by Arveent Srirangan Kathirtchelvan
The 14th General Elections of Malaysia has just ended and history has been made. The world’s longest ruling party, Barisan Nasional (BN), has been defeated by the opposition coalition (Pakatan Harapan (PH)) led by BN’s former leader, Tun Mahathir, who then became the world’s oldest Prime Minister. A roller-coaster is a gross understatement to describe the past 2 days. While we are now on the way to appoint the cabinet of ministers and the governments of the states, it is important to do some analysis on what the results indicate. Insofar as Malaysia’s unfortunately brittle social structure is concerned, there are trying times in the future.
BN-PAS In Our Future?
I say this as PAS has managed to win a good number of seats in the parliament and several state legislatures. While slim margins led to many of these wins, it must be said that many pollsters were found to be erroneous as they did not predict PAS would perform this well. The issue with PAS is its narrow interpretation of Islamic law and unwillingness to work flexibly when it comes to their implementation. I may be no expert in religion and couldn’t say what is the proper interpretation of maqasid syariah but, speaking from a position of common sense, the lack of flexibility is disturbing.
Some of those who supported PAS seem to be cut from a worrying cloth. Racial and religious sentiments were used in the campaigning period and arguments were made where Muslims were told not to vote for non-Muslims even if they were good candidates as the Islamic agenda would not be upheld. To say these arguments were ethnocentric would not be enough, it was downright scary. This is bordering on UKIP-levels of paranoia and it was hoped it would be extreme enough to turn off many more Malay-Muslims than it did.
Now with former rivals BN turning opposition, a merger or coalition between these two parties is not outside of the realms of possibility. The problem with this is the same brand of strongly-ethnocentric support of the Islamic agenda would most probably be the core of this new merger. Worryingly, this would follow the trend all over the world where far-right, race-supremacist parties are on the rise. While the new BN-PAS merger would have a really good chance of becoming a strong opposition, the cost to be paid for their existence, where the politics of hate become somewhat empowered with religion being used as a tool for political gains, would be too high.
The Two Spheres
From my understanding, Malaysia is now clearly split into two spheres; one which is concerned with the exclusivity of Islamic laws and principles and another which is more flexible and is more concerned with working together to meet the needs of all people. To me, the latter is a more sustainable option. However, it is seen to be too liberal by the former, who associate it with the LGBTQ agenda and accuse them of being insincere in upholding Islamic principles. The fear remains that the Islamic agenda that is important to Malay-Muslims would be lost without there being a coordinated call for literal interpretations and overt religious representation a la PAS.
To me, PAS’s struggle is problematic as it leads to the same issues of racial and religious supremacy. But this doesn’t mean the Islamic agenda is should be unimportant in the grand scheme of things. It is clear that a large proportion of the Malaysian society care deeply about it and it would be unwise to not uphold the will of the people. However, the approach to upholding this is crucial. It is important to consider the social make-up of Malaysia and the maturity needed in writing laws to reflect not only the current sentiments of the people but also to be flexible enough to change with the times.
But more than this, the understanding that Islamic principles are different to non-Islamic principles is largely wrong and it is irresponsible to propagate this false notion. Most of the principles held by Muslims, from filial piety to moderation, are held by Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists even atheists have similar morals. Why do we need to bicker as if those who do not believe in the same religion as us are automatically immoral? Yes, there are differences and disagreements between us but what should be important is peace achieved through mutual understanding. Every member of society should be open to this and should understand that it is always better to have a healthy discussion on the best way to approach certain issues while progressing towards shared ideals.
As I have written on a few other occasions, I suspect a fear in losing one’s identity has been interwoven with racial or religious supremacy. Malay-Muslims have been conditioned to champion certain causes with the, either implied or express, threat of losing their place in their home nation. This must be eradicated to free Malay-Muslims from being taken advantage of like they have been for so long. For this to happen comprehensively, non-Muslims should lead the charge in showing how similar we are to Muslims, possibly by learning about the Malay culture and Islam and drawing parallels with our lives. We could do more in engaging with our Muslim brethren to show Islamic concepts and ideals, especially the latter, coincide with our worldview as well.
If I could draw a parallel, we could look at Ustaz Nik Omar. I have made no secret of my admiration of the man and his basis of working together to make laws compatible with the times and multireligious nature of our society. The ustaz is moderation in action, exemplifying the virtues that are held supreme by Muslims. Soft-spoken and calm, he reassured Malaysians that what is important is fastabiqul khairat, or competing with each other to do good deeds (berlumba-lumba untuk buat kebaikan). This is hardly an Islamic principle alone. It can be seen in Sikh gurdwaras filled with people making bread for the poor. It can be seen in Christian missionaries who perform acts of charity and volunteering within the poor community. It can be seen with PSM and Dapsy members who empower the rakyat with their service.
We have so many similarities, what is there to fear with respect to electing non-Muslim leaders? Especially when the sanctity of Islam is protected by the Council of Rulers, there is no rational reason to presuppose an election of a non-Muslim equates a weakening of Islam or Islamic principles. We have been divided for so long that it seems weird now to say Bangsa Malaysia but look around you. We are more united than ever. Hope is flourishing, peace and the sense that true togetherness can be achieved is now more real than ever. We should stand together.
Of course in writing this article, I understand that my status as a non-Muslim does not help in justifying my points. Hence, I pray and concede to those who know more than I do to ascertain whether or not my points are possible within the Malay-Muslim worldview. Far be it from me to pretend to be the arbiter of Islam. All I want is progress and peace for all Malaysians, and I believe relating to each other is the only way forward. Malay-Muslims have been the victims of an insidious form of othering, akin to that highlighted by Edward Said. The only way forward is removing this first, and so we must prove that Islamic ideals and universal ideals concur.
If in this exercise of ideation I have erred in any way, I apologise profusely. These are heavy ideas to balance and if I have not done so well, I assure you it is due to inexperience and not malice. But as a non-Muslim extending the olive branch to my brethren, I have decided to risk being criticised as the rewards from a fruitful discussion would ultimately benefit the rakyat. Of course, if PAS and BN are to reform into better, more moderate, more inclusive parties, none of the above would apply. We are all, of course, competing with each other to do good, after all.
Featured Image: Addin