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Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob talks up his ‘Keluarga Malaysia’ (Malaysian Family) concept everywhere he goes. He says the concept reflects his desire to see a more inclusive society that transcends racial, religious and ethnic boundaries. Each Malaysian, he insists, is part of the family despite their religious and ethnic differences.  In line with the Keluarga Malaysia concept, he has pleaded with Malaysians “to open [their] minds and hearts… forget [their] differences and find common ground”. [1]

He has also reiterated that his Malaysian Family idea is not just rhetoric but a concept that is now instilled in his administration with the goal of preserving, protecting and advancing the interest and well-being of all Malaysians irrespective of race or religion.[2]

No doubt, many Malaysians, desperate to believe that there’s still hope left for building that united, just and prosperous nation that our founding fathers envisaged, welcomed the prime minister’s intentions.

Now, however, with the benefit of hindsight, we see that it’s just another empty slogan. For all the talk about inclusivity and respect for diversity, Malaysia’s minorities remain but orphans in Ismail Sabri’s family mansion – neglected, ignored, marginalized.

The 2022 budget, which former minister Zaid Ibrahim called the world’s only “race-specific” budget,[3] is a good example of the chasm between rhetoric and reality: while the Bumiputera community was allocated RM11.4 billion, the non-Bumiputera community received a mere RM300 million or less than 1% of the RM332 billion-ringgit budget.[4] As one economist asked, “Where is the fairness in this?”[5]

The same discriminatory approach was also evident in the 12th Malaysia Plan which the prime minister tabled in parliament a few weeks earlier. It was all about empowering and assisting one community at the expense of all the rest. All pay taxes and do their share for the nation but not all are favoured in equal measure. All are citizens but not all get to share in the benefits of nationhood. The hopes and dreams of minorities do not matter it seems; indeed, they have not mattered for a very long time now.

I remember a time when our political leaders talked about being fair to all, about not neglecting other communities while helping the Bumiputeras to get ahead, that the government would never rob Peter to pay Paul. All that is now gone. Indeed, it has become so one-sided that administrators now think nothing about introducing policies that oblige non-Bumiputera freight forwarders, for example, to hand over 51% of their equity to Bumiputeras. 

How can a nation, any nation, thrive when it is premised upon the institutional separation of its population into two classes of people – a privileged majority that gets to benefit from the best the nation has to offer and a minority that is marginalized?

And it is not the only example of how ethnic minorities are marginalized and their legitimate interests ignored. Recently, the Timah whiskey issue was all over the news. PAS leaders claimed that it insulted Islam and was insensitive to the feelings of Muslims despite the fact that it had nothing to do with Islam. It was just an excuse to mask a more sinister religious agenda – curbing the sale of alcohol throughout the country. 

It is far from coincidental that a PAS leader is now calling for the prohibition of the sale of alcohol to be extended to Labuan and other jurisdictions. He says it’s in the interest of curbing “accidents, incidences of moral depravity and domestic violence, as well as alcohol addiction among the younger generation”[6] but he is just being mendacious. PAS has never cared for anything but making Malaysia a Wahhabi state – one that is particularly hostile to non-Muslims.

Malaysia was constituted as a secular multicultural state, not an Islamic one. The religiously-motivated move to curb alcohol sales strikes at the very heart of one of Malaysia’s founding principles – respect for the legitimate rights of all Malaysia’s ethnic communities. Make no mistake, if the move to curb alcohol sales on religious grounds is allowed to let stand, we will soon be faced with increasing demands to conform to other religious-based edicts – dress codes, tighter restrictions on non-Muslim religions, gender segregation, etc. – all of which will have serious negative consequences for non-Muslims in the country.

It should be exceedingly clear by now that PAS is nudging the nation down a dark road of racial and religious intolerance, playing up racial and religious issues at every turn. Just this week we had a PAS leader making the incendiary but absolutely unfounded claim that Malays were being driven out of Penang state by the DAP state government. He went on to say it was also upsetting that non-Malays dominated the Penang state legislature. [7]

PAS is also pushing RUU355 – a bill that will profoundly alter the character of our nation – at the federal level while passing state-level legislation that can only be described as bizarre. They don’t get worked up about the terrible scourge of corruption that is literally destroying the nation or the terrible toll that drugs are taking on Malay-Muslim youth, but they have time to pass a law making it illegal to have sex with a corpse![8] Who thinks about all these non-issues at a time when we are faced with huge and very real challenges? Is this the kind of Malaysia that we really want?

If Ismail Sabri was truly sincere about building a Malaysia that is inclusive and tolerant of diversity, he would have immediately smacked down the PAS radicals within his cabinet. And he would have stood up for the important principles that are at stake. Instead, in the interest of political expediency, he appears to have turned a blind eye towards the racism and religious extremism of PAS.

I suppose we should not be too surprised that Ismail Sabri’s Malaysian Family concept has turned out to be just talk. After all, we’ve seen such chicanery before. Thirty years ago, Dr Mahathir Mohamad captured the imagination of the nation with his ground-breaking “Bangsa Malaysia” (Malaysian Nation or Race) concept which envisioned a just, liberal, tolerant and inclusive society. It turned out to be nothing but a charade designed to mask his real objective: the Ketuanan Melayu agenda. Slogans come and go but in so far as Malaysia’s ethnic minorities are concerned, nothing much ever changes.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | Tuesday, 9th November 2021]

[1] Ismail Sabri calls on Malaysian Family to jointly revive the country, The Edge Markets, 22 August 2021

[2] Malaysian Family idea not just mere rhetoric, says Ismail Sabri, Malay Mail, 23 October 2021

[3] How nice to be a Bumiputera or civil servant, remarks Zaid, FMT, 29 October 2021

[4] Budget should give more to non-Bumiputeras, says Guan Eng, FMT, 1 November 2021

[5] Where is fairness, economist asks over measly non-Bumi budget allocation, FMT, 5 November 2021

[6] Now PAS leader wants liquor ban in Labuan, FMT, 5 November 2021

[7] Conspiracy against Malays in Penang, claims local PAS leader, FMT, 6 November 2021

[8] Kelantan’s new enforced Syariah law covers sorcery, necrophilia, tattoos, Malaysiakini, 2 November 2021