The Myth Of A Moderate Malaysia

(COMMENTARY by Sadanand Dhume* in of August 31, 2009)

If you're looking for an image that captures the conflict between fervent Islam and basic human decency, look no further than the Malaysian city of Shah Alam, about 15 miles west of Kuala Lumpur.
On Friday, a group of about 50 men, agitated by plans to relocate a 150-year-old Hindu temple to their neighborhood, made their feelings clear by staging a protest march from a mosque to a government building. Amidst the usual cries of "Allahu Akbar" and "takbeer," the protesters deposited the freshly severed head of a cow - an animal sacred to Hindus - before the building's gate. The group's leaders made threatening speeches and, perhaps caught up in the spirit of the moment, hammed it up for the cameras, stepping and spitting on the cow's head. The police - who have been known to arrest people for such crimes as attending a candle light vigil or wearing black in support of the opposition - stood by and watched.
Ironically, those scanning the globe for a Muslim-majority country that inspires neither dread nor despair often alight upon Malaysia. Until a few years ago, the Southeast Asian nation boasted the world's tallest building, the iconic 88-story Petronas Towers. Powered by electronics, palm oil and petroleum, Malaysia is the world's 20th-largest exporter, ahead of Sweden, Australia and India. Per capita income, about $14,000 in purchasing parity terms, is about the same as in Argentina. Apart from the obvious prosperity of downtown Kuala Lumpur, the casual visitor notices the comforting trappings of a British colonial past - a parliament, a judiciary, a professional police force.
But most strikingly, Malaysia (along with next-door Indonesia) can claim something increasingly rare in the Muslim world: a large non-Muslim population. About four in 10 Malaysians are Buddhist, Christian, Hindu , Sikh or Confucian. (By contrast, Turkey, the poster-child for an Islam at peace with the 21st century, is 99.8% Muslim.) Recognizing the power of this statistic in our multicultural age, Tourism Malaysia promotes the country's allegedly harmonious blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian communities with an odd but nonetheless catchy slogan: Malaysia, Truly Asia.
The reality, of course, is a lot less sunny. Unlike neighboring Singapore, which shares the same colonial past and ethnic mix - albeit with a Chinese rather than a Malay majority - Malaysia has rejected secularism in favor of a kind of ethnoreligious apartheid that belongs more in a medieval kingdom than in a modern democratic republic.
In Malaysia, Islam is the state religion. Higher education, the bureaucracy and vast swathes of the economy are operated as a kind of spoils system almost exclusively for Malays, whom the state defines as Muslim. Race and religion determine everything from your odds of getting into medical school to the amount you're expected to put down for an apartment. The conversion laws, based on sharia, bring to mind the Eagles' classic "Hotel California": You can check in (to Islam) any time you like, but you can never leave.

*Sadanand Dhume holds a masterís degree in international relations from Princeton Universityís Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and had served as India bureau chief of the Far Eastern Economic Review and as Indonesia correspondent of FEER and The Wall Street Journal Asia.