The Truth Revealed

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Leader of all Malaysians? Yeah. Right!

Malaysian Insider - Commentary

AUG 10 - The leader of all Malaysians. Once it captured the spirit of optimism that accompanied Abdullah Ahmad Badawi into office as the country's fifth prime minister.

Today, it is a reminder of what should have been; what could have been; another unfilled promise by a politician who promised to blur the racial and religious lines but ended up delivering an even more polarized nation five years on. The leader of all Malaysians.

Once it offered the umbrella of comfort for non-Muslims, planting hope among the 45 per cent of the country's population that the difficult issues of conversion, places of worship and freedom of religion would be tackled.Today, these five words have been buried by a community feeling increasingly despondent about their place here and the ability of important institutions to protect the rights of all Malaysians.

The numbers tell the story. A comprehensive survey on political developments since Election 2008 show that only 18 per cent of the 3,000 people polled identified Abdullah as the leader of all Malaysians, with only 7.3 per cent Chinese believing that he had done enough to deserve the moniker. Generally, more Indians and Chinese feel that he protects the interests of Malays more than he looks after the other races.

Even the anecdotal evidence suggests that the despair is coursing through the veins of many non-Muslims. Datuk A. Vaithalingam has always been a straight-talker. He never fudged or hedged when he was a top official in the golden era of the Malaysian sports scene, the days when the country's football team was a source of national pride and Isthiaq Mubarak was clearing hurdles at the Olympics.

But he outdid himself last Wednesday. Speaking as the president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, he gave a candid appraisal of the non-Muslim sentiment in the country to Abdullah.

"I must report to you that many non-Muslims feel marginalised in today's Malaysia. There is growing discomfort with the rapid Islamisation of our society. Universal values of ethical conduct and good governance, values which are shared by all religions, are appropriated by some to be only "Islamic", '' he said at the 25th anniversary of the council.

He cautioned the Prime Minister - the guest-of-honour - that unless concrete steps were taken to assure 45 per cent of Malaysia's population of fair treatment, the outflow of talent from the country would continue unabated.

Abdullah thanked him for his honesty and made the usual sounds on the need to be fair to all races. But even the PM knows that his government has not come close to delivering on any promises to non-Muslims since he came to power in October 2003.

Questions of body snatching or the status of burial rights for non-Muslims whose conversion to Islam was unknown to the dead person's family remain unresolved.

Abdullah promised to put in place a mechanism after the nastiness surrounding the burial of Everest hero Moorthy in 2006.

Little has changed since then. Similarly, there has been some disquiet over the plight of mothers whose husbands convert to Islam and then, avoid their commitments under the civil law to their former family. Non Muslims are unhappy that the courts are allowing one parent to convert children to Islam even if the other parent does not consent.

Vaithilingam also noted: "In schools, our children are not permitted to and do not get education in their own religion. Moral lessons are reportedly vetted by the Islamic authorities.''

His litany of complaints on Wednesday was long.

This is not the first time that the council has voiced their displeasure at the state of neglect over the interests of non-Muslims. Deep down, they know that Abdullah is not prepared to champion these issues, not when his own position in the country is precarious.

But they cannot keep the lid on the percolating discontent among the non-Muslims. That is why many of the religious groups backed the move by the Bar Council to proceed with its controversial public forum on conversion to Islam on Saturday.

The forum was eventually stopped by the organizers on the advice of police and threats by Muslim non-governmental groups.

Truth to be told, little good would have emerged from a forum not represented by major Muslim players such as Parti Islam SeMalaysia, Umno and Jakim. But in the absence of any meaningful moves by the government or political parties to resolve issues related to conversion, non-Muslims are prone to support any group willing to discussing these matters.

Abdullah and other Umno leaders have urged the Bar Council and other bodies to discuss sensitive matters behind closed doors but the Prime Minister will know from recent experience that this approach does not guarantee any progress. For example, he knows that many of his Umno colleagues in Cabinet are either against or ambivalent about promoting dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. That is why Datuk Shafie Apdal's proposal to have more dialogue on national unity was shot down vigorously by an Umno minister during a recent Cabinet meeting.

A cabinet minister, who declined to be identified, told the Malaysian Insider: "Shafie did not get much support.

Pak Lah did not say much and neither did Najib. It could because this is the Umno election season and nobody wants to do anything which will upset party members. But it could also be in-built mechanism against dealing with any difficult issue, whether judicial reform or other reforms.''

There is little doubt that the party grassroots is ambivalent about reform - and this is a charitable interpretation.

During recent branch meetings, Umno members were focused on Malay unity - specifically the need to stay as one and fight off demands from the increasingly vocal non-Malay population.

There was little discussion on the need to shed the party's perceived arrogance and refill the depleting bank of non-Malay support.

Against this backdrop and with the upcoming party elections in December, no national leader is going to champion the cause of non-Muslims and risk alienating the Muslim constituency.

Certainly not the man who once said that he was the leader of all Malaysians. That claim rings hollow among many non-Muslims today.
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