With pragmatic politicians and technocrats steering it towards first-world status, post-independence Malaysia has always had reason for confidence. Even during the expensive years of crony capitalism under the country’s longest-serving Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, the course was maintained with an almost irritating willfulness.
Western powers might’ve grimaced and flinched as Malaysian leaders in the past doggedly thumbed their noses at international power plays—like sanctions against Iran’s nuclear ambitions—for the sake of maintaining perceptions of being a master of its own destiny.
It’s been a fine dance in foreign diplomacy, but one that seems to have changed markedly in recent years.
On one hand Malaysia is shifting towards the West. Passing the Strategic Trade Bill on the import and export of nuclear weapons last year, siding with United Nations on sanctions in Iran, developing closer ties with Australia on issues like people smuggling, increased access to its markets and goodwill visits to Western capitals by Prime Minister Najib Razak have all signaled a new and friendlier era in relations.
But on the other hand, far less welcomed acts of religious intolerance appear to be on the rise.
Attempts to ban Christians and non-Muslims from using words deemed Islamic—like ‘Allah,’ (later overturned) the desecration of churches, reports about the caning of women and forced conversions to Islam have recently tarnished Malaysia's secular image.
The latest episode has the country, particularly West Malaysia, sounding more like Pakistan than the promising new Asian nation envisaged at independence. It began a month ago when tens of thousands of imported copies of the Bible were seized because they were printed in the Bahasa Malaysian language, deeming them a threat to national security.
The government demanded as a condition for their release the Bibles be stamped with a warning that reads: ‘Reminder: This “al-Kitab Berita Baik,”’ or ‘this for the use of Christians only. By order of the Home Minister.’ They were also to be numbered and registered with the government and each stamped with a seal from the Home Ministry.
Church leaders were obviously upset and waged an unprecedented campaign. Eventually the government offered an apology for its handling of the issue along with a ten-point agreement with different rules for the handling of Bibles in Sabah, Sarawak and West Malaysia.
The ten points simply reaffirm a previous agreement that states each Bibles in the country should bear the words ‘Christian Publication’ and a cross on the cover. The reaction has been mixed but generally welcomed and should pave a way for the import of another 30,000 Bibles.
However, a perception that issues of religion are increasingly being added to Malaysia's political mix is causing a growing concern—a concern that stands in stark contrast to improved ties with the West and the values upon which the country was founded in 1963.