Warning of the danger of religious polarization as the third major cause of national disunity in Malaysia in the last 15 years of the 20th century

Speech by Parliamentary Opposition Leader, DAP Secretary-General and MP for Kota Melaka, Lim Kit Siang, on the Royal Address on Tuesday, 13.3.1984

Warning of the danger of religious polarization as the third major cause of national disunity in Malaysia in the last 15 years of the 20th century

The Yang de-Pertuan Agong, in his Royal Address, called on Malaysian youths to ensure that their activities do not undermine national unity to the extent of causing ‘racial polarisation’.

In fact, the youths of Malaysia in the year 1984 are the most polarized generation in the history of our country in ethnic terms, because of the whole range of government policies, attitudes and philosophy of nation building, which emphasized and accentuated ethnic distinctions rather than the common bond of Malaysian national identity and consciousness.

Thus, the whole basis of political power in Malaysia, and in particular in Peninsular Malaysia, is founded on the premise that a Malay is not a Malay in Malaysia unless he supports and votes for the UMNO, a Chinese is not a Chinese in Malaysia unless he supports and votes for the MCA, and an Indian is not a Indian in Malaysia unless he supports and votes for the MIC.

In fact, UMNO prides itself for having achieved the position where it could claim that ‘UMNO is Malay and Malay is UMNO’ instead of “UMNO is Malaysia and Malaysia is UMNO” – to the extent that the MCA, even through, phantom members, is seeking to emulate the UMNO example to be able to boast that ‘MCA is Chinese and Chinese is MCA’!

The 2M Government had called on Malaysians to Look East and to learn from the Japanese in particular. It is essential that Malaysians, in the rush to ‘Look East’ and to learn from the Japanese experience, should draw the right lessons as to what make the Japanese tick and the formula for the Japanese economic success.

According to one study, he secret of the Japanese success is that in Japan ‘being Japanese is the most important reality in the life of any Japanese’.

Until we in Malaysia can reach the stage where, in the final analysis, ‘being Malaysian is the most important reality in the life of any Malaysian’, it is unlikely that we can learn anything world-shaking from the ‘Look East’ policy.

After a quarter of a century of Malaysian nationhood, the most important reality in the life of any Malaysian is not being a Malaysian, but being Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Kadazan, etc.

Every four or five years during the general elections, the entire resources of the State are mobilized to exhort the people of Malaysia that they must vote as Malays, Chinese, Indians, Kadazans, Ibans, and not as Malaysians.


It is because in Malaysia, being Malaysian is not the most important reality in the life of any Malaysian that there is the massive brain drain in the migration of Malaysian doctors, engineers, doctors, dentists and lawyers overseas.

At the joint meeting of the UMNO Youth and UMNO Wanita General Assembly, in August last year the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Musa Hitam, devoted the theme of his opening speech to ‘Malay Nationalism’.

It is most saddening as well as shocking that 25 years after Malaysian nationhood, ‘Malay Nationalism’ should become the theme of an important address. I could understand if we were in the 1940sor even the 1950s. But we were in 1983! I am sure that anyone who devoted the theme of his speech to ‘Chinese nationalism’ or ‘Indian nationalism’ in Malaysia would be accused of pandering to the fires of Chinese chauvinism or Indian racialism. By the same logic and argument, would it not be equally right that in the 1980s, there could be no Malay nationalism, but only Malay racialism or chauvinism, for there could only be one nationalism in Malaysia of today – Malaysian nationalism?

Racial polarization not only dominates the political process, but the entire nation-building process, whether in economic, educational, social or cultural arenas. No wonder it is legitimate to state that after a quarter of a century of nationhood, we are a nation without Malaysians but only Malays, Chinese, Indians, Ibans and Kadazans.

It is this national disunity that the New Economic Policy was formulated to overcome, as the achievement of national unity is proclaimed as the overriding objective of the NEP and its two prongs of eradicating poverty and restructuring Malaysian society.

I would leave the subject of the NEP and National Unity for the debate on the Mid-Term Review of the Fourth Malaysia Plan later at this Parliamentary meeting, but would want to point out that the NEP far from reducing had in fact enhanced and aggravated racial polarisation in Malaysia.


If the Government is serious in worrying about racial polarisation, then it must bravely deal with the underlying causes. Otherwise, exhortation to youths not to contribute to racial polarisation in a highly polarised situation would fail to make any impression whatsoever, for the government must bear the brunt of the responsibility to de-polarise the country.

What I want to highlight in this debate is the warning that religious polarisation might become the third major cause of national disunity in Malaysia, after racial polarisation and class polarisation, in the last 15years of the 20th Century till Year 2,000.

Ever since the last general elections in April 1982, the process of Islamisation in government, administration, economy, education and even morals have caused great concern, unease and foreboding among non-Muslim Malaysians.

Hardly a week goes by nowadays without an Islamisation demand, proposal or decision in one field or another. New university students in all courses of study are required to take Islamic Civilisation as a compulsory subject, there is demand that Islam should be used as the formula for nation-building in Malaysia – an Islamic nation-building policy -; demand for an Islamic approach to the creation of a national culture – an Islamic National Culture; etc.

I want to make it very clear that these apprehensions of non-Muslim Malaysians to the Islamisation process do not stem from any antipathy or enmity towards Islam as a religion, but because of their fear that the basic foundation of Malaysia as a secular nation where there is freedom of religious beliefs and practice, with Islam as the official religion, is being insidiously but effectively undermined.

Government Ministers had sought to allay the fears of non-Muslims on the ground that the values from Islam which are being incorporated into government and administration are good values, which other religious would also recognise and support, like justice, tolerance and harmony.

Such Ministerial assurances, however, are becoming less and less effective when the process of Islamisation is accelerated, for non-Muslims fear that the process of Islamisation would prepare the foundation for the creation of an Islamic State in the future – which in fact had been publicly admitted by advocates of Islamisation at Islamic forums.

Their fears and anxieties are further increased when t hey read in the press about what is happening in other countries where an Islamic State is being attempted, as in Pakistan, where large numbers of women had protested and demonstrated against the government’s campaign to impose strict Islamic values, with proposals that would require the evidence of two women to equal that of one man; that compensation to a family for the death of a woman be fixed at half that for a man’s; increased flogging of women convicted of adultery; a government proposal to establish separate universities for women; the proposal that the family of a crime victim can ask for the death penalty only if the victim is male; and a ban on women athletes at the Asian Games in new Delhi last year.

Nor are their fears and anxieties lessened when from their readings about Islam, they learn that in an Islamic State, non-Muslims ‘may have a place in the administrative machinery of the State but cannot be entrusted with the responsibility of framing the general policy of the State or dealing with matters vital to its safety and integrity.”


In actual fact, proponents of an Islamic State in Malaysia have advocated the non-Muslims in Malaysia can make their political contributions in an advisory capacity, but would have no role in the real decision-making Majlis to run the government and country.

What disturbs non-Muslims is that although we do not have an Islamic State, non-Muslims seem excluded from the framing of fundamental policies of State. For instance, in a matter like the incorporation of Islamic values into the government and administration which would affect both Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia, non-Muslim Malaysians play no role whatsoever. In fact, the same argument could be extended to other fundamental policy formulations and occupation of key-Ministerial posts. Only recently, the special task force of the Cabinet to review the Fourth Malaysia Plan became rather sensitive, not only because it comprised only UMNO Ministers, excluding all other MCA, Gerakan, MIC, SUPP Ministerial participation, but also because at a period when the government had made Islamisation a highly politicised issue, the composition from the religious aspect is also disturbing.

As the Islamic values which the Government wants to inject into the Government and administration are universal values which are always also taught by the other great religions and beliefs, then in a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural nation like Malaysia, these values must be disseminated in the name of all the religions and faiths concerned and not in the name of any one religion, for three important reasons :

  1. to uphold the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religious beliefs;
  2. to further national unity by using the common universal values to be found in the various religions in Malaysia as a basis for nation-building, instead of creating a new barrier between Islamic values and non-Islamic values;
  3. to prevent a third polarisation in Malaysia to add to the double polarisation of class and race, namely that of religion, which would come about if radical changes in the administration, government, economy, education, politics and law are made in the name of Islamisation solely by Muslims, to the exclusion of Malaysians of other religious faiths.

The absorption of religious and ethical values in government, administration, economy, education and morals should be overseered by an inter-religious consultative body, comprising representatives from the leading religions in Malaysia, namely Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism.


His Majesty, in his Royal Address, had also spoken of the importance of cultural developments in attaining national unity. A cultural policy could be likened to a double-edged sword, which could either promote greater national unity or destroy the basis for national unity.

The National Culture Policy, and the way it is promoted by the Government, has caused great harm to national unity objectives. The year 1984 started with three uncompromising pronouncements by three UMNO leaders at an UMNO Youth seminar on culture who made it very clear that there was nothing more to discuss or debate as far as the National Culture Policy is concerned.

The Minister of Youth, Culture and Sports, Anwar Ibrahim, said the National Culture Policy is closed to further debate and that the government would not tolerate any questioning or criticism of the National Culture Policy. He also justified the dismissal of the Memorandum on Culture presented to the Government by the Malaysian Chinese Cultural Conference attended by national Chinese organisations in March last year as a ‘small matter’.

The Finance Minister, Tengku Razaleigh, proposed a seven-point perspective plan to implement the National Culture Policy which includes taking action against ‘anti-national’ elements who opposed the National Culture Policy.

The Mentri Besar of Pahang, Datuk Mohamed Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak, declared that the national culture incorporated from the regions original culture based on Islam would not be successful if it incorporated other cultures and proposed that efforts to evolve the national culture should be made from kindergarten level up to the university level.

For a multi-racial country like Malaysia, where there is no majority race in the country – for every race is a minority race – there should be cultural democracy and not cultural autocracy – to allow for the full flowering of the various cultures which have met in historical conjunction in Malaysia and the evolution of a new Malaysian culture comprising the best of the various cultures in the country.

Malaysia, however, had been taking the road of cultural assimilation and intolerance. I will give an example. During the Dewan Rakyat debate on the 1961 Education Act on 20th October 1961, when replying to charges that in having Clause 21(2) of the Act which empowers the Education Minister to convert Chinese primary schools into national primary schools, the government was not aware of the importance of Chinese culture, the then MCA President and Minister of Finance, Tun Tan Siew Sin, said:

“Those of us who like myself have been privileged to attend State banquets and functions held at the Istana Negara have, for example, noticed that every time there is some sort of entertainment provided after a meal is over, or in the course of a meal, we get cultural exhibitions given by, for example, Radio Malaya; and in every one of these exhibitions there are always a few items which are performed by Chinese artists and in the Chinese language and depicting some aspects of Chinese culture.”

Tun Tan went on to say:

“I do not think that this has ever happened before, and I do not think it ever happened during the time when the British were in control of this country. If today the Alliance Government was not aware of the importance of Chinese culture, I do not think such a thing would be allowed to happen.”

For over a decade since the National Cultural Congress of 1971 when the three principles of the National Culture Policy were adopted, ‘such a thing’ described by Tun Tan had ceased to happen.

The position had in fact gone very far towards the other extreme, as illustrated by the statement by a noted Malay scholar at the Meeting of Malay World 1982 held in Malacca where he stressed that there should be no discrimination against those Chinese who adopted the ways of the land – for instance the Chinese datuks must be accorded the same respect as Malay datuks, provided “their loyalty and willingness to be part of the nation is proved through their adoption of Malay cutoms.”

The government intolerance to the questioning of the National Culture Policy appears to be followed up by government encouragement of public intolerance of what is downgraded as communal cultural expressions, except among the communal groups concerned. Thus, during the recent Chinese New Year, although the Lion Dance was allowed to be performed under restrictive police regulations, one of these regulations prohibited the performance of lion dance in areas with Malay inhabitants, as flats for instance.

If the Chinese, or the Indians for that matter, are encouraged or allowed to prevent the performance of cultural forms which belong to the other cultural groups, as say the kampong, where will all this lead us to? Is it to a more united or a more divided Malaysia?

It may be very popular for the UMNO leaders, in the approach of the UMNO General Assembly elections in the next few months to make ferocious statements about the National Culture Policy, but I sincerely hope that in the long-term national interest of all Malaysians which comprise the different cultural groups, the Government would move away from its uncompromising and rigid attitude which tantamount to cultural autocracy in Malaysia.


Despite the government’s claim of an open and liberal administration, there are more and more signs that the government is becoming more and more intolerant of criticism and dissent.

The Minister of Youth, Culture and Sports ‘stand that he would not debate or questioning of the National Culture Policy is one example. Another is a similar statement, this time by the Deputy Minister of Finance Datuk Sabarrudin Cik at the Sains University forum on the New Economic Policy that the NDP could not be debated or questioned.

A third example is the recent attempt to curb Malaysian students overseas from criticising the government. The later back-tracking by the government on the matter following public uproar at the proposed clampdown on student dissenters overseas could not conceal the original intention.

Thus when the Deputy Minister of Education Datuk Khalil Yaakob announced in early February that the government would crackdown on Malaysian student overseas found to be opposing the government’s policy or critical of the Government, he spelt out the meaning of “activities opposing the Government” to include criticising government policies publicly, allowing room for misinterpretation of government policies and students taking part in anti-government demonstrations.

Another Minister said the actions would not be confined to government scholars but would include private students overseas. Following the national and international protests and uproar, the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Musa Hitam, clarified that the government’s clamp down on Malaysian students overseas is directed at militant students who want to overthrow the government.

I do not believe that Datuk Khalil Yaakob was so incompetent as to grossly misrepresent government intentions, especially as he never clarified or retracted his statements. This incident shows the eternal need for Malaysians to be vigilant about their rights and to fearlessly stand up against any attempt to erode them.

I call on the government to give a full explanation of the nature of the action the government would take against Malaysian students overseas, for the original nature of the clampdown decision could only make the public highly suspicious of this government action.

Another indicator of growing intolerance is the Ministry of Home Affairs ‘punishment’ of the Far Eastern Economic Review by delaying every weekly publication for two weeks because of the weekly’s reporting on the Constitutional Crisis which transgressed the government’s ban on the subject.

The suspension of Watan and the monthly magazine, Nadi Insan, as well as the Bahasa Malaysia weekly, Mingguan BUMI, the proposed enactment of a new Publications Act to strengthen government control on imported publications, are all part of a larger attempt to exercise greater government manipulation of public opinion in the country.

His Majesty expressed his confidence in the system of Parliamentary Democracy and Constitutional Monarchy in Malaysia. I do not think the system of Constitutional Monarchy was ever an issue in the recent constitutional crisis. But what needed the serious consideration of thinking Malaysians and in particular Members of Parliament is the state of parliamentary democracy we have in Malaysia.


Parliamentary democracy in Malaysia is a mere empty shell, with more the trappings than the substance of a democratic tradition, as the Malaysian people, including their Members of Parliament, are not allowed meaningful role and participation in deciding the future of the country and their lives.

Over the years, Parliament has become more and more a rubber-stamp institution, used by the Executive to give its actions and decisions the stamp of legitimacy, as shown in the recent Constitutional crisis, but largely irrelevant to the national policy decision-making process.

Malaysians who believe in the system of Parliamentary Democracy and Constitutional Monarchy should seek to return to Parliament its role as the highest deliberative, legislative and decision-making body, instead of being as a highest rubber stamp institution in Malaysia.

The lowly esteem of Parliament held by the public could be gauged by the importance given by the press to parliamentary proceedings. It is not unusual for newspapers to give a quarter page or even less coverage to the parliamentary proceedings, while other events which could not compare in importance with Parliamentary proceedings if it Parliament is the apex of the political process can get greater coverage.

Parliament should set up a special committee to review its Parliamentary role and decide on how it could restore its pre-eminent political place in the system, for otherwise it is not just Parliament which had diminished its role, but the principle and system of parliamentary democracy which had been grossly undermined.

The Royal Address reiterated the government’s intention to create a ‘Clean, Efficient and Trustworthy’ administration. When this slogan was used in the April 1982 general elections, many gave the government the benefit of the doubt and hoped that the 2M leadership would be able to deliver the goods.

It is not yet two years but the ‘Clean, Efficient and Trustworthy’ motto has become a bad joke among the people. In fact, the MCA was so embarrassed by the slogan of ‘Clean, Efficient and Trustworthy’ Administration that it abandoned its usage in the Seremban parliamentary by-election last November. As a result, we had the spectacle of the main campaign theme of the government in the general elections being completely dropped, which tantamount to an admission that the administration is ‘unclean, inefficient and untrustworthy’.


How could the people have a high regard for the Government when for the sake of political office, seekers are prepared to manufacture tens of thousands of ‘phantom members’.

The greatest disappointment to the people, however, is the government’s handling of the $2,500 million Bumiputra Malaysia Finance loans scandal in Hong Kong.

The shocking part about the BMF scandal is not merely the magnitude of the loans involved, but the attitude and philosophy of those in government, who do not seem to accept the principle of power as a trust of the people and accountability for their actions.

Despite the national demand for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the BMF scandal, the Prime Minister has merely set up an in-house inquiry. From the restricted terms of reference, it is dubious that the inquiry committee, which is headed by the Auditor-General, would be empowered to investigate into the political ramifications of the billion-dollar loans concerned, the people-behind-scene who recommended, influenced and gave approval for the loans – people who are likely to be very powerful political figures and who may have no direct links with the Bank Bumiputra and BMF.

As the BMF inquiry committed is technically an in-house inquiry committee set up by Bank Bumiputra, the public are very skeptical that it could go very far beyond the Bank Bumiputra and BMF – when the real seat of decision for the loans may be elsewhere.

For instance, would the BMF inquiry committee be able to pursue and inquire whether it is true that UMNO had received a cut from the billion-dollar BMF loan transactions in Hong Kong from the Hong Kong debtors by way of donation to the UMNO Building fund as widely rumoured?

Another baffling aspect of the BMF inquiry committee’s terms of reference is why its jurisdiction in confined to the loans and credit facilities extended by BMF to George Tan and Eda Investments, exempting the third in the trio of the BMF debtors, property developer Kevin Hsu, from its scope of inquiry.

Last month, it was reported from Hong Kong that bankruptcy petitions had been filed against Kevin Hsu, whose major creditor is the BMF, by a German merchant bank.

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank sued Kevin Jewelry, a company controlled by Kevin Hsu, for HK $55 million and the claim was not contested. Others who have so far sued Mr. Hsu claimed a total exceeding HK$80 million.

The Malaysian public is entitled to know why the Prime Minister has excluded Kevin Hsu from the scope of the BMF inquiry committee’s investigations.

I seek an assurance from the Prime Minister that the full report of the BMF inquiry committee would be made public and tabled in Parliament, which immediate opportunities for a debate on the BMF scandal.

Although we in the DAP are very disappointed by the government’s refusal to establish a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the BMF, and the composition as well as the terms of reference and jurisdiction of the in-house BMF inquiry committee, we will withhold comment until the committee had reported.

The BMF inquiry committee owes it to the Malaysian public to indicate how long it would take to complete its inquiry and report, now that it had over two months to go into the case. We hope there would be no inordinate delay in the inquiry committee’s work and report as there is a great public interest and public credibility would be further damaged if the public sees another chapter of foot-dragging in the long saga of BMF scandal cover-up.

After he became Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamed said he would ‘put the fear of God in those people who are corrupt’. But from the result

Public hope that the 2M government would crack down on corruption had not been fulfiled, and the Malaysian people have again become very cynical about the government’s anti-corruption drives, which seem to be more publicity exercises rather than weeding out the corrupt from public service and top political posts.

Recently, the Nakasone Government got all Japanese Cabinet Ministers to publicly declare their assets to make the people trust the government. This is something that Dr. Mahathir could learn from his counterpart in Japan. He should in fact go one step further and get all Cabinet Ministers to publicly declare their assets and that of their spouses and next of kin, which dould then be emulated by the Japanese for a change to ensure public integrity of political leaders.


In January, an Australian Ministerial Committee of review into Australian Government Policy on private overseas students headed by Professor John Goldring visited Malaysia to hear Malaysians’ views. My comrades, Sdr. Lee Lam Thye and Sdr. Dr. Tan Seng Giaw, and I met the Australian Ministerial Committee and made strong representations that the Australian Government, in furthering the interest of Australia-Malaysia relations, should not cut down places available for Malaysians in Australian educational institutions as was done this year, where only 1,640 places (1,050 secondary and 590 tertiary) places were made available to Malaysian students. We also rebutted the view held in some Australian quarters that the Malaysian private students in Australia come from the well-to-do families.

I hope that the Goldring Committee would be able to restore the liberal Australian education policy which allowed the unrestricted entry of Malaysian students into Australia for higher studies, although there may have to be certain modification in the Australian policy in ensuring that Malaysian students in the various universities and colleges are well distributed all over the country, instead of the present situation where there is a very high concentration in two universities.

What private Malaysian students find very frustrating is that in attempting to go to Australia for higher studies, they face not only the problem of restricted places, which is the responsibility of the Australian government, they also find the Malaysian government competing with them for the limited places by getting a reserved quota for government scholars.

Thus out of the 1,050 pre-university students reserved for Malaysia, the Government took up about 60 per cent of the places for government scholars, when the government could release these places for private students as it could easily make alternative arrangements for these government scholars, either in other countries or in Malaysia itself.

I therefore call on the Minister of Education to stop competing with private students for limited places in countries where there is a fixed quota for Malaysian students.


On 25th Feb. 1984, the Berita Harian reported that beginning from 1986, all primary schools, including Chinese and Tamil primary schools, would have to teach Jawi as a compulsory subject from Std. 4 to Std. 6. The report said that the Curriculum Development Centre is finalising the curriculum for the introduction of compulsory Jawi teaching as the second phase of the 3M curriculum for primary schools.

The report also quoted the Deputy Minister of Education, Dr. Tan Tiong Hong, as defending the study of Jawi for non-Malay students, on the ground that the study of Jawi is essential to non-Malays who want to acquire a high standard of proficiency in Bahasa Malaysia.

The DAP is opposed to the introduction of Jawi as a compulsory subject for non-Malay students. What is more relevant is the introduction of mother-tongue language as a compulsory subject in all national primary schools, and the raising of the standard of English in the Chinese and Tamil primary schools. The DAP calls on the Government to abandon its plan to make Jawi a compulsory subject in primary schools for all students as it would be most unhealthy if Islamisation is brought down even to primary school levels.

Lim Kit Siang

Democratic Action Party