Malaysia has changed, but not for the better
Tarun Vijay, December 8, 2007
Ramachandran, a Tamil, was hospitable and enthusiastic, keen to take me on a tour of Kuala Lumpur. I would have to see the Maha Mariamman temple and the Batu caves, as "without them a trip to Malaysia would be incomplete," he asserted. The Batu Caves temple, devoted principally to Lord Subramanianswamy, is a big tourist attraction for the entire South East Asia, with people of all religions and nationalities visiting it. Established in 1891, it’s a signature spot of Hindu civilisational marks on the Malay Peninsula. Hindu influence, dating back to 2nd century AD, can be seen in Malay culture, language and traditions even today. The "Malay" of Malaysia, and "Pur" of Kuala Lumpur are unmistakably Sanskrit.
I was introduced to a vivacious amount of Malaysian history while climbing the 272 steps leading to the Batu Caves. More Chinese Buddhists were praying there than Hindus. The atmosphere was so sublime and enchantingly serene that I felt I was in Tirupathi. The literature given to us by the temple authorities said that in 1975 a minister in the local state government of Selangor, Haji Idris, had "immensely" helped in the construction of the third flight of stairs. Malay Hindus gratefully acknowledged his help in their religious literature. They also said that Malaysia had always been their land, though the present lot, particularly Tamils, reached there just 150 years ago. They were taken there by the British as indentured labour to work in rubber plantations, something which the local Malays were unwilling to do, for such labour lived in conditions of near-slavery. Later in the day we saw Maha Mariamman temple. This temple, I understand, has been demolished recently, after being declared an unauthorised structure.
Dinner was at Sabharwal’s house. He is a fifth generation Malay Punjabi trader. At dinner, I met some more Malay Hindus, and a discussion started on the future of the Hindu community there. They spoke about how Hindus were feeling the heat of growing Muslim intolerance, which otherwise was never a part of Malay society. "We feel isolated. One day they will ask us either to convert or to get out," lamented an octogenarian Malay, who also worked as a priest at a local Kaliamman temple. A young engineer said that Hindus were looked at with disdain and it had become very difficult, if not impossible, for Hindu youths to get government jobs. But frankly, I didn’t take that seriously. Getting a government job is difficult anywhere. And I have believed it is only the less enterprising who complain the most. But then our conversation turned to the spectacular progress Malaysia was making. I said, look at the IT super corridor, the highways, malls, modern and industrious women and above all Malaysia’s courage to stand up to American pressure. They agreed that Malaysia was making progress, but they felt this progress could not be sustained if Arab money continued to pour in for the Islamisation of Malaysia. Wahabi influence was increasing in every walk of life. The Sharia courts and religious policing were terrorising non-Muslims, especially Hindus, as the neo-flagbearers of conservatism extended their control over power.
At another party, a Malay foreign ministry official presented me with a book written by Dr Mahathir Mohammed, the former Prime Minister, Islam and the Muslim Ummah. At best it can be described as the stray thoughts of a modern Islamist who failed to reform his home turf. Apart from making speeches, he couldn’t garner support for his version of Islam, though a look at what is happening to Hindus in Malaysia would make many parts of Dr Mahathir’s book interesting. He writes, "Today Islam has become different from the religion of peace and tolerance that was brought by the Prophet Muhammad… Islam has become a rigid, intolerant and seemingly an unjust religion to the faithful and to others because of the fanaticism and misplaced orthodoxy of people with vested interest" (Islam and the Muslim Ummah, page 33).
Now put this in the context of Malaysia: Islam is the official religion, and Bhumiputra (sons of the soil) Malays must be Muslims. For Muslims, marriage, property and divorce are governed by Sharia courts. They are prohibited from converting.
Economic failures often create a one-way escape route through exhibitionist fundamentalism. Malaysia too saw this phase with Mahathir (derived from Sanskrit Maha-Sthir, meaning Vishnu), encouraging extremist positions and thus shocking Hindus who saw the worst chapter of their lives unfolding in his last days as Prime Minister. Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is considered to be following in his footsteps.
The news that has been coming from Malaysia over the last few weeks is horrifying for Hindus. Consider these headlines: "Malaysia’s Islamic officials seize baby from mother who sought a Hindu life"; "Hindu in Malaysia given Islamic burial amid protest by family"; "Don’t greet Hindus on Diwali: Malaysian Muslims told by the head of Sharia department"; "Hindus blame Islamisation for temple trashing".
These are not isolated incidents, nor are they a new phenomenon. Hindus in Malaysia have waited too long to emerge from their shells. And then, when for the first time they tried to participate in a well organised demonstration, they were cruelly beaten and chemical-mixed-water cannons were used to disperse them.
This year Diwali was not celebrated in Malaysia publicly. Only small pujas were conducted when Hindus tried to express their anger against the demolition of the century-old Maha Mariamman temple.
It is true that many Malay Hindus are among the richest in Malaysia, but around 80% Hindus live in the less palatable parts of the cities. The president of HINDRAF (Hindu Rights Action Force), Wytha Moorthy was in India. When I spoke to him he was almost in tears while describing the Malaysian state apparatus’ Islamic approach towards Hindus. He said, "We are targeted most bitterly, as they feel no one will speak up for Hindus." I asked him why they should be seeking any help from the British, why they could not fight their own battles as Malay citizens. He replied, "We have tried to garner international support from the US, UK and India included. After all we are known as Malaysians of Indian origin."
Finally, the South Block woke up, summoned the Malaysian envoy and did what it exactly it did with the Danish envoy during the cartoon controversy — lodged its protest. Thus it thought it had negated the criticism that the government was ignoring Hindu woes. However, this round should go to Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi, for his definitive intervention.
But Malaysia has changed, and not for the better.