Navigating an increasingly ‘conservative’ Malaysia

Ironically, often, a big part of the yearning for a ‘new’ Malaysia usually throws us back to the “good old days” – days of a more liberal Malaysia where we ate at each other’s houses with less hesitance, where English was widely and more well-spoken.

Jan 13, 2023

New Vs Old Malaysia
“New” often conjures up a sense of hope and freshness. A yearning to make whole again all that was broken, and to start on a clean slate every year.

Ironically, often, a big part of the yearning for a ‘new’ Malaysia usually throws us back to the “good old days” – days of a more liberal Malaysia where we ate at each other’s houses with less hesitance, where English was widely and more well-spoken.

Even within the Church, albeit rather paradoxically, we see people reminiscing the days where Holy Communion was only given behind altar rails and on the tongue, when women wore veils to church, when Easter Vigil had double the number of readings, and so on.

What is often omitted though, are the positives that came along with the perceived and often exaggerated negatives.
We have WIFI and air conditioning, modern medicine, instant news, and faster transportation.

Surely that is more welcome than hearing from your doctor how your tuberculosis was almost surely going to kill you, no matter how perfect his English was while saying it!

We would also need to accept that Malaysia today is not the same as of the yesteryears. In many ways — demographically, socially, economically. In many ways we have progressed, and in some, arguably, regressed.
The reality is, we will never be fully happy either with everything new or old.

We will need to adapt to the changing society, with different needs and wants from the generation before them.

Recognising these changes, if and where valid, and accepting the rights of those making those changes, the sociopolitical realities that come with it, instead of having the urge to not cede a single point, would go far in convincing those seeking these changes, to maintain status quos, grant concessions and not fight belligerence with adamance.

Of course, certain changes could create uneasiness or even fear among minorities.

Rising Conservatism?
In the national context, we encounter this reaction whenever we see triggers of rising conservatism, whether real or imagined.

When dress codes are imposed, sometimes by little Napoleons in the civil service, or overzealous school administrators. When restrictions are imposed on things like gambling or the sale of alcohol.

Sometimes they aren’t even administrative decisions but commercial responses to emerging consumer patterns like Islamic banking or sprouting of new tudung brands.

Isolated incidents can sometimes be blown out of proportion but setting the track back to moderate is appreciated by many, including politicians who may have found themselves too far right or left to affect change. Reprimands or suggestions by civil society functions as political cover that opens dialogue and enables policymakers to act without fear of overt censure or political backlash.

There is a need to exercise caution, and isolate discernible trends and patterns from a one-off event which, unfortunately, gets more publicity due to its alarmist and sensationalist nature. These incidents also sometimes, confusingly, serve as catalysts to such patterns and trends, or exacerbate existing ones.

Conservatism is, however, almost unmistakably on the rise, not only in this country, but in neighbouring ones, and across all religions. It may be necessary to choose the battles one can win and those that are futile, or even damaging, to the overall cause.

Carving out an acceptable safe space to practise one’s beliefs, culture, gender expression, and artistic freedoms, and enshrining it beyond assail, should be the foremost priority, engaging in dialogue and seeking first, as St Francis did, to understand before being understood.

Separating the wheat from the chaff
How does this translate into something actionable? The first is to identify whether something is affecting your rights or if it’s something you’re just not comfortable with but is harmless. The first is a struggle worth getting into, the second is, well, something you just need to get used to.

Now that you’ve ascertained it is something valid affecting your rights as a minority, consider building alliance with similarly affected parties, or people who would be sympathetic to your cause.

Most religious conservatives don’t want to shut down your church nor convert your family. Many of the knee-jerk reactions are provoked by irresponsible politics, trying to score short-term mileage at the cost of long-term harmony.
There is now, more than ever, a need to talk to one another, to dispel rumours and inaccuracies designed to split our communities.

Educate ourselves and engage in dialogue. For example, someone who may be fed a short video or TikTok showing Middle Eastern Catholics praying in Arabic with a misleading accusation of ‘Christianisation’ occurring, instead of only being a combative point, could instead ignite potential dialogue on the many languages and liturgies used in Catholic or our sister churches, Orthodox worship, quite different from the monocultural practices of many other faiths.
People fear what they do not know, and the same rings true from both sides of the pew.

Sometimes fundamentalism rises as we fail to understand the fundamentals of each other’s faith, culture, and beliefs.

Narrowing the divide
So where do minorities, Catholics included, stand amidst all the noise?

Despite the odds stacked against it and people who may have a true hidden agenda, we are called to reach out. Sharing the faith should not be limited to preaching, but sharing of values, culture, history, traditions and practices, many of which we share with our fellow Malaysians, owing to a common Asian heritage of all our faiths.

We could also share our problems, concerns and fears, and may be surprised to find that many of these are also shared with our friends from other faiths.

Solving common problems, like a food basket programme or more recently, flood mitigation, could also provide windows to conversations that lead to better understanding, which in turn reduces mutual suspicion and mistrust, narrowing the gap that exists between communities.

(Emmanuel Joseph oversees IT as his 9-5 job and from 5-9, he serves a few NGOs, think tanks and volunteer groups. He serves as an advisor for Projek Dialog and is a Fellow with the Institute of Research and Development of Policy.)

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