can’t achieve any sense of mutual agreement unless we are willing to talk – and openly – to one another about the issues that matter.
I FIND my community’s hypersensitivity, especially over matters of faith and ethnicity, something very difficult to understand.
Are we too ready to take offence where none may actually have been offered? Is intelligent, rational and thoughtful discussion on an admittedly sensitive subject necessarily an insult?
Is there no place within our society for open discourse? Are difficult issues to remain locked away forever, even if the lives of ordinary Malaysians are negatively impacted?
In the past, this sensitivity was linked to Malay fears about being outnumbered and sidelined in our homeland. Any negative reference to our religion, our race and our rulers was considered an insult because of the fragility of our hold on power.
However, over the past 50 years, at least as far as I see it, Malay/Muslims have cemented their hold on power. There are now three majority Malay parties – Umno, PAS and PKR – representing a broad spectrum of the bangsa’s views.
Let’s face it, Malays dominate the country’s public life. By dint of our sheer numbers alone – over 55% of the population – our influence is now undoubted and growing.
As a community, we will not and cannot be dislodged from power. Nothing, and no one, is going to take away all that we have achieved after 50 years of Merdeka.
And yet, despite this cultural, socio-political, Constitutional and demographic pre-eminence – our majority status and our growing confidence – so many prominent Malays still feel imperilled by unfolding events, often responding by invoking the spectre of social unrest and the ISA.
The core tenets of Malay culture – magnanimity, courtesy, decency and reason – appear to have been discarded. What has happened to the gentle face of the Malay people? The berbudi-bahasa we used to pride ourselves in?
On Aug 9, according to Internet news website Malaysiakini, as the Bar Council convened its forum On Conversion to Islam some 300 protesters gathered outside the headquarters demanding that the professional association stop proceedings.
Succumbing to pressure, the Bar Council halted the forum soon after it commenced.
According to news reports, there were protestors from the opposition – PKR and PAS – as well as from the pro-government side. An opposition politician who was present was reported to have said: “For us, this forum is merely (for) Islam bashing.”
Given that the forum also included many prominent and respected Muslim non-governmental organisations, lawyers and academics such as Prof Dr Mehrun Siraj, Zainah Anwar and Latheffa Koya, the idea that they should be engaged in a bout of Islam bashing seems faintly ludicrous.
Moreover, having known Bar Council president Datuk Ambiga Sreenivasan for well over 20 years, it is extremely unlikely that she would deliberately seek to besmirch Islam.
As she says herself, a little chastened by the event (the petrol bombs thrown at Shahrizat Jalil’s residence were in fact intended for Ambiga who’d previously lived in the same house):
“We only wanted to talk about the problems between the syariah and the civil jurisdictions.
“We wanted to address the issues for non-converting parties, the husbands and wives as well as the children of those who convert.
“These are real situations and we can’t just ignore the problems that they are facing. Moreover, as lawyers we are tasked to help resolve these complex issues.”
Frankly, the organisers of the forum may have been unwise in using the provocative title On Conversion to Islam when the real subject of discussion was legal conflicts arising from the conversion.
Still the subject matter is very serious and demands greater attention and there are substantial legal implications for those who are married and have children.
Given the seriousness and the impact on non-converting family members there is clearly a need for all Malaysians (and especially non-Muslims) to recognise and comprehend the potential consequences of conversion.
Finally, you don’t learn about these issues by refusing to discuss them. They just become more impenetrable and impossible to resolve for real people.
This is not the way to “explain” Islam to non-Muslim Malaysians. It does not make sense for us to bemoan their lack of “understanding” in the faith when Muslims here seem adamant that any discussion of it whatsoever is forbidden.
Such hard-headedness makes a mockery of the moderation and open-mindedness of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s Islam Hadhari approach.
We should not forget the Islamic precepts to defend and protect the rights of minorities.
Nonetheless, fear and anxiety, paranoia and insecurity lie at the heart of mainstream Malay politics. Leaders rise by fanning fear of the “other” and Malaysians have become desensitised to such politics.
The presence of senior members from PKR and PAS as protestors at the forum shows that Umno isn’t alone in using these tactics. Bitter pill as it is, March 8 was not a step into a world free from the restrictive bonds of race and/or religion.
However, even though these insecurities continue to haunt Malay politics, we can’t ignore the controversial issues that lie at the core of Malaysian public life.
We can’t pretend that race, religion and discrimination are beyond discussion when they constitute such a large source of public controversy.
We must also face up to the fact that the 1957 Merdeka consensus is breaking down. We have to work towards a new consensus. This agreement needs to be hammered out, and soon.
Moreover, we can’t achieve any sense of mutual agreement unless we are willing to talk – and openly – to one another about the issues that matter.
The Malaysian public is more educated, aware and assertive than ever before. They aren’t willing for their elites to make decisions on their behalf.
Sweeping such issues under the carpet and intimidating people from discussing them just puts off the day of reckoning.