Perlis Mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin has received much flak over his remark that Malaysia is for the Malays as they form the dominant population.
“A country has its identity. China is for Chinese, is India for the Chinese too? No, it’s for the Indians,” he was reported as saying during a mosque lecture on Aug 15.
“What about Malaysia, Tanah Melayu? If China is for the Chinese and the Indian sub-continent is for the Indians, can Tanah Melayu be for all? Of course, justice is for all, but there must be a dominant race.”
I defend his right as a citizen to voice his opinion. The problem is, he is also a mufti and, therefore, whatever he says will carry some weight among some Muslims.
Asri’s statement may not sound wrong to some people but the fact is, a nation belongs to all its citizens regardless of their race or religion.
It does not matter whether the citizen is a Malay, or Chinese, or Indian, or Kadazandusun or Iban or of Caucasian descent. It equally belongs to them. A nation is not about who was here earlier or whose population is bigger, although these may impact society and the direction it takes.
This is not the first time we have heard someone say the country belongs to the Malays. In the past, some Malay leaders – politicians and from NGOs – have been vocal about “Ketuanan Melayu” (Malay dominance or superiority). Some have even called on non-Malay citizens to leave the country if they cannot accept Malay dominance.
At times like this, it is wise to return to the founding fathers – their visions and what was actually intended when they forged this nation of diverse peoples. In this instance, it will help to consider what the founding fathers who were Malays thought.
Bapa Malaysia Tunku Abdul Rahman had always been talking about unity; about how all the races worked together to achieve independence; about how racial and religious harmony was the bedrock of the nation.
I have read many of his speeches and I have personally spoken to him and he has never ever said anything about Malays or any single race having dominance over the others.
I won’t go into this, as we have all heard so much over the years about the Tunku’s philosophy.
But what about second prime minister Razak Hussein, who played a key role in charting the future of the new nation? His stand on this may not be as well-known as that of the Tunku.
Razak’s stand was no different from that of the Tunku. For instance, on July 19, 1965, at a function in Malacca, speaking about the special provisions in the constitution to help the Malays, Razak said these were “not special privileges but provisions made for special problems” faced by the Malays.
He added that there was no question of the supremacy of one race over the other.
Again, on July 27, 1965, in Singapore, Razak said: “Our constitution provides a place for every Malaysian and protects and guarantees his rights and privileges. There is no question of discrimination or dominance of one race against the other under the constitution.
“Our constitution is so drafted that it provides the idea of ‘give’ and not ‘take’. That is to say, it allows us to help the less fortunate of our people, the ‘have nots’ without taking away the rights of the ‘haves’.
“It is true there is a provision in the constitution giving special position for the natives or Bumiputeras but this is a special provision to meet a special situation and is not intended in any way to provide for supremacy or privilege.
“In other words, because there is definite economic disparity between the natives and the other Malaysians, the constitution provides a system of parity in order to correct the economic imbalance.”
Even Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, another key player in working out the so-called “social contract” between the races, and a former deputy prime minister, was against racial or religious chauvinism. The then home minister wrote in Umno’s official organ “Merdeka” on July 25, 1965: “Every citizen, irrespective of race, colour or religion, will be given equal status.”
The reason I’m using quotes from 1965 is because this was just a month before Singapore was told to leave Malaysia and, therefore, was a period of terrible tension. Many Malays and Chinese were uneasy, to put it mildly. What we are going through now pales before the tension then.
Coming back to our founding fathers, it is clear that the leading lights of the Malay community, and the nation, at the time Malaya was formed never intended for any race, including their own, to claim dominance; they wanted all citizens, regardless of race or religion, to be treated equally and to live in harmony.
It could be argued, that one reason the New Economic Policy was introduced was to dilute the economic dominance of the Chinese, but it was never meant to supplant it with Malay dominance.
As we prepare to celebrate another anniversary of our Independence, we should remember this. We are all, as the Tunku liked to say, citizens sailing on the same boat and if it sinks, we will all sink and, therefore, we have to work together in amity and sail towards our destination.
And it’s absolutely important for the government and government leaders to introduce plans or programmes that do not cause discord or that create an image of dominance by any race. There have been more than a few cases of government policies or the utterances of government leaders, in the past and even now, which have caused anxiety, if not further division.
Every policy or programme must be designed to help all citizens improve their lives regardless of race or religion. Citizens are yearning for the New Malaysia to take shape, so it is incumbent upon the Pakatan Harapan government to forge ahead and carry out the structural reforms it promised and to initiate programmes that will bring people closer.
Religious leaders have a crucial role to play in ensuring harmony, too. Instead or making divisive remarks, they should say things that will foster better understanding among people of various religions. They should not let ego ruin racial and religious harmony.
Leaders would do well to pay heed to what Razak also said in that Singapore speech: “”We must beware of slogans or words that attempt to create tension, problems or racial differences which do not exist and which have no basis.
“Our people of various races have lived together in peace and harmony for generations; indeed in Malacca for instance, the Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians and others have lived as a happy and peace-loving people for more than 450 years.
“This is the natural tendency of our people and it is our duty as responsible leaders to sustain and strengthen this harmony and goodwill so that our people will, in due course, feel themselves as one, as one people and not as members of different communities.
“This process will necessarily take time because we want to achieve it through (a) democratic process.”
A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT.
The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.