Using religion for 'political play'
Activists link religious strife to political ambitions
Malay Musims comprise more than 60 percent of the country's population and dominate political institutions
As Malaysia marked its 48th National Day on September 16 with the usual fanfare, Christian leaders, social activists and academics have noted increasing interreligious tension in the country in the past few years, especially between Christians and Muslims, and blamed politics for the situation. “Interreligious relations in Malaysia have worsened of late and I credit it to being politicised by many groups,” said Bishop Ng Moon Hing, chairperson of the Christian Federation of Malaysia. “When faiths are being politicised, they will become ugly, insensitive, irresponsible, sometimes immoral, divisive and inhumane," added the Anglican bishop. BK Ong, a Penang-based social activist and election observer, said the ruling National Front government headed by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) “wants to recapture and maintain support of the majority Malay-Muslim population. Therefore, it is portraying itself as their religious champion.” During the 2008 general election, the National Front government significantly lost their two-thirds majority in Parliament as well as five of the country’s 14 states and territories. Because of this push to secure the votes of Malay-Muslims, who make up more than 60 percent of the population, “UMNO tends to side with the Malay-Muslims in any issue related to religion,” Ong said. Religious issues have been played up in the past few years, such as the continued ban on Malay-speaking Christians from using the word “Allah” for God, despite a high-court ruling to the contrary; the impounding of Malay-language Bibles; and recently, a raid by Islamic religious authorities on a Methodist church building during a fund-raising dinner for suspected proselytizing of Muslims, Ong added. A Muslim academic who asked not to be named said that “interreligious relations in this country, particularly between Christian and Muslim communities, have deteriorated to some degree over the last few years.” The Muslim, who also heads a Penang- based reform group, said “the ruling party, sometimes via certain [pressure] groups, has exploited religion to advance their interests and perpetuate themselves in power.” He added: “Often people with vested interests would attempt to pit one religious community against another in their attempt to appear as a ‘hero’ in the eyes of one community.” For Reverend Eu Hong Seng, chairperson of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, the Malaysian Church has become a “convenient football in the political play between the ruling coalition and the opposition parties.” “How is it that for over 40 years [since the formation of the nation], Allah, Malay Bibles and alleged apostasy were non-issues, but today, they are?” On improving relations, Kee Tuan Chye, a prominent actor and journalist, said this is not easy “because one religion is given a special place above other religions.” According to the Constitution, “Islam is the religion of the federation” of Malaysia. The Muslim academic who asked not to be named, however, offered this advice for both Christians and Muslims. “Unite around certain pressing current issues such as fighting corruption, particularly the big fish in government and business corporations. Followers of faiths can also strengthen their bonds by collectively protecting and saving the environment from the avaricious appetite of the capitalists to turn every available green area into a concrete jungle.”