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Monday, 17 March 2014


Prof Faruqi together with Datuk Kuthbul, Tan Sri Simon & Datuk Denison

By Prof Datuk Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi (Proham Hon Member)


FROM 1957 to 1969 and, (despite the trauma of 1969), for about two decades thereafter, we can say with confidence that Malaysia was regarded by many Asian and African societies as an exemplar of how a deeply divided, plural society can survive and thrive politically, economically and socially. 

Despite the obsession with race and religion in public discourse, we have made many strides towards nationhood since 1957.
·        The identification of race with social and economic function has been weakened. 

·        The vibrant economy has united our disparate racial groups.

·        Sabah and Sarawak have given to pluralism a territorial dimension.

·        By encouraging entrepreneurship and allowing the minority communities to provide leadership in the economic arena,  twin objectives have been achieved:  the economy has developed fabulously. Every community has acquired a stake in the country.

·        It must also be borne in mind that some of the racial and religious discord that exists in our society is a natural process of democratic freedoms. As society opens up, pent up feelings are expressed, often in ways that are deeply hurtful to others.

Not all is well, however

Sadly, since the nineties racial and religious polarization has reached alarming levels. We have become a “nation of strangers”. In many corners of the world walls of separation are being dismantled. Sadly, in our society these walls are being fortified.

Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria in his Malaysian Journal on Human Rights (Vol 7:2013) article has outlined some of our problems.

·        There are disputes pertaining to confirming conversions of the dead.

·        There are problems of divorce and inheritance between couples one of whom converts to Islam.

·        There are seemingly irreconcilable jurisdictional disputes between syariah and civil courts (if I may add: something which is quite common in every country with legal pluralism).

·        The use of the word “Allah” by West Malaysian Christians has aroused the anger of many Peninsular Muslims.

·        Moral policing is resulting in imposition of Islamic values on others. 

 One can add a great deal to this list.

·        There is the incredible allegation of a Christian conspiracy to take over the country.

·        Recently, JAIS, in clear disregard of the Constitution and of the sensitivities of Christians, raided a Christian place of worship and seemingly served notice that non-Muslim places of worship are subject to monitoring by Islamic authorities.

·        Islamisation of all aspects of life is proceeding at a rapid pace and this is impacting on non-Muslims.

·        From the Muslim side there are allegations that the constitutional limitation on preaching to Muslims in Art. 11(4) is being adroitly evaded or ignored.

·        Non-Muslim dominated NGOs raise their voice of concern, and rightly so, in many areas of human rights concern. Regrettably they are thunderously silent when Muslims in Palestine, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Kashmir and Iran are brutalised, demonised and dehumanised.

·        Besides inter-religious and inter-racial disharmony we are in an orgy of intra-racial and intra-religious discord. The voices of hate against “deviationists”, “liberals” Shias and those who are “traitors to their race and religion” have reached  strident proportions.

·        The demagogues, the racists and extremists of all communities are preaching their own sectarian interpretation of our “document of destiny” and are fanning fears and suspicions. Extremism has become mainstream and moderation is seen as capitulation to other races and religions and as a betrayal of one’s own community.

·        Hate speech on the internet does much damage to inter-ethnic and interreligious relations.

What, then, is  needed to restore unity?

As we approach 57 years of political freedom, what can we do to restore moderation, to recapture the spirit of 1957 and to reintroduce our winning formula for living together?

I have no simple solutions, just some stray thoughts of a whole calculus of factors.

  1. Constitutional literacy
We need to improve knowledge of the Constitution’s glittering generalities, especially its provisions on inter-ethnic relations.

The lack of familiarity with the basic charter’s provisions is glaring even within the top echelons of the civil service, the police, parliamentarians and politicians. 

If we read about the making of the Constitution, we will see that by far and large the forefathers of our Constitution were animated by a remarkable vision and optimism of a shared destiny among the various peoples of the Peninsula.

“Out of Many, One” was perhaps their creed. Their life was enlightened by a spirit of accommodation, compassion and tolerance. They abjured ideological purity of the political, economic and religious type. They walked the middle path of moderation. They gave to every community a stake in the nation.  No group received an absolute monopoly of power or wealth. Every community received something to relish and cherish. Pluralism was accepted as a way of life and the unity that was sought was a unity in diversity. 

The Constitution, even in its “ethnic provisions” sought to avoid extreme measures and provided for a balance between the interests of the “Bumiputera” and “non-Bumiputera” communities.

We need to teach the Constitution at to the 1.2 million strong civil service.

Our secondary schools and universities must have a familiarization course on the basic features of the Constitution and the reasons for the many delicate compromises contained therein. Knowledge of the Constitution is a prerequisite to good citizenship. Such knowledge will also help to moderate extremism and to give appreciation of one of the world’s most unique and hitherto successful experiments in peaceful co-existence in a nation of dazzling diversity.

  1. Subject to the Article 153 quotas, racial discrimination must be prohibited in both the public and private sectors

In both the public and private sectors, ethnicity reigns supreme. We are caught up in a vicious circle. The absence of a Civil Rights Act or a Race Relations Act prevents sanctions against ethnic discrimination that transgresses constitutional provisions.  Both sides of the divide are to blame for ignoring the painstaking compromises and the gilt-edged provisions of the Constitution. Lack of legal literacy about the Constitution contributes to the eclipsing of the basic law. For example Article 136 (on non-discrimination in the public services) is not overiden by Article 153. See Article 153(5).

 3. As fellow-citizens, we must build bridges, not walls

It is time for building ethnic bridges and dismantling walls; for healing and reconciliation; and for developing a vision of unity.  I couldn’t say it better than Datuk Azlina Aziz (wife of Datuk Seri Nazir Razak). “It is time for engagement, for listening, for cutting the invisible barbed wires that separate ‘them’ and ‘us’ and extending a hand over the divide to those who may disagree with your views but have as much of a stake and future in the country as you do”.  

 On our part, we ordinary citizens need to be more humble and accommodating towards each other. We need to recognise that disagreements are natural. Truth is multiple. Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.

  1. Our educational system must be revamped
An educational system must nurture tolerance, mutual respect and intercultural dialogue. It must bring kids together, not separate them on grounds of race, religion or language. If young people do not learn together, how will they live together?

The ethnic diversity of school teachers and school principals must be restored.

We must use school sports as a uniting force.  

  1. Interfaith studies
In schools, colleges and universities, interfaith studies should be encouraged as a step towards understanding, tolerance and unity. Most prejudices are born out of ignorance. With greater knowledge and understanding we learn that it is not differences that cause disunity. It is intolerance of differences that leads to disunity and violence.  We have to teach people that the primitive ethic of tribalism, racism or religious exclusiveness has no place in modern society. The circle of life has expanded. We are all brothers and sisters on this big blue marble. Unfortunately we seem to be doing the opposite.

[In our homes, classrooms and workplaces we have to teach our wards and brethren that justice is the highest virtue. Justice is impossible unless we try to be objective. Objectivity is impossible unless we are prepared to be subjective from the other person’s point of view! This entails that we must consciously try to view the world through the other person’s lenses, to step into the shoes of the other, to feel his or her pain. In sum we should do to others as we wish to be done unto us.]

6. Provide statutory, institutional framework for reconciling race and religious conflicts

Conflicts are unavoidable in any vibrant society. What is necessary is to reconcile them with the least friction and to provide appropriate remedies when rights are infringed.

 The National Unity Council should be upgraded to a statutory status (much like the Race Relations Boards of the UK). Perhaps there should also be  a statutory Inter-Faith Council whose job should be to foster dialogue over all that unites us and to seek tolerance and compassion towards all that divides us. Race relations training should be part of the agenda.

  1. Article 153 policies
The implementation of Article 153 policies by civil servants and politicians has not worked well. We need an impartial, professional body to handle this aspect of our social transformtion.

  1. Federal-state relations
In the light of the recent JAIS raid, it is clear that interfaith and interracial institutions and procedures must exist not only at federal but also state levels.

Perhaps the Conference of Rulers can play a significant role in this area.    

  1. Declaration on Religious & Racial Harmony
Similar to the Rukun Negara let us put our heads together to draft such a Declaration. It will act as a polestar for executive and judicial action and will exert normative influence on citizens

  1. Criminalise hate speech
Hate speech polarizes communities and often leads to violence. Existing provisions in the Penal Code, Communications & Multimedia Act, Printing Presses & Publications Act  and the Sedition Act need to be buttressed by a National Harmony or Race and Religious Relations or Maintenance of Religious Harmony  Act. The dominant purpose of this law should be to bring parties together through conciliation.  Sanctions should be a matter of last resort.

  1. Equal harassment under the law
Equality under the law refers to equal protection under the law as well as equal harssment under the law. Selective prosecution is a violation of our Constitution. There should be vigorous, impartial and speedy invoking of the law whenever race and religious harmony is sought to be breached. The statutory boards proposed above must be given statutory powers to prosecute. Citizens and citizens’ groups must be given locus standi to raise private prosecutions.

  1. We need leadership
Political leaders, media personalities and community chiefs must condemn hate crimes and hate speech immediately, strongly, publicly and consistently. They must send out a message of tolerance and restraint. It is not enought o ignore the ignorant and the extremists.


As a nation we are farther apart today than we were 57 years ago. Knowledge of the Constitution’s delicate provisions dealing with inter-ethnic relations can help to provide some understanding of the give and take that lay at the basis of our supreme law.

If we have to go forward as a united nation, we need to go back to the spirit of moderation, accommodation and compassion that animated the body politic in 1957.  

We can also learn from others. In many societies including Singapore, UK and the USA, the law is being used to socially engineer a more tolerant society. There is no shame in emulating others and building our garland with flowers from many gardens.
Talk delivered at a Proham Evening Talk & Discussion hosted in conjunction with the Proham AGM held on March 17, 2014 at 8.30pm at Dignity International, PJ

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