The Malay Archipelago, or Maritime Southeast Asia, has long provided a spectacular demonstration of societies deeply invested in the ethos of cultural pluralism, and modern-day Malaysia has laid claim to that inheritance by representing itself as one of the world’s more arresting experiments in multiculturalism in recent decades. ‘Multiculturalism’, it should be noted, is a word of relatively recent vintage, and the Oxford English Dictionary records its first usage in 1957. Many in the West, particularly in the United States, Canada, and Britain, have supposed that their own societies furnish the most authentic specimens of multiculturalism, and their politicians and intellectuals alike have berated many countries in the global South for their suppression of the rights of ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities. What is, of course, occluded in this typical self-serving and ethnocentric exercise is the brute fact that countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia eliminated the greater part of their indigenous populations, engaging in the wholesale slaughter of people deemed to be inferior if not savage, and eviscerating entire lifestyles and structures of feeling, all the more so that a new ‘civilisation’ could be raised on a clean slate. The multiculturalism of the modern West, inscribed on the tabula rasa of a ruthless homogenisation, and peppered by the usual homilies about democracy, liberty, and the fulfillment of human history in the figure of the market-driven, self-aggrandising, ambitious individual who is respectful of family values and property rights (and, in the United States, fanatic in his embrace of the rights of gun-ownership), is now being foisted upon societies where cultural pluralism has long been the ground reality.

Malaysia has certainly never peddled its multiculturalism with the same ostentatiousness used by the United States to customarily announce its diversity and multiculturalism as its gifts to the world. ‘Diversity’ has now become the watchword by which a society’s commitment to human rights is gauged. Diversity training is nearly mandatory at all the major American corporations, and a ‘diversity requirement’ has been installed for undergraduates at virtually every accredited American university; indeed, it would not be too much to suggest that tomorrow’s autocrats, however egregious and murderous their conduct in other respects, will have to undergo diversity training at Harvard, Yale, the London School of Economics, Sorbonne, and other elite institutions where many of the world’s dictators have received their education. These are some of the fruits of what is called multiculturalism in the modern West, but what of multiculturalism in, say, a Muslim-majority state in Southeast Asia? That we should speak of ‘majorities’ and ‘minorities’, and suppose that there is no other way of getting a grip on the idea of cultural pluralism, suggests how far the particularistic idioms of modern multiculturalism have already become triumphant. It will be argued, of course, that electoral democracy has made discussions of majorities and minorities inevitable, but this modern political arithmetic obscures the fact that numerical minorities have not always experienced themselves as minorities, just as numerical majorities have not always shown the confidence that one might expect them to display.

I do not allude here to the most transparent manifestations of the colonial manipulation of this political arithmetic, which led in Rwanda to the elevation of the Tutsis over the Hutus, or in Malaysia to the elevation of the Indians over the Malays before the advent of independence. It is rather more interesting to ask, if I may gesture at some of the more psychological dimensions of this phenomenon, why Hindus in India, who constitute an overwhelming numerical majority, have long acted, judging from the pronouncements of many of the ideologues of Hindu nationalism, as if they were a beleaguered minority? On the other hand, the Jewish population of India, which was always so minuscule that even rendering it as a minority would be something of a stretch, displayed an extraordinary confidence in a country where it does not ever appear to have been subjected to anti-Semitic sentiment or discrimination. The same might be argued apropos the Parsis: though some have thought that it was during the colonial period that the Parsis came to acquire their clout as a class of comprador capitalists, there is little to suggest that they were ever handicapped in India by thinking of themselves as a minority. Mohandas Gandhi, for one, was not particularly receptive to the idea that minorities always feel like minorities, and his lengthy encounters with Dalits, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Anglo-Indians, Buddhists, and Jains persuaded him that the idea of majority and minority is a pernicious form of political calculus. Nonetheless, he was sufficiently attentive to the turns taken by modern political life to understand that no group can afford to disavow the politics of recognition, and he was unequivocally clear that the litmus test of a democracy must perforce be its treatment of minorities. It is doubtful that more than a handful of nation-states could today meet that imposing test, and Malaysia now seems to be drawing precipitously close to the point where its entire edifice of cultural pluralism is at grave risk.

One might certainly make a strong prima facie case for Malaysian varieties of multiculturalism that one seldom encounters in the West and almost never in the Anglo-American world. The formidable Consumer Association of Penang (CAP), which spearheaded the consumer rights movement in Malaysia and Southeast Asia more generally, and has in many ways been something of a model to the burgeoning NGO movement, exemplifies Malaysian multiculturalism at work. Its monthly newsletter, with wide circulation in Malaysia, is published not only in Bahasa Melayu [Malay], the official language, but also in Chinese, Tamil, and English. (In neighbouring Singapore, which broke away from the Malay Federation in 1965, all four languages have the same official status – but it is perhaps precisely this ‘progressive’ outlook which has paved the way for the predominance of English.) Most urban Malaysians, whatever their ethnic background, religious affiliation, or educational background, are easily fluent in two or three languages. This may appear to pale in comparison with statistics that are flaunted by those who champion multiculturalism in the United States: thus the Los Angeles Unified School District, which serves over 650,000 students, proudly proclaims that over 150 languages are represented among its students’ families. However, this familiar paean to ‘diversity’ can barely be reconciled with the fact that, as has been widely documented, second generation immigrants in the United States are invariably found to have lost their mother tongue. The United States remains resolutely monolingual: once Spanish was to be found ‘creeping’ upon large urban spaces, the movement to proclaim English as the official language started gaining traction. Multiculturalism in Malaysia is not merely a ‘yellow pages’ list of ethnic foods to be consumed, or a celebration, even while the American attachment to the most parochial politics remains undiminished, of ‘world music’ and ‘international cinema’.

In the multicultural fabric of Malaysian society, now increasingly under strain, Indians have occupied a distinct place. Indian migration to Malaya commenced in the second half of the nineteenth century and its history is part of the intertwined narratives of the expansion of the British empire, the growth of European commercial interests around the world, the abolition of slavery and the creation of new forms of labour servitude, the rise of the plantation economy, and much else. Between 1844 and 1910, some 250,000 labourers had arrived in Malaya from India; in the second decade of the nineteenth century, between 50,000 and 80,000 labourers arrived annually. In 1938, subsequent to the publication of a critical report detailing the working and living conditions of Indian labourers in Malaya, the Government of India put a halt to labour migration to Malaya, though by this time Indians constituted nearly 14% of the population. In 2000, the Malays had an absolute if slim majority, constituting nearly 54% of the total population of about 22 million; the Chinese and Indians, the two most significant minorities, accounted for 26% and 7.7% of the population respectively. A decade later, the Chinese share of the population had dropped to 23%, and the Indian to 7.1%, while the Malays now accounted for slightly over 60% of Malaysia’s population of some 29 million. Unlike in Fiji, where there has been a precipitous decline of the Indian population in the wake of political turmoil over the course of the last three decades, in Malaysia it is sharp differences in fertility rates between Malay and non-Malay women rather than the outward migration of Indians that has led to the relative decline of the Indian share of the population.

South Indian Tamils account for 81% of the Indian population of Malaysia, and the bulk of them are Hindus; there is also a generous sprinkling of Bengalis, Sindhis, Gujaratis, Malayalis, Telugus, and Sri Lankan Tamils. Numerous recent developments point to the increasingly precarious position in which non-Muslim Indians find themselves, and it is a telling fact that even the former Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who promoted the movement to instill Islamic values into politics, has found occasion to express misgivings about the increased ‘Arabisation’ of Malaysian society. Though it is by no means certain that the disabilities from which non-Muslims suffer always have some intrinsic relationship to the privileges conferred on Muslims, the unique status conferred on Malays and Islam in Malaysia cannot be doubted. Whereas in most countries affirmative action programmes or quotas are reserved for underprivileged or disenfranchised minorities, in Malaysia the beneficiaries of government largesse are the bumiputeras, ‘the sons of the soil’, a category that includes, expectedly, the orang aslis and other indigenous people, but also the numerically dominant Malays. Some scholars have argued that this is a consequence of the implicit social pact that was struck on the eve of independence: the Chinese and Indians would acquire citizenship, and the Malays, who were certainly underrepresented in the colonial period in the civil services and the higher education sector, would gain privileged access to state jobs and education. But this argument is disingenuous, and not only because of the role of the colonial state in transporting Indians to Malaya, a fact that the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF), a political organisation formed in 2006-7 and banned soon thereafter by the Malaysian Government, sought to underscore with its $5.5 trillion class-action lawsuit against the British Government for ‘exploiting Indians for 150 years’. Malaysian Indians, whose poverty is only eclipsed by that of aboriginals, are not only not entitled to affirmative action privileges but, some five generations after they arrived in Malaya, may still find themselves denied citizenship and even identity cards. In the eastern Malaysian state of Sabak, as has been documented, entry permits, residency status, and identity cards have been conferred on thousands of recent Muslim immigrants from the Philippines, and the category of bumiputera is sometimes extended to all those, whether Indonesians or Filipinos, who can lay claim to ancestral origins in the Malay archipelago. Yet the status of some Indians who have known no country other than Malaysia remains doubtful. The Indians whom I encountered on a visit in 2011 to a former plantation about an hour’s drive from Butterworth, across from Penang island, struck me as entirely disengaged from the state, bereft of any of the entitlements that are ordinarily encompassed under the term ‘citizenship’.

Article 3 of the Federal Constitution states that the religion of the Malaysian Federation is Islam; but the same article permits practitioners of other religions to follow their faiths. In this respect, Malaysia is clearly quite unlike Saudi Arabia, where the public display of any faith other than Islam can subject the religious practitioner to censure, ignominy, and punishment. Article 11, however, suggests clearly why Islam in Malaysia might perhaps best be understood as embodying the principle of primus inter pares: Muslims are free to proselytise to adherents of other faiths, but by law non-Muslims are forbidden from preaching to Muslims. As the Constitution states, the ‘law may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.’ A Muslim cannot leave his or her faith: but this stipulation, while uniquely safeguarding Islam, and rendering it preeminent among the religious faiths in Malaysia, simultaneously prevents Muslims from exercising the right, recognised in the Geneva conventions and other international protocols, to freedom of religious expression. Federal Constitution Article 160 is unambiguous: ‘Malay’, it states, ‘means a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, [and] conforms to Malay custom’.  Interestingly, although the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism (MCCBCHS) speaks for the adherents of these faiths, the practitioners of Islam are not similarly represented. They have no such representation, not because they are among the excluded, but because they are the state. Muslims in Malaysia, as Roland Barthes would have put it, are ex-nominated: they nominate others, but do not themselves need to be named.

The death on 20 December 2005 of M. Moorthy Mohamad Abdullah, a Hindu soldier who was part of the first Malaysian expedition to scale Mount Everest, highlighted the immense constraints under which non-Muslim Indians live in Malaysia. Shortly before his death, following a period during which Moorthy had fallen into a coma, the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Council alleged that he had converted to Islam. The Council insisted on giving him a burial at his death; however, his widow, S. Kaliammal, was forthright in denying the supposed fact of her late husband’s conversion. Though she sought an injunction to prevent his burial, so that she might cremate him according to Hindu rites, Kuala Lumpur High Court judge, Raus Sharif, declared the civil courts to be without jurisdiction in this matter and ruled the matter fit for deliberation by the Syariah [Sharia] High Court, which on 22nd December pronounced Moorthy a Muslim and authorised the Islamic Affairs Council to give him a burial. As a non-Muslim, Kaliammal was unable to file a petition or to tender any evidence with the Sharia court.

Alarming as Moorthy’s case was to the Hindu community, reports of the wanton destruction of Hindu temples around Malaysia around the same time appeared to suggest that the country was set on a course of Islamicisation. HINDRAF’s chairman went on record in late 2007 to say that ‘there appears to be an unofficial policy of Hindu temple-cleansing in Malaysia in recent months’, while Al-Jazeera’s correspondent reported that ‘the destruction of Hindu temples by Malaysian authorities is inflaming religious tensions’. Malaysian authorities have insistently described the targeted temples as ‘illegal buildings’, lacking registration or land titles, but the tacit argument is that those who are among the marginalised must perforce bear the greatest burden of ‘development’, whether signified by highways, housing projects, or shopping centres. The sixty-year old Aum Sri Siva Balakrishna Muniswarar temple in Setapak, to take one example, was found to be ‘in the way’ of the Kuala Lumpur-Damansara-Hulu Klang Expressway. To understand the circumstances under which some of these temples arose, it is necessary to recall the history of Indian indentured immigration to Malaya and the shepherding of Indians, when they were not building the railways, to rubber estates. Thousands of smaller temples, often originating in the placement of a deity under a tree, mushroomed across rubber plantations and the rural countryside. As the Indian community grew, some temples converted to larger structures; elsewhere, as Indians gravitated towards larger urban areas and acquired greater affluence, more formal temples came into shape. But the indubitable fact remains that many of the temples trace their history to a time when registration was not required, and Indians could not easily claim possession of land deeds. While it may be unreasonable to expect Malaysian authorities to accept that in Hinduism trees themselves are seen as embodiments of the divine, or that groves of trees provide a spiritual habitat for temples, it is surely just as unreasonable to claim that Hindus should be in compliance with the development agendas of a modern nation-state, or that they should be held to be in violation of laws that were drafted long after temples were founded not only as abodes of worship but to cement ties of solidarity among a people torn from their roots and cast adrift from their ancestral lands.

Much of independent Malaysia’s legal edifice, such as the notorious Internal Security Act, has been inherited from the colonial period. It is under the Sedition Act, another relic of the colonial state, that six Muslim men were charged in 2009 over what came to be known as the ‘cowhead’ protest in Shah Alam, the state capital of Selangor and effectively a part of the Greater Kuala Lumpur Metropolitan Area. They were among a group of some fifty to 100 people who marched from the state mosque to the state secretariat building with the head of a cow to protest the planned relocation of a Hindu temple from Section 19 to their neighbourhood, Section 23.  The Sri Maha Mariamman Temple is reportedly about 150 years old, and was left standing when Section 19 was brought under the jurisdiction of the State Economic Development Corporation and razed to make way for a housing estate. The Sedition Act, promulgated in 1948 with the intention of putting down nationalist resistance to colonial rule, might seem to be a curious piece of legislation under which to charge people for insulting practitioners of another faith, but for the present the rather more arresting fact is that the protestors were openly defended by Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein – even though the online news portal Malaysiakini captured on video the desecration of the cow’s head by the protestors, who stomped and spat on it with every intention of offending the religious sentiments of Hindus. The protest continued amidst a large police presence; on the other hand, HINDRAF’s rally of November 2007 in Kuala Lumpur was sought to be preempted days beforehand when police roadblocks tried to prevent people from entering the city.

The conclusion is writ large: recent events, at the centre of which are political and cultural negotiations wrought by the Indians to assure some semblance of dignity for themselves among the dominant Malays, have very much put Malaysia’s claims to be a genuinely pluralistic society seriously into doubt. It may well be that some judicious measures will be brought into place to stem the erosion of cultural pluralism in a part of the world that is least understood and has perhaps been one of the greater sites for giving expression to that little-heralded virtue of hospitality to others. The Hindu temple in the Mid-Valley Megamall in Kuala Lumpur, around which an entire shopping complex has been built even though there were threats to tear it down, has been mentioned as an illustration of the accommodations that can be made if Hindus, state authorities, and developers can be brought into sustained and engaged conversation with each other.

There is another seemingly inescapable conclusion: under conditions of industrial modernity, relations between Hindus and Muslims in Malaysia have deteriorated. Should Malaysia, I wonder, be chalked up as another example of the nation-state’s inability to accommodate difference? If the Malaysian state and its intellectual spokespersons are unable to recognise the fact that Indian hands fed the population, or that Hindu temples are inescapably part of the social, cultural, spiritual and physical landscape of Malaysia, it is very unlikely that the Indian population will ever receive anything remotely resembling the recognition that the history of Malaysia belongs to Indians, whether Hindus or Muslims, as much as it belongs to the Malays or the Chinese. Much worse, the failure to recognise the Other augurs the failure to know oneself, which is but another form of social and spiritual death.

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: