Racial and religious rhetoric have grown worse, heads of non-Muslim faith groups said, more than 500 days after Pakatan Harapan took power.
They told The Malaysian Insight that while efforts have been invested in resetting the economy, eliminating corruption and reducing the national debt, very little has been done to address racial and religious issues.
PH has pledged greater inclusivity and religious diversity and it must now walk the talk, they said.
There is already a framework for multi-culturalism in the constitution and what’s needed is political will to strengthen social cohesion and genuine engagements with the minority faith groups to seek their views, they said.
“We expected more from the government”, said RS Mohan Shan, deputy president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism.
“In 500 days of PH government, there has not been not much change in terms of religious harmony.
“The government should concentrate on (inculcating) religious tolerance. We understand if they focus more on Islamic issues, but they should also give importance to other religions, look into the sensitivities of other religions to pre-empt issues before they occur,” Mohan told The Malaysian Insight.
Some examples of issues that Putrajaya should have thought through further include the continued presence and handling of Islamic preacher Dr Zakir Naik, who has permanent residency in Malaysia, and the plan to introduce Jawi lessons to Year 4 vernacular school pupils next year.
Mohan acknowledged that these were legacy issues inherited from the previous Barisan Nasional government. Zakir’s PR was given to him by the BN administration, while the plan for Jawi lessons was also mooted during BN rule.
Still, he added, “even if it was proposed by BN, why raise it up now?”
Meanwhile, a Buy Muslim First campaign that began as a full-on boycott of non-Muslim goods and services by those offended by the refusal to allow Jawi to be taught in the vernacular schools has further divided Malaysians.
In politics, PH component party DAP continues to be accused of being “communist”, of having a “Christianisation agenda”, and of controlling the coalition’s other Malay parties.
The recent formalisation of Umno and PAS’ unity pact has also raised concerns about the use of racial and religious politics.
Council of Churches Malaysia (CCM) secretary-general Rev Hermen Shastri believed the prime minister and the cabinet were well aware of these dangers of polarisation and that they were doing what they could to handle these issues.
However, more must be done or these efforts will appear as merely damage control, Hermen said.
Hermen also cited the issue of Zakir, as well as the government’s handling of a task force to look into cases of enforced disappearance.
The composition of the task force and its unclear terms of reference have drawn criticism from activists. The missing persons involved had been religious figures, in particular, Christian pastors and an alleged Shia Islam activist.
“There have been some positions taken that do not provide helpful paths to tolerance and mutual respect between the religious communities,” Hermen told The Malaysian Insight.
“It is about time that the new administration applies clear principles of governance related to strengthening social cohesion within the framework of constitutional guarantees and responsibilities of diverse religious communities living together.
“Malaysia must transform from religious rigidity to spiritual openness that inspires people of diverse faiths to work for the common good. It must break out of parochial mindsets that only thinks of one’s own religion.”
Transparency International Malaysia’s president Dr Muhammad Mohan commended the PH government for tackling corruption, saying it was on the right track, but also noted the slow pace in other transparency and governance reforms, such as separating the powers of the Attorney-General and the public prosecutor.
PH’s performance on unity and multiracial issues, however, was disappointing, Muhammad said.
“What we are disappointed about is unity and multiracial issues. Politicians of all parties should not raise racial and religious issues which are sensitive.
“PH should act swiftly on these issues. When they don’t act and allow things to fester, it can get worse. This is where they should improve. It’s not only the Zakir issue but other issues as well, such as the way they introduced khat calligraphy,” he said.
Mohan Shan urged Putrajaya to work with non-Muslim religious groups and to stop fearing the loss of Malay votes.
“They can do better and we would like to work more with the government. They have done a lot of other things, but we would like to help improve their performance.
“Even though they are scared to lose the Malay votes, they must look at everyone as Malaysians and not as Malay, Chinese or Indian.”
Hermen said there was talk of a new interfaith relations commission in the near future and urged Putrajaya to ensure that it met the objectives of safeguarding harmony and promoting peaceful coexistence.
“Whether that will be an effective mechanism for resolving interfaith tensions, is left to be seen.” – TMI