by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in the Star 29 April 2014

IT is not surprising that President Barack Obama raised the issue of minority rights when he was here a few days ago. This is an issue that is fast becoming a major debating point in our country where the Malay Muslim population forms the majority.

Within that majority population, there is no hard data to show how many are actually practising Muslims and how many actually adhere to traditional Malay values and cultures.

In a study by a group of researchers from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) published in the International Journal of Social Science and Humanity (Vol. 2, No. 3, May 2012), they listed, among others, non-confrontational attitude, subtlety, indirectness, humility and tolerance as some of the Malay values.

If this study is to be believed, then it seems like there are not many vocal Malays left in the country.

As a country that has a rich and diverse religious and cultural tradition, there is of course a risk if we do not handle inter-ethnic relations well.

The actual cause of the 1969 ethnic riot may still be debated by our intelligentsia, but no one can dispute the fact that it continues to haunt us until today. And without fail, those with vested interests keep dangling the May 13 incident in front of us every time they feel threatened.

The Government should be applauded for taking the bold step of setting up the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC).

When IDEAS hosted Tan Sri Joseph Kurup for dinner earlier this month, I told him that he is way too humble for his achievement.

The establishment of the NUCC, which is parked under his office in the Prime Minister’s Department, is a big thing.

Its success or failure will have a direct and significant impact on the future of our country.

In fulfilling its responsibilities, the NUCC and the Government at large should take note of a global study by researchers at the Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Washington DC’s Georgetown University.

We hosted Dr Timothy Shah, Associate Director of its Religious Freedom Project, on April 7 – 9 and we took him to meet with various entities working on national unity in Malaysia, including the NUCC.

Using historical data from Pew Research Centre, Dr Shah found that since 2007, there has been an increase in the number of government restrictions on civil liberties and religious freedom worldwide.

Usually the restrictions were introduced out of good intentions – i.e. regulations were introduced to prevent conflicts from occurring or becoming worse.

This resonates with the situation in Malaysia. In fact, when it comes to government regulation of religion, in 2012 Malaysia was actually ranked in the same group as China, Russia, Myanmar, Somalia and Eritrea.

Religious freedom is heavily regulated here. But, I have no doubt that the restrictions were originally well meaning.

Dr Shah then went on to explain that, ironically, despite increasing restrictions, harmony and tolerance have not increased.

In fact it is social hostility that has been on the rise globally.

In particular, studies show that in countries where the government exhibits high level of favouritism towards one religion, their citizens are three times more likely to suffer from higher level of social hostility.

And, when the government intimidates religious groups, the level of social hostility is five times higher than when the government treats everyone fairly and equally.

Once again, this resonates with the situation in Malaysia.

The very fact that the Government had to set up the NUCC shows that there is concern about the state of national unity and increasing hostility among the Malaysian public.

And we don’t have to analyse the situation too deeply either.

Just a quick glance at the mainstream print and broadcast media, or the social media, will show that we have reasons to be worried.

Dr Shah’s conclusion is important. His data shows that social harmony results not from regulation but from greater freedom.

He argued that it is wrong to assume that in order to manage national unity, we need restrictive laws.

Instead, the promotion of religious openness or “religious de-regulation” in highly diverse religious societies is the best way to promote social harmony, political stability, and economic prosperity.

(If you want to watch a video of Dr Timothy Shah’s presentation, please visit our website

This is an important point for the NUCC and others interested in national unity to consider in their deliberation.

I am worried about the proposal to introduce a new National Harmony Act.

The ideal situation is if we do not have this new law. But if we want to ignore solid data from global studies, as many of our decision-makers often do, then the compromise would be to be extra cautious with the content of the Act.

It must not be a law that restricts individual freedom.

But that is only dealing with some of the problems. A bigger chunk of the issues we see today is a direct result of our highly divisive political system that forces us to think and vote along ethno-religious lines.

Simply put, with the current ethno-religious partisan divide, it is not in the interest of our politicians to foster true unity.

If we are truly united and truly accepting of each other, then the ethnic-based political parties will become irrelevant.

And with such a risk, why would any politician whose power base is dependent on a divided society steer the country towards the right direction?

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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is CEO of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, Malaysia’s first think-tank dedicated to promoting market-based solutions to public policy challenges. Wan Saiful writes extensively on issues that cut across the political spectrum. His ideas are much sought after at home and abroad. You can email him at or follow him on twitter @wansaiful. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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