Multiculturalism in Malaysia?!


I’m read this piece: Debunking multiculturalism the other day and was disappointed but was not able to write anything yet but happy to see this reply Multiculturalism how can it be wrong?. Now the question is how do we move forward in a civil conversation on matters that concern us all. Read on and respond thoughtfully, self-awareness, fairness and compassion…

Debunking multiculturalism

Fellow,Centre for Syariah, Law and Political Science, Insitute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia

HAVING a multicultural society does not mean that every Malaysian must subscribe to an ideology referred to as multiculturalism.

With reference to Malaysia, having a multicultural society is a fact, but to subscribe to multiculturalism is to interpret that fact in a certain way.

Multiculturalism is an alien ideology which came into being out of a particular historical, religious, and cultural setting.

In order to understand multiculturalism one has to keep in mind the long history of religious intolerance in Europe, followed by the Reformation movement, the rise of liberalism, and secularisation. It is a history that is full of horrible tales of persecution and intolerance in the name of religion (read Christianity).

Religious pluralism is the outcome of an attempt to provide a basis in Christian theology for tolerance of non-Christian religions; as such, it is an element in a kind of religious modernism or liberalism.

Liberalism in religion and in politics is historically and theoretically related to one another. Liberalism as a political ideology that emerged in the same period and locale alongside liberal Protestantism. Both took place in the aftermath of the Reformation.

Among the political and religious liberals the attitudes toward moral, social, and political issues are often the same. They emphasise the importance of tolerance, individual rights and freedoms to safeguard a pluralism of life styles.

At the foundation of political liberalism is tolerance of different opinions about religion. Then came religious pluralism which seeks to provide a theological basis for this tolerance.

Being an outgrowth of liberal Protestantism, religious pluralism rejects orthodox interpretations of Christian scripture and dogma to make salvation attainable via routes other than Christianity.

It is sceptical towards rational arguments in favour of the superiority of Christian beliefs. It appeals to the modem moral principles of tolerance and rejection of prejudice.

Because of its emphasis on the elements common to personal religious faith, ritual and theological doctrine are considered to be of secondary importance or a personal matter.

The liberal separation of religion from social order is founded on the assumption that this separation is consistent with the tenets of all religions and sects, whereas it is in direct conflict with the very nature of the worldview of Islam.

In the first place, Islam has never been structured upon some kind of church-state relation like that of medieval Christianity. Secondly, Islam is not a culture that evolves and develops in the way Christianity does.

Multiculturalism, as understood and propagated by its proponents in this country is not based on diversity, but rather it strives to debunk Islam as a socio-political order.

The ideological components of Malaysian multiculturalism can be summarised as a cultural relativism which finds the prominence of Islam in this country intolerable.

It rests on the attitude that religion should not be allowed to “interfere” in our social and political life. Hence, it is important that every Malaysian, especially the Muslims, be made to accept “the fact” that Malaysia is a “secular country”.

The Malaysian multiculturalism’s hostility towards Islam and its repudiation of an identifiable Malaysian culture based upon Islam is augmented by a radically new definition of community, one that deviates from the traditional, religious emphasis on family, neighbourhood, house of worship and school, towards an emphasis on race, gender, occupation and sexual preference.

Can multiculturalism be a viable principle for our national unity?

Ideological multiculturalists are radical-left inhabitants of a political dreamland. These ideological divisions within our society threaten to render the nation into hostile factions.

The multiculturalists assert that Malaysia is an idea rather than a nation possessing a distinctive but encompassing identity. Hence, after almost 50 years of independence we still hear people talking about the search for a “Malaysian identity”.

It means Malaysia, as far as they are concerned, has no identity, and if we are to have one, Islam should not be part of that identity.

Current manifestations of multiculturalism extend far beyond the kind of pluralism that seeks a richer common culture to multicultural particularism which denies that a common culture is possible or desirable.

In an attempt to validate the multiculturalists’ emphasis on particularism and its concomitant subversion of cultural commonality, knowledge and facts in their discourse are consistently subordinated to the so-called “critical thinking approach.”

The dismal truth is that critical thinking in practice means subjective questioning and unsubstantiated, unreasoned, personal opinion.

Contrary to the assertions of proponents of multiculturalism that limitless pluralism enriches our understanding, the de-emphasising of specific factual knowledge in their discourse resulted in what it inevitably must have a plague of ignorance.

Multiculturalism’s subordination of facts and knowledge to unguided “critical thinking” demonstrates its intellectual bankruptcy, since any critical opinion worthy of consideration must evolve out of knowledge and be grounded in objective facts.

Malaysia is not a no man’s land, and everybody knows that, and the fact that Islam is the religion of the Federation is also common knowledge.

Further contemplation would be enough for one to realise another fact: namely, that Islamic ethical and socio-political order is ultimately the expression of certain ideas about life and existence as a whole.

To Muslims, those ideas are the integrating principles that place all systems of meaning and standards of life and values in coherent order.

To those who live on the assumption that Malaysia is a secular country, it is the secular worldview that is supposed to be the prism through which we understand who we are and how to go about living our lives.

Of course they can believe in whatever they want to believe. But we would like to ask a very simple question: Who says the secular worldview is our common worldview?

That is surely not acceptable to Muslims, who are aware that secularism is antithetical not only to Islam but to all religious worldviews.

Leaving the ignorant and confused Muslims aside, there is no way to make conscious Muslims accept a secular interpretation of life and existence as espoused by Western culture and civilisation.

The followers of other religions should recognise the fact that their religions have many things in common with Islam, particularly when it comes to ethics and morality.

It is through Malaysia, as an Islamic state, that other religions would thrive, and that we have better chance of fostering national unity based on a common religious worldview.

A secular Malaysia would be an enemy not only to Islam but a common enemy to all religions.

We must realise the fact that secularisation can be considered a natural phenomenon only in the case of the West, considering what they have experienced in their history.

To apply their solution to our problem is to admit that we are now experiencing the same problem they used to have; which is historically baseless and logically absurd.


Multiculturalism how can it be wrong?

Research Director,
Kairos Research Centre

THESE must be worrying times for Malaysian citizens if an official from Ikim, a government think-tank dedicated to the task of disseminating Islam as a tolerant religion, can come out with an article entitled “Debunking multiculturalism” that appeared in The Star (Aug 22, 2006).

Credit must be given to the writer, Md Asham Ahmad, for his forthrightness in arguing that Islam rather than multiculturalism be the framework for social policy in Malaysia.

Nevertheless, it is evident that the writer’s forthrightness is not accompanied by accurate facts, given his skewed reading of Christian history.

Md Asham suggests that religious pluralism and multiculturalism is the outcome of a weak religion (Christianity) that does not stand comparison with Islam, given Islam’s strong relation with the State.

I am always suspicious of mono-causal interpretations of history that purport to explain how the existing condition of a society arose from a particular ‘ism’.

A more nuanced reading of the history of the rise of liberalism and religious liberty would take into account the multiplicity of factors including the new discoveries of Oriental civilizations in the European age of exploration, the power struggle between hegemonic states (Spain and France) and new nation-states in Germany and the Netherlands, the rise of the merchant class and independent trading cities (like Geneva) and the conflict between tradition and critique of the Enlightenment thinkers.

Above all, multiculturalism, exemplified by toleration, was the outcome of ‘religious’ wars that led to the treaty of The Peace of Westphalia (1648). Notably, the provisions for religious freedom were called articles of peace.

It should be of interest to note that the challenge of managing religious plurality (a fact rather than an ideology) is not a unique problem of Western Christianity. We see ongoing conflicts in Asia and Africa such as in Sudan, India and Iraq that cry out for equivalents of the historic Peace of Westphalia.

It would do well for Md Asham to adopt a modest attitude of willingness to learn from the past rather than judge it with sarcasm, when it is evident that we Asians/Africans continue to be plagued by religious and cultural conflicts.

Md Asham suggests that non-Muslims are motivated by ideology when they commend multiculturalism as a valuable framework to promote social harmony.

He writes: “Multiculturalism, as understood and propagated by its proponents in this country is not based on diversity, but rather it strives to debunk Islam as a socio-political order.” By using words like ‘hostility’ and ‘subversion’ he also suggests that non-Muslims are imbued with an adversarial attitude.

The problem is, Md Asham has inverted the dynamics of rational debate in this country by suggesting that the non-Muslims’ call for multiculturalism is driven by an ideology inherently hostile to Islam.

The reality is that our nation was a plural society at its inception in 1957 and more so in 1963 when Malaysia incorporated the many tribal communities in East Malaysia.

One plainly cannot deny the existing social condition (plurality) that needs to be addressed. Hence, the stress on multiculturalism as the best modus vivendi for developing a national identity that expresses unity in diversity and equality for all peoples regardless of their culture and religion.

Since concepts have different meanings in different contexts, the onus is on writers to define their terms in a fair and accurate manner.

For example, Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind) castigates western multiculturalism that leads to relativism, and results in the demise of “solidarity in defence of the truth”.

On the other hand, Malaysians and other Asians tend to describe multiculturalism as “the view that various cultures in a society merit equal respect and scholarly interests” cf. Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (1994).

Such sensitivity to contextual meanings would have cautioned Md Asham against making the suggestion that supporters of multiculturalism are merely motivated by hostility towards Islam based on family, neighbourhood and school.

Perhaps, Md Asham wrongly equates liberalism with libertarianism. Libertarianism is the view that individuals should be free to do whatever they wish so long as they do not infringe on other people’s freedom or property.

However, Md Asham would be remiss if he tars political liberalism with a form of libertarianism that undermines social relationships; bearing in mind that liberalism has a range of meanings.

It should be noted that classical liberalism as expounded by John Locke describes the essential theses of liberalism in the following terms: that the people are the source of all political power, that government cannot be justified unless it possesses their free consent, that all governmental measures are to be judged by an active citizen body, that men of government are to help them when they require it, but not to run their lives for them, and finally the State must be resisted if it steps beyond its political authority.

More importantly, political liberalism and multiculturalism in the Malaysian context envision the flourishing of citizens based on the preservation of fundamental liberties from encroaching State authoritarianism, if not totalitarianism.

Md Asham may find the theses objectionable, but a robust set of philosophical propositions demands careful and rational response rather than a debunking couched in loaded and emotive words.

Md Asham ends his article with a call for a polity that must be rooted in local history. But taking local history seriously must surely mean honouring the consensus on the specific form of secularism engraved in our Malaysian Constitution in 1957 and 1963.

Unlike some places in the West, secularism in Malaysia does not reject religion. It was the social consensus back in 1957 and 1963 that there should be no establishing of one religion above others in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society like Malaysia.

Secularism in Malaysian history as such commends a benign neutrality and benevolent support for religious plurality.

I find unacceptable Md Asham’s suggestion that, “it is through Malaysia, as an Islamic state, that other religions would thrive, and that we have a better chance of fostering national unity based on a common religious worldview.”

Firstly, it is undeniable that religions are presently flourishing in Malaysia under the existing Constitutional arrangement.

Secondly, national unity remains strong so long as State polity is based on overlapping consensus of diversity of religious worldviews (John Rawls).

I write this to contrast Md Asham’s call for unity under a common religious worldview, which suggests imposition by a dominant religion. In short, Md Asham’s suggestion is both unnecessary and counterproductive.

In conclusion, even though Md Asham’s article in debunking multiculturalism may be a legitimate academic exercise, I reject his suggestion that multiculturalism as historically understood and practiced in Malaysia is incongruent with our local cultural aspiration.

Indeed, I wish to stress that open debate on public philosophy is itself testament to the robustness of our national Constitution that envisions the task of nation building to be inclusive and open to positive contribution from all citizens regardless of race, culture and religion.

It is an affirmation of the politics of recognition, mutual respect and reciprocity.


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