The Battle for Time and Space in Malaysia’s Narrowing Society

‘Power’ is not, and should not, be understood in a purely abstract sense. For ‘Power’ to manifest itself, it needs to be expressed in visible, even spectacular forms.

Throughout humanity’s history, political power has been expressed through such spectacular excess: from public punishments to the visible cult of leadership embodied in grandiose architectural forms. (The multiple heads of the God-King Jayavarman VII that adorn the pillars of Angkor Watt demonstrate the ancient Khmer ruler’s penchant for total control and surveillance of society: Here the King was demonstrating his omnipresent gaze in the most explicit way, observing the four corners of his kingdom unceasingly.)

Today, political power and the contestation for it has become increasingly sophisticated, merging neo-feudal, primordial concerns for control and dominance with modern methods of surveillance and thought-control. This is even more apparent when the regime in question has crossed the threshold between normative religion and the state, and Religion’s discourse of absolutes is brought into the otherwise mundane secular political arena. In all the countries of the world where Religion has come to impact on the political process – notably the United States under the heavy imprint of Christian fundamentalists; Israel under the leadership of Jewish Zionists; India under the rule of Hindu conservatives; and Muslim countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan and Nigeria that currently labour under the weight of religious conservatism – ‘Politics’ is no longer about governance and the running of  the state, but also about expanding the comfort zone of the dominant religious-ethnic constituency while at the same time controlling them, curtailing their freedoms and marginalising the existence of other communities.

This trend towards the state’s maximalist power was most notably demonstrated recently by the announcement by the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Abdullah Md Zin, that new guidelines have been introduced by the country’s Islamic Development Department. The guidelines, which remain under discussion and have not come into implementation yet, propose a wide range of ‘reforms’ that include the segregation of audiences along gender lines at entertainment events and the proposal to restrict all forms of entertainment programmes while the Muslim call to prayer is heard.

The conquest of Time and Space

Let us focus on the proposal to restrict all forms of broadcasted entertainment during the call to prayer, and consider its very real and practical consequences. What does this entail and what would be its impact? Like the previous discussions of the volume of loud speakers used to deliver the call to prayer, this new proposal would have the immediate effect of carving up a spatio-temporal ‘space’ for the country’s Muslim population. In real, everyday terms, it would mean this: Whenever the call to prayer is heard, all normal social life would have to be temporarily suspended and the sensitivities of Muslims will have to be taken into account. In public areas it would mean turning off radios or TVs that are on in shops, stalls, perhaps even homes – that is, if music or other forms of entertainment are being played. The state’s own media services would undoubtedly comply, but one presumes that the rest of Malaysian society would have to follow suit, again, out of ‘respect’ for the Muslim majority.

The short end of it is that this is the tyranny of majoritarianism being smuggled through the back door once again. Non-Muslims, who, for demographic reasons, have become a smaller minority, will have to comply. So will those Muslims who might otherwise think nothing of having the radio on while the Azan is heard in the distance. Which brings us to the other related issue: distance and the colonisation of space.

We will recall that not too long ago there was also the related debate about the appropriate volume of the Azan call to prayer. In many of the country’s urbanised cosmopolitan neighbourhoods, the sound of the Azan was problematic for some, particularly non-Muslims for who the call was irrelevant. A furious debate ensued when some non-Muslims raised the question of whether the volume of the Azan could be reduced a little. Right-wing Malay-Muslim groups immediately reacted by calling this an ‘affront to Islam’ and a direct challenge to Muslim supremacy in Malaysia, forgetting the fact that we are a multireligious country in the first place.

In both cases – the order to restrict entertainment activities and the defence of loud azan calls to prayer – we see the colonising logic of claiming both time and space at work. In real terms it means that the period when the call to prayer is heard, the cosmopolitan, multicultural and multireligious face of Malaysia has to be withdrawn. The Azan becomes an exclusive and excluding moment of communal bonding for Malaysia’s Muslims, while non-Muslims are expected to stand aside and put their lives on temporary suspension for a while.

No-one has tried to turn the proposal on its head and to explore its reverse logic. As a Muslim, I do not mind at all the sound of Church or Temple bells when Christians or Hindus sound their call to prayer. As a Malaysian, it reassures me that the Christian, Buddhist and Hindu calls to prayer can be heard in our country still – despite the worrying complaint that it is getting harder to secure permits for religious buildings of other faiths in our country. I feel assured as both a Malaysian and Muslim that this remains, albeit tentatively, a multicultural society.

However, if it was suggested to me that I should turn off my TV or radio when the bells of the Church or Temple are sounding, I would object. My respect for other faiths does not mean that I have to put my life on hold while others are engaged in their private religious life. If I do not see the need to distort my daily life-practices for others, why should they be expected to do so for me? Respect for the religious beliefs of others does not entail the denial of one’s own privacy and rights – the word for that is not ‘respect’, but rather ‘marginalisation’. The pursuit of one’s personal beliefs cannot be at the cost of the marginalisation of others; though this simple fact has obviously eluded some of the religious functionaries of our state…

Destructive Logic?

Where, pray tell, will these proposals lead us? Will there then be attempts to prolong the azan as well in the near future, as it is done is some countries like Pakistan where muezzins in the mosque try to out-bid each other’s show of piety by trying to prolong their azans as long as possible? And even if this does not happen, what will be the final outcome of these reform measures?

The immediate impact, as we have argued, is to claim five periods, five chunks of time and space, for the Muslims of Malaysia exclusively. The conquest of the nation’s temporal-spatial terrain has thus begun. Where will this leave Malaysia as a whole?

For now the country’s non-Muslims and a significant section of Muslims as well (often erroneously labelled ‘liberal’) has been left with no choice save muted protest. Our national identity and the common shared collective temporal-spatial framework upon which the nation is to be built is being carved up by religious functionaries who seem to be driven only by their own communitarian exclusive concerns. Worst of all, these religious functionaries are in the pay of the Malaysian government and state, which means that their schemes are being financed by the ordinary Malaysian tax-payer! Is this the Malaysia that our founding fathers envisaged, or are we actually witnessing the nascent Balkanisation of our country?

Dear Malaysians, this is OUR nation, and OUR collective national temporal-spatial space. It is there for all of us, on the basis of Malaysian citizenship, to share and build together, for each other and the generations to come. Yet our social-cultural and even temporal-spatial map is being carved up before our very eyes. For the sake of Malaysia, Malaysians and the Malaysia to come, this steady compartmentalisation and balkanisation of the nation has to be critically interrogated now, and not later.

First Published: 28.05.2005 on Kakiseni

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