By Deborah Loh
The dispute over “Allah” dates back to the 1980s. But last year, it was just one event in a string of others on the erosion of freedom of religion, constitutional law and mutual respect. Such events seem to have been hallmarks of 2009.
On the eve of the New Year, and for the first time, my husband and I broached the question: What would be the breaking point for us to decide to leave the country? Prior to this, we had asked ourselves: Would we ever leave Malaysia? And the answer had always been “no”.
Initially, I had thought of throwing out this question to readers for their response: “What would be the breaking point to leave the country?” I had the idea that if enough people put their breaking points down in writing, then hopefully the prime minister or the good people in government would read them and be concerned enough to prevent such situations from happening.
On the other hand, to entertain such a question would be like conceding defeat. It would be like giving in to my fears, which is exactly what the bigots want me to feel.
It takes restraint and level-headedness to fight off fears caused by growing intolerance and close-mindedness. Not just by gallery-playing politicians or overzealous pressure groups, but by those we think are “average and moderate Malaysians”.
Just trawl the internet for blog postings and comments on the High Court‘s judgement allowing “Allah” to be used by non-Muslims. Or look at the discussion on the over-93,000-member (as of 6 Jan 2010) Facebook group formed to protest the ruling. It is absolutely their right to protest, but it’s an eye-opener to see some Muslim friends I thought more open-minded and internationally educated among the group’s members.
But it is the New Year now, and I must attempt to be positive. I am sure there will be plenty more occasions for the rest of this year to respond to the bigoted columnists of a certain newspaper, insular politicians, and types like hecklers who disrupt town hall meetings.
(Pic by mzacha / sxc.hu)Things can get better, but only if those who are afraid face their fears. And this is all of us, whichever side of the “Allah” debate we are on. Can we face the fear of having cherished ideals and beliefs debated? Can we face the fear of being a minority? Can the majority face the fear of being equal with the minority? Can we together agree to disagree? Can we do all this with mutual respect?
So, instead of asking what is your breaking point that would make you leave, I reverse the question: What keeps you in Malaysia? And don’t say it’s because this is your home. Tell me something different. Maybe if enough people put these positive reasons down in writing, then hopefully the good people in government, or even those gallery-playing politicians, will read them and see what is worth doing.
Naïve? Never mind. There’s been too much negativity already. Change starts with us, anyway. We are the gallery politicians play to.
So, what keeps me in Malaysia?
First, the potential and flexibility of the people. The potential to accept differences with maturity and mutual respect. We once had it in previous generations, my elders tell me. It just needs to be rediscovered and nurtured.
Secondly, the growing voice of civil society. More people are less afraid of speaking up now, and despite continuing restrictions, they have found alternative channels of expression. The more people speak up, the more their leaders will have to listen to them. The greater challenge, however, is for more Malaysians to learn to debate using facts and not emotion.
(Pic by Lavinia Marin / sxc.hu) Thirdly, the racial and religious diversity among my friends. I want to preserve these friendships, which are enriching and unique. Even if these friends are on the opposite side of a race or religion debate.
Malaysia clearly hasn’t reached its destination, nor does it seem clear on where it’s headed socially. The possibility of what we could be is really all that is keeping me hopeful. Am I chasing the wind? But if not for hope, what other way is there to start a new year? There’s no choice, really. It’s either hope or despair.
So I will choose to be hopeful. Happy New Year, and here’s to keeping that hope alive throughout 2010.
Deborah Loh looked into the eyes of her two beloved pet dogs the other day and said, “I hope this country doesn’t go to you.”
Read previous Sideways columns
Phua Kai Lit Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 8.49AM
Just speaking for myself, I lived, studied and worked overseas for almost 20 years (mainly in the USA). I have been back in Malaysia since the mid-1990s and I believe that I have made the right decision. This is a wonderful, multiethnic country that has been almost ruined by authoritarian misrule, shameless corruption and divisive propaganda.
But the social movement for political change is gathering strength and worthy of support by all Malaysians of goodwill (the vast majority of the population). I urge the one million-plus overseas Malaysians and ex-Malaysians to actively support this social movement for change. You can even return HOME in the future after things get better here!
The Change Forum Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 10.25AM
What keeps me here: the potential.
This place has everything it takes to be great (not good, great). The vibrancy, the diversity, the language, and that little bit of hope.
It also helps that KL feels like Gotham City. You can get whacked any second. Danger like that keeps me on my toes, makes me feel alive.
Kate Green, Zombie Shooter Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 11.36AM
Essentially, what keeps me in Malaysia is that there are a lot of good things going on outside of the sphere of politics.
keith Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 12.08PM
I think we realise that everyone has his/her own tipping point on staying or leaving. In my opinion, it is incorrect to label all those that have left (or plan to leave) as conceding defeat to the bigots/zealots. If one decides to stay and “fight”, this does not necessarily mean that Malaysia will be better off. Likewise, if one leaves, this does not imply that Malaysia will be worse off. Bottom line is, everyone make their own choices, and we live and die by our swords — a Malaysian who no longer calls Malaysia home.
J.Hassan Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 12.33PM
As a Muslim I welcome non-Muslims to mention the holy name, Allah, as much and as often as they like. If they believe in Allah as one true God, that’s even better.
But why does the Herald Catholic Weekly insists on using “Allah” to refer to the Christian version of God in its BM articles when it could have use “Tuhan”? In fact Malay Muslims generally refer to their God as “Tuhan”. What’s the Herald‘s intention? Politically driven? Simply stubborn? Or do the people at Herald really believe in Allah — the one and only God for all creations, including Jesus@Isa? Please see the Qur’an: Surah Maryam (30-31), Surah Al-Imran (50-51), Surah Al-ikhlas (1-4). Allah knows best! Peace be upon you!
Harisa Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 12.58PM
What makes me stay is the hope that all of the potential this country can be realised. I really, truly, do believe that this country can be an example in multiculturism. We have lost our way, I think, no thanks to a persistent effort by the ruling establishment to keep us in an infantile and childish state of mind.
I am proud of its people, and if the brain-drain crisis is of any indication, we have amongst us truly brilliant people. And I don’t want to leave and cede this country to the reactionaries and the petty-minded. I want to make this country that we can be proud of; I’m reluctant to leave for long or for good.
Yusuf Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 4.03PM
As an expat who made a conscious decision to settle in Malaysia, I still believe that I made the right choice, even with ridiculous arguments about pre-Arabic pre-Islamic words referring to God.
I lived for over 50 years in the West, and saw a constant whittling away of basic freedoms and increasing racism. I saw taxes crippling the populace and violence forever on the increase. I witnessed petrol levies so high that the poor barely had a chance to own a car.
Malaysia is a haven compared to many places. Yes, it has its faults, but then so do other countries. Corruption and semi-criminal governance are not the sole province of Malaysia, but are rife throughout the world.
Malaysia still has many [good points] to be recommended to people such as myself. I would be a fool to leave […]
Jas Kler Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 4.19PM
Interesting read. Especially because I am feeling so clueless right now after what the PM said today (7 Jan 2010) on backing protests. I posted this update on Facebook: “Just asked my brother the procedure to migrate. My country and its leaders have failed me” — two hours before reading this. Now that I’ve calmed down, I feel I shouldn’t give up. This is my country, too.
Chong Eu Choong Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 4.42PM
Why should I leave? This is my home. Yes, there are bigots and prejudice in this country, but tell me where [there aren’t any]. More importantly, I believe that change is possible, especially after the last general election. I am staying, and will try to contribute to change that will bring a more equitable and just society to Malaysia.
Also, where in the world can I get my teh tarik, nasi lemak, char koay teow, etc if I leave? I will be totally lost without Malaysian cuisine. When I look at Malaysia, I do not look at our politicians, but rather our mamak stalls, where you find people of all races coming and having their favorite [food and beverages] without all the shouting and ranting.
Alison Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 4.57PM
Why am I still in Malaysia? It’s because I don’t have the credentials to migrate! Now especially with the PM and his cohorts backing the senseless protest and more undesirable things, the country sadly seems to be going the way of Deborah’s two pets.
The government has failed me and my family in ways that are too sensitive to be mentioned here. Now, even if I had the chance, I might not leave this country because all my hard-earned savings will be worth only a fraction of what it’s worth here! The value of the ringgit against major currencies is so pathetic. Hence it would be too expensive to start anew.
Lastly, why I’m still in this country? It’s because I made the mistake of not trying my luck at migrating when I was 20. The rules/procedures were much more relaxed then. Unfortunately, it’s almost 20 years too late for me now.
EK Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 4.59PM
Each individual should assess what’s best for themselves/families. Priorities can be quite diverse. If opportunities are good and it makes sense, go, otherwise stay. However, if you do decide to stay, please register and vote. I know many who have not even registered.
azmo Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 5.05PM
Why stay? Hmmm, for me its simple … if i get a job away from Malaysia, I will make sure to stay away and come back only for emergencies and vacations …
1malaysia???? Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 5.16PM
PKR itself is saying not an offence to mention “Allah”. Why are you getting upset? Even the Arabs don’t even mind if Christians use “Allah”.
Ajay Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 5.21PM
For me, there is no question about leaving the country. I face problems and try to find ways to solve [them]. Nothing in this world is perfect, and it is not an excuse just to leave the country when the country has problems.
Deal and bear with it. That is what patriotism means, and if you consider yourselves real Malaysians, face reality because you won’t find anywhere else in the world like Malaysia. It is a multiracial and multicultural place. Don’t let or make the issue on “Allah” so big that you [feel the] need to leave the country. Sigh.
Ling Ling Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 5.37PM
Malaysia seems to be progressing backward and becoming more childish in its propaganda and constant lack of common sense and logic by our leaders — sad, but that’s [how it is] on the political front. Beyond that, there’s family, rich culture, friends, heritage, good food and such that makes it worth staying for. Just don’t let the political bickering get to you too much.
KL from ipoh Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 5.46PM
Schooled overseas (without government assistance) and having lived and worked in North America for 15 years, we returned to Malaysia to settle down with the realisation that no country is perfect. You make a choice, you bear with the consequences, you make the best out of it. Seeing the “Malaysian glass” as half full or half empty is a reflection of one’s attitude in life. If such so-called “impossibilities” like the demise of the Berlin wall and the abolition of apartheid can happen, it can also happen here. Let struggle make you a better, not bitter, person.
Lainie Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 5.56PM
Amongst other things, I will leave if I don’t believe things will get better — to a level I find acceptable — in my lifetime.
gping Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 6.45PM
I have been living in Beijing for a year where a lot of the times, a narrow-minded sense of nationalism prevails. I will not go into detail on how I feel about the issues plaguing Chinese citizens of different ethnicities and religious affinities.
What I want to say is this: whenever my Chinese colleagues ask me about the languages we speak, the holidays we celebrate and the types of food we eat, I swell with pride sharing experiences from a unique Malaysian culture. They are often wide-eyed and envious of my tales about being invited to my friends’ homes for Deepavali, speaking English as a common language among my Malay, Indian and Chinese [Malaysian] friends, breaking fast together with my Muslim friends during Hari Raya Puasa, and of course, citing Mamak restaurants as my favorite hangout place. To certain cultures outside Malaysia, these are inconceivable ideas.
I do not currently live in Malaysia and apart from one-week vacations, I do not know when I will return as a permanent resident again. What I do know is, I’m proud to be Malaysian and will always be, regardless of nonsensical politics and prejudices by a petty group of ignorant and hateful citizens.
Aquarian Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 7.56PM
Malaysia – Politicians = Paradise
Watchdog Posted: 7 Jan 10 : 10.45PM
I have already left — but to establish a new base for my children. There is little for them back home. My daughter is still in Malaysia but should leave in 2011.
Once their new base is secure, I will return home. I am not prepared to leave my home just because people like Mahathir unilaterally declared Malaysia as a Islamic country. Today’s upheavals are a direct consequence of his political gamesmanship.
But I don’t want my children to pay the price of my battle, so I will return to show my two fingers to all who have wrecked the country.
Auzar Posted: 8 Jan 10 : 1.17AM
sarah Posted: 8 Jan 10 : 2.12PM
Interesting question and one I cannot easily answer since I spend so much time complaining about the our state of public education; our misuse of the environment; our lackadaisical attitude about basic hygiene, littering and garbage; the below-par graduates that are being mass produced; the racism; the authorities.
Yet, Malaysia is the country I was born in, where I studied, grew up and in which I discovered myself. I know no other place in this world I can call home. It’s a great country with great potential, unfortunately we have fallen so deep in the rut, with too much racism, corruption and deception soaked into every level of the system that I don’t see how things will ever change.
While my relatives and friends abroad worry about things like how leaving the air conditioner on in the hotel room when they go out effects global warming, hear we are having cat fights about something as basic as the right to call upon God in one’s heart language. We are so behind intellectually… or it would seem.
So… even though my husband and I are not looking to move abroad, we will if the right opportunity presents itself. It’s our children’s education and their future that we are concerned about.