Malaysia’s Muslim Union? Malaysia Does Not Need Another Sectarian Organisation!

By Farish A. Noor

Sectarianism, be it on the grounds of race, culture, language or religion, can only be divisive in the long run. The sad litany of human history shows that religion can and has been used as a dividing factor that has torn many a society apart, and this is true of all religions and belief systems worldwide. One only needs to look at the process of Balkanisation that took place in Eastern Europe to see how Religion has been instrumentalised and manipulated by sectarian politicians to amplify the centrifugal forces of a
plural society like Bosnia’s, and how that eventually led to all-out civil conflict along religion and cultural lines.

Politicians of course are fully aware of the divisive potential of sectarian politics, so why do they constantly fall back on such parochial and primordial sentiments such as racial, cultural and religious loyalty to serve their own limited ends? Weighing the costs of such moves may point us to the simple conclusion that sectarian politicians seldom care about the unity and well-being of the nation as a whole, particularly when that nation happens to be a complex and plural one in the first place. More often than
not, the demagogues and chauvinists among us would be more inclined to keep to their own narrow corners and seek solace and support from their own respective communities.

These observations should hardly come as news to Malaysia-watchers in particular, for we all know by now that Malaysia’s convoluted 50-year history has been one dominated and almost entirely determined by the logic of racial compartmentalism and communitarianism. Every single leader who has climbed up the greasy pole of power in the country has done so by playing the race — and now increasingly, religion — card close to his chest. It should therefore come as even less of a surprise that there is now talk of forming a Malaysian Muslim Workers’ Union (PPIM) in the country, as if Malaysian society was not divided enough already.

Over the past two years the country has witnessed the emergence of around a dozen now religion-based NGOs and civil society organisations, most of them appealing to Malaysian Muslims in particular. While there used to be universalist, inclusive organisations that brought together Malaysians of various racial and professional background like factory workers, labourers,
lawyers, businesspeople, professionals etc. we now see the emergence of organisations that cater to the interests of Muslims primarily and exclusively. The PPIM is just the latest nail in the coffin of Malaysia’s failed attempts towards pluralism and multiculturalism, and should it come to pass then it would mean that yet another neutral public space in the public domain has been lost. Why was there ever a need for the PPIM in the first place, when surely the Malaysian Trade Unions organisation (MTUC) was there to unite all the workers of Malaysia under a common universal basis of shared collective class interests?

Two factors need to be taken into consideration here:

The first is the fact that since the late 1960s Malaysian society has witnessed the instrumentalisation of religion — and in particular Islam — by right-wing communitarian politicians and activists who sought to mobilise Muslims as a bloc vote and political constituency. It began with sectarian organisations like ABIM and other Muslim students groups on campus that sought to introduce their brand of ‘Islamisation from below’, and whatever radical impact they could have had — by rejecting Western
economic-political-military hegemony across the world, for instance — was compromised by their own limited sectarian and exclusive worldview that was equally hegemonic in its ambitions. In time the potential of such groups was compromised as their leaders and members were co-opted by the ruling elite; the co-optation of ABIM’s leader Anwar Ibrahim by the then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad being a case in point.

Secondly it should be stated frankly that all this talk of ‘protecting’ the seemingly unique interests of the Malay-Muslims in Malaysia is little more than fluff and nonsense, for the real agenda all along has been the furthering of the right-wing agenda of Malay-Muslim supremacy above all else. Malaysia’s Islamisation process pushed by Mahathir and Anwar in the 1980s and 1990s led to the further entrenchment of Malay-Muslim political and class interests; and benefited the ruling BN-led government and its
clients most of all, further adding to the dominance of Malay-Muslims in the civil service, army and police; and further embedded Islam at the centre of Malaysian politics. It was not the universal values of Islam that were served here, but rather the agenda of Malay-Muslim supremacy otherwise known as ‘Ketuanan Melayu’.

The net result of the current moves to create a parallel Muslim workers movement in Malaysia can therefore only split Malaysian society even further along religious communitarian lines and therefore help to ensure the dominance of the communitarian parties and elites currently running the country. How are the workers of Malaysia — who ought to be united along the basis of class solidarity and common class action — to be served by the creation of such a body that will split their numbers by half at least? Are we to believe that the poverty and exploitation of Muslim workers in Malaysia is qualitatively different to that of his or her non-Muslim comrade? The mind boggles… What will be next? A Malaysian Muslim stamp collectors’ organisation?

Consequently the Muslim workers of Malaysia must realise that these attempts to create parallel movements that cater to their own limited exclusive interests will do a disservice to them in the long run. For their own sake, and for the sake of the workers struggle in Malaysia, they need to remember that their loyalty and camaraderie has to lie with their fellow workers and comrades in the workers movement of Malaysia as a whole, regardless of racial, cultural or religious differences.

Dr. Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site

  1. #1 by awesome on Saturday, 29 September 2007 - 9:50 am

    Maybe it is time that freedom is given to Muslims to renounce Islam and see how many are true Muslims. Islamisation of Malaysia has become so political that the true essence of it is diluted. As a Malay-Muslim there are many benefits but if these perks are not given, would a Malay still want to be an Islam.

    Can there be a distinction between race and religion for Malays? If not why? Are Malays regarded Muslims by force? Is there a reason for Islamisation? Is it to fulfill a political agenda?

    Lina Joy’s case is an eye-opener to the pressure placed on Malays to stay as Muslims and live in that bondage. Truly, the ordinary Malays are victims of force. Many live with it because of all the privileges eg 7% discounted for housing loan etc. It actually boils down to money and politics.

    It is time to be awaken and ask yourself, why are you a Muslim? Is it because of what you can receive or is it because your heart resonate with what you profess with your mouth? If it is because you really believe with all your heart even without anything extended to you, then you are genuine.

    The next thing we need is to do away with all the distinction of races and religion in our society. We need a bangsa Malaysia. Regardless of race or religion we are one. One agenda, one value system and one heart to help all Malaysians. Our country is invaded by a lot of immigrants. It is like a Trojan horse in the land.

    It is not the time to divide among ourselves but to stay united. Petty issues of race and religion should be cast aside.

    Can the Chinese and Indians accept the Malays and their way of life and vice versa? Are we gonna allow a division among ourselves? The more we allow this division the sooner will be our fall as a nation. We have no choice but to put away all our prejudices and extend a hand of friendship with no conditions attached.

    Much is required especially by us Malays because of the fact that we dominate the population but that doesn’t mean we dictate our demands on the minorities. We have to seriously consider how to eradicate any hatred among races as it is like a bomb waiting to explode.

    Personally I think, the issue on Islamisation and religion is the main factor that would cause a blow-up. The government has to seriously tone down every hype of Islamisation and totally remove all form of control and force associated with it. The bomb can be neutralised by the government. The only way is to be sensitive to other races and declare that Malaysia is not an Islamic state.

  2. #2 by Bigjoe on Saturday, 29 September 2007 - 9:51 am

    Tunku knew this from the start and argued it even more strongly until his death.

    What does it say of us as a nation when such wisdom is now ignored? Progress or regression?

    I think we are nowhere. In other words, 50 years after our founding, we are further from being a nation than we ever been. You can’t say its a regression because at least we are revealing who we are truly wart and all.. Our founding fathers ignored it and thought we did not have to face our own ugly truth. Now we see them and we have to pay the price for it and that price is far from paid..

    UMNO is saying Pantai Burok incident is not our culture. Did they forget May 13 that they started? We are still ignoring who we are. so we are far from turning the corner of nationhood building..

  3. #3 by bystander on Saturday, 29 September 2007 - 9:54 am

    Dr’s observation is spot on. We can all see how racist and Islamised some of our fellow malay malaysians are becoming.

  4. #4 by badak on Saturday, 29 September 2007 - 12:22 pm

    Things has become worse after the 1999 GE,When BN lost teregganu to PAS,It was then that TDM annouce that Malaysia was an ISLAMIC STATE,To counter PAS BREAK THROUGHT in the 1999 GE,

    Now everything has become halal or non halal.Now we have PAS brand of ISLAM and UMNO ,S BRAND of Islam its really sad.

  5. #5 by hkh on Saturday, 29 September 2007 - 3:36 pm

    It is very simple to understand. Everyone wants to be THE BOSS, even in a “one man show” society. It is the launching pad for the quantum leap into politics and $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$, what else?

  6. #6 by ktteokt on Sunday, 30 September 2007 - 11:04 pm

    Badak, before long they will come up with two versions of the Al-Quran, UMNO Al-Quran and PAS Al-Quran.

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