Malaysia – Is it moderate, and is it modern?

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?

Originally published in The Washington Post, online,


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