Malaysia – Is it moderate, and is it modern?

By Ramesh N. Rao Malaysia has been seen as a beacon of modernity and a country promoting and practicing moderate … Continued

By Ramesh N. Rao

Malaysia has been seen as a beacon of modernity and a country promoting and practicing moderate Islam. In a recent “On Faith” essay, Prof. Katherine Marshall (Malaysia’s Cool Imam) offers Malaysia as a good example for South Africa to follow regarding the legacy of racial inequality, and argues that the “lively debates about cool imams, how to curb child marriage, and what should be taught in schools” are “healthy symptoms of a complex society confronting the complicated realities of racial and religious identities in modern times.”

Malaysia’s minorities, she claims, are largely Chinese and Indian, and that they are mostly Buddhists and Christians. But it is the Chinese (23 percent) who are mostly Christian and Buddhist, and the Indian minority (7 percent) is mostly Hindu. Given the size of the Chinese minority, the Malay state has made allowances for their inclusion and some influence in the affairs of the country, though the Chinese minority too is worried about the increasing and radical Islamization of the country. But the Hindu minority has suffered the brunt of Malaysia’s discriminatory policies and Islamic decrees.

The Hindu American Foundation, in its annual Human Rights Reports, has carefully documented the discrimination against Hindus. A few examples will suffice.
On August 4, 2010 Judicial Commissioner Yaakob Sam pronounced that 28 year-old Banggarma, a Hindu mother, was is officially a “Muslim” despite her plea that she is a Hindu. According to the judge, the document that she was converted to Islam, at the age of eight, and while in an orphanage is enough to prove that she is a Muslim! How could Banggarma, as an abandoned eight-year old in an orphanage, be considered competent to have made such a decision voluntarily?

On August 15, 2010, Waytha Murthy, President of Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF), wrote in a memo to the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh requesting 2,237 full scholarships and seats in universities in India for Malaysian-Indian students segregated and denied scholarships, student loans, and refused seats in colleges and universities by the Malaysian Government.

Hindus, who remained largely silent until 2007, began to challenge the government’s discriminatory practices. On November 25, 2007, nearly 10,000 Hindus, led by HINDRAF leaders, organized a peaceful rally to protest the discriminatory policies pursued by the Malaysian government. The Malay authorities broke up the rally using tear gas and chemical-laced water under the pretext of maintaining national security. Following the event, the Malaysian government began to crack down on the Indian and Hindu communities, and hundreds of Hindus, including five HINDRAF leaders, were arbitrarily detained and arrested for asserting their basic democratic rights.

Malaysia has a parallel court system — secular courts for non-Muslims, and Sharia courts for Muslims. Hindus and other minorities have recently been forced to deal with the Islamic courts where they have faced severe disadvantages. In one case, a Hindu mother, Subashini Rajasingam, lost an appeal to prevent her husband, a recent Muslim convert, from changing their four-year-old son’s religion to Islam. The highest court in Malaysia subsequently affirmed the ruling of a lower federal court, granting the Muslim husband a right to use the Islamic Sharia courts to seek a divorce and also upheld his right to convert their child to Islam without the mother’s consent.

Islam has permeated all aspects of Malaysian society and towards the end of 2008, the National Fatwa Council, Malaysia’s top Islamic body, issued a fatwa (edict) banning the practice of yoga for Muslims. The council ruled that: “yoga involves not just physical exercise but also includes Hindu spiritual elements, chanting and worship,” effectively denying Muslims the freedom of religion.

There are 23,000 Hindu temples and shrines in Malaysia, but the government has refused to grant them land or record their land holdings as done for Islamic places of worship. Hundreds of Hindu temples have been demolished, and some relocated near garbage dumps and sewage tanks.

There are anywhere between 150,000 to 200,000 Malaysians of Indian origin without birth certificates and/or identity documents. Darshini, an eleven-year-old girl, for instance, was denied her birth certificate because her mother had not registered her birth within the required 42 days, as the father, a crane operator, was away working in Penang. It is reported that the Malaysian authorities rejected her application so many times that she stopped trying. The estimated 200,000 third, fourth and fifth generation Malaysian-born Indians have been denied Malaysian citizenship and are currently stateless. The government has neglected or willfully ignored the status of these people as contrasted with the way Muslim immigrants are treated from neighboring Indonesia and the Philippines who are granted immediate citizenship.

Finally, in one of the worst incidents reported worldwide, in late August 2009 Malay Muslims protested the relocation of a Hindu temple to their locality from another in Shah Alam by kicking and spitting on the head of a cow (cows are considered sacred and are revered by Hindus) they had just slaughtered. When HINDRAF leaders held a peaceful candle light vigil in protest, sixteen of them, including their legal adviser were arrested.

Would we still advocate that South Africa follow Malaysia’s example?

Ramesh N. Rao is the Human Rights Coordinator for the Hindu American Foundation, and Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication Studies and Theatre, Longwood University.

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  • Filibuster

    Bravo, Prof. Rao! The Hindu minority has long been suffering human rights violations in Malaysia…and they have by and large been unnoticed by the media. Thanks for drawing attention to these abuses…and keepin it real!

  • neoavatara

    Malaysia is modern…for a Muslim society. That is the problem. Moderate Muslims ultimately must stand up for more equality, including religious equality, if they want to be respected worldwide. For example, there are a significant population of Indian Muslims in the country. Many have risen to high levels in the government. In the past, although there were exceptions, many have not spoken out to defend the rights of their Indian brethren.Our job is to continue to help Malaysia advance. If they want to be considered modern, they can continue their Muslim ways…they simply have to allow for others to practice their religion and freedoms as

  • siddharthaban

    This is news to me. Have Amnesty, Human Rights Watch or other third parties documented this?Siddhartha Banerjee

  • Secular

    Hear Hee, Hear Hee, Hear Hee this is the face of the moderate Islam. I want to dare any of the so many muslim bloggers on the to defend this type of moderation. When we people like me stand up against the so called moderates and label them as enablers of extremists all the sympathizers come out of the wood works. Unless these, they take the stand and condemn these atrocities I have no sympathy for their causes. Their causes are only furthering the interests of islam towards world domination. Unless these US muslims willingly adopt the policy that they will boycott all these countries, including their Haj trips I say they are supporting apartheid. They are no different than teh Afrikaaner governments of south africa before FW De Klerk

  • kinis68

    Prof.Rao should be thanked for highlighting the persecution of Hindus in so-called moderate Islamic country.The persecution should be publicized in the media and brought to the notice of Human Rights panel of UNO and USA. Besides Hindus in Malaysia should be supported morally and financially to carry the fight further. They have to follow the way of Mahatma Gandhi – fight for your right non-violently. Truly, Meek shall inherit the earth.

  • Navin1

    I saw Al Jazeera’s coverage of the chemical attack on Hindu protestors in Malaysia. The commentators argues how a state needs to use force sometimes to sustain the state. This convinced me of the “objectivity” of that network. Moderate modern islam means: if they can’t kill you off (as they did in Bangledesh and are doing in Pakistan) then at least they can keep you as an underclass and with a thousand legal cuts, decapitate, diembowel, and quarter away the other. Moderate modern islam means: if they don’t have the power to enforce sharia, then they play nice and call for freedoms.Moderate modern islam is Moderate medeival islam. Mohamed, the medeival contriver of islam, used the sword to oppress. Modern islam uses the liberal laws of option nations, the media controlled to remove historical accuracies, and terror groups to enforce a state of fear all over the world. When they can’t pick up the sword, they pick up the AK47. Then, when given the option, they enforce police based chemical attacks on the others and feel they are just. They are just medeival.hariaum

  • arkns

    This is the problem with mullahs (by that all Muslims–all of them are mullahs or fanatics). Even the so-called “moderate” ones living in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, UAE, are also mullahs because they know full well what is happening to minorities but do nothing about it. They support and push for government policies that openly discriminate and oppress minorities or infidels. Oppressing infidels is very much sanctioned by Islam. All you have to do is read the Koran.Now these mullahs want more rights in secular countries like India and the United States. Their strategy is we mullahs will not grant any rights or freedom of religion in our own countries but we will demand more and more rights for ourselves and for Islam in stupid infidel countries. They think they are very clever–infidels are stupid that they cannot understand this grand mullah strategy. They are very good at using bleeding-heart infidel liberals for this purpose.

  • tarle_subba

    to “bloggersville usa”: you ask — “in what country of the world other than Malaysia will you find that the dominant majority grants a 7% minority a full, free K-12 public education in its own language?” answer — to dominant majorities “granting” something, i hope you study the history of malaysia and the presence and influence of hinduism through the centuries, long before the arrival of islam. also, you ask: “No one has ever questioned the continuous occupation of the magnificent Batu Caves just 13 km from KL by the Hindus for their religious ceremonies.”hindus have for ages used the batu caves and it is where their holy shrines and holy men are. non-hindus are not barred from visiting the batu caves. your assertions and your language betrays your mindset about nation and nationality — a classically muslim majoritarianism approach to the world and to modernity.

  • mihirmeghani

    Professor Rao, well said. A “moderate” Muslim country is very different from a “moderate” voice from another spiritual or religious tradition, & not necessarily a role model for the world.

  • OneMany

    Thank you Prof. Rao for an insightful piece. We Americans have a tendency to Shangri-la-ify “the Orient” and this piece is a positive step towards busting any myths about Malaysia’s version of moderate.

  • Jihadist

    “The Malay authorities broke up the rally using tear gas and chemical-laced water under the pretext of maintaining national security.”- Prof. Rao******************************************”Chemical laced water?”Err…I have been in demonstrations in Malaysia. Tear gas are the one that stings one’s face. The police sometimes use cannon cannons with coloured water to make sure our shirts are tainted, so they can identify and chase us and drag us into cells as the “guests” of the government.

  • Jihadist

    There is an “Hindu American Foundation”, with an annual Human Rights Report? What about “dalits” in India which even Malaysian Indians complained about? Or the report is only protecting the rights of PIOs outside of India but not within India?Nor to care for the rights of Indians who are not Hindus in India itself or in America?

  • Jihadist

    There are 23,000 Hindu temples and shrines in Malaysia, but the government has refused to grant them land or record their land holdings as done for Islamic places of worship. Hundreds of Hindu temples have been demolished, and some relocated near garbage dumps and sewage tanks. – Prof. Rao*******************************************Zoning laws. Quite a number of Hindu temples build “illegally”. And the so-called “hundreds” demolished are overstating on small shrines comprising a single statue of specific Hindu god/godess being asked to relocate. Having said that, Malaysian Indians are from myriad groups and caste before even if the majority are Tamils. Malaysians generally leave Malaysian Indians to sort out their own interests. There are old and new political parties and political alignments by Malaysian Indians. The rise of Hindraf is seem as a failure of the traditional political parties, which characterised themselves as champions and defenders of Indian interests and rights, as not quite doing their job. These traditional parties, such as Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) has failed the Indian community in Malaysia on everything from education they seek to maintain the Tamil school system too, seem by some Indians as stunting the Indian community from the Malaysian “mainstream” to demands for more places in the public sphere. As the third biggest ethnic group in Malaysia, the Malaysian Indian community do lose out to the more organised and coherent Malaysian Chinese community in the political and public sphere. Good for Hindraf to wake up Malaysian Indian politicians, NGOs and the Malaysian government on the marginalised Indians in Malaysia, even by the better off Malaysian Indians.

  • Navin1

    I know Hindus who have had to leave Malaysia for opportunities elsewhere because of overt discrimination against them. I saw Al Jazeera describe the chemical attacks on the Hindus and it was not colored water. I watched the coverage of the arrest of the leaders of the Hindu community and the effective oppression of their voices. India has done more to alleviate poverty than any other government – the poverty left in India by the British and Islamic colonialist far exceeded that of the whole continent of Africa. Which is in a better state today?Whites in America don’t realize how much discrimination is ongoing. I doubt that a muslim in Malaysia has much better of a perspective.Oh by the way, I’m sure you wouldn’t mind if a few small mosques were destroyed because they were built before the British left. Just small ones. hariaum