KUCHING: Identity politics — mainly the rise of political Islam in Malaysia — is an explicit rejection of Sarawak’s multiculturalism and multireligious foundation, says Prof Dr James Chin of the Asia Institute, University of Tasmania in Australia.
He said this also led to active discrimination of Sarawak’s indigenous people if they are non-Muslims.
“The key question we want to ask ourselves is: What is the role of religion in Malaysia or in Sarawak. Will the future be decided by Islamists only?”
He clarified that he was not speaking of Islam as a religion but rather about political Islam defined as politicians or parties using Islam as their main political platform to mobilise political support.
“Secondly, when I talk about political Islam, I am referring to Muslims who identify themselves as Muslim first. In other words, Islam has replaced their Malay or other ethnic identity.”
He said this when discussing the key challenges facing Sarawak during his lecture on Past, Present and Future Political Landscape in Sarawak held via Zoom on Thursday (July 22) – the first in a series of lectures under an inaugural leadership programme organised by The Sarawak Initiatives (TSI).
Prof Chin said if this matter was not handled carefully, there could be conflict in a number of areas, including political dominance over non-Muslims.
“There are also a lot of disagreements and arguments among the Muslim community itself – some of which are very serious, including threats to each other.
“The third aspect is something which I believe non-Muslims are really concerned about, which is that there are groups who are trying to make Islam as the foundation of the state and there is a silent rewriting of the Federal Constitution.”
In response to a question on general election prospects and Sarawak’s support, he said the ideal situation would be that the federal government could not achieve a majority and would therefore have to rely on Sabah and Sarawak to reach a majority, as is the case now.
“If this is the case, then Sabah and Sarawak would become powerful; they can make their demands and the other side will listen to them. But if they can get a very clear majority on the other side, then I would argue that this will be very bad news for us in Sabah and Sarawak.”
With regard to federal-state relations as another of the key challenges facing Sarawak, Prof Chin noted that the majority of Sarawakians want as much autonomy as possible from the federal government.
“It is obvious that there are strong grievances and a strong sense that something is very wrong with federal-state relations.”
He said the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63) was a major source of these grievances.
However, he pointed out that for a long time, the federal government had not been serious in dealing with these grievances.
“The federal government only started taking a real interest in MA63 issues or the grievances from 2008 onwards. Reason being that in 2008, Barisan Nasional (BN) would have fallen from power if it did not get the support of the MPs from Sabah and Sarawak.”
He said the party realised that if it did not deal with the grievances of the people of Sabah and Sarawak, they would have a real problem on their hands and even the possibility that BN may fall out of power.
As for the current Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, he said the major issues—mainly pertaining to oil and gas—still unresolved under the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) government would be a signifcant concern at the federal level.
Earlier in his lecture, Prof Chin said there were many challenges facing Sarawak, but four areas—federal-state relations, education, economy, and identity politics—were immediate and would have a profound impact on the state if they were not dealt with.