Sarawak offers Malaysia lessons in managing diversity

The unity and harmony of Sarawak is in stark contrast to the politicized race and religion in the peninsula. The country should take a lesson from East Malaysia.

Observers of Malaysia often note that ruling elites politicize race and religion, but Sarawak’s politicians and civil society have come out to defend their East Malaysian state’s diverse multiculturalism and diversity. Sarawakians always call themselves a An example of unity and harmony. Also, they watch with trepidation how race and religion are dealt with in Peninsular Malaysia (or West Malaysia).

Not that the state is immune from such problems. On 31 March 2024, a KK Mart convenience store in Kuching witnessed a Molotov attack on the „Allah Socks” issue, following similar incidents in the peninsula. The Sarawak government moved quickly and decisively to condemn the act and reassert the state’s individuality. State Deputy Public Health, Housing and Local Government Minister Michael Diang said the attack was very „anti-Sarawakian” and condemned it as unacceptable and disproportionate. Challenge Sarawak’s core values ​​are culture and harmony. Sarawak’s Tourism, Creative Industries and Performing Arts Minister Abdul Karim Rahman Hamza urged UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) youth leader Mohd Akmal Saleh. Stop provoking people On this issue.

Sarawak’s population structure ideologically offers Ketunanan Malay (Malay Supremacy) and Ketunanan Islam (Dominant Islam). Foreign and politically controversial. In Sarawak, the Malay-Melanau sub-ethnic groups make up the majority of Sarawak’s Muslim population, which accounts for 30 percent of Sarawak’s total population. However, Malay-Melanas have held unequal political power for decades, including the post of Chief Minister. The Dayak group of other tribal and mainly Christian sub-ethnic groups make up 45 percent of Sarawakians, while the Chinese make up 24 percent. Sarawak is governed by a coalition of state-based parties under the banner of the Kapungan Party Sarawak (Sarawak Alliance of Parties); Its state cabinet consists mainly of Malay-Melanau (Muslim tribes), Dayak (non-Muslim tribes) and Chinese party leaders.

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The Malays in Sarawak pride themselves on upholding a more tolerant version of Islam and do not see the Peninsular Malays as their brothers. Population structure partly explains this, but the state has adopted its own approach to overseeing religion. It is not widely known that on 14 May 1991, Sarawak became the first state in Malaysia to introduce a complete set of Syariah laws, including ordinances on criminal and civil procedure, criminal offenses and family law. However, as Sarawak Prime Minister Abang Johari has consistently emphasized, Sarawak is a multi-religious and multi-racial state that will “protect the rights and interests of all… based on the five.Principles of Mahasid Sharia It includes protection of life, property, health, religion and dignity. In Sarawak, Syariah is also guided by inclusive principles, and there is no mention of Hudut laws, which include punishments such as mutilation, stoning and whipping.

The „Sarawak Formula” to maintain harmony and manage diversity may account for a solid tripartite response between the Sarawak government, religious elites and civil society.

Sarawak’s political leaders, especially the Chief Minister, are the pillars of Sarawak’s defense against exclusivism. The decades-long trend of having a chief minister from a minority group underlines the importance of communal tolerance in state politics. The Sarawakians can maintain their progressive stance against the backdrop of their Muslim-dominated neighbors on the island of Borneo, such as Pontianak (West Kalimantan), Brunei and Samarinda (East Kalimantan). In a way, Sarawak’s tolerance and celebration of diversity is similar to Pontianak—with Chinese and Dayak minorities living in harmony—but different from the homogenous Malay/Muslim sultanate of Brunei. Islamization prevails in Brunei, as in Peninsular Malaysia, but it has not penetrated into Sarawak.

The „Sarawak Formula” to maintain harmony and manage diversity may account for a solid tripartite response between the Sarawak government, religious elites and civil society.

The Sarawak Government actively supports religions other than Islam through its UNIFOR for Other Religions (UNIFOR) established on 27 April 2017. The establishment of UNIFOR was the brainchild of former Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Sadem, now under the office of Sarawak Prime Minister Abang Johari. Through UNIFOR, an inclusive approach to all religions is followed to safeguard religious harmony and attend to the needs of religions other than Islam. UNIFOR has provided more than RM400 million in support since its inception Different religious communities of Sarawak including various Christian churches and Taoist, Buddhist, Taoist, Sikh and Hindu temples/shrines Their projects got funding.

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Sarawak’s government has allowed churches to use the term freely ’Allah’ in their worship and publications., in contrast to the ban on such practices in Peninsular Malaysia, demonstrates the leadership’s important role in ensuring racial and religious harmony in the state. Of course, disagreements arise, but these are common Resolved without controversy.

The growing opposition to exclusive and conservative Islamization cannot function without strong support from the religious establishment and civil society. As in other states in Malaysia, the Sarawak Islamic Religious Council (MAIS), a powerful body with the right to issue edicts (fatwa), can enforce their rulings published in the state gazette. As Sarawak does not have a Malay ruler, according to Malaysia’s constitution, the King (Yang Di-Pertuan Agong) acts as the head of the Islamic State. Nevertheless, the religious elite managed to chart the path to Sarawak’s autonomy. For example, the Sarawak Religious Council did not implement the ruling of the National Fatwa Committee, restricted the use of the word Allah to Muslims and remained neutral on the politically sensitive issue of Muslims leaving Islam.

Finally, the contribution of Sarawak society to reconciliation should not be discounted. Sarawakian Muslims never forced the government to follow the path taken by their fellow believers in the peninsula. Rather, they are committed to fostering dialogue to avoid differences and preserve diversity. Immediately after KKMart strikes45 youths from Islamic, Christian and Buddhist organizations came together to form the Interfaith Youth Alliance (IYA), with significant East Malaysian participation.

Sarawak’s experience in maintaining peace while dealing with differences should be the gold standard for Malaysia. Interfaith harmony should not be slogans such as Islam Madani (PM Anwar Ibrahim), Hadari (PM Abdullah Badawi) or One Malaysia (PM Najib Razak) but should be cultivated through everyday practices. As the KKMart Molotov incident demonstrates, this reconciliation should not be taken for granted; The forces of individualism are slowly creeping into the state.

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