Wearing a short-sleeved blouse and knee-length black pants with flip-flops, Betty Khoo stood out like a sore thumb among the large crowd of white-robed Muslims gathering in a community mosque located at the fringes of Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur.
Ms. Khoo, an ethnic Chinese Christian, waited along with the scores of white-robed Muslims for the echo of prayers signalling the time to break the fast, before tucking into a delicious spread provided by the Ah-Muhsinin mosque in this quiet residential area. “I did wonder if I would be allowed to enter the mosque, since my legs and arms are not covered,” but my Muslim friends assured me that I am most welcome and I don’t feel out of place at all,” she said.
The mosque holds an “open house,” a term used when a host of a particular religious celebration invites others to dine with them every year during Ramadan and makes it a point to make non-Muslims feel welcome and comfortable.
Malaysia’s multiculturalism can be both an asset and a burden, but the numerous different races and religious have managed to co-exist in relative peace, since the country gained independence 52 years ago.
Ethnic Malays make up the majority race, accounting for about 60 per cent of the population, followed by a large minority of ethnic Chinese, Indians and other races such as indigenous groups and Eurasians.
The country is a secular state, but Islam is the main religion.
Other religions are practised with relative freedom.
“Islam is meant to be a blessing to all, not just to Muslims,” said Khairul Anuwar, one of the mosque’s teachers.
“So we take the opportunity during Ramadan to bless the other communities around us. Of course, this should happen throughout the year, but we find festivals are a great excuse for people to come out and gather,” he said.
It is common to find people of different races visiting their Muslim friends and breaking the fast together during Ramadan, with many even choosing to fast alongside the Muslims.
“The important thing about living in a multi-racial country is to learn about another person’s way of life,” said Parameswar, an ethnic Indian doctor who was also at the mosque. “That’s the only way you learn tolerance and acceptance,” she said.
But in recent years, controversial cases of conversion and legal tussles between Muslims and people of other religions have resulted in heightened religious tensions, threatening to unravel the peace and stability.
There has been a growing sense of unease, and despite the apparent warmth of intercultural exchanges during Ramadan, observers have warned that action needs to be taken quickly to address an increasing racial and religious insecurity.
Critics have blamed the on-going racial tensions on politics, saying many issues have been used to gain political mileage and support from hardliners.
“Government politicians have been playing up the race and religious cards in an even worse manner than in recent memory. This is further dividing and polarising the people, rather than uniting them. The don’t see the bigger picture, that to play the race card is of the utmost danger,” said Lim Kit Siang, veteran leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party.
Malaysian politics is largely racially-segmented, with political parties being distinguished by the ethnic group they represent. A small number of parties strive to be multi-racial, but enjoy less popularity.
“The decline in racial harmony is evident in recent years, and this is a major area of concern,” said Denison Jayasooria, from the Institute of Ethnic Studies at Malaysia’s National University.
“I think the problem will continue, as long as political parties are organised on the basis of race,” he told the German Press Agency dpa.
“It is only when politicians use race or religion, then you see a major conflict within the community,” he said.
In his national day address recently, Prime Minister Najib Razak urged people to put aside their differences and work at preserving the very goals of the country’s forefathers - unity.
Mr. Denison warned that celebrations or festive periods may seem the most obvious times to highlight racial unity and tolerance, but more was needed to address the root causes of the underlying tensions and insecurities.
But despite the grim outlook, several observers have noted that the continued tradition of multi-cultural gatherings such as during Ramadan signal that all hope is not lost.
“I look forward to this time of the year, when we can share in something our Muslim neighbours hold sacred,” said Catherine Ong, another one of the guests at Al-Muhsinin mosque’s gathering.
“I think if each of us makes the effort to understand the other, there will be a sense of peace and trust within the races. That is, after all, what people of all religions believe in,” she said.