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January 15, 2006
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January 15, 2006

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Home > 2006 Issues > January 15, 2006

Changing face of Malaysia

By Balbir K. Punj

Malaysia is in news for two very different cont-roversies. First, ?Big Foot?, thought to be a mythical creature, was reportedly sighted in Kota Tinggi. Second, M. Murthy, a Malaysian army officer of Indian ethnicity, who was part of Malaysia?s Mt. Everest climbing team in 1997, was buried in Muslim custom amidst controversy after he passed away in a Kuala Lumpur hospital. Mr. Murthy (36) was paralyzed for last seven years out which for the last forty days he was in coma. When his widow came to claim the body of the deceased for last rites she was informed that Murthy had converted to Islam and hence the authorities would bury his body. The shock to his widow Kaliammal Sinnasamy could not have been more. She had accompanied her husband till his last breath and denied about any such conversion. Conversion, in multi-racial and multi-religious Malaysia, is one-way traffic. Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and people of indigenous religions could convert to Islam, the state religion, but not the other way around. But whenever such conversion takes places, the person gets a new Arabized name, which alongside his new religion viz. Islam is shown in his new identification card.

But authorities were at a loss to adduce any such documentation in case of Murthy. He continued to derive his pension from Malaysian army under his original name and religion. The event was not a personal shock for Mrs. Murthy, but Malaysia?s seven per cent Hindu minority. This was clearly an aggression on right of people of other persuasion in multi-cultural Malaysia. Eighteen Hindu organisations immediately sent a memorandum to the Malaysian Prime Minister. An ethnic Indian advocate Sivanesan filed the case in civil court. But the High Court gave a verdict that Sharia court had already ruled that he had converted to Islam. High Court Judge Mohd. Rauff Sharif said Act 121 (1A) of the Federal Constitution clearly states that it is only Sharia court that has jurisdiction pertaining to Islam.

Malaysia is multi-ethnic and multi-religious. The demographic profile (estimated for 2005) based on 2000 census is?Malayans 50.4 per cent, Chinese 23.7 per cent, Indigenous 11 per cent, Indian 7.1 per cent, others 7.8 per cent. Religious identity roughly runs on racial lines- Malays are Muslims; Chinese are mostly Buddhists and to lesser extent Christians; Indians are mostly Hindus and to lesser extent Sikhs and Muslims; Islam has made inroads amongst indigenous tribesmen from Sabah and Sarawak, the Malaysian exclaves on island of Borneo. Thus there are 60.4 per cent Muslims, 19.2 per cent, Buddhists, 9.8 per cent Christians, 6.3 per cent Hindus and five percent of other religious persuasion including animists in Malaysia. The Malayans are most dominant political group, whereas Indians are most marginalised.

Are we watching the Big Foot of Islam in Malaysia? In October last Malaysia?s International Islamic University, made it mandatory for every Muslim and non-Muslim women wear a headscarf in the campus.

Are we watching the Big Foot of Islam in Malaysia? In October last Malaysia?s International Islamic University, made it mandatory for every Muslim and non-Muslim women wear a headscarf in the campus. The government defended saying it was a matter of decency and dress-code rather than religion. This university established in 1983, it must be remembered, as an indicant of acceleration of Islamisation of Malaysian politics after Anwar Ibrahim, joined Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad?s ruling party United Malay Ruling Organisation. With Anwar as its president and a Saudi professor of Egyptian origin as its director, the university?s first allegiance was to Wahabi Islam. Teaching in both English and Arabic, the university educated international Islamist elite in the concept of ?Islamisation of Knowledge??according to which the goal of all science, whether natural or social, was to glorify the revelation of Islam.

When Malaya (Malaysia was formed later in 1963 by addition of Sabah, Sarawak and even Singapore) got its independence from British rule in 1957 industrious and educated Chinese dominated the economic and cultural life. It is they who are largely responsible for economic and industrial development of Malaysia. They were mostly Buddhists and to lesser extent Christians. Indians, who came during British rule to work in rubber plantation made their dynamic presence felt. The Malayans who felt themselves educationally and culturally inferior resented this that led to an anti-Chinese riot on May 13, 1969. The Bhumiputra (sons of soil) movement of Malayans who came to wrest the political power was co-terminus with supremacy of Islam.

Islam had burst on Malaysian scene in early 1970s. It was first manifest in dressing pattern of young Malayans who were found favouring Islamic dress made fashionable in the Egyptian campuses over the traditionally brightly coloured sarongs of Southeast Asia. ABIM (Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia) became active 1971. It called for making ?better Muslims? of the young, inciting them to purging their faith of ?rustic superstitions of Hinduism? rooted historically in the peninsula, and ?civilize? them. Works of Pakistani radical Islamist Maulana Sayyid Abu Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979), were translated into Malay and circulated by ABIM.

Apart from ABIM, a full spectrum of Islamist movement brewed in Malaysia from conservative to armed militancy. As early as 1951, Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) had been founded who basic agenda was to push forth greater Islamisation of administration. While maintaining its fine ethno-religious balance Malaysian government could not resist Big Foot of Islam. In 1970s, it became a political ritual for one Muslim formation to call the other Kafir (infidel). This Kafir-Mengafir (?each calling the other Kafir?) led to competitive Islamisation. Mahatir Mohammed, who ruled Malaysia for two decades, had played a central role in state?s Islamisation policy, if only to prevent Islamic affairs being hijacked by more fundamentalist groups. In 1997, he inaugurated the Petronas Towers, world?s tallest buildings, in Kuala Lumpur. It was marked by twin minarets- symbolic of new Malaysia.

The ?Asian Miracle? projected by Mahatir Mohammed in 1990s- a happy union between Islam and modern capitalism- is heavily indebted to ethnic Chinese contribution. Yet Chinese suffered ?positive discrimination? of Bhumiputra policies which meant getting barred from Malaysian universities. They go either to West or Australia to studies.

Peninsular Malaya (called Malacca then) was Hindu and Buddhist country till 15th century. In 1414 CE, King Parameswara married a Muslim princess of neighbouring Pasai and became a Muslim. Subsequently Islam became the imperial religion. One conversion in history changed the destiny of Malaya. And one alleged conversion now has caused much distress amongst Hindus, Buddhists and Christians of Malaysia. The Big Foot of Islam looms upon its ethnic communities.

(The writer a Rajya Sabha MP and Convenor of BJP?s Think Tank can be contacted at

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