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My Malaysian Identity Dilemma

A personal story about dichotomised juxtaposition of reminiscences, reality & love for animals. One year on since supposedly revolutionary new leadership.


My name is Namita Gill. I am one of the 6.6% of Malaysian citizens with Indian ancestry.1 I was born in 1979 in Seremban, Malaysia and spent my childhood in Ipoh, the capital of the state Perak. Malaysia is a multiracial, multicultural, and multireligious country which I proudly called my home.

The country has accepted the social contract of recognizing the special position of the Bumiputra (son of the land)- better known as Malays. Islam is recognized as the religion of the federation. In the 1970’s, the existing government implemented favorable policies in public education and in the public sector which granted the Bumiputra a privileged status over the non-Muslims.2

At the time, the implementation was acceptable since Malaysia was a moderate, progressive, beautiful country and one whose rich unique cultural heritage I wholly embraced. The country was operated with competency, accountability, and transparency. That country does not exist today.

Fast-forward 44 years: the process of Islamization of Malaysia, which I first witnessed in the 1980’s, is becoming more and more extreme.

As a child, my mother would drive me around Ipoh Town on various British named streets. The British occupied Malaysia from the 1860’s until Independence in 1957. I remember Hugh Low Street, one of the main streets in Ipoh, named after Sir Hugh Low, 3rd British Resident of Perak (1877-1889). There was also Brewster Road, Anderson Road and many more. In the mid 1970’s, the municipal ordinance was amended by the state government to rename streets to reflect a “Malaysian Identity.” Hence, Hugh Low Street became Jalan Sultan Iskandar. Hospitals, bridges, and schools were renamed. My secondary school, which was established in 1907 by catholic sisters and nuns, was renamed Sekolah Menengah Convent. (Convent Secondary School). The last sister to hold the position of principal left in 1991, the year I joined Convent Secondary School, more widely known as Main Covent, Ipoh. Notable alumni from Main Convent include Oscar winning actor Michelle Yeoh and Zara Salim Davidson, the wife of the current Sultan of Perak. She is now Tuanku Raja Permaisuri (Queen Consort) Zara Salim. Many of my Muslim friends at school started wearing the headscarf worn as interpretation of the Islamic Hijab. This was initially considered a conservative form of dress but slowly became part of the standard dress code by most Muslim ladies. Slowly but surely the process of Malaysian identity inadvertently is transforming with Islamization.

In 1996, I scored high average grades on the Malaysia Certificate of Education which is equivalent to the General Certificate of Secondary Education of the United Kingdom. Despite this superior score, I was rejected for a scholarship to study medicine by local universities in Malaysia while other Muslim students with lesser grades were granted these scholarships. Only then did I question my Malaysian identity being a non-Muslim in the only country I had known as my home. This is by no means a rare event.

Thankfully, my wonderful parents could afford to send me to a private college and then to medical school abroad in Canada. To summarize a long story, I am currently a well-established nephrologist working and living in Washington State, USA. Despite my frustrations over experiencing discrimination in educational opportunities in Malaysia, I continued to fiercely defend my country from any critics. After all, this was “tanah tumpahnya darahku” (the land where my blood first spilled), a phrase from the national anthem we sang daily at our school assembly.

My defense of Malaysia continued when comparisons were made between Malaysia and Singapore, a country that separated from Malaysia in 1965. Singapore, challenging the special rights of Bumiputras, wanted a “one Malaysia for all.” Singapore today is a highly developed country ranking high in key social indicators such as education, healthcare, personal safety, infrastructure, and housing. The Singapore dollar is approximately 3.5 times stronger than the Malaysian ringgit. I briskly corrected people when they asked me if I was from India, instead proudly saying “I am from Malaysia”. Today, my sister and I chat that if Malaysia were indeed to become an Islamic State, we could seek to move to India. Since we are People of Indian Origin, we will be welcomed there.

I currently hold permanent resident status in the USA. Having lived here for 20 years, I am very aware of the deficiencies of this country, of which I will not elaborate. This is the only country, however, that has greeted me with the words “welcome home” in any language at the immigration counter at the airport. It is a country, unlike Malaysia, where I am not required to disclose my race or religion when filling out important application forms. It is the only country where an immigrant black male has become president, and an African/Indian female has become vice president. It is a country that has given me the liberties and freedom of which I could only dream.

My Malaysian identity dilemma is further compounded for my love of animals, particularly dogs. I am president of F5 (Filbert’s Foundation for Furry Friends)3. We are a USA tax exempt, nonprofit society operating solely to reduce the inhumanity of and to improve the conditions suffered by stray dogs in Malaysia. With the social media boom, I have witnessed, despite being far away, how the Islamization of Malaysia has been one of the reasons why these dogs continue to be treated with such inhumanity.

Let me expand a little on the dynamic of stray dogs in Malaysia. Malaysia’s more than 140 town councils have been culling stray dogs as a means for population control for decades despite international organizations stating that the trap-neuter-return/rehome model is more effective. This model is practiced by many of our neighboring countries with the help of these organizations. If they can do it, why can’t we? Is it because we won’t? Culling is cruel.4 In the Klang Valley alone in 2019, Selangor state reported catching 29,463 dogs, referring to them as “anjing liar”(wild dogs)5. Most of them perished. Some councils do not even have pounds. In those that do, the conditions are poor and unsanitary. If the council does not have a pound, dogs are kept in a truck overnight before being surrendered to a contracted shelter for euthanasia or dumped in desolate areas to starve and die.

In 2014, Time Magazine and the New York Times reported on a social activist Syed Azmi Alhabshi. He received death threats in Malaysia for organizing an event called “I want to touch a dog”.6,7 According to Time,” Dogs are traditionally considered haram, or forbidden, in Islam as they are thought of as dirty. While conservatives advocate complete avoidance, moderates simply say Muslims should not touch the animal’s mucous membranes, such as the nose or mouth, which are considered especially impure. Even if that happens, they say there is a special cleansing ritual that can be followed.” This led to respected human rights campaigner Marina Mahathir, the daughter of a former prime minister, stating in a newspaper “I didn’t realize that kindness is now considered despicable but then the world has turned upside down.” She wrote, “Never mind that the intention of those who attended was to learn about one of God’s own creatures and how to treat them kindly. All we are getting these days is how to hate an ever-growing list of people and things. How much energy are we to spend on hate? And how does hating anything and everything make us happy and better Muslims?” 6,7

A Muslim who considers himself to be a Muslim with progressive values wrote an article on these issues.8 He explains that “Islam in Malaysia is mostly Sunni of the Shafie school which renders both the body and the saliva of a dog as unclean. That most of the justification arguing that dogs are unclean is mostly from some anti-dog hadiths. They mention things such as: an angel doesn't enter a house with a dog(or a picture); it deducts one's good deeds to keep dogs unless used for shepherding or guarding; dogs should be killed if they're not used for shepherding, guarding or whatever jobs; and if a dog licks a bowl or a cup, it should be washed 7 times (though Imam Malik argues this is simply for health reasons, nothing to do with the dog being ritually unclean).”

The Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law, Dr Khaled Abou El Fadi, wrote in his article “Dogs in the Islamic Tradition and Nature,”9 “Despite the attribution to the Prophet of a large number of traditions hostile to dogs, for a variety of reasons, many pre-modern Muslim scholars challenged this orientation. The Qur’an, the divine book of Islam, does not condemn dogs as impure or evil. In addition, many early reports, probably reflecting historical practice, contradicted the dog-hostile traditions. For instance, several reports indicated that the Prophet’s young cousins, and some of the companions’ owned puppies. Other reports indicated that the Prophet prayed while a dog played in the vicinity. In addition, there is considerable historical evidence that dogs roamed freely in Medina and even entered the Prophet’s Mosque. A particularly interesting tradition attributed to the Prophet asserted that a prostitute, and in some versions, a sinning man, secured their places in Heaven by saving the life of a dog dying of thirst in the desert.”

I am not anti-Islam. In fact, many of F5’s leadership team consists of moderate Muslims. I have many wonderful, peace loving compassionate Muslim friends. I know many kindhearted stray dog rescuers who are Muslim. I do fear for my country, however, that political religious extremists in the Malay Muslim community are keeping moderate Muslims in a state of fear of their “special status” by creating racial divide, instead of focusing on real issues like the economy, quality of education, crime reduction, reducing inflation, and creating a compassionate and caring society that also cares about the welfare of our animals and environment. Educated young Chinese, Indians and more liberal/moderate Malays are leaving the country in droves.

When I continue to read conservative Muslim politicians demanding a “Malaya for Malays” and using degrading terms for non-Malay’s such as “pendatang”10 (immigrants), the patriotic feelings in me towards Malaysia are slowly becoming numb and immune to derogatory statements directed to non-Muslims.

Our nation’s founding father, Tunku Abdul Rahman said “We are all Malaysians, let us always remember that. Unity is our fundamental strength as a people and as a nation. All talk of an Islamic state is an empty dream and no man in his right sense would accept a nation which bases its political administration on religion.”

Successive Prime Ministers have done little to preserve Tunku’s legacy. They have bent over backwards to please the Malays, the majority of voters, and ignored other races. Racism and religious extremism are on the rise. I for one, who having lived in Malaysia in the 1980’s, can steadfastly state that we were more united then than we are now.

Malaysia made headline news for the wrong reasons when its 6th Prime Minister, Dato Najib Tun Razak, was convicted of corruption in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal,(1MBDD)11 one of the largest money-laundering and embezzlement scandals in history. During his tenure from 2009 to 2018, corruption rose to new lengths in Malaysia. We have witnessed firsthand the damage to our country by politicians who only care about staying in power, in the face of rising Islamism. This has brought political and economic turmoil to the country.

Fast forward to 2022: Anwar bin Ibrahim was sworn in as Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister in November 2022. Why does Anwar bin Ibrahim’s appointment as Prime Minister bring so much hope for many Malaysians? For many Malaysians, including myself, after having lost hope for a fair and just Malaysia, one free from blatant corruption, one that rejects authoritarianism, one whose judicial system is independent and just, one that is capable of good governance, one that uses one’s values and hard work to gain political popularity instead of stirring up racial tensions, one whose economy is not free falling due to incompetent leadership. Could we really dare to hope? Yes, we did.

A whole generation of Malaysian democracy activists, animal rights activists, moderate Muslims, environmentalists, who have been waiting 25 years for this day were full of vigor as we hoped for a more pluralistic, inclusive, socially progressive Malaysia. Mr. Anwar is a proud Malay and proud Muslim. His goal is Malaysia to have good standing within both the Islamic community and wider world, as do we.

As I write this, it has been exactly 1 year since Dato Anwar Ibrahim’s lead coalition government has been in power. Sadly, we have seen very little substantive policy changes and practices. What we have seen are harmonization of civil and shariah laws, giving JAKIM (Department of Islamic Development Malaysia) a larger role to help formulate national policy. It is also concerning that he was placing political power over principles when 47 corruption charges accusing Anwar’s deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi were dropped.12

In my opinion, real change comes from a good and fundamentally strong education, which has been sorely lacking in Malaysian public schools. Instead of reforming the current education system, which places a heavy priority on religious instruction at the expense of more relevant subjects like science, math, world history and geography to develop and mold our children into well rounded adults, they approved the 40 Haith module to be inserted into the school curriculum. This module is aimed at fostering the values of Prophet Muhammad’s sayings or “hadith” at school level. It is ironic that veteran and renowned historian Ranjit Singh Malhi laments that the current history textbooks downplay the important roles and contributions of the Malaysian Chinese and Indian communities in the economic and infrastructure development of the nation.13

The biggest concern since the start of Dato Anwar Ibrahim’s reign is the ongoing surge of the Green Wave, a political phenomenon that has taken place since the 2022 election. This political phenomenon involves Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and its alliances known as Perikatan Nasional (PN) voters, who mainly originate from the conservative northeastern and northwestern parts of Peninsular Malaysia. PAS has been pushing for an Islamic State with the Quran and Sunnah as the constitution of the country and hudud law for the criminal law for muslims.14 In six state elections in August 2023, this Malay-Muslim coalition, Perikatan Nasional (PN), maintained the substantial momentum that it gained at the general election in November 2022, bolstering its control in Kelantan, Terengganu, and Kedah, while also making inroads into Dato Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH)-controlled states along the west coast, including Selangor and Penang.15

Muslim lives are heavily regulated in Malaysia and yet the most conservative Muslim state, Kelantan, has the highest rate of incest, drug use, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, AIDS and poverty. 16,17One would expect a state led by PAS with all its emphasis on Islamization, to be a more virtuous society. I visited Kota Bahru, the capital of Kelantan in 2022 on my way to Perhentian Island. My family and I respected the dress code and dressed conservatively. We did not feel comfortable and safe there, and we will not be returning.

Coming back to Dato Anwar Ibrahim and the beacon of hope he is carrying on his shoulders, for many Malaysians including me: After he was appointed the 10th Prime Minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim introduced the political framework and government slogan that he would like to adhere to: Malaysia Madani.

MADANI is the acronym for the core values: keMampanan (Sustainability), kesejAhteraan (Prosperity), Daya cipta (Innovation), hormAt (Respect), keyakiNan (Trust) and Ihsan (Compassion). The concept mainly targets the following eight domains- Economy & Finance, Legislation, Institution, Education, Community, Culture, Urban and Rural.

I will focus on Ihsan (Compassion). To begin, be civil with one another. Let our differences make us stronger, not divide us. Truthfully, the moderate Islamists, Malay liberals and secular Chinese and Indians cannot form a governing alliance without the religious and rural Malays. That’s why we need Dato Anwar Ibrahim, the reformist, to bring us together if we are to stand a chance where not only the secularist and Islamist stand a chance at survival, but also mother nature and our animals.

As an animal activist, working towards a better Malaysia for our stray dogs, to say their situation is dire, is an understatement. There has been a rise of animal abuse in Malaysia. Atrocities and cruelty against animals are happening daily on the streets of Malaysia. Recently, there was a report that live puppies were used as bait by Perhilitan (Department of Wildlife and National Parks) to lure and capture panthers in the Kuala Pilah area.18 These acts go viral on social media. Even the Seattle Times published this.19 This is a fact that cannot be denied, and it should no longer be swept under the carpet in the name of public safety, religion, fear of political backlash or nuisance abatement- period. This is not MALAYSIA MADANI.

In multicultural Malaysia, tiada agama yang mengajar umatnya untuk menyiksa haiwan (no religion teaches its followers to be cruel to any animal).

If a mule or a donkey should fall because the roads are not level, Omar will be questioned before God on the Day of Judgment as to why he did not repair the roads for these animals.” This is a famous saying attributed to the second Caliph, Umar Ibn Al Khattab.”

We dare to hope and dream for a Malaysia who is more civic minded, one who cares about protecting her environment, trees, wildlife, birds, and animals. We dare to dream that poorly planned construction projects will not be blindly approved, at the cost of massive destruction of Malaysia’s rich tropical forests and its flora and fauna, whilst increasing pollution, increasing landslides and other calamities. Sadly, so much of the damage to our environment has already been done by previous money-hungry leaders.

It is now a time for healing for all. Principles to live by, backed up by laws, are very important in nurturing and creating a better place for all living beings. We can write about and discuss animal welfare all we like, but without official government backing, animal welfare will not progress. Remember, the Ihsan (Compassion) pillar of the MADANI government. I am still very much a Malaysian, and I am holding my breath for true irrefragable change, as are millions more from all faiths.


Namita Gill

November 23, 2023


References:

2. A Never Ending Policy". The Economist. 27 April 2013. Retrieved 20 April 2019.

4. https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/443196

7. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/27/world/asia/dog-petting-event-underlines-malaysias-culture-wars.html

14. https://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/673460

19. https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/malaysias-wildlife-department-defends-its-use-of-puppies-as-live-bait-to-trap-black-panthers/

Photo: Courtesy: Asther Lau

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Kiran Frey
Kiran Frey
27 nov 2023

This is a testament to your loyalty, sincerity and hope that conditions improve with genuine understanding that must come from religion but ironically fundamentalism reverses this crucial ability to think and understand. Unfortunately this fundamentalism is also happening in India with an added element of violence to add cream on the cake! I grew up confidant loving the freedoms a secular country generously allowed but times are changing there too.

So proud of you for not giving up and remaining a believer.

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