Our obsession with religion and ethnicity

With slightly less than a month before we celebrate our 50th anniversary as an independent nation, it is interesting to see how Malaysians continue to struggle with religion and ethnicity.

We may have been able to build very tall buildings as well as very big shopping complexes but we have stagnated ideologically. Like army officers obsessively polishing their boots in the morning, religion and ethnicity, to us, are ritualised subjects to be endlessly discussed at every

Like dogma and superstition, these topics have become our mantras, we chant them without really knowing why they are so important to us. But more dangerously, we will not accept new ideas or contrary opinions. In short, our obsession with religion and ethnicity prevents us from accepting change.

The Arabs, as one of malaysiakini letter writers noted, are investing more in Singapore than Malaysia despite the former being a secular state. This proves that being Islamic does not really matter to international investors. What they want is efficiency and a judicial system that is not only free from corruption, but is internationally experienced as clean.

That tells us that the source of our obsession with religion is not motivated by external issues. Like all obsessive behaviour, our attachment to religion and ethnicity is not due to any external stimuli but is a reflection of our own insecurities. Deep down inside, we fear that we cannot compete globally. We create obstacles for ourselves to pre-empt failure. Like a middle-aged man, we do not like doing things differently because we fear making mistakes and being rejected.

Our obsession with race and religion has stunted the country's human capital. A lot of talent is now residing overseas whilst a lot more are kept out of important sectors, both in civil administration as well as in politics.

Even within the same ethnic or religious group, such obsessive psychology keeps the innovative and intelligent under the thumb of the authoritarian individuals who are ardent supporters of the status quo.

Attempts at suppressing web blogs, a very foolish and impossible endeavour, is a good example of the result of such mentality. The last time Malaysia was inflicted with such men was during WWII when General Percival refused to build defences against the Japanese because any 'defensive strategy would be bad for morale'.

Evidence of our failure to achieve our true potential is there for all to see. We were Asia's second most advanced country economically in 1957, Universiti Malaya was then one of the best universities in Asia. Today we are not quite so near Japan. How can resource poor nations like Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong surpass us? Meritocracy in education, civil administration and the judiciary made these countries successful.

I believe that Malaysians know that religion and ethnicity are our biggest stumbling blocks but we refuse to do anything about it. Like a ritual, we cannot forgo doing something we are so used to. Yet, we are so obviously headed for disaster with fast depleting natural resources.

Malaysia is like a car moving in circles and running out of petrol. Its driver knows that we need to switch to another lane to get out of the circular route but not only does he not do that, he also refuses to refill the tank at the nearest petrol station simply because it is not Petronas.

Some of us are not in steering position but we are in the car all the same. If Chinese and Indian Malaysians are worried about their future in this country, I dare say a lot of Malay Malaysians are just as worried. What prevents us all from working as one is our obsession with religion and ethnicity.