Dear Citizen Lina…

by Farish A. Noor

Identities are funny things. They evolve, overlap and sometimes regress when we least expect it. Odder still, most of us — though we might not care to admit it — actually have several at the same time; and the dilemma faced by many of us living in this modern world is how to juggle several overlapping, criss-crossing, permanently mutating and at times contradictory identities at the same time, without having to make an appointment with the psychoanalyst.

Now the problem of living in modern postcolonial nation-states like ours is that in just too many cases the politics of identity has come to the forefront as the defining aspect of national politics as a whole. Malaysia is not unique in this respect and everywhere we look we see modern nation-states in crisis, or denial, because the citizens themselves are at odds over who and what they are. The bane of postcolonial development is the lingering doubts over nationhood, loyalty and belonging. Once the white masters in their funny pith helmets packed their bags and were shipped back home, the natives started asking the question: ‘Now who has the right to stay?’

What is doubly odd about Malaysia (and here we are unique) is the way that the postcolonial set up envisaged a rather ackward and clumsy arrangement between two legal systems; one secular and one religious, to cater to the needs of all. Furthermore as we all know this happens to be one of the very few countries in the world where the racial and religious identity of one group — the Malays — has been defined by the constitution.

That the conflation of Malay and Muslim identity is artificial and has no basis in history is embarrassingly evident for all to see. Why, we just have to hop on the first AirAsia flight to Indonesia next door to see for ourselves that the same rule does not apply for them. Indonesians seem more comfortable with the idea that in the same family there can be Muslims, Christians and Hindus living under one roof, and unlike us they dont go around crafting slogans and jinggles for the ad campaign to sell Indonesia as some multi-culti happy land of harmony that is ‘Truly Asia’. Moreover, it proves that our Indonesian friends are quite capable of living with Pluralism that doesnt have to be imported from the liberal capitals of the West. But try taking that road to multiculturalism in Malaysia and see what happens…

Well, in fact one among our number has done just that, though at a rather hefty cost to her well-being.

I am, of course talking about our fellow Malaysian citizen Lina Joy. Though I’ve never met her and have no idea what she looks like, I am disturbed by the fact that right now, as we stand precariously on the brink of our big fiftieth anniversary, the Malaysian nation has lost — some would say ejected — one of our own. At fifty Malaysia as a nation should be mature enough, wise enough, and gutsy enough to live with the realities of a complex plural society. Yet Lina’s decision to leave Islam and to convert to another religion has irked many among her former faith community.

Legal technicalities aside, what surprised me the most was the reaction of some quarters who immediately pounced upon citizen Lina and denounced her as a traitor to her race and religion. Death threats ensued, with hatemail and slander aplenty. (Something Malaysians seem particularly fond of and good at.) Mobs took to the streets demanding their brand of small town justice, and warnings were issued to latte-drinking liberals not to stir the hornets’ nest or revise the constitutional set up of the country.

It doesn’t take much intelligence to see that behind this wayang kulit of inflated egos and boiling tempers were some other political motives at work. First and foremost one is struck by how citizen Lina was accused of being both a race traitor and an apostate at the same time, underscoring the fact that here in our quirky little tropical paradise being Malay is inextricably bound to being a Muslim. Of course any historian worth his or her salt would be the first to tell you that this notion raises a plethora of unanswered questions, such as ‘if being a Malay means being Muslim, then what the heck were our ancestors who built all those temples like Borobudur and Prambanan, and their humbler cousins here in Lembah Bujang?’ Swedish??

Such are the commonsensical fictions that guide our understanding of identity in this benighted country of ours that till today conversion to Islam is referred to as ‘masuk Melayu’ (becoming Malay). Following the same skewered logic that got us into this mess in the first place, leaving Islam is tantamount to abandoning the Malay community as well. Thus it hardly comes as a surprise if the groups who were most vocal in demonising our fellow citizen Lina happened to be the gung-ho rempit-types who are more than happy to harp on and on about preserving the agenda of Ketuanan Melayu as well.

Citizen Lina was accused of breaking the law, causing trouble, upsetting the neighbours and keeping hundreds of conservative die-hards awake night after night. Yet in the midst of this brouhaha we forget that this story involves the plight of a fellow Malaysian citizen whose only fault — if we can even call it that — was to ask to be recognised for what she is today. By making what had to be a difficult and costly choice for herself, however, what citizen Lina has done is remind us all of the contingencies of identity and how identities are constructed, rather than defined by narrow essentials. She is living proof that someone can be Malay and Christian at the same time, a fact rooted in our collective past which recurs again and again to spook the simplistic worldview of some today.

For all intents and purposes, Lina is a Malaysian like the rest of us. That she has been forced into hiding is a shame that all of us will now be forced to carry on our collective shoulders. Furthermore she also happens to be a Christian, and no legal hassling, soap-box dramatics, verbal pyrotechnics and rabble-rousing will alter that simple fact. I happen to be a Muslim not because it is stated so on some piece of paper, but because that happens to be my current existential status. The same applies to the rest of us, whatever our beliefs may be; and the same certainly applies to Lina, our fellow citizen.

I regret the fact that I am writing this without the benefit of ever having met Lina herself. Perhaps one day our paths may cross and I shall finally come face to face with this fellow citizen whose choice of belief proves my point that identities are crafted and decided by agency rather than the dictates of history and the circumstances of politics. When that day comes, I shall be quite happy indeed — for citizen Lina is proof that Malaysia is still capable of defining itself according to the will and agency of its citizens, and it is we, after all, who define what Malaysia is. To Lina, my fellow Malaysian, I wish a Happy Merdeka and all the best.

  1. #1 by achia3 on Thursday, 12 July 2007 - 4:49 pm

    Death threats, physical abuse and even burning ones house is a common sight in Nepal when a person converts from Hinduism to Christianity and any other religion for that matter. But that is Nepal, a country far inferior interms of development not to mention education. I am ashame to tell foreigners that my home country is no different even when we boast of the highest building, the tallest tower etc.

    Democracy does not reign in Malaysia. It is dead since May 13. go figure.

  2. #2 by Toyol on Thursday, 12 July 2007 - 5:21 pm

    Lina Joy’s case is living proof that our Constitution is dead and buried. Perhaps the political agenda here is to prevent apostates as it will reduce the collective number of crutches needed in Malaysia to suppress the minority. How else can the politicians sing to the world our so-called racial harmony is ideal for foriegn businesses, without acknowledging the undertones that undermines this principle.

    What is faith then, if not to allow freedom of expression and more importantly, freedom to choose one’s religion?

  3. #3 by pwcheng on Thursday, 12 July 2007 - 5:23 pm

    “that the reaction of some quarters who immediately pounced upon citizen Lina and denounced her as a traitor to her race and religion”.
    That is how some Muslim extremist look at it, though it is rather absurd and irrational thinking.

    Religion is what we believe in and patriotism is love for the country. A Malay Muslim do necessary mean he is automatically patriotic. He could also be a great traitor or a liability to the country for many of them are also in the terrorist list. For anybody to come out with such comment are potential of an extremist which the terrorist will love to have him/her and here lies a greater traitor than any others.

  4. #4 by negarawan on Thursday, 12 July 2007 - 5:58 pm

    There is a serious and urgent need to expose the judiciary corruption and abuses in Malaysia worldwide. Very much like Apartheid, external pressure is necessary and critical to dismantle the corrupt system and government in Malaysia. International awareness is mounting and needs to be stepped up. Please forward and distribute links to website such as LKS and Malaysiakini to as many people living overseas.

  5. #5 by awesome on Thursday, 12 July 2007 - 6:33 pm

    That was indeed a good thought Faridah Noor. Hope there would be many more Malays like you who wake up and see how many are held bound by some so called religious nuts.

    I believe in God too but do not believe in imposing it on anyone or being imposed by some one. Man can never be God or act on behalf of God. Too bad some believe they are God or can act on his behalf. It may as well be that they have jump the gun and acted on presumption and ignorance.

    Those who know how to touch heaven by your prayers, please pray that some thing radical happens that bring people to their senses. Others can use their writings and influence and bring some senses to the ignorant scholars.

    Perhaps too much religiousity and suspicion is making the Syariah court mad. Just too sad.

  6. #6 by ahkok1982 on Thursday, 12 July 2007 - 10:54 pm

    If being Malay and Muslim means tt i need to live within my own little coconut shell n threaten to kill whoever who leaves tt coconut shell, then i feel sorry for those who are Malay n Muslims.

  7. #7 by digard on Thursday, 12 July 2007 - 11:34 pm

    Without wanting to wander off to far,
    “What is doubly odd about Malaysia (and here we are unique)”, there is another item that is pretty unique and just as sensitive in Malaysia: Language. Most former colonies are proud of having seen their white masters leaving; and just as proud of having a world language at their disposition. Not only does this apply to Central and South America, it also applies to Africa, many countries of the Middle East. Especially those with a mixture of ethnicities and mother tongues have happily accepted the language of the former masters as ingredient to national identity and nation building. India and Sri Lanka are examples here, with English being fully accepted and official language. Singapore needs no mention here.
    It does actually paint a specific picture of this country, that seemingly the opposite was prevailing. English was perceived (or made to be seen so) as divisive. In this respect, Malaysia is unique.
    Since it is proven throughout the history of mankind, including in this country, that anyone can acquire any tongue easily as mother tongue in early childhood years, our reluctance to accept English as lingua franca must be based on other, deep-seated psychological reasons.
    And here we are back at Faridah Noor and her contribution. Arguing rationally as she does, and as much as we agree with her arguments, we are confronted – so it looks like – with irrational, emotional, fears and anxieties. It is a fact that such feelings and notions cannot be overcome by rational arguments. Acrophobia is just one example here.
    We have to acknowledge the existence of a group of people, for whom so-called apostasy generates fear, for whom race and religion are identical, and the English language raises the blood pressure. We need to accept this for the time being.

    The blame is on the governments, who – instead of educating the public throughout the last half century – ride on these emotions and even feed these irrationals for their egoistic desire to rule for infinity minus one day.

  8. #8 by takazawa on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 1:11 am

    Since religion (be it Islam, Christianity, Buddhism or etc) has been poisoned and turned into something ugly, it’s best to leave religion as a personal conviction or preference. The main problem today is, some people propagate it for their own hidden agenda. What to expect when some people politicise it or when militants use it to justify their perverse actions. It had been a way of life since time immemorial, but just that nowadays, people tend to promote self-righteousness or to prove who is more righteous compared to others. They are proponents of the philosophy which says, “everything is relative”.

  9. #9 by takazawa on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 2:07 am

    This is an interesting issue of human rights here. If you no longer believe in something and wish not to be subject to it anymore, can you be forced to remain a believer?

    Simple analogy: If a man does not believe in the religious policies/rules imposed in PAS dominated Kelantan, he can move to any other state in the country where he will not be subject to those rules. To stop him would be violating his personal liberty. If a woman does not wish to be subject to a certain religious group, can she be prevented from leaving it? Would it be a violation of her freedom of thought?

    Malays like everyone else should have freedom of religion. It’s their basic human right. Even Indonesia and the Arab nations which have 1000% more Muslims than Malaysia allow their peoples to profess religions other than Islam.

    It’s high time all right minded Malays who feel strongly about leaving Islam stand up to UMNO and PAS and get back your basic human rights of freedom of religion like everyone else.

  10. #10 by Bigfoot on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 2:32 am


    Here lies our beloved and sacred Malaysian Constitution (born 27/8/57 – died 30/5/07).

    It took 2 out of 3 judges. No less, no more.

    May the dearly departed be in death, what it always was at birth, pure, unsullied, secular, and uncircumcised.

    May our beloved and sacred Malaysian Constitution, be remembered every Merdeka Day, particularly this upcoming 50th Merdeka Day.

    May our beloved and sacred Malaysian Constitution, be remembered every Election Day, particularly this upcoming Election Day.

  11. #11 by k1980 on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 8:44 am

    Would Nelson Mandela puke when he reads this?

    During property expos, the discount for Muslims can go as high as 15%…. Some banking institutions have implemented policies of allowing only Muslim-owned legal firms to be their panel lawyers. Government projects also make it mandatory for Muslim-owned companies (called “bumiputra contractors”) to be the only ones eligible. It is also an open secret that for public examinations, the Muslims always get better results because their examination papers are marked with a default handicap equivalent to the passing rate…

  12. #12 by k1980 on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 8:49 am

    A new company, Focus (Equity Sdn Bhd), has been awarded the contract to print Malaysian currency through a RM600 million loan by Bank Pembangunan (Malaysia Berhad)…the accounts show the paid up capital as merely RM100 and not RM67 million. ..the company has negative assets (meaning it has no assets but instead has liabilities) of almost RM5 million. Yet it could borrow RM600 million from Bank Pembangunan Malaysia Berhad, a government-owned bank. What security is the bank holding against this RM600 million loan considering that the company is technically bankrupt?

  13. #13 by pwcheng on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 11:26 am

    Whatever it is you must give credit for our Muslim leaders who has created the impression to foreign leaders that Malaysia is a religiously tolerant country. Relating to this it was reported in today’s Star that Kofi Annan said “Malaysia enviable system of religious pluralism can play an important role in world dangerously divided by religious faiths”.

    I would put it as true and false for the above for I am sure he is being fed with information that Islam in this country in very tolerant of other religion which could be misleading, judging from the many cases and reports recently. It will be true if this was told 30-40 years ago. As a kid I remembered there were no such religious bickering those days.

    Why this country is still peaceful in spite of the increasingly intolerance of Islam against other religion and at times infringing on the rights of non- Muslim is because the non- Muslims are very tolerant by default or out of fear.

    Just imagine if the same scenario is reversed, I am sure there will be no peace in this country just like Thailand or the Philippines, not because of the Malays but the ultra Malay Politicians. I hope they will appreciate the tolerance of the non- Muslims and please do not push things too far.

  14. #14 by Anti_NEP on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 11:32 am

    I sincerely hope that there are more malays like Farish.A.Noor, then our country will be blessed. I watched farish on Aljazeera talking about the issue few weeks back and i truely believe he is is exceptional.

  15. #15 by blackacre on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 12:33 pm

    The Human Spirit has proven to be indomintable throughout the ages, try and subdue it and it will pour through your grasp and in turn will slowly but surely wear down the rocks.. but again try they must until the futility of it consumes them..

  16. #16 by sotong on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 1:00 pm

    Thanks to the previous administration, our country is in a mess….there is no quick fix.

    You don’t throw money at problems to achieve permanent and long term results.

    Distribution wealth is one thing…..maintaining and generating wealth is another.

  17. #17 by u chang eng on Friday, 13 July 2007 - 5:28 pm

    let the sinless cast the first stone. 200 hundred years ago, the French burnt those they belived to be wiches. They were those in really people who refuse to conform to their belive, their faith. Today, we see religious “authorities” behaving no differently. How can a human judge another human “traitor” just because the latter choose a different set of believe. We see people that are trapped in their religious bondage, their basic right grossly violated and even live threaten! May those who pass jugdement against L.J find the same judgement in God!

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