Promoting an understanding of Islam that recognises the principles of
justice, equality, freedom, and dignity within a democratic nation state


It has come to our attention that six Shi'ah followers have been detained under the Internal Security Act since October 2000.  Two have been released while one was released conditionally. Out of the remaining four, three have been sent to Kamunting detention centre while one is undergoing the initial sixty-day detention period.

First, we are very concerned that the Government has chosen to use the ISA to arrest the six for whatever offence they might have committed. The ISA, which provides for detention without trial, is a draconian law that infringes the fundamental liberties of a citizen in a democratic state. The Government should be working towards the repeal of the law, instead of  continuing with its use.


Second, if indeed the Shi'ah men have committed any offence, they should be charged and tried in open court, in accordance with the rule of law. Instead a shroud of secrecy and silence surrounds the case. A grave injustice has been done to the men and their families who are not aware what offences their loved ones were supposed to have committed.


Third, if the detention of the Shi'ah followers was just for being Shi'ahs, then this  constitutes an infringement of Article 11 of the Federal Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion.


Fourth, the Shi'i mazhab is a recognised school of law in Islam with hundreds of millions of followers, and in some countries they constitute a majority. Does the Government intend to pronounce all Shi'ahs a threat to national security and that Shi'ism is a deviationaist school of thought?


Fifth, for the state to claim the power to judge the faith, beliefs and views of its citizens is a dangerous exercise of state power. In the past, such power has led the state to persecute Abu Hanifa who founded the Hanafi mazhab, Ibn Hanbal who founded the Hanbali  mazhab, Ibn Rushid, the philosopher and jurist, and Ibn Taymiyah, the influential thinker. They and other outstanding scholars of Islam were persecuted, some tortured, imprisoned and even executed for views now accepted by the vast majority of Muslims, including Malaysians.


Sixth, for the state to assume the power to judge on a citizen's personal faith is for Sunni rulers to condemn Shi'ah Muslims as heretics, and for Shi'ah rulers to condemn Sunni Muslims as heretics. The outcome depends on who is in political power. This is dangerous, in particular in countries where religion is used to serve the cause of  political ideology or to serve political ends of partisan party politics, as the case is in Malaysia.


Seventh, freedom of religion, expression, and association are fundamental rights enshrined in the Federal Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Those who hold controversial views which are rejected by the established theological or political order or even the public at large, must be protected as long as they do not engage in criminal activities and their actions do not violate the rights of others nor undermine the principles of the rule of law. Any charge of a threat to national security or public order must be proven in an open and fair trial, according to the rule of law.


We sincerely hope you will look into the issues raised above closely and seriously. Our proud history of pluralism, tolerance and  understanding and our traditional celebration of this outstanding Malaysian heritage is at stake.


Yours sincerely,



Zainah Anwar


Executive Director



c.c.  Chairman, Human Rights Commission of Malaysia
Joint Statement: The State Has No Role in Policing Morality
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Joint Statement: The State Has No Role in Policing Morality

It has become apparent in the past few months that we, as Malaysians, can no longer afford to remain silent over the increasing role of the state in policing the morality of its citizens.

The arrest of a transgender in the garden of a friend's house by religious authorities in Taiping (The Star, March 2, 2005, p12);
the Malacca Belia 4-B campaign to spy on young people under the pretext of controlling morality (Malaysiakini.com, February 22, 2005); and the JAWI raid on a Kuala Lumpur nightclub and subsequent detention and humiliation of approximately 100 Muslim youth (Sunday Mail, Jan 23, 2005, p1) are unfortunate incidents that demonstrate how moral policing violates the personal dignity of humans and their rights as citizens.
We question the state's role in defining and controlling the morality of its citizens and its use of punitive religious and municipal laws. Forced and fearful compliance with such laws results not in a more moral society but a mass of terrified, submissive and hypocritical subjects.

We are concerned that when religion is so much part of the political arena, it increases the state's inclination to police the private lives of its citizens. Given the multi-religious and multi-ethnic composition of our society, any attempt to regulate a person's conscience, faith or private life has grave implications for all citizens and communities, as well as the relationships between communities.

The use of state instruments such as the police, religious and Rela officers to control morality is nothing new. The use of Muslim youth to spy on other Muslims, however, is unprecedented. It violates not only Qur’anic injunctions but also common standards of community trust. Further, it invites vigilantism. Reported plans to rope in non-Muslim youth to spy on non-Muslim couples indicate how quickly such invasive and authoritarian policies can affect Malaysians.

We are against the use of these state instruments, and the individuals and groups enlisted as their surrogates, to regulate morality. How people dress and where, how and with whom they socialise are personal choices.

The outcry following the nightclub raid and detention of some 100 Muslim patrons by JAWI officers recently and the case of a couple booked by City Hall enforcement officers for holding hands at the KLCC park in August 2003 indicates the Malaysian public's concern over the issue. In the past, many similar incidents went unreported because those who were charged pleaded guilty without legal representation for fear of the shame and discrimination of a prolonged public trial. It is clear that public opinion has changed, and that laws must be changed to reflect our increasingly open and progressive society.

Any law that attempts to regulate a citizen's life to the smallest detail has far-reaching consequences to the point that it becomes unjust and unenforceable.
The vague provisions of such laws leave them wide open to interpretation and abuse by enforcement officers, which can lead to selective prosecution and victimisation, usually on those from a marginalised class, gender and/or community.
The responsibility of the Government is to uphold and protect the rights of its citizens to justice, equality, freedom and dignity at all times.

In the spirit of our democratic and pluralistic society, we the undersigned affirm that morality is a matter best dealt with by individuals and their families, and we call for:

a) The repeal of provisions in religious and municipal laws that deny citizens their fundamental right to privacy, freedom of speech and expression, and those that overlap with the federal Penal Code;

b) The appointment of a committee to monitor the process of repealing these laws, including representation from women's groups, human rights groups, civil society organizations, progressive religious scholars and constitutional experts;

c) The strengthening of our pluralism through community dialogue around morals in our society, rather than the divisiveness bred by sub-contracting of moral policing and neighbours spying on neighbours.


Endorsed by


Organisations:

All Women’s Action Society (AWAM)

Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC)

Metal Industry Employees Union National Human Rights Society (HAKAM)
Sisters in Islam (SIS)
Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)
Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)
Women’s Development Collective (WDC)

Individuals:

Dr Farish A. Noor,
political scientist
Beth Yahp,
writer
Rosli Omar,
PhD
Shanon Shah, singer-songwriter

27 June 2011

Sisters in Islam (SIS) supports Bersih 2.0 and its call for electoral reforms. As part of Malaysian civil society working towards justice, equality and the upholding of democratic principles, we stand by Bersih 2.0’s eight immediate demands as outlined in its manifesto, including free and fair access to media and a stop to dirty politics.

We are appalled by the arrests over the weekend and the use of police reports by elements within political parties and pressure groups to harass and intimidate Bersih 2.0. The use of race and religion to demonise Bersih 2.0 has escalated in the past few days and this has resulted in death threats against Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan and other members of the steering committee. We condemn the use of violence and threat of violence – instead, civil dialogue must prevail as a way to address differences of opinions.

Malaysians across different political beliefs and affiliations know that free and fair elections are fundamental to a working democracy. How this has been manipulated to suggest the opposite is mind-boggling and dangerous. Regardless of whether one supports or rejects Bersih 2.0’s position on electoral reforms, the right to assemble is an integral part of a living, functional democratic nation-state.

It behooves witnesses of injustice – be it due to bigotry or a corrupt political regime – to stand up as citizens to right what has gone wrong in their country. What Bersih 2.0 and its supporters are doing on 9th July is no more and no less than this: an expression of humanity’s fundamental desire for a just world.

We wish to remind those calling for arrests or violent attacks against Bersih 2.0 that the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are guaranteed under the Federal Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights treaties ratified by the Malaysian government, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), further entrench Malaysia’s obligation to respect, protect and promote universal human rights. Furthermore, SUHAKAM has also called on the government in many of its reports to respect and uphold the citizens’ right to freedom of assembly.


Ratna Osman

Acting Executive Director

Sisters in Islam (SIS Forum Malaysia)
Joint Press Conference: Differences of Opinion in Islam
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25 February 2002


In the past few weeks, it has become apparent there are groups determined to silence differences of opinion in Islam. This is a matter of grave concern to Malaysians as a whole.



At a time when Islam is increasingly shaping and redefining Malaysian life and society, law and public policy, this effort to exclude critical and diverse voices engaged in the discourse of Islam in Malaysia today violates the fundamental liberties of citizens of a democratic country. It is also a violation of Islam's cherished principle of scholarly disagreement among all schools of thought. Criticism of the views of certain ulama does not mean disrespect for the ulama.

We regard this attempt, to use the law to make differences of opinion in Islam a crime, as a dangerous effort to monopolise the meaning and content of Islam, with far reaching consequences on all spheres of Malaysian public life.


In a situation where Islam has become such a pervasive force, it is inherently contradictory then to suggest that only those with certain credentials and subscribing to one view have the legitimate right to speak on Islam.



For Islam to be relevant and better understood by Malaysians, all must participate in defining what Islam means to us as citizens in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.



All citizens, Muslims and those of other faiths, have a right to engage in a dialogue on issues of national importance that affect our lives, be it religion, economics, politics, education, culture, or social issues.



Within the framework of a democratic society, we the undersigned call for an open, responsible, rational and respectful dialogue on Islam and its impact on our lives, both private and public.



Freedom of expression is a universal value guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and upheld in the teachings of Islam. This fundamental right, which extends to all citizens in all religious and secular matters, must be protected and strengthened, not just by the authorities and influential sectors of the community, but also by all in civil society.


Endorsed by
Organisations:


1. All Women's Action Society (AWAM)
2. Amnesty International Malaysia
3. Artist Pro Active (APA)
4. Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC)
5. Centre for Independent Journalism
6. Civil Rights Committee of Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (CRC)
7. Era Consumer (ERA)
8. Forum Iqra'
9. International Movement for a Just World (JUST)
10. Labour Resource Center (LRC)
11. Malaysian AIDS Council
12. Malaysian Local Democracy Initiatives (MALODI)
13. Movement Opposing Unethical Suppression of Expression (MOUSE)
14. Penang Anti-ISA Network (PAIN)
15. Persatuan Kebangsaan Hak Asasi Manusia (HAKAM)
16. Persatuan Sahabat Wanita
17. Save Ourselves! (SOS!)
18. Sisters in Islam (SIS)
19. SOS Selangor
20. Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram)
21. Tenaganita
22. Tholilaliyin Tholar (Sahabat Pekerja)
23. WIJADI
24. Women's Aid Organisation (WAO)
25. Women's Candidacy Initiative (WCI)
26. Women's Crisis Centre (WCC)
27. Women's Development Collective (WDC)
28. Women's Voice
29. United Chinese School Committees' Association of Malaysia (Dong Zong)
30. United Chinese School Teachers' Association of Malaysia (Jiao Zong)



Individuals
:



1. Azah Aziz
2. Dato' Dr Salleh bin Mohd Nor
3. Dato' Lee Lam Thye
4. Dato' Mahadev Shankar
5. Dato' VC George
6. Datuk Param Coomaraswamy
7. Dr Mohammad Hirman Ritom Abdullah
8. Dr R. S. McCoy
9. Karim Raslan
10. Karpal Singh
11. Khairy Jamaluddin
12. Khoo Kay Jin
13. Lim Guan Eng
14. Lim Kit Siang
15. Muzaffar Tate
16. Prof Dato' Mohd Hamdan Adnan
17. Prof Dr Faisal Othman
18. Prof Dr Muhammad Hashim Kamali
19. Prof Dr Osman Bakar
20. Prof Dr Shad Faruqi
21. R. Bhupalan
22. Rita Sim
23. Sivarasa Rasiah
24. Tan Sri Dato' Haji Anuar Dato' Hj. Zainal Abidin
25. Tan Sri Dato' Musa bin Hitam
26. Tan Sri Datuk Seri Panglima Simon Sipaun
27. Tan Sri Dr Noordin Sopiee
28. YB Tan Seng Giaw
29. YB Teresa Kok
Joint Press Statement: Differences of Opinion in Islam
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In the past few weeks, it has become apparent there are groups determined to silence differences of opinion in Islam. This is a matter of grave concern to Malaysians as a whole.


At a time when Islam is increasingly shaping and redefining Malaysian life and society, law and public policy, this effort to exclude critical and diverse voices engaged in the discourse of Islam in Malaysia today violates the fundamental liberties of citizens of a democratic country. It is also a violation of Islam's cherished principle of scholarly disagreement among all schools of thought. Criticism of the views of certain ulama does not mean disrespect for the ulama.

We regard this attempt, to use the law to make differences of opinion in Islam a crime, as a dangerous effort to monopolise the meaning and content of Islam, with far reaching consequences on all spheres of Malaysian public life.


In a situation where Islam has become such a pervasive force, it is inherently contradictory then to suggest that only those with certain credentials and subscribing to one view have the legitimate right to speak on Islam.



For Islam to be relevant and better understood by Malaysians, all must participate in defining what Islam means to us as citizens in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.



All citizens, Muslims and those of other faiths, have a right to engage in a dialogue on issues of national importance that affect our lives, be it religion, economics, politics, education, culture, or social issues.



Within the framework of a democratic society, we the undersigned call for an open, responsible, rational and respectful dialogue on Islam and its impact on our lives, both private and public.



Freedom of expression is a universal value guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and upheld in the teachings of Islam. This fundamental right, which extends to all citizens in all religious and secular matters, must be protected and strengthened, not just by the authorities and influential sectors of the community, but also by all in civil society.

23 November 2010
Sisters in Islam (SIS) regrets that Perkasa has lodged a police report against columnist Azmi Sharom and The Star over “Sore need for plurality in law” (published on 18th November 2010), alleging that the article was in contempt of court.

Freedom of expression is guaranteed under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution. Every citizen of this country has a right to openly discuss court decisions and public policies that have an impact on their life and the lives of people around them.


SIS is of the view that citizens exercising their responsibility as watchdogs can only lead to improvements in legal and political mechanisms. An assessment on whether Malaysian courts have upheld their duty, rooted in Constitutional provisions and principles of justice, should be a natural part of public discourse. Disagreements should not take the form of threats to the writer’s liberty or the newspaper.


Civil society in Malaysia has called into attention the use of police reports and lawsuits to silence the right to discuss matters concerning the public openly. SIS alone has had to contend with numerous police reports made in several states by over 50 groups in the past two years. Only recently, we celebrated a decision by the High Court to strike out a lawsuit that sought to stop us from using our name. This situation speaks of the need to further nurture openness and acceptance of diversity in opinions.


We urge all Malaysians to uphold our constitutional right to freedom of expression. Informed debate is the way forward, not intimidation. We should not allow these scare tactics to be used to infringe on our fundamental rights and liberties.



Sisters in Islam
Memo: CIVIL SOCIETY PETITION: Support the Right to Freedom of Expression in Malaysia
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Y.A.B. DATO’ SRI MOHD. NAJIB BIN TUN ABDUL RAZAK,

We are Malaysians who believe in the freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 10 in our Federal Constitution.


We are greatly troubled by the alarming trend to investigate civil society activists and journalists under the Penal Code, the Sedition Act, the Printing Presses and Publication Act, or the Syariah Criminal Offences Act for exercising their legitimate and peaceful right to discuss, debate, and comment on matters of public interest.


This
sets a bad precedent, one that shall only encourage a further deterioration of public civic culture in a democratizing society such as Malaysia. It undermines freedom of speech, and narrows the public space for legitimate dissent.


This trend of growing intolerance for differing opinions in Malaysia, especially on matters of religion, must be halted if Malaysia wants to remain a democracy and plans to sit as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.


We have noted from various media reports that on February 25th 2010, the Selangor Islamic Religious Council (MAIS) has lodged a police report against Sisters in Islam (SIS) because of SIS’ press statement on the caning of three Muslim women that was announced to have taken place on February 9th 2010. This report by MAIS is one of six lodged against SIS and also against P. Gunasegaram, Managing Editor of The Star for his article ‘Persuasion not Compulsion’ on February 19th 2010.


We understand that the police have already begun an investigation of SIS under Section 298(A) of the Penal Code for “causing, etc., disharmony, disunity, or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will, or prejudicing, etc., the maintenance of harmony or unity, on grounds of religion”.

The Home Ministry has also issued a show-cause letter to The Star and gave the newspaper 14 days to reply as to why action should not be taken against it.

In a modern democratic nation-state, all citizens are entitled to hold, voice, and promote their own views and the media is free to report and comment on issues of public interest. In this instance, the right cannot be restricted to Muslims alone, nor can it be exclusively exercised on their behalf by a small minority.
Furthermore the act of “questioning” is not legitimately recognised as a criminal offence in any reputable modern Shari’ah Law jurisdiction. Questions about the nature and structure of state, about the character and tone of its legal system and operation of its legal institutions are the

LEGITIMATE BUSINESS
of all in Malaysia.

The future of democratic Malaysia lies with the expansion of freedom of expression, not further shrinking of the public space for legitimate and peaceful dissent.

Sincerely,



Endorsed by


Name of organisation:
……………………………………………………………………………..


AND/OR


Name of individual:
……………………………………………………………………..




Please Send to:


Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) P.O. Box 493, Jalan Sultan, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia

Fax: 603-7956 3237
Email: wao@po.jaring.my
Agree to disagree — Book banning frenzy must end
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Agree to Disagree: Book Banning Frenzy Must End

June 6, 2012

Joint Statement: Agree to disagree — Book banning frenzy must end

We the undersigned are alarmed at the increasing rate of hostilities leveled against certain publications, leading to either their outright banning and seizures, or even in some cases, hostility against and the arrest of their authors and publishers.

While there has been uproar against Irshad Manji’s Allah, Kebebasan dan Cinta ["Allah, Liberty and Love"] recently, the trend started much earlier with the banning of works by Karen Armstrong, Salman Rushdie, Khalil Gibran, Irvine Welsh and Iris Chang, among others.

Even the works of local authors such as Faisal Tehrani and Kassim Ahmad and cartoonist Zunar have not been spared. It seems this banning frenzy led by the Home Ministry knows no limit. Zulkifli Noordin, Member of Parliament for Kulim-Bandar Baharu, also recently called for the ban of Kahwin Campur antara Muslim dengan Non-Muslim ["Mixed Marriages between Muslims and Non-Muslims"] published by Institut Kajian Dasar.

Not only do such measures contradict the government’s supposedly moderate or wasatiyah stand on issues of diversity and tolerance, it stifles discourse and views required by any mature and developing democracy. In a healthy democracy, progress can be measured by space given to different views without fear of retribution.

It also provides a pretext for the wanton exercise of power under the guise of religious order, with not only the Home Ministry’s Publications Control and Quranic Text Division carrying out seizure of books but also the Federal Territories Islamic Affairs Department (Jawi) and the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (Jais).

These measures blatantly favour only one or two interpretations or solutions to key issues affecting Malaysian life and society at the expense of others.

Book banning is a draconian measure that is not only ineffective but contrary to the spirit of dialogue and engagement that Malaysia desperately needs.

Malaysia as a nation of diverse identities, religions and cultures should embrace and welcome the complex interaction and exchange of ideas that is rapidly expanding in this era of globalisation. In that, the ethics of agreeing to disagree is crucial to ensure mutual respect for diverging ideas and dissenting views.

We call upon the authorities in Malaysia to put an end to book banning as the first step towards promoting diversity and respect in our society.

Endorsed by:
1. Aliran
2. All Women’s Action Society (AWAM)
3. Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ)

4. Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF)

5. Perak Women for Women Society (PWW)

6. Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower)

7. Persatuan Masyarakat Selangor & Wilayah Persekutuan (Permas)

8. Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor

9. Pusat KOMAS

10. Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM)

11. Sisters in Islam (SIS)

12. Suaram

13. Tenaganita

14. Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)

15. Women’s Centre for Change (WCC)


(This statement was also published in The Edge.)
Guilty, unless proven otherwise - The Star - Musings (6 June 2012)
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Guilty, unless proven otherwise

MUSINGS By MARINA MAHATHIR


Wednesday June 6, 2012

The newly-inserted Section 114A of the Evidence Act is another example of a law that was rushed through Parliament without much debate and discussion, to the detriment of us all.

AS often happens, e-mails pop up in my inbox with interesting headlines. While I usually save them to read later, I had to open this particular e-mail immediately because it had my name in it.

To my horror, I found an article purportedly written by me being circulated to much salutary praise.

Normally, I would either ignore it or leave it to readers to judge whether I really wrote such an article.

It would be obvious, I thought, to those who have followed my columns all these years that the style in that article, the photo byline notwithstanding, was definitely very different from mine.

Indeed, the reason I was passed the article was because some people who are very familiar with my writing style had their suspicions.

But I cannot rely solely on the goodwill of my readers anymore. With the new amendment to the Evidence Act 1950 which just came into being – it won’t matter if my so-called “article” was full of grammar and spelling mistakes which I wouldn’t normally make – I would be deemed as having written it until I can prove otherwise.

The newly inserted Section 114A of the Evidence Act provides for the following:
  • Owners, hosts, administrators, editors or sub-editors of websites or social media accounts are deemed responsible for any content that has been published or re-published on their site whether by themselves, persons impersonating them or any other persons;
  • Subscribers of a network service which was used to publish or re-publish any content are deemed responsible for the publication; and
  • Owners or individuals in custody of an electronic device that was used to publish or re-publish any content are deemed responsible for the publication.

Basically, this means that until you can prove you are innocent of these charges, you are considered by the law as guilty.

This is a complete reversal of the usual “innocent until proven guilty” axiom in most courts of law.

You can imagine the chill that went through my spine when I read this law. Over the years, not only have I been impersonated in articles and comments but also in real life.

Now all of these people will be encouraged to do more because of this law. They will know that I will have to spend so much time, energy and expense to fight to prove my innocence in the courts that they will get away pretty much scot-free.

Furthermore, while I’m trying to prove that I didn’t write these articles, they can continue to keep writing them with impunity.

Who, therefore, is this law meant to protect? And how could such a law have been passed?

Once again, this is another example of a law that was rushed through Parliament without much debate and discussion, to the detriment of us all.

More importantly, it is a huge threat to the freedom of speech that is enshrined in our Federal Con­stitution, a freedom already threatened by so many other laws.

The Government is hoping that this new law will curb postings by anonymous bloggers and commentators who are critical of the Government. Which may sound well-intentioned; I am also a target of many of these.

But, at the same time, this law is more far-reaching because it makes owners of blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts responsible for anything that appears on them.

If someone posts an anonymous comment on my blog or Facebook page that somebody else does not like, then I’m instantly responsible for it even if I don’t know who the poster is in real life.

It can also work the other way round. Anyone can pretend to be a government official or politician and make a critical or defamatory posting on a government or political website.

Actually, there can be lots of such postings on any website and the owner, including presumably the Government, will be held responsible for them.

I’m not even sure what can be done by anyone to seek redress for that. Talk about an incentive to spam people with all sorts of nasty comments!

It makes you wonder how laws are made in this country. Already one law, the Election Offences Act, had to be retracted after it had been passed because it was found to be detrimental to all sides in an election.

Surely this was a result of not giving the law enough scrutiny and debate in Parliament. If more time had been given, then surely such faulty laws would not have been passed in such a form.

Doesn’t this also make you worry about the other laws passed in such a hurry as well? What traps lurk within them that we don’t know about, and which we could unknowingly get caught in?
From ethnic to civic nation building - The Star - Sharing The Nation (3 June 2012)
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From ethnic to civic nation building

Sharing The Nation
By Zainah Anwar

Sunday June 3, 2012

Civic nation building can help realise the full potential of all citizens.

IT is time for Malaysians who love this country to ask ourselves this fundamental question: Do we wish to live together as a nation, with common memories and common dreams? Or do we want to prove the pundits of 1957 right that the ethnic and religious divide of this country would eventually see it fall apart.

That the ethnic and religious faultlines of Malaysia are bursting at the seams cannot be denied. The increasing reports of violence and intimidation against political opponents – be they in party politics or in civil society – and the inability to discuss contested issues on race, religion and politics in a rational and balanced manner are ominous of what is in store in the heat of the upcoming elections.

We are a society polarised and the divide is getting wider by the day – the Rukun Negara, Vision 2020, Islam Hadari and 1Malaysia notwithstanding. Why?

About two weeks ago, I attended the inaugural lecture by Dr Muthiah Alagappa for the Tun Hussein Onn Chair in International Studies, established at ISIS Malaysia and funded by the Noah Foundation.
He spoke on his current research topic which is relevant to the state of our nation – “Nation Making in Asia: From Ethnic to Civic Nations?”

Nation making, says Muthiah, may take several forms but at base, there are two approaches. One is on the basis of ethnic or religious community and the other on the basis of citizenship, equality, and commitment to a political creed. The first may be called ethnic nation making and the second, civic nation making. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. They share some common elements like historic territory and common culture but they also have distinct features. Citizens’ interests take centre stage in a civic nation. Group beliefs and interests dominate an ethnic nation.

Muthiah made the point that ethnicity has dominated nation making in Asia. And through a survey of China, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Malaysia, he concludes that this mode of nation building is fast running its course.

Much of what he said helped me to understand why we are in the muddle we are in today. More importantly, he offered a way out. To move from ethnic nation building to civic nation building. Actually to return to our history where once political leaders like Datuk Onn Ja’afar and Tunku Abdul Rahman, like other men of their generation, Nehru in India and Soekarno in Indonesia, who opted to build a civic nation out of multi-ethnic states.

Muthiah asserts that nation making on the basis of ethno-nationalism has been the cause of numerous domestic and international conflicts in post-World War II Asia. Core ethnic groups in control of state power engaged in constructing nations and states on the basis of their own ethnic groups. The core ethnic group develops and deploys state power to protect, remedy, and promote its values and interests including language, culture, demographic predominance, economic welfare, and political dominance. Political and other mobilisation, state institutions, and non-governmental organisations are developed to sustain and reinforce the national imagination of the core ethnic group and its domination of the state.

Their “nationalising state” strategies marginalised other populations residing in the country, provoking counter imaginations of nations also based on ethnicity, leading to violence and proliferation of demands for new nation states in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan.

Ethnic nation making leads to conflict and violence for several reasons, asserts Muthiah.

First, in multi-ethnic countries, constructing nations on the basis of majority communities implicitly or explicitly led to the formation of minority communities and their destruction or marginalisation. These groups became apprehensive about their futures, stimulating alternative conceptions of nation as well as imagination of new states in which minority communities would become the state-bearing nations. The demand for new nations and states led to violence and war as seen in Sri Lanka, Thailand, India and Pakistan.

Second, ethno-national imaginations in homogenous populations were non-accepting of divided nations and of the idea that one nation may support more than one state. The quest for unification of divided nations and the effort to achieve congruence between nation and state were primary causes of inter-state wars in Asia, for example, the Koreas and Vietnam.

Third, ethnic nation making challenged, modified, and in some cases undermined civic nation making, fostering internal conflict in those states.

Fourth, ethnic nation making polarised populations, making them intolerant and unaccepting of plurality and diversity. The forging of a cohesive national community became much more difficult, if not impossible.
Further, Muthiah asserts that if ethnicity continues to dominate nation making, nations will not command the loyalty of all their citizens and national political communities will remain divided and brittle. Asian countries would remain weak as modern nation-states, and unable to realise their full potential. And despite the growing material power of Asian countries, the dream of an Asian century will remain just that – a dream.

Muthiah acknowledges that ethnicity is deeply embedded in political organisation, mobilisation and governance in Asian countries and will not be easily dislodged. Attempts to do so could also provoke counter reaction and violence.

He admits that while civic nation making is not a panacea, it appears better placed to cope with diversity and the challenges of modernisation as well as manage and resolve domestic and international conflicts. He therefore proposes that governments and civil society take mitigating actions by overlaying ethnic conceptions with features of civic nation that emphasise territory, citizenship, and equality.

The civic nation building approach has the potential to enhance the legitimacy of the nation and state in the eyes of disadvantaged and minority groups without negating them in the eyes of the ethnic core. It can help realise the full potential of all citizens. Increased legitimacy of nation and state will help ameliorate conflict, making for increased stability, domestically and regionally.

In countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan that are ethnically homogenous and in multi-ethnic states like India and Indonesia, national communities are held together not only by ethnic consciousness but also by political loyalty to a higher ideal, obligations and rights.

Muthiah believes that Malaysia was envisioned as a plural nation with the Malay nation as its nucleus. That conception had ethnic as well as civic nation dimensions. The ethnic dimension related to the special position of the Malays and Malay rulers, as well as the position of the non-Malay populations. The civic dimension emphasised citizenship by birth and naturalisation, democracy, and the constitutional basis for the Malayan nation and state. That blend of ethnicity and civic features in nation making came to be characterised as a historic bargain, the social compact. Over time, however, the plural and civic nation dimensions of nation making in Malaysia weakened, with ethnicity becoming paramount in the post-1969 period.

Apprehension, alienation, mistrust and polarisation grew as emphasis on race, ethnicity and religion dominated the body politic.

Today, 55 years after independence, we are debating the very fundamental foundation of the Malaysian nation: should it be based on ethnicity, religion or be trans-ethnic and trans-religious as advocated by the founding fathers?

For me, the answer is clear. An ethnically and religiously diverse country cannot continue to survive as a nation state in peace and prosperity without all of its citizens feeling a sense of belonging and pride in the nation, and imagining a common national identity and a shared destiny.

Legitimacy and support for our socio-political order and in our institutions must be grounded in consent, not coercion. As an ever expanding educated urban middle class demand rights on the basis of citizenship, change is inevitable. The challenge is to recognise and manage these new realities by strengthening the civic foundations of this multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. I believe there are enough Malaysians, enough history and enough wisdom here to make civic nation building possible.

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