THE BLOG

What Does "Moderate" Mean in Malaysia?

There have been a lot of loose definitions of "moderate" Islam in the media recently and in the wake of violent protests throughout the Muslim world, the word is starting to mean simply -- non-violent. The deaths in Libya and many other Muslim countries have been a disturbing counterpoint to the hopes aroused by the Arab Spring movement. Peaceful protests have achieved so much more change in the last two years than all the decades of violence in the past, yet extremists still believe they can achieve their agenda by continuing to murder innocent civilians. Violence is their only way of remaining relevant as they have nothing else to offer.

Malaysia is often referred to as a moderate Islamic country, as it is mainly peaceful, prosperous and law-abiding. A predominantly Muslim country with vocal and distinct minority populations of Indian and Chinese origin, peaceful change has taken place over the last twenty years without violent extremism. It may be because the government has kept a tight hold on the country with the emergency law and regulations adopted in 1957 to maintain political order and stability when Malaysia was emerging from the communist insurgency. These laws stayed in place until very recently and have been used to respond to any movement that was considered prejudicial to national security. Today, the question arises of whether such laws provide security or whether they have become a liability. In September, 2011 the increasingly controversial Internal Security Act (ISA) of 1960 was repealed and in November, 2011, the government finally lifted three existing emergency proclamations, rendering void the unpopular Emergency Public Order and Prevention of Crime Ordinance of 1969.

However, civil rights groups are expressing dissatisfaction with the new legislation which replaces the archaic repealed laws; Hasmy Agam, the Chief Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia has spoken out against the new legislation for failing to meet international human rights standards. Many see the proposed Peaceful Assembly Bill as placing further curbs on civil liberties by restricting street demonstrations and the new Security Offences Act is simply "the New ISA." The much vaunted relaxation of media restrictions is also being criticized as an inadequate half-measure.

Another reform that many see as long overdue is Malaysia's affirmative action policy, where Malays have been given preference over the decades. Very successful at bringing education and economic opportunity to ethnic Muslim Malaysians, the policy is now being seen as culturally divisive and open to corruption. The present government has rejected calls for reform as the policy has helped maintain their electoral advantage for over twenty years.

Malaysia is ranked in 20th position in the 2012 Global Peace Index issued by the Institute for Economics and Peace. The second highest Muslim nation in the ranking, outdone only by Qatar, Malaysia's tranquility has been achieved by a stable though autocratic democracy. If Malaysia has indeed truly achieved maturity, the challenge now is to grant more civil rights and freedoms to a diverse population where 40 percent are non-Muslim. Malaysia's Constitution calls for the rights of all to practice their faith in peace and harmony but, increasingly, today the ideal of religious tolerance is being threatened by what many see as the "Arabization" of Malaysian Islam.

Malaysia has traditionally been pragmatic and even liberal about such issues as apostasy, and viewed Sharia courts as dealing with a narrow range of family matters for Muslims, and not having the power to dictate a citizen's relationship to the state. But recent surveys of Malay attitudes show that a majority think of themselves as Muslims first and Malaysians second and want the state to become more Islamic.

This, in turn, is threatening the concept of Malaysian nationalism and national unity, which Prime Minister Razak is attempting to achieve through his 1Malaysia concept. It will be just window-dressing if conservative views are protected and racial relations and religious liberties are sabotaged by extremism.

Najib Razak presents himself as a reformer on a mission to modernize Malaysia. But the reality is that Malaysians want more than window dressing as the time gets closer to the next election. With the country going into full campaign mode, the rifts in philosophy are becoming clearer, the dirty tricks dirtier and the opposition party under Anwar Ibrahim's leadership is becoming more popular.

Malaysia will always be a multi-cultural, multi-religious country and, hopefully, its Muslim population will always practice a moderate and non-violent form of Islam. Increasingly, it looks as if Anwar Ibrahim will be the visionary and principled leader Malaysia needs to safeguard this for the future.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of The Scotland Institute and a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is a supporter of Dr. Anwar Ibrahim who has aided Dr. Ibrahim during his travels abroad. He is not paid for these services, nor is he officially affiliated with Dr. Ibrahim's campaign or any other political activities in Malaysia.

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