Peninsular Malaysia has lost the unity plot; Are Sabah and Sarawak ready to lead?

Sabah & Sarawak have shown tremendous maturity in handling interracial & interreligious affairs, unlike the peninsula with its frequent race & religious problems

The premier of Sarawak, Abang Johari Tun Openg giving a speech
Sarawak Premier Abang Johari Tun Openg reminded his people on 9 April, in his Hari Raya Aidilfitri message, to remain united and not be influenced by the actions of communities “elsewhere”. (Photo: Abang Johari/Facebook)

A news report in the Borneo Post of 6 April said Muslim visitors to the Capernaum Garden in Kadamaian, Sabah, were not deterred by its Bible-related name.

Owner Michael Liman was quoted as saying that despite learning about the origin of the name, Muslims frequented the garden because of its natural surrounding and peaceful atmosphere. He said 75% of his visitors were Muslims.

Capernaum was a village where Jesus performed many miracles and which was home to several of his disciples. The word itself means “village of comfort”.

The problem with Peninsular Malaysia

As I read that, I wondered what would have happened in Peninsular Malaysia if a garden was so named?

Given today’s rather oversensitive situation in the peninsula, would the bureaucrats allow such a name?

Even if they did, would some politician yearning for publicity, or some political party pampering its constituency, stage protests or call for boycotts? Worse, would some overzealous man feel compelled to throw a Molotov cocktail?

That is the reason I was not surprised when Sabah’s Assistant Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Joniston Bangkuai, in launching the newly established Nabalu Tourism Association at the garden, said: “Sabah is not a place for racial and religious intolerance and this (Muslims coming to Capernaum) should serve as an example.”

Joniston, a former colleague of mine at the New Straits Times, added that racial and religious extremism propagated by political bigots in the peninsula must be rejected at all cost.

And I hope the people of Sabah keep it that way, for I can clearly see the damage that is being done in the peninsula by religious extremists, some politicians, and even civil servants pushing certain agendas despite the harm it does to the national fabric.

I’ve been to Sabah and I’ve seen how everyone gets along well regardless of ethnicity and religion.

Sabah, Sarawak can mitigate extremism in Malaysia

In fact, Sabah and Sarawak are always touted as being Malaysian in every sense of the word, unlike the peninsula with its frequent race and religious problems.

And that is why I feel if Malaysia is to be truly Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak will have to play a more prominent role.

If Malaysia is not to be ripped apart by religious extremists, Sabah and Sarawak will have to step forward and lead the way.

When the “Allah” socks issue became blown out of proportion causing some individuals to throw Molotov cocktails at three stores of the KK Mart convenience store chain, people in Sabah and Sarawak were very clear about their stand.

Several acts of vigilantism followed the discovery of socks bearing the word “Allah” being sold at an outlet of the KK Mart chain.

UMNO Youth and its leader Muhamad Akmal Saleh, who had earlier called for a boycott of the chain, kept insisting that the boycott must go on to teach KK Mart and others a lesson, even after the King called for an end to the issue.

Petrol bombing shocks Sarawakians

The latest store to be hit by a home-made bomb was on Jalan Satok in Kuching, Sarawak, on 31 March. This sent shockwaves among Sarawak residents.

On 4 April, Sarawak Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts Minister Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah said it was the last thing Sarawakians expected would happen in the state.

Telling Akmal to stop his actions, he added: “Those who seem to be advocating, trying to create boycotts and things like that… you are only creating more stress to our nation. Whether you are from UMNO or any party, don’t bother. Look at the nation as a whole.”

Sarawak Premier Abang Johari Tun Openg reminded his people on 9 April, in his Hari Raya Aidilfitri message, to remain united and not be influenced by the actions of communities “elsewhere” that tend to focus on religious and racial differences and “to continue striving towards strengthening unity among us”.

I believe he meant the peninsula when he said “elsewhere”.

Sabah too reacted strongly against the continued boycott and violence.

Call to bar those who sow discord from entering Sabah

On 4 April, Peter John Jaban of the Sarawak Association for People’s Aspirations (Sapa) called on the state authorities to bar Akmal and four others whom he alleged had "contributed to the escalation of racial and religious tensions, as well as social discord in the country", from entering Sabah.

He said Akmal and the four - controversial Muslim preachers Mohd Ridhuan Tee Abdullah, Zamri Vinoth Kalimuthu, Shakir Nasoha and Firdaus Wong - should be added to the state's "immigration blacklist".

A former federal minister from Sabah, Anifah Aman described Akmal’s behaviour as “disgraceful” and agreed with the suggestion that Akmal be barred from entering Sabah “as we should not tolerate people who cause racial disunity”.

When Akmal flew to Sabah to attend a function on 5 April, police whisked him from the airport to the Kota Kinabalu district police headquarters to have his statement taken over his remarks and a social media post showing a picture of him with a sword. He was released soon after.

After socks issue, problems arise over shoes and a hotel

Even before the socks issue abated, a shoe issue cropped up.

The authorities have seized shoes with a logo that is said to resemble the word “Allah”, after the issue went viral on social media. Vern’s Holdings, the maker of the shoes apologised and stopped the sale of the shoes while saying that “shortcomings” in the design might have led to the logo being misinterpreted.

Then, on 8 April, Perlis Mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin revealed that some Muslims were unhappy about the name of a hotel which apparently looked like the word "Allah" in Arabic script.

He said: "In Perlis, there is a hotel named 'All In'. There are those who were not satisfied because they believed it looked like the word 'Allah' in Arabic script, and the owner is non-Muslim.”

He said the matter was referred to him as the state mufti.

"I asked the complainant about what was written and their response was that it was 'All In'. When I then asked what the problem was, they said it looked like the word 'Allah'.

"My response is that they did not write 'Allah', it is the complainant who decided it looked like the word 'Allah'.”

I’m glad that the complainant went to the Islamic religious authorities and not to some politician hungry for fame. I’m glad he did not post it on social media and make people anxious for no reason.

Sabah, Sarawak should export harmony

Which brings me to the people of Sabah and Sarawak, including its politicians, who have always prided themselves on the harmony in their states.

In fact, Sarawak was selected to host the national-level Unity Week on 15 May last year for this precise reason.

And those from the peninsula who have worked in Sabah or Sarawak always have praise for the cooperation and understanding shown by residents of various ethnicities and religions there.

Leaders of Sabah and Sarawak frequently warn their people against importing “extremism” from the peninsula.

Rather than just stopping the import of extremism, why don’t leaders of Sabah and Sarawak export their unity in diversity model to the peninsula?

Are they prepared and willing to take the lead in championing a Malaysia where all citizens – regardless of differences in race, religion and culture – learn to trust each other and work together?

A.Kathirasen is a veteran Malaysian journalist/editor who has been writing columns, with breaks, in newspapers and online since 1981. All views expressed are the writer's own.

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