Father Lawrence Andrew could be excused for wondering whether he’s been cast in a John le Carre conspiracy thriller — or a farcical dispatch from the Onion.
Police in Malaysia are investigating the Roman Catholic priest under
Section 4 of the nation’s Sedition Act, one that allows for the
detention of anyone deemed a threat to the state.
offense? He used the word “Allah” when referring to God.
As bizarre as
that sounds, the priest’s plight reveals much about why many
international executives and investors are souring on Malaysia.
Malaysia’s God problem hit the headlines in October, when an appeals
court banned the Catholic Church from using “Allah” to refer to God in
its newspaper, the Herald — the latest wrinkle in a case dating back to
Then in November, the sultan of the state of Selangor issued an
edict prohibiting all non-Muslims from using the A-word. The Herald’s
editor, Father Lawrence, ignored the ruling and now finds himself a
person of police interest.
One might have expected that the leader of Malaysia’s democratic and
officially secular government, Najib Razak, would have stepped up to
defend the rights of his non-Muslim citizens.
At the very least he might have encouraged police not to waste
resources going after a priest for his vocabulary choices. Instead the
prime minister has been depressingly quiet on the controversy.
Najib’s silence highlights his misplaced priorities, which are
holding Malaysia back even as Indonesia, the Philippines and other
neighbors zoom forward.
When he rose to power in 2009, Najib pledged to
revamp the race-based system designed in 1971 by his father Abdul Razak
Hussein, the country’s second prime minister.
It seemed only fitting
that the son would end the father’s New Economic Policy, which favors
the ethnic-Malay majority and marginalizes Malaysia’s Chinese and Indian
Instead, Najib has reiterated his support for the program, for the
same reason he has allowed the Allah controversy to go ahead: politics.
The ruling United Malays National Organization barely hung on in
elections last May, and it’s playing the God card now to fire up its
“This Allah issue is politically motivated,” says Chrisanne Chin, an
executive committee member of the Council of Churches of Malaysia and
head of the group’s youth movement.
“UMNO’s political strategy is to
demonize the minorities and create fear in the hearts of the Muslim
Malays. In that way, UMNO is playing the only game it knows best, which
is identity politics: race and religion. It’s now behaving like a
wounded tiger. It’s drowning, and desperation leads them to doing
irrational and illogical things.”
One example: banning the Coalition of Malaysia NGOs, a grouping of 54
human-rights organizations, for promoting “rights that run contrary to
That decision last week prompted a sharp rebuke from Amnesty
International, and it should have foreign business people questioning
whether UMNO’s true agenda is economic reform or creeping Islamization.
Malaysia advertises itself as a vibrant beacon of multiculturalism
But if UMNO really wanted to broaden its appeal, why not
give all Malaysians the same opportunities?
What about going further to
cut red tape, or fostering entrepreneurship to create better-paying
Unlike South Korea and Taiwan, Malaysia’s per-capita income hasn’t
gotten far enough above the $10,000 mark for comfort. Instead of doing
the hard stuff to break out of this middle-income trap, and to address a
widening gap between rich and poor, the ruling party is resorting once
again to ethnic chauvinism.
Programs like the NEP kill productivity, inhibit innovation and
encourage multinational companies to operate elsewhere. Malaysia is
losing more and more of its brightest minorities to meritocratic
Supporters argue that Najib is still a reformer at heart and just
needs more time to do battle with his ossified party. But Malaysia
doesn’t have that time, not with China opening the door to more outside
investment and upstarts such as Vietnam and even Myanmar attracting
Najib needs to pull his party out of the 20th century. I have no
ideological connection to this story, nor am I a religious person. I’m
completely agnostic about the gods.
But this issue isn’t really about
God. It frustrates me to see a nation with so much potential squander it
Malaysia is as beautiful a place as any in Asia, boasts an abundance
of natural resources, enjoys a prime location as neighboring giants
emerge and oil-rich Middle Easterners seek investment opportunities, and
is home to a multicultural population of 29 million people.
discussions about Asia’s future, Malaysia comes up less and less.
and UMNO should be worried less about what Christian priests are saying,
and more about what the outside world is not.