Can religion come 'first'?

12 February 2016

Dr Tan Meng Yoe - School of Science
Dr Tan Meng Yoe - School of Arts and Social Sciences

When a local research firm, Merdeka Center, published a survey result a few months ago reporting that 60% of Malays in Malaysia identified themselves as Muslims first, it generated a rather heated response, with many arguing that people should aim towards identifying themselves as “Malaysian” first.

A number of questions must be raised. Firstly, would convincing ourselves that that we are “Malaysian” first automatically result in a better Malaysia? Secondly, is fervent religious belief automatically counter-productive in the making of a better Malaysia? In simpler terms, is religion really such a bad thing for society? These are questions that need to be asked and answered if any progress is to be made.

The second question is more interesting. It is worth noting that the concept of religion “first” is not unique to the Malay/Muslim community. It is a common teaching in Christian circles that in this life, a believer is a Christian first. Even beyond religion, there are so many other “firsts” that are deeply ingrained in people’s minds – money “first”, safety “first”, and more. The truth is that it is actually unrealistic to expect everyone to just get in line and say “I am a Malaysian first”.

A more productive approach is to ask how being religious can contribute to a better Malaysia. For example, it is quite common to hear people say the words “Islam is a religion of peace”, or for Christians to advocate “loving our neighbor”, or for Buddhists to expound on the importance of compassion toward others. How do these values make someone a better Malaysian?

To answer that, we must evaluate the implementation of these wonderful religious ideals. Is this “peace” being lived out in the everyday lives of people? Are we loving our neighbor? Are we showing compassion without prejudice? If the answer is no, we must then ask why.

These cannot be merely words that people, or leaders utter to sweep problems under the carpet. Thinking of religion productively means asking how one’s religious belief can contribute to the overall development of a diverse country such as Malaysia, rather than getting caught up with rhetoric and a survey result.

The reality is, religion cannot be eliminated from society so easily. Many learned philosophers have predicted the end of religion, and so far, all of them have been wrong. But we can take steps to hold our own religious affiliations strictly accountable, and harness its respective qualities for the betterment of others.

Putting religion “first” can play a positive role in nation building. It begins by daring to ask some questions. It should not come across as dangerous ideas seeking to deconstruct religion. It is my hope that safe spaces are made available for these questions to be addressed, and through these engagements, a deeper appreciation for the role in religion in society can be discovered.

Religion has always been in the business of answering life’s great mysteries. As such, it and its adherents should be able to withstand the close scrutiny it is placed under today.

Dr Tan Meng Yoe is a lecturer with the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia. For more information on our courses, please visit our website