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Press Statement by Charles Santiago in Klang on Thursday, 7th January 2010:

The Allah controversy: Between shared living and tipping points

Let's look at the recent happenings in the country – late last month, the High Court made a decision allowing the Catholic weekly Herald to use the word Allah to refer to God as long as its publication is confined to Christians.

The verdict not just divided the Muslim community but also the Malaysian body-politics.

Some applauded the decision. Others said it reeks of a conspiracy ranging from a subtle plot by the Catholic church to convert Muslims to an attempt to confuse Muslim youths.

Some called for the National Fatwa Council to gazette the ban on non-Muslim publications to use the word Allah as an edict, politicians took pot shots at each other while some lawyers said the court decision is constitutional.

When I look at the reactions from various people, the most damning issue that comes to my mind is the politics of intimidation and failed nation building.

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, while appealing for calm, has also hinted that the fight is far from over. Racial and religious division is the order of the day.

What a farcical twist to the call for 1Malaysia.

The disturbing truth remains that Malaysians are caught in a tangle of racism dished out over the last 52 years by UMNO/BN to further entrench itself in power.

Years of discrimination against minority communities, preferential treatment which lined the pockets of the ruling elite and their cronies, and rampant corruption has led to the current racial and religious divisiveness in the country.

We have all felt the undercurrents of a simmering ethnic tension brought about by affirmative action policies that ignored the poor and marginalized people including the Malays. And therefore, emotional reactions from UMNO leaders, delicately prodding for equally emotional responses from the Muslim community, could be potentially dangerous for a multi-racial and multi-religious country like ours.

But again, the current ground reality is eerily similar to the periods in Malaysia's history where UMNO's power base was shaky.

The bloody 1969 racial riots which left hundreds of people dead, Black Days of Operasi Lalang that saw the arrest of 106 opposition politicians and social activists under the Internal Security Act which allows for detention without trial and the recent 2001 racial riots in Kampung Medan happened when UMNO was losing its grip on power.

Today we see a government which has lost the respect and confidence of the people. We see a ruling party that is synonymous with corruption. We see a government that is unable to provide robust solutions to the growing economic uncertainties and loss in competitiveness of the national economy.

We also see a desperate Prime Minister who wants to topple the opposition-led Selangor government, using devious means.

Najib has made his intention known, publicly.

We have over the past 52 years mistakenly assumed that the political elite will lead the country towards a modern, harmonious and peace- centered nation, where we can be respectful and accept other faiths, believes and ideology , while being devout followers of our very own faith.

These tenets are cardinal requirements for the survival of freedom and democracy.

But after five decades with UMNO/BN at the helm, all we are left with is politics of hate, irrational prejudice and institutionalized religious discrimination.

I believe that the Malaysian citizen is intuitively far more respectful of other faiths, even as they are deeply devoted to their very own. On the ground, in neighbourhoods, at work and in markets fellow Malaysians are keenly aware that respect for their own God entails equal respect or reverence for all other Gods.

In fact, we as people of various faiths, are keenly aware that the mosque is worthy of reverence as a temple and the church is worthy of respect as a Gurdwara.

It is time that ordinary Malaysians’ reclaim this nation for their children and future generations. Also, it is time that UMNO’s politics of divide and rule is replaced with the values and principles of shared living of everyday life and practices embraced by Malaysians.

We, as a society, have to learn afresh from the experiences of shared living.

I call upon the Malaysian civil society – NGO’s, professional groups, faith-based organisations, academics and trade unions, and yes, political parties - to immediately start the process of national reconciliation and more importantly, set in motion a process to mitigate the present Allah crisis.

Various suggestions have been put forward towards mitigating the Allah controversy, namely a national inter-religious conference and establishing guidelines and rules on the use of Allah among non-Muslims.

These ideas are worth considering in the long term.

But in the short term, an urgent face to face meeting between the government authorities and leaders of the various faiths has to take place. The meeting should resolve that the Allah controversy will be amicably resolved in the context of equal citizenship i.e. equal respect for all faiths.

This could serve to reduce tension, anxiety and intolerance in the country and among investors, both local and foreign.

What is clear is that there is a need to develop new paradigm and insights in managing race and religious relations in multi -racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious Malaysia.

Sustained efforts, cooperation among stakeholders and compassion will be critical in resolving this grave crisis that confronts the nation in the dawn of the new year.

* Charles Santiago, Selangor DAP Vice Chairman & MP for Klang



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