Malaysia: Mixed Signals
by Sandhya Jain on 28 Apr 2009 2 Comments

Malaysia has sent mixed signals to its beleaguered Hindu citizens regarding its commitment to freedom of religion and human rights. In a move to ease social tensions, Kuala Lumpur has banned the conversion of children (to Islam) without the consent of both parents. This welcome decision follows the sensational case of Indira Gandhi, a 34-year-old Hindu of Indian origin, whose estranged husband embraced Islam and converted both their children to that faith without her consent. 

Similar cases of one parent in an inter-religious marriage converting the children to his/her faith have long dogged Malaysia, where Islam is the official religion, but non-Muslims are allowed to practice their respective faiths. As most ethnic Malays are Muslim, religious tensions with Hindu-Indian or Chinese-Buddhist citizens often assume racial overtones as well. Hence, after much strife, Malaysian legal affairs minister Nazri Aziz announced that minors would be bound by the common faith of their parents while they are married, even if one parent later became a Muslim. Further, Islamic law will apply prospectively from the point of conversion, and not retrospectively.

Malaysia’s attorney general will now prepare relevant legislation to implement this decision, and approach the titular heads of nine of the country’s 13 states for consent to amend the related state Islamic laws.

This welcome move goes hand-in-hand with a plan to empower Sharia courts to enhance the efficacy of religious enforcement agencies and change the perception that penalties imposed under the law are too light. The Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Maj. Gen. Datuk Jamil Khir Baharom, explained that the purpose was to ensure that implementation of whipping as a punishment under Sharia was carried out flawlessly. Malaysia’s Islamic laws allow caning up to a maximum of six strokes of the rotan for offences including falsifying doctrines, sodomy, illicit sex and incest. 

As yet, barring Kelantan state and one recent case in Kuantan, no state had meted out the punishment, leading to a perception that Sharia courts were too lenient and only levied fines, never whipping. The changes mooted will eventually depend upon the outcome of a study being conducted by the Sharia and Civil Laws Technical Committee, under the Islamic Development Department. It remains to be seen how far the Sharia sentiment will pervade Malaysian society, given the rising fundamentalism in some parts of the Muslim world, most notably Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who took office on 3 April 2009, immediately ordered the release of 13 persons held under the Internal Security Act which allowed indefinite detention, and also lifted a ban on two opposition newspapers, Harakah and Suara Keadilan. The decision provides relief to two ethnic Indian activists arrested in December 2007; a comprehensive review of the Act was promised.

Malaysia’s leading human rights lawyer, Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, said ISA is a draconian act which was misused to arrest opposition leaders, lawmakers, journalists and even bloggers; he demanded release of all other detainees. These include three other ethnic Indian activists from the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) who were also arrested in December 2007 for the massive anti-government demonstration of 25 November 2007.

The rally, declared illegal by the regime, took place under a backdrop of sustained official harassment of the Hindu minority. For decades, the Malaysian government pursued an unofficial policy of temple demolitions, on the pretext that the temples were built “illegally.” Actually, these were small temples of the clan deities (kula-devatas) of the indentured Hindu migrants; many were centuries-old and predated many mosques which naturally did not merit the same treatment.

Hindu patience reached breaking point on 30 October 2007, when the 100-year-old Maha Mariamman Temple in Padang Jawa was demolished by the authorities. Hindraf organized protests to bring the issue before the international community, which led to a crackdown on Hindu leaders. Sadly, the Indian government ignored their plight, as did the Tamil political parties which are weeping crocodile tears for the LTTE, though Malaysian Hindus are mostly of Tamil origin.

Hindraf called the rally to protest the temple demolition, and despite official repression, over 20,000 ethnic Indians attended. Hindraf was later banned and its leader, P. Wayatha Moorthy, forced to take political asylum in London.

Now, despite release, conditions have been imposed upon Hindraf leaders V. Ganabatirau and R. Kengadharan. Both must remain in their respective towns (Shah Alam and Petaling Jaya) and be home daily by 7 p.m., thus curtailing active public life. They must report to the police station every Monday, and refrain from speaking to the press. These restrictions will operate till 13 December 2009, when the two were due to be released from detention.

These conditionalities have upset the opposition, which feels that far from securing a full and unconditional release from ISA, the leaders remain essentially unfree. The opposition has escalated demands for the immediate and unconditional release of all ISA detainees, especially the three incarcerated Hindraf leaders, P. Uthayakumar, M. Manoharan and K. Vasantha Kumar.

Far from following up the conciliatory moves, the new regime’s record has been tarnished by the shocking complaint on 12 April 2009 against Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar, that Hindraf leader P. Uthayakumar was allegedly served beef at the Kamunting Detention Camp where he is being held.

While Mr. Syed Hamid claimed that Hindraf leaders, being Hindus, are not served beef in deference to their religion, Uthayakumar often complained that camp authorities insulted Hindus by allegedly mixing beef in the food served. He alleged that he found pieces of beef in the chicken sambal served for lunch on March 22, and that detainees working in the kitchen confirmed that the beef sambal and chicken sambal were cooked in the same pot. The chicken was dished out and put on separate tray for him.

He also complained that the authorities did not serve him meals appropriate for a diabetic, despite knowing his health condition. Uthayakumar has decided to go on a bread-only diet and not touch food cooked in the camp kitchen to protest the violation of his religious rights as a Hindu and also his constitutional rights. Unfazed, the regime scuttled his two attempts on 16 April 2009 to secure release from detention-without-trial on grounds of health - a fractured toe made worse by diabetes. It is two steps backwards for Malaysian Hindus.

The writer is Editor,

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