29 Oct 2013
Religious Supression in Malaysia
Nesrine Malik of The Guardian hit the nail on the head when she said the Allah ban “is less about religion than about putting the non-Malay minorities in their place . . .”
It’s about Umno-Malays domination and their claim to the exclusive right to set the country’s agenda, riding roughshod over the concerns of the minorities.
Religion is used as a convenient tool because Islam and Malay identity are inseparable. Rather than use the ethnic dichotomy to pit the Malays against the non-Malays, which has lost its punch as more and more Malays (especially the urban Malays) have grown wise to Umno Baru-BN’s trick of pitting the races against each other (GE13 is proof enough), Umno now exploits the Muslim/non-Muslim dichotomy. Umno has decided that this is an even better tool as it gives it an air of Divine Will, an act sanctioned by Allah.
The Allah issue is a guise to hide Umno Baru’s agenda which is the Malayisation of the country. This is not the first time that Umno has tried to turn Malaysia’s multicultural identity into a Malay identity.
It’s about Ketuanan Melayu. It’s about institutional racism. It’s about putting the ‘pendatangs’ in their place; people who should be grateful with what they are given, ‘guests’ who should know their place. And for those who don’t (know their place) they are shown the exit – they have been reminded enough times lately by ministers, politicians and Malay NGOs.
We do not have to dig too deep into our past to see the many attempts Umno has made to remodel our multicultural national identity, and as religion and race are tied with regard to the Malays, Islam is part and parcel of this identity.
Let us look at the Umno-BN government’s track record to see this pattern of Malayisation and Islamisation of the country.
(I say the Umno-BN government, because the non-Malay component parties – MCA, MIC, Gerakan – are complicit to the plot if only by their acquiescence).
Islamisation and suppression of other religions
Even before the introduction of its Islamisation programme in 1982, the government has been promoting Islamic values as the country’s values while ignoring the values or contributions of others in this multiracial country. It was as if there was only one set of values – the Islamic one.
“It is important that we prove that the Islamic system can fulfill the needs of not only the Muslims but other communities as well” said Dr Mahathir Mohamad (New Straits Times, 18 March 1985)
To leave nothing in doubt, Mahathir went on to say: “I hope we will not waste any effort shouting slogans which sound nice to the ears but empty in content. Instead we should go gradually forward in implementing Islamic principles.” (The Star, 2 August 1985).
Hence the process of Islamisation took hold and was fast paced in government, administration, and education. This has caused great anxiety among the non-Muslims not because they were anti-Islam but because this undermines the basic foundation of Malaysia as a secular nation where there is religious freedom with Islam as the official religion.
The Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code were amended in 1982 ostensibly to deal with ‘deviant’ Islamic teachings (anything that is not in keeping with the government’s version of Islam). However it also allows for “state interference in the practice, profession and propagation of non-Muslim religions”. (Lim Kit Siang – Malaysia Crisis of Identity, page 39). This was another nail in the coffin of religious freedom in Malaysia.
In education, ‘Islamic Civilisation’ was made a compulsory subject in universities. While the non-Muslims accepted that it was good that they come to understand Muslims better through this subject, their proposal that, for the same reason the study of other major religions’ civilisations can help Muslims understand the non-Muslims, was ignored.
The process of Islamisation was also felt in schools. There was an increase in government control of schools, especially of the mission schools. Before long, the principals of mission schools – who were traditionally Christians – were replaced by Muslim principals and principals of other faiths.
In the early 1980s, Moral Education as a compulsory examination subject was introduced for non-Muslim pupils while Muslim pupils were taught the Koran. The suggestion by the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) that it was only fair that “Pupils Own Religion” (POR) be taught was rejected. (It should be noted that in Indonesia POR is provided for all pupils and no religion has advantage over the other yet Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation with an overwhelming Muslim majority).
What further alienated non-Muslim parents was that the majority of the Moral Education teachers were Muslims and as such there would be a natural bias towards Islam.
Other acts of Islamisation in schools included instructing mission schools to remove crucifixes from the building and the removal of the cross or any other Christian symbols from their school badge and replace it with a star or a crescent.
In Sabah the authorities banned the teaching of Christianity on the school premises even after school hours. Because of strong protests this ban was lifted.
The doa is now recited in all school assemblies something which even the missionary schools did not do in my time.
The Islamisation of the education system has been going on for years. The Deputy Prime Minister at that time, Anwar Ibrahim, said in a press statement that the changes brought about by the government in the education system were in line with Islam. (New Straits Times, 26 March 1994).
I wonder what is Anwar’s present position on this today?
Places of worship
The discrimination and suppression of other religions took many forms.
Regarding places of worship, it was recommended that Muslims be given an allocation ratio of 1:800 population with a spatial requirement of 0.4 hectare for a mosque. For a surau, it is 1:250 and 0.1 hectare. For non-Muslims the ratio was 1:4000 with a spatial requirement of “suitable standards” for a church or temple.
MCCCBHST request that they be treated equally was rejected. However the “suitable standards” was made more specific. Non-Muslims were now allocated 0.2 hectare – half that of the Muslims’. In fact, it is less when considering the ratio remained 1:4000 which is five times the number of people required for a mosque.
Another form of discrimination and suppression was by refusing or making it extremely difficult for non-Muslims to get planning approval for their places of worship. Land was not allocated for places of worship for non-Muslims and burial grounds not provided for in the master plans of some of the new towns.
The Sultan of Selangor commented in 1984 that while he was happy to see many suraus and mosques in the state, he aired his unhappiness that there was not a single place of worship for non-Muslims in Shah Alam. He wondered aloud, tongue-in-cheek no doubt, if non-Muslims ever prayed. He further observed that although land for places of worship for non-Muslims had been identified, its conversion had been stopped, “. . . perhaps by the state government or the Selangor State Development Corporation (PKNS)” (The Star, 17 January 1984).
The Shah Alam Church of Divine Mercy (often dubbed “the-on-and-off church) is probably the most famous example of how the authorities try to thwart attempts by non-Muslims to build places of worship.
The Catholic Church had applied for a piece of land to build a church in 1977. A 1.116 acre was allocated by the state and sold to the church in 1985 after the Sultan of Selangor’s much publicised comments.
Formal approval to build a church was given in May 1993. Work started on the church in Section 24 of Shah Alam in June the same year.
Almost immediately Muslim NGOs and politicians protested claiming that the church would challenge the sanctity of Islam as the country’s official religion and the position of Muslims. The Menteri Besar Muhammad Muhammad Taib instructed the municipal council to withdraw the approval.
It would be too tedious to go through the details of this saga. Suffice to say the government gave in to the Muslim extremists and offered the church a new site at Lot 172, Jalan Pemaju amongst the factories in the Industrial Park.
The Church of Divine Mercy opened its doors 28 years later in September 2005 after navigating every obstacle the government could throw in its way.
The continued reluctance by local authorities and state governments to cater to the needs of non-Muslims is probably the cause of the sprouting up of ‘shophouse churches’ and temples.
Administrative roadblocks on non-Muslims
Other examples of the State’s actions vis-a-vis non-Muslims include: lack of burial ground, the propagation of Islam to non-Muslim minors despite strong parental objections. The conversion of 17-year-old Susie Teoh is a case in point. Her conversion to Islam was challenged by her father Teoh Eng Huat who appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn the verdict of the Kota Bharu High Court that parents have no right to determine the religion of their children. Apparently this is contrary to reading of the law by Tun Mohammed Suffian Hashim (the late Lord President) that the religion of a minor under the age of 18 is decided by his/her parent or guardian.
Cases of dubious conversions persists to this day including cases of alleged ‘body snatching’ – when the state religious department take corpses for Muslim burial despite the protests of family members and evidence that they were practising other religions – Hinduism in most cases.
The import of Al-kitab, the Bible in the Indonesian language, was banned under the ISA in 2 Dec 1981. This was lifted after the churches protested.
The prohibition of the use of certain words deemed exclusive to Islam is not something new. State governments in Perak, Selangor, Kelantan and Terengganu in the 1980s issued a list of 36 words, including ‘Allah’ that non-Muslims were forbidden to use. After the MCCBCHST protested the list was pruned down to four words (Allah, solat, Kaabah and Baitullah). The Christian leaders refused even this list on the principle that no government has the right to forbid anyone to use any word of any language on earth.
So the banning of the use of ‘Allah’ is not something new. It is worth noting that the non-Muslims have consistently refused to accept this ban.
The Immigration Department also did its part in suppressing other religions by making it difficult for priests to enter the country. This affected the Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus greatly as they needed the priests to conduct religious ceremonies and there were not enough local priests.
Sabah and Sarawak are not exempt
If those in Sabah and Sarawak think that it’s only about the ‘A’ word, that they are free from this suppression they should look back on the government’s track record in their states.
The Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kota Kinabalu is the most famous case.
Some Muslims in Sabah had objected to the rebuilding the Sacred Heart Cathedral that would have been the biggest Roman Catholic church in the Sabah when completed. The old church had been demolished so that a new one could be built in the same design as the St Joseph’s Cathedral in Kuching and able to accommodate a congregation of some 1,380 in a single sitting.
In Sandakan, Sabahan Muslims objected to the building of a Buddhist temple in Kampung Tanah Merah. The then Sabah Deputy Chief Minister Chong Kah Kiat resigned over the issue of Maru, a Goddess of the Sea statue in Kudat, Sabah, for which approval was granted but later withdrawn when Muslim extremists protested.
In Sarawak, the Sikhs were attacked for building a gurdwara in Kuching.
The letting in of Muslim immigrants into Sabah is as much a political issue as it is a religious issue. It is to change the ethnic and religious balance in the state – to create a Muslim majority which can in turn impose restrictions on other religions just like in West Malaysia.
East Malaysians accept the government’s assurance on the use of Allah at their own peril. The problem goes beyond the use of one word. It is a problem of Malayisation and Islamisation.
While all religions are affected by the government’s ban on the use of ‘Allah’ and other restrictions and discrimination, it is the Christians who are the main target of Umno’s politics. This was made clear by the Minister for Tourism and Culture Nazri Abdul Aziz who told other religions to butt out of this controversy. “I hope non-Christian groups won’t get involved in this matter. It is between us Muslims and the Christians. This is very sensitive.” ( Malaysiakini, 21 Oct 2013)
It’s not just religion but also other issues that the Umno-led government has shown its intolerance to diversity.
In 1971, a Congress on National Culture was held at the University of Malaya. On the face of it there is nothing wrong with trying to forge a national identity, especially if every culture in the country is included.
“Malaysia’s multi-cultural society cannot be forgotten in deciding the country’s culture…” (Straits Times, 18 Aug 1971).
Two days later, the Straits Times editorial while opining that establishing a national culture is laudable, asked “how the component parts can be welded into a whole as an integral part of national identity. It is easier said than done. Culture does not lend itself easily to guidance or legislation” (Straits Times, 18 Aug 1971)
Home Affairs Minister Ghazali Shafie later gave us a glimpse of the government’s idea of the ‘national culture’ when he said “. . . attempts by the immigrant races to defend and promote some of their cultural elements which were already extinct in their countries of origin were futile and a waste of time…” (Straits Times, 20 May 1979), and he gave the example of the Lion Dance. (The lion dance extinct in China? That’s news).
In tune with government policy, the police in 1982 refused permission for lion dances to be performed in public, saying that under government directives they were only allowed during Chinese New Year even though that particular directive had been lifted. Ghazali later as Foreign Minister said that only characteristics of art which are based on the Malay identity and Islam could be accepted as elements of the national culture: “In this respect there should be no give-and-take” (Straits Times, 9 Oct 1982). The Umno-led government’s position on this was non-negotiable.
Encouraged by the federal government’s position, state governments began to remove signboards with Chinese characters until reminded that other languages were permitted as long as the Malay translation was featured prominently. Despite the federal government’s rule on signage, in 1987 municipal workers were directed to black out Chinese characters on signboards at the Johor Seafood Carnival. This caused an uproar.
In line with Umno’s agenda for Malay-centric national culture, the Director-General of Education Murad Mohammed Noor issued a circular to all principals detailing what was permissible in school cultural shows (8 Aug 1984). Such activities had to reflect the National Cultural Policy.
The activities that were allowed:
(1) dances like the inang, zapin, joget, kuda kepang, ballet (so, ballet is indigenous to Malay culture),
(2) musical instruments like the gamelan and kompang,
(3) traditional games like gasing, congkak and wau, and 4. traditional theatre such as makyong, bangsawan and boria.
Other activities which highlighted ‘foreign’ cultures or do not reflect the national culture were not allowed.
Another act by the government to suppress non-Malay cultures and heritage include the attempt to acquire Bukit Cina cemetery in Malacca together with the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple which is the oldest in Malaysia (1704). The ostensible purpose of this state acquisition was to level it for development. But it would also get rid of a non-Malay non-Islam heritage.
The temple trustees resisted. Before long, this became a national controversy as Chinese throughout the country supported the stand of the temple.
Rehman Rashid, a columnist for the New Straits Times had asked ‘So what’s another hill’ (5 Oct 1984), displaying his insensitivity to the significance of the hill to the Chinese as representing the link to their ancestors’ arrival in this country (certainly earlier than the arrival of many ‘Malays’).
And more significantly, a symbol of the friendship between the Chinese and the Malays when the Emperor of China gave his daughter Hang Li Po to Sultan Mansur Shah in marriage.
The controversy raged on for some time before the government relented in the face of nationwide protest.
It’s ironic that the Chinese who are noted for their materialistic and pragmatic attitude had rallied round a symbol. On the other hand the Malays who were thought to be unmaterialistic wanted to enrich themselves from a prime piece of real estate which just happened to be the ancestral graves of the earliest Chinese to Malaya.
East Malaysians took note of what was happening in West Malaysia.
The then Chief Minister of Sabah Joseph Pairin Kitingan warned against cultural assimilation and the domination of one race over others ( New Straits Times, 11 Aug 1986). Edward Jeli, the Sarawak State Minister for Land Development, said that to lose one’s culture would be tantamount to losing one’s identity. (Sarawak Tribune, 16 Oct 1986).
The fight for cultural identity did not involve only the Chinese, In April 1984, ten Indian associations sent a collective memorandum to the Ministry of Culture Youth and Sports making clear their unhappiness that there are
“ politicians, government servants, academicians and religious leaders who have already decided for themselves the future status of Malaysia as an Islamic State. Consequently their concept of national culture is one of Islamic Culture alone. In their concept the cultural values of the other communities have little or no relevance. They are prepared to ride roughshod over the sentiments and sensitivities of the other communities. The influence of this group is by no means small. It is being felt in a number of ways”.
The memorandum went on to the following areas of concern:
1. Pressuring non-Muslims to wear Malay/Muslim attire
2. Showing little or no concern about the cultural practices of others
3. Creating obstacles for others to develop their cultures, religions and languages
4. Discriminating on the basis of religion
5. Condoning Islamic extremism
6. Ridiculing other religions
7. Laying down standards of personal behaviour and morality for others
8. Pushing Islamic indoctrination
9. Propagating the slogan of one language, one religion, one race
10. Supporting cultural assimilation rather than integration
One should ask if indeed a ‘national culture’ that is politically determined and legislated is desirable, and if that is possible even. Should not a national culture in a multiracial nation spring from the mingling of the different communities and take on aspects of the different cultures? Are we only ‘truly Asia’ on billboards and TV commercials?
A commentary in the New Straits Times of 1 July 1992 by journalist-writer Salleh ben Joned summed it up nicely when he said “Rojak is good for nation building.”
From the preceding paragraphs it is obvious what Umno’s real goal is. It’s not 1Malaysia unless One Malaysia means one race, one culture, one religion.
Umno has never repudiated its agenda of cultural assimilation, Islamisation or Ketuanan Melayu. It has never stopped trying to “put the non-Malays in their place”. It desists temporarily in the face of strong opposition by the non-Malays only to try again and again. This latest controversy about the use of ‘Allah’ is just another episode in Umno’s quest to Islamise and Malayise the country.
Prime Minister Najib Razak’s allowance for Sabah and Sarawak to use ‘Allah’ is only because his government depends on both these states to survive. East Malaysians should not lull themselves into thinking that there is a change of heart. It’s just a change of tactic. What Umno tried to do in the 1970s and 1980s it will try to do again . . . and again.
The fact that the Umno-led government has veered so far to the right, pandering to extremist groups like Perkasa, religious extremist groups like Ikatan Muslimim Malaysia (ISMA) and economic opportunists (including non-Malays) is most disconcerting. What happened to the multiracial, multicultural, tolerant and inclusive nation that was Malaya and later Malaysia? While Malay dominance is a fact of life, it must not be to the detriment of the other races. There must be no institutional racism disguised as affirmative action or Malayisation in the guise of a fabricated national culture.
A Malaysia where the non-Malays are not allowed to play their full part as equal citizens will be a poorer Malaysia – economically and culturally.
To paraphrase the late opposition leader Dr Tan Chee Koon, we (the 51.7% of Malaysians) must not throw up our hands and ask “Apa Boleh Buat”, taking what is dished out to us by Umno lying down. We must be positive, stand on our principles and not move from our position of what is fair. The majority of Malaysians (going by GE13) want a multiracial, tolerant and fair Malaysia as envisioned by the founding fathers of our nation.
There was a time when Malays, Chinese and Indians mixed freely. We sat in coffee shops together, called at each other’s house (not just on ‘open house days’), our children played together. I remember Malays classmates without tudungs (that did not make them any less decent). A uniquely Malaysian culture would have evolved in time given the chance. Indeed “rojak is good for nation building”
Malaysians must not allow the racial and religious extremists to call the tune.