Looking back at my class photos, I can see that when I was in Standard 1 (Tahun 1 Limau, 1984, Sekolah Rendah Kebangsaan Taman Seaport), out of 45 students in that class, only twelve of them were Malays. I had 20 Chinese classmates, eight Indians while the rest (perhaps) were Kadazan-Dusun, Ceylonese and Eurasians. And my Standard 2 class (Tahun 2 Durian, 1985) was the same. There were 44 students in the class, 15 of them Malays, 21 Chinese and five Indians.
Those numbers sum-up quite nicely my childhood environment. My friends and I, we were truly '1Malaysia'. In fact, my best mate in primary school was a Chinese boy named Oliver, and in my first three years of secondary school in Kelana Jaya, my closest friend was Sri Thanaraj.
I was conscious about my race and religion, and I'm sure all my friends in school were conscious of theirs too. That however, did not stop us from playing and studying together. We knew we had different cultural-religious beliefs and practices. We talked about them at times and from these conversations we learned to respect one another.
Occasionally, there were misunderstandings. I remember, for example, when we were all tired and thirsty after playing football, badminton, 'chopping' and others, some of my Chinese friends refused to drink water from the same bottle with me, not because they thought my bottle was dirty or anything but because; as what they said "aku makan babi" (I eat pork)". They were genuinely concerned that if their lips touched the bottle, the bottle would instantly become haram (forbidden) for me to drink from.
I can see from those old class photos too that back then, all of us Malay boys wore shorts to school while the Malay girls all wore pinafores. One or two Malay girls started wearing baju kurung in Standard 4 while the boys started wearing long pants in Standard 5. Even in Standard 6, there were still more Malay girls in pinafores and skirts (prefect attire). Now, all Malay boys in primary schools right from Standard 1, wear long pants to school, and all the Malay girls wear baju kurung; about half of them would be wearing tudung or headscarves as well.
The Malay-Muslim society in Malaysia has certainly become more Islamic over the last three decades. The influx of Islamic television programmes in recent years is a stark reminder of that too. Back in the early 1980's, the only regular religious programme was Muqaddam, a basic Quran reading programme hosted by Ustaz Hassan Azhari, aired on RTM1 every afternoon. Friday sermons were not even shown live on national television. There were recorded and aired after the evening news at 8.30 pm on Fridays. I remember this still because what came immediately after was Tayangan Minggu Ini, a programme which aired old Malay movies by P. Ramlee and his contemporaries.
The ‘Islamic Malaysia’ that we live in today is a country were 'Islamic' content penetrates into all spheres of life; in education, entertainment, television, medicine, finance, insurance, fashion and others. A Muslim, like me, certainly has no problems with this for Islam is my religion. But for non-Muslims?
I can understand their concerns. More so if I imagine myself in a reversed situation, i.e. a Muslim minority living in a non-Muslim majority society. If, for example that I live in the UK, and the British people suddenly become more religious that all public schools suddenly revert to routines and practices of mission schools in the past; with prayers read and hymns sang in student assemblies, the BBC begin to air more religious programmes; live coverage of mass on Sundays, Christian talent shows etc, and the British Prime Minister announcing a national policy of insertion of Christian values in public service, as a Muslim living in the UK, I would definitely be very concerned.
Coming back to the reality here in Malaysia, I disagree with the common assumption that the person chiefly responsible for the Islamization of the society was former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir. Yes, he was indeed the man who introduced a national policy of insertion of Islamic values (dasar penerapan nilai-nilai Islam) in the 1980's, and the Islamization wave that hit the country coincides nicely with his premiership. But really, that was pretty much what it was, a coincidence. Anyone who became prime minister at that time would have introduced some form of Islamization or another.
Not to say that Dr. Mahathir was insincere. He was indeed the country's first practising Muslim prime minister. And I do believe he is genuinely religious in his own way. But more than anything, Dr. Mahathir was a cunning observer of political trends. He recognised and understood the Islamization wave that hit, not only the Muslims here but Muslims all over the world. He knew that if UMNO did not try to 'Islamize' itself, it might lose its position to PAS as the major political vehicle for the Malays. So he went on executing a deliberate political strategy’ to Islamize’ the government and his party. And getting the then ABIM president, Anwar Ibrahim, to join UMNO was undoubtedly part of that strategy.
As far as winning the hearts and minds of the Muslims is concern, the strategy worked wonders. Except for the last one in 1999, UMNO and Barisan Nasional garnered the majority of Malay votes in every general election held during Dr. Mahathir’s tenure. But when it comes to race relations and national integration, that strategy has caused great consternation.
Many non-Malays now refer to national schools as 'Malay schools' precisely because almost all the students there are Malays. There are hardly any non-Malays. The situation is particularly acute in urban areas. I live in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur and the local national primary school here has not had a single Chinese student enrolled for five consecutive years.
Non-Muslim parents, especially Chinese, have overwhelmingly refused to send their children to national primary schools. This has been going on for almost two decades now, hence as a result, we have an entire generation of Malaysians growing up in a more-or-less homogeneous environment; growing up interacting only with those of the same race with very little interaction with others.
When you don’t interact with others, what would be the most likely result? Tolerance and acceptance, or prejudice and discrimination? You don't need a PhD in social psychology or sociology to know the answer to that.
The situation today certainly does not look good. The dream for a ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ and ‘1Malaysia’ looks increasingly more like a pipe dream. But I believe there are still ways to salvage that dream. It requires commitment and sacrifices from all; Muslims and non-Muslims, Malays and non-Malays. For the sake of genuine peace and harmony, each of us needs to accept some changes and let go some of our long-held opinions.