EARLIER this week, I and five other Malaysian Muslims visited a church, gurdwara and Buddhist temple. I asked my companions if they had previously stepped into a non-Muslim place of worship, and the answer was either “Once, a long time ago” or “Never” – curious responses given the usual spiel about Malaysians being tolerant in a multicultural and multi-religious society.
Then again, some schoolteachers apparently tell their young Muslim students they will go blind if they step into a church. In the Antiochian Orthodox Church we found an Arabic prayer book that contained ‘Allah’ (just as I saw in Jordan last year) and wondered what those teachers would make of that, while at the gurdwara I was surprised to discover that our elderly host grew up in Seremban and Kuala Pilah! This is because we were in Melbourne amidst the first leg of the inaugural Muslim Australia-Malaysia Cultural Exchange Program [sic], initiated after the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs’ visit to Malaysia in November 2012, supported by the Australian government and Australia-Malaysia Institute.
The six participants were from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim), the Global Movement of the Moderates Foundation (GMMF), Sisters in Islam (SIS), the Muslimah Interest Zone And Networking Association (Mizan) and Ideas. We quickly established another commonality – Sumatran ancestry – all Minangkabau passing through Negeri Sembilan, except one Acehnese.
As soon as we arrived we were treated to an Australian Football League match – itself a vital (almost religious) part of local culture, according to our Seremban-born host, a lawyer and fanatic of the game. With hardly time to rest, the next three days were packed full of meetings with institutions that gave us an appreciation of how increasing ethnic, cultural and religious diversity is handled by the state of Victoria – for decentralisation has real substance here, with the states possessing significant powers to set up their own institutions to advance their own policies (And local government jealously guards its own powers too.).
A profound manifestation of this was the Victorian Multicultural Commission, whose chairperson was born in Johor, with one commissioner hailing from Ipoh. Established by state law in 2004, its remit includes promoting “full participation by Victoria’s diverse communities in the social, cultural, economic and political life of Victoria” and “interaction between individuals and communities from diverse backgrounds”.
I was sceptical of these objectives – particularly since it isn’t clear how a “community” is defined – but I was pacified by the reply that the commission is fully aware of the problems of legitimacy within self-defined “communities” and fully accepted that some individuals may have no desire to be a member of a “community”. Importantly, the state does not pressure any citizen to belong to one.
This approach – free from judgements of the comparative value of different cultures – is quite different from some other countries (current and historical) where the state explicitly elevates one culture or race above another, and defines its citizens to be members of an ethnic group from the day they are born.
The same approach was encountered in the other institutions and prominent Victorians that we met – from the Governor (a distinguished appointee representing the Queen of Australia), the Mayor of Greater Dandenong (elected by and amongst elected local councillors), to academic centres in La Trobe and Melbourne Universities, where many Malaysians were spotted.
One mind-bending visit was to a Muslim school, originally established by Turks but now teaching Muslims and non-Muslims from diverse backgrounds, whose walls were festooned with pictures of the staunchly secular Ataturk. The young Australian of Turkish descent I quizzed saw no contradiction in this whatsoever; yet it was a massive issue when I was in Istanbul only recently. That irony aside, I contemplated the chances of such a school existing in Malaysia – or a Malaysian-founded Muslim school in another continent that displayed pictures of our founding fathers. That evening I was persuaded to try halal kangaroo, which was conceptually easier to digest.
Another dinner was hosted by Malaysia’s Consul General in Melbourne (a chap from Port Dickson), who also welcomed the Australians visiting Malaysia in June under the same programme.
I also met remarkable young Malaysians who have set up a Melbourne-based magazine that is owned and run by Malaysians, for Malaysians. It is called JOM: Journal of Malaysians, is published bi-monthly with 3,000 print copies, and the cover story of its fourth issue features Melbourne’s last remaining World War II Malaya and Borneo veteran. It must be the one of the few Malaysian publications in the world that does not require a permit from the Home Ministry, and it’s also where you’ll find my piece on the second leg of my journey in Australia – Sydney.
Tunku Abidin Muhriz is president of Ideas.