Friday, August 25, 2006

Multiculturalism - How Can It Be Wrong?

It is shocking and saddening (?) to read such an offensive and skewed history of the Christian faith by an IKIM official published at the STAR...

"...a history that is full of horrible tales of persecution and intolerance in the name of religion (read Christianity)"?

What can we do? Well, let your voice be heard by sending just a line or two of feedbacks to

You can also SMS your opinions to them.
Type ENT STAR TALK, followed by your message, and send to 66222.

The last time we checked Malaysia is still a multi-cultural, multi-religious country

Multiculturalism - How can it be wrong?

Research Director,
Kairos Research Centre

THESE must be worrying times for Malaysian citizens if an official from Ikim, a government think-tank dedicated to the task of disseminating Islam as a tolerant religion, can come out with an article entitled Debunking multiculturalism that appeared in The Star (Aug 22, 2006).

Credit must be given to the writer, Md Asham Ahmad, for his forthrightness in arguing that Islam rather than multiculturalism be the framework for social policy in Malaysia.

Nevertheless, it is evident that the writer's forthrightness is not accompanied by accurate facts, given his skewed reading of Christian history.

Md Asham suggests that religious pluralism and multiculturalism is the outcome of a weak religion (Christianity) that does not stand comparison with Islam, given Islam's strong relation with the State.

I am always suspicious of mono-causal interpretations of history that purport to explain how the existing condition of a society arose from a particular ‘ism’.

A more nuanced reading of the history of the rise of liberalism and religious liberty would take into account the multiplicity of factors including the new discoveries of Oriental civilizations in the European age of exploration, the power struggle between hegemonic states (Spain and France) and new nation-states in Germany and the Netherlands, the rise of the merchant class and independent trading cities (like Geneva) and the conflict between tradition and critique of the Enlightenment thinkers.

Above all, multiculturalism, exemplified by toleration, was the outcome of ‘religious’ wars that led to the treaty of The Peace of Westphalia (1648). Notably, the provisions for religious freedom were called articles of peace.

It should be of interest to note that the challenge of managing religious plurality (a fact rather than an ideology) is not a unique problem of Western Christianity. We see ongoing conflicts in Asia and Africa – such as in Sudan, India and Iraq – that cry out for equivalents of the historic Peace of Westphalia.

It would do well for Md Asham to adopt a modest attitude of willingness to learn from the past rather than judge it with sarcasm, when it is evident that we Asians/Africans continue to be plagued by religious and cultural conflicts.

Md Asham suggests that non-Muslims are motivated by ideology when they commend multiculturalism as a valuable framework to promote social harmony.

He writes: “Multiculturalism, as understood and propagated by its proponents in this country is not based on diversity, but rather it strives to debunk Islam as a socio-political order.” By using words like ‘hostility’ and ‘subversion’ he also suggests that non-Muslims are imbued with an adversarial attitude.

The problem is, Md Asham has inverted the dynamics of rational debate in this country by suggesting that the non-Muslims’ call for multiculturalism is driven by an ideology inherently hostile to Islam.

The reality is that our nation was a plural society at its inception in 1957 and more so in 1963 when Malaysia incorporated the many tribal communities in East Malaysia.

One plainly cannot deny the existing social condition (plurality) that needs to be addressed. Hence, the stress on multiculturalism as the best modus vivendi for developing a national identity that expresses unity in diversity and equality for all peoples regardless of their culture and religion.

Since concepts have different meanings in different contexts, the onus is on writers to define their terms in a fair and accurate manner.

For example, Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind) castigates western multiculturalism that leads to relativism, and results in the demise of “solidarity in defence of the truth”.

On the other hand, Malaysians and other Asians tend to describe multiculturalism as “the view that various cultures in a society merit equal respect and scholarly interests” cf. Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (1994).

Such sensitivity to contextual meanings would have cautioned Md Asham against making the suggestion that supporters of multiculturalism are merely motivated by hostility towards Islam based on family, neighbourhood and school.

Perhaps, Md Asham wrongly equates liberalism with libertarianism. Libertarianism is the view that individuals should be free to do whatever they wish so long as they do not infringe on other people’s freedom or property.

However, Md Asham would be remiss if he tars political liberalism with a form of libertarianism that undermines social relationships; bearing in mind that liberalism has a range of meanings.

It should be noted that classical liberalism as expounded by John Locke describes the essential theses of liberalism in the following terms: that the people are the source of all political power, that government cannot be justified unless it possesses their free consent, that all governmental measures are to be judged by an active citizen body, that men of government are to help them when they require it, but not to run their lives for them, and finally the State must be resisted if it steps beyond its political authority.

More importantly, political liberalism and multiculturalism in the Malaysian context envision the flourishing of citizens based on the preservation of fundamental liberties from encroaching State authoritarianism, if not totalitarianism.

Md Asham may find the theses objectionable, but a robust set of philosophical propositions demands careful and rational response rather than a debunking couched in loaded and emotive words.

Md Asham ends his article with a call for a polity that must be rooted in local history. But taking local history seriously must surely mean honouring the consensus on the specific form of secularism engraved in our Malaysian Constitution in 1957 and 1963.

Unlike some places in the West, secularism in Malaysia does not reject religion. It was the social consensus back in 1957 and 1963 that there should be no establishing of one religion above others in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society like Malaysia.

Secularism in Malaysian history as such commends a benign neutrality and benevolent support for religious plurality.

I find unacceptable Md Asham’s suggestion that, “it is through Malaysia, as an Islamic state, that other religions would thrive, and that we have a better chance of fostering national unity based on a common religious worldview.”

Firstly, it is undeniable that religions are presently flourishing in Malaysia under the existing Constitutional arrangement.

Secondly, national unity remains strong so long as State polity is based on overlapping consensus of diversity of religious worldviews (John Rawls).

I write this to contrast Md Asham’s call for unity under a common religious worldview, which suggests imposition by a dominant religion. In short, Md Asham’s suggestion is both unnecessary and counterproductive.

In conclusion, even though Md Asham’s article in debunking multiculturalism may be a legitimate academic exercise, I reject his suggestion that multiculturalism as historically understood and practiced in Malaysia is incongruent with our local cultural aspiration.

Indeed, I wish to stress that open debate on public philosophy is itself testament to the robustness of our national Constitution that envisions the task of nation building to be inclusive and open to positive contribution from all citizens regardless of race, culture and religion.

It is an affirmation of the politics of recognition, mutual respect and reciprocity.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Ng Kam Weng,

What do you mean by 'pubic philosophy'?

Alex Tang said...

Dear Sir/Madam
The Star Newspaper

I refer to the article, “Debunking multiculturalism” that appeared in The Star (Aug 22, 2006).

Historically, the term "multiculturalism" came into wide public use during the early 1980s in the context of public school curriculum reform. Specifically, the argument was made that the content of classes in history, literature, social studies, and other areas reflected what came to be called a "Eurocentric" bias. Hence there was a reformed movement in education to move away from a “Eurocentric” bias to one where all cultures and traditions were respected. It was a praiseworthy movement in that the uniqueness and diversity of different cultures of different ethnic groups were recognised and valued. Another term used was “melting pot” of cultures. However, this was discarded subsequently because it implies that in a “melting pot” other cultures are assimilated by the dominant culture.

First, it is curious that the author has associated the historical background of multiculturalism with Christianity. Eurocenticity is not Christianity. In fact, in European history there have been numerous movements to separate the state from religion. The France revolution, the Russian revolution and the collapse of communism were not related to Christianity.

Second, multiculturalism is not an ideology; it is a way of life. This way of life involves respect and tolerance towards other cultures and traditions. It creates a space for our diversity and hence enriches our communal experiences. In Malaysia, multiculturalism has enriched our lives and we have been richly blessed by this. I find it hard to find examples in which this multiculturalism “strives to debunk Islam as a socio-political order.”

Finally, multiculturalism in Malaysia develops naturally in its almost 50 years history since independence. It was not imposed by any outside agent. Multiculturalism evolves in Malaysia as the various ethnic groups seek to live and prosper together. The Malaysia identity is the multiculturalism we are currently enjoying. It is not a “melting pot” identity.

Dr Alex Tang
Johor Bahru

Teenager Next Door said...

Philosophy for those who just reached puberty :)

ikanbilis said...

i agree with the first part of multiculturalism in malaysia. it's a beautiful thing. however the security of multiculturalism is now being slowly exploited by certain part for their own sake of personal entity. what i mean is there are certain people who uses religion to push other races.

well technically i'm not sure what i'm saying because i need to be discreet without pointing out names to be on the safe side. the thing is, our country has been living in peace until recently where racial issue has been brought up. as a minority in majority group, i feel devastated with what has happened.

to me, multiculturalism means understanding between various race from many different culture, living in tolerance and blending together, understand each other WITHOUT any sense or ideology of craving it or to devastate it.

forgive me if i mentioning in wrongly but that's what on my mind now. and i'm quite worried with current crack happening.

dave said...

Thank you, ikan bilis for the calm and reasoned comments... i hope we'd see the day when msian politics is based on principles n discourse, rather than based on racial lines. in the meantime in our own personal capacity let's model civility, understanding n mutual respect

Thank you again for being a guest at this blog n look forward for more of your sharing

John Owen said...

Thanks for the article Hedon. My prayers and sympathies are with my brethren across the causeway.

While brother Kam Weng's criticism and corrective is surely necessary, yet we need to face the harsh reality that Md Asham Ahmad's comments reveal his belief in classical Islam, and can be said to be in accord with it.

I think the issue that is most urgently needed for representations and actions of this sort, is the defense of Christian minorities who are converts from Islam. Scores of our brothers and sisters are in precisely this predicament and suffering terrible injustices. Liberian's example is just one of many of such instances of Muslim converts to Christianity who suffer under the Islamic apostasy law. I don't think this is a problem peculiar to Islamic states, but is an international one.

In the meantime, we need to pray for our suffering brethren, spend less money on our local church expansion projects, and join in efforts to help them.

Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Heb 13:3)

Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Gal 6:10)

Barnabas Fund is one such organisation that helps the suffering church. Do consider seriously about participating in their ministry. I attach the link to their latest newsletter:

Some further thoughts on multiculturalism for my Malaysian brethren, and certainly for Singaporean Christians as well.

Here's an article by Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Banarbas Fund commenting on the situation in UK. But I believe it applies to us in South East Asia. It was published in the Evening Standard newspaper, London 4 Sept 2006.

"There is a positive aspect to a multiculturalism where people share and enjoy each other’s cultures. But the UK’s well-meaning policy of validating every faith and ethnic community culturally, in a depoliticised way, is naïve when it comes to Islam. For Islam does not separate the sacred from the secular: it seeks earthly power over earthly territory. The result is that already the UK has reached the stage of parallel societies, where purely Muslim areas function in isolation. ......

I believe Islam needs different treatment from other faiths because Islam is different from other faiths. It is the only one which teaches its followers to gain political power and then impose a law which governs every aspect of life, discriminating against women and non-believers alike. And this is ultimately why a naive multiculturalism leads not to a mosaic of cultures living in harmony, but to one threatened by Islamic extremism.

Most British Muslims are not supporters of terrorism. Some have embraced Western liberal values and society. Others are peaceful but simply prefer to live in their own separate community. Mainstream figures such as Shahid Malik MP have courageously called for British Muslims to fight against extremism.

But unless all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, join forces against the kind of multiculturalism which has nurtured extremism, we may eventually find that whole swathes of London and other cities have become “cultural and religious destinations” dominated by Islamic extremists - men who would remove the very freedoms so many moderate British Muslims now appreciate. "

You can read the whole article here:

Anonymous said...

There's a response by ABIM on Malaysiakini.