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  • Writer's pictureDr. Asma Abdullah


Source: Visions For Peace, Published by Association of Peace, Conscience & Reason, 2016

Peaceful coexistence is a situation in which people who have different cultures have to live together . "I've been wrestling with the dilemma of how you coexist with those you hate" (Ariel Dorfman).


Malaysia's 30 million people represent a rich blend of sounds, sights and smells. The multiethnic population of Malay, Chinese, Bumiputra, Indian, and others (including noncitizens) largely owes their origins to India, China and the Malay world. The population is also multi-religious with Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Confucianists, Taoists, Sikhs, Baha’is and others coexisting and speaking Malay, English, Mandarin and a variety of Chinese dialects, Tamil, Hindi, Urdu and several other languages.

For most Malaysians, it is this diverse brew of cultures, languages, religions and ethnic groups that is responsible for the unique political, economic and social systems which we now have in the country. The different groups and communities maintain their separate identities. Differences in food, dress, languages, customs, behavioural patterns, architectural styles and all other outer manifestations are preserved for the sake of harmony, peace and unity. Malaysia embodies a microcosm of Asian cultural values and a living laboratory for creating true intercultural synergy, a noble experiment in race relations whereby each ethnic group is allowed to retain its own fundamental beliefs, religion, tradition, heritage and way of life in the Asian tradition. This diversity is seen as a positive resource and not as a problem.

Since its formation in 1963, Malaysia has undergone a nation building exercise based on the spirit of muhibbah where Malaysians from all walks of life celebrate the many cultures in the country. The word Muhibbah is derived from the Arabic language habibba meaning 'love' which in English means 'goodwill'. For Malaysians, it means respect and tolerance of one another's way of life, religion, customs and traditions, including opinions and points of views, sharing each other's joy and sorrow, standing together during hard times as well as good.

Malaysia is also one of the few countries in the world that provides public holidays for the various religious festivals of its people -- Hari Raya for Muslims, Kong Hee Fat Choy for Chinese, Deepavali for the Hindus, Wesak day for the Buddhists and Christmas for the Christians. These religious and cultural holidays are vital for promoting interreligious harmony and intercultural understanding. In addition, the laudable aims of Vision 2020 and its nine challenges have also become a rallying point of unity in the quest to achieve the status of a developed nation by year 2020. They help Malaysians see themselves as a group of people who take pride in their ability to live in peace with an accommodating posture of give and take and a common set of cultural values emphasising harmonious living, hierarchical-based relationship building, community and group orientation, and religious understanding. In many ways, Malaysia today is as much a product of its ancient history as it is of an evolving multi-cultural society.

This muhibbah spirit is acknowledged, treasured and celebrated by both young and old in Malaysia and the various ethnic groups have been able to perpetuate the ways of life shaped by their ancestors. This mutual co-existence, in which each ethnic group has been given the space and opportunity to pursue its own economic and socio-cultural activities, has contributed to cultural enrichment as well as peace and understanding among the people. In the eyes of the world, the rapid development of Malaysia is due to its ability to brand itself as a unique country where different cultures live together in peace. Over the years, this spirit of muhibbah has helped brand the country as “Malaysia Truly Asia”.

In recent times, however, the reality on the ground does not match the ideal suggested by the slogans. The Malaysian multi-cultural experiment is being tested and the true spirit of muhibbah, on which this country was originally built, is slowly eroding. In fact, Malaysians today are divided along ethnic lines on many fronts, be it in politics, religion, or education.

I would like to elaborate on the many challenges Malaysians face living in a multicultural society with different languages, cultural practices, religious beliefs and traditions. I will also discuss factors that have led to the current situation and strategies on how Malaysians can promote peaceful co-existence.

Current Scenario

Several developments in the country indicate that the spirit of muhibbah and the state of intercultural relationships and understanding are at their lowest ebb. There have been expressions of public dissent such as rallies and demonstrations, dissatisfaction towards the Government and several of its policies of social engineering, criticisms in the media on corrupt practices, and resentment against religious policing.

In addition, the public has also become more vocal on issues pertaining to governance, integrity, transparency and accountability among those who hold the reins of power and those who implement government policies. There are instances of threats in the form of verbal conflicts, and expressions of racism and bigotry in the public space generated by deep-seated grievances and prejudices and stereotypes as well as ethnocentric and race-based politics.

What has gone wrong? Why has this happened? How should Malaysians deal with these issues? Who should be responsible for finding solutions to restore the peace and harmony we once enjoyed? What is the way forward to a more inclusive society? These are some of the questions which Malaysians are asking as they see the spirit of muhibbah being eroded.

At the Unity and Multiculturalism forum organized by the Association of Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason (PCORE) on August 29, 2013, YB Khairi Jamaluddin the Minister of Youth and Sports, said that Malaysia is a nation built on multi narratives with a mix of different cultures and ethnicities, as well as values and belief systems that criss-cross one another. At best, the socio-cultural lines are parallel to but never meet one another. At worst, they are in constant competition, with each line proclaiming to be the dominant narrative, each line claiming to be superior, and each line claiming on its moral legitimacy.

The same view is expressed by Shamsul A. B (2014) who, in his research, identifies nine ‘major axes of contradictions’ being articulated through the ‘talk conflict’ in Malaysia. These are ethnicity, religion, social class, education, urban–rural identity, gender, language, politics/power, spatial and generational, which are not mutually exclusive as one source of conflict can generate and/or build on another.

In many ways, knowledge and perceptions about Malaysia have to take into consideration the nature of its multiethnic population which has largely contributed to the tendency to ethnicize social realities in Malaysia based on the identity of the person concerned. This ethnicized view is unavoidable, largely because of colonial history. Each ethnic group has expressed a vision for Malaysia, expressed a vision for Malaysia and ‘what Malaysia is’ from its own vantage point. There will always be a Malay view, Chinese view, Indian view, Kadazan view, Dayak view, etc. regarding the various aspects of life in Malaysia – be it political, economic or cultural. (Shamsul, 1997).

As a result, from the past up to the present, observers of Malaysian society, politics and culture inevitably consciously or unconsciously have, either consciously or unconsciously adopted an ethnic position in the way they perceive and analyse Malaysia’s development. There will always be a particular ethnic point of view of an event in Malaysia depending on who is involved and interpreting it based on their ethnic origins. Ethnicity has inevitably become part and parcel of describing Malaysia, its people and culture.

This has led to the current situation in Malaysia where each group will have its own interpretation of the many slogans branding the country, be it Vision 2020, 1Malaysia, or Moderate Muslim country, which, according to the current Malay Muslim view, is based on the Islamic concept of wassatiyyah or moderation. What one culture regards as an act of inclusivity for the privileged majority, others see as a form of discrimination promoting exclusivity for the privileged majority. Many would agree that it is about time Malaysians from all groups and walks of life begin to take stock of our country’s multicultural experiment. A new narrative and solution that all groups will accept has to be articulated and promoted by the country’s leaders.

Some Contributory factors

A number of factors have led to the growing divisiveness in the country. First, since independence Malaysian politics has been largely dominated by race-based political parties led by the ruling coalition which exploits ethnic divisions for its own political survival. Of late, unprecedented instances of racial bigotry are also being expressed by the opposition parties. Secondly, the New Economic Policy (NEP), the affirmative action plan for the Malays and other Bumiputera communities, remains a source of contention. There have been increasing expressions of anger, disappointment and frustration by Malaysians of different ethnic origins who prefer a more inclusive economic policy. The non-Malays believe that the poor and disadvantaged, regardless of race and religion, deserve the same access to educational scholarships, low cost housing, public sector employment and business opportunities to lift them out of poverty, as this is also their country of birth. Thirdly, Islam has become politicized and radicalized since the 1960’s.

While Malaysia used to be known as a moderate Islamic country that promoted tolerance and harmony among its religiously and ethnically diverse citizens, there are now instances where discriminatory racist, fascist, and sexist activities are endorsed in the name of Islam. This brand of Islam tends to establish exclusive ownership of the religion with no intention or effort to encourage diversity of thought and expressions. As a state-sponsored religion, Islam is consistently manipulated to legitimise and justify state power. Religious officials interfere with and encroach on the individual’s right to personal freedom, including that of non-Muslims.

There are particular instances of discord, such as the controversies surrounding the printing of Bibles in Bahasa Malaysia and the use of the word Allah by Christians, issues of marriage and conversion, apostasy and hudud laws. The most alarming are attitudes towards jihad revealed by the 2013 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, which showed that 39% of Malaysian Muslims felt that “violence against the enemies of Islam” was justified.

For Malay Muslims, strict rules are now being imposed by religious institutions to monitor their behaviour in relation to apostasy, dress and relationships between the sexes.

Extreme and radical interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith by some religious leaders or imams, which are supported by the government, have created a climate of religious intolerance where moral policing is widely promoted.

The Way Forward

What then, has to be amended and how can civil society organizations play a role in reviving the spirit of muhibbah ? The following are some possible initiatives:

i. At the level of Policy making

There has to be a new policy of social inclusion to make all Malaysians feel that they belong to the country. The time has come for the government to ensure that Malaysians regardless of ethnic ori

gins, will be given equal opportunity and treatment based on a new set of criteria that is more equitable. The model of development has to be perceived to be fair to the poor, marginalised and disadvantaged, who deserve the same assistance enjoyed by the Malays and other Bumiputra.

A new narrative or a social contract has to be formulated to reshape the basis of a shared union of every single Malaysian. The existing race-based policy has to make way for a more needs-based policy that will not derail the legitimate agenda for the deserving Bumiputra. What was proposed in 2010 as a revision of the NEP was a national development strategy that is more transparent, merit driven, and market friendly.

2. At the Educational level of Schools, Colleges and Universities

Our colleges and universities have to develop courses and modules to familiar students with the history and principles of our Federal Constitution and the five principles of Rukun Negara to regulate the thinking and overall conduct of Malaysians. The fifth principle of the Rukunegara, which is good behaviour and morality, is particularly relevant to fostering racial harmony and inculcating an appreciation of one another’s beliefs and values. For a start, prohibiting the use of words that are derogatory to the different races will be a good way of legislating appropriate behaviour among Malaysians.

Students in schools and universities should acquire knowledge of their own cultures, values and sensitivities as well as those of the other groups. Using the project based learning approach, students can do research in their respective communities on how religious practices are expressed in everyday behaviour. Only through examining commonalities between religions as well as differences at the theological and ethical levels, followed by practical experiences, will they be able to appreciate the religious diversity in the country.

3. At the Level of the Home and Family

The home environment is the best place to start introducing the young to the spirit of neighbourliness and muhibbah and of living together in a multicultural society. Often racism, stereotyping and prejudices originate in the home due to a lack of intercultural contact, especially among children who attend vernacular schools and interact in monoethnic settings. Malaysian families have to play their part in exposing their children to the cultural diversity, the different languages, cultural practices and food traditions as well as religious beliefs and practices of their friends and acquaintances. Equally important is assisting children in cultivating friendships with those from other ethnic groups in order to learn about cultural sensitivities.


Malaysia used to take pride in its own brand of multicultural diversity where people of different ethnicities and religions lived in peace and harmony. Malaysians have to recognise the present reality and identify the negative implications of policies that promote exclusivity.

New pathways have to be crafted by those in authority to make Malaysia a nation of equals. An inclusive development policy that upholds nondiscrimination as provided for in the Constitution will enable Malaysians to pursue all that which gives them personal contentment, self-worth and pride in being a true Malaysian. Our leaders too must have the courage to build a Malaysia where everyone is made to feel proud to be one, regardless of their heritage.

It is also the responsibility of individuals to equip themselves with a repertoire of intercultural knowledge, skills and attitudes and make efforts to quell any form of racial or religious intolerance and ignorance among family members, friends and neighbours. The time has come for all Malaysians to revive the spirit of muhibbah and celebrate cultural diversity.

(Asma Abdullah is a free lance consultant and teaches on a part time basis at Putra Business School. She focuses on topics related to culture and human resource development).

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