By Cindy Tham
KUALA LUMPUR: In the early days of our independence, ethnic rights was the focal point of many an election campaign. That still resonates today where race-based political parties rule the country and dominate the political culture.
During this 2008 general election, another focal point, it would seem, is emerging. Voters, political parties and electoral candidates are being asked to consider the demands of different religious advocacy groups, namely Islamic, Christian and Hindu groups.
Since Parliament was dissolved on Feb 13, at least three religious groups have announced their respective concerns, either to their members or the political parties, and the public.
On Feb 21, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) issued a statement calling on people of these faiths, and Malaysians in general, to pray in these “critical times in the life of the nation”. It encouraged the people to pray for candidates who will live up to the common religious values which form the moral underpinning of the nation; campaign with mutual respect, understanding, consultation and dialogue; and strive to ensure national unity founded on the protection of the fundamental liberties and human rights of all Malaysians.
The group represents several religious organisations like the Malaysia Hindu Sangam, Malaysia Buddhist Association, Malaysian Gurdwara Council and the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM). The statement called on Malaysians to be mindful of the critical issues, such as the need for a strong judiciary and police, and freedom of religion, and to impress these issues upon the candidates.
It said the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom have been infringed upon, especially in recent times, despite numerous meetings with religious bodies and government authorities. The sincerity of verbal assurances by the authorities must be demonstrated by actual implementation, it said. “No religious community should be subjected or forced to conform to the religious rules of another religion.”
The MCCBCHST said it would pray that no matter which side wins or loses in the coming electoral exercise, “may the people of Malaysia be the real winners”, as the people in power keep their promises and address the concerns of all groups.
Islamic NGOs issue booklet
Just a day before (Feb 20), a group of Islamic non-governmental organisations (NGOs) released a booklet, Malaysia’s 12th General Election: Islamic NGOs’ Election Demands, to make specific demands of electoral candidates and future state and federal governments.
Some of the demands are:
- Reject notion of Malaysia as a secular state, including the call to set up an Interfaith Council – which promotes a secular-liberal understanding of freedom of religion – and a Non-Muslims’ Affairs Department;
- Uphold the role of the Syariah Court; any legal dispute involving Islam should only come under the jurisdiction of the Syariah Court;
- Prosecute those who cause religious disharmony, especially by making offensive remarks against Islam, under Section 298A of the Penal Code;
- The Education Ministry should not give in to non-Muslims’ call to stop Islamic practices in national schools, as these practices such as reciting prayers and observing Muslim celebrations are part of Malaysian tradition and do not jeopardise inter-racial and inter-religious relations;
- Improve efforts to fight corruption;
- Appoint a leader from the Islamic groups to be a senator to represent the community’s interests in Parliament;
- All parties should respect the social contract to ensure racial and religious harmony;
- Reject political parties and leaders who are not sensitive to the special position of Islam and promote individual rights and freedom of religion without limits, which are opposed to the moral and religious values held by most Muslims in Malaysia;
- Ensure that places of worship are built according to the law and take into consideration the local sensitivities;
- Reject the notion of religious pluralism which claims that all religions are the same;
- Reject any effort that brings confusion to Islamic doctrine, including the use of the words “Allah”, “Kaabah”, “Baitullah” and “Solat” in the non-Islamic context; and
- Strictly enforce the existing laws on religious and moral crimes.
“This does not mean we are denying the rights of the other communities,” said Yusri Mohamad, president of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, also known by its Bahasa Malaysia acronym Abim. He told a press conference these issues have been raised before but the Islamic groups decided to release, for the first time, a booklet of their demands.
“We don’t want these issues to be left out during the election as other communities have raised their concerns. We don’t want it to appear as if the Muslims are content, have everything they need and do not have any problems,” he said.
Yusri said the group currently represented about 100 Islamic NGOs but more might come onboard. Other than Abim, the other NGOs include the Syari’e Lawyers Association of Malaysia, Muslim Lawyers Association, Malaysian Chinese Muslim Association and Allied Coordinating Committee of Islamic NGOs.
He said the Islamic NGOs respected the other communities’ concerns but at the same time saw the need to safeguard Muslim interests and aqidah (Islamic doctrine), which have been problematised recently. “This document (booklet of demands) is our effort to present our concerns to the political parties and leaders. It is a measure that is not confrontational, aggressive or extreme,” he said. “It is consistent with the culture of a healthy democracy where issues can be raised with the political parties or authorities.”
Christians called to vote wisely
Another group that is urging members to hold electoral candidates and the government accountable is the CFM, which sent a note to member churches on Feb 15, encouraging Christians to vote wisely.
Its executive secretary Rev Dr Hermen Shastri, who is also Council of Churches of Malaysia general secretary, said the CFM had issued such statements before. “We have done it every time an election is announced,” he told MalaysiaVotes.com in an email interview on Feb 21. “It is to encourage the churches to pray for a peaceful and fair election. It is also to encourage individual Christians to exercise their right to vote and to do it responsibly.”
He said the central message has remained essentially the same. “However, for this election, Christians have become acutely aware of critical issues facing our nation: good governance; corrupt-free society; crime-safe living environment; religious freedom; and, a lively and responsible parliamentary democracy.”
The CFM is distributing flyers urging Christians to consider a political party’s manifesto and track record on citizens’ rights to freedom of religion, conscience and speech; the economy and development; environmental protection; welfare of the poor, sick and disabled; efficiency; and justice and fair play.
It also encourages Christians to evaluate the candidates for their standard of accountability, integrity and honesty; leadership skills; values; and accessibility and availability.
In recent months, the Christian community has voiced concerns that its freedom to practise the faith is being curbed. Sidang Injil Borneo, also known as the Evangelical Church of Borneo, and the Catholic weekly, Herald, are separately seeking a court declaration for the right to use the word “Allah” in Bahasa Malaysia Christian publications.
The church has had problems bringing in to Malaysia Christian literature from Indonesia. It was informed by the Internal Security Ministry last year that the government has categorised the words “Allah”, “Baitullah”, “Solat” and “Kaabah” as words exclusive to Islam, through the order published in the Gazette and the circular KKDN. S.59/3/6/A dated Dec 5, 1986.
Herald’s publisher has also filed a suit against the government for prohibiting it from using the word “Allah” in the publication. The Internal Security Ministry had issued a series of directives for Herald, which has a Bahasa Malaysia segment, to stop using the word “Allah”, failing which the publication’s permit could be suspended or revoked. Under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the minister has absolute powers to grant, suspend or revoke a publishing permit.
The Hindus have also voiced their unhappiness with the way some state governments are dealing with temples built on state or private land. In an interview with Bernama on Jan 12, Malaysia Hindu Sangam president Datuk A. Vaithilingam said, “Hindus in Malaysia welcomed 2008 after an unprecedented emotional upheaval. The demolition of a temple in Kampung Jawa (Selangor) served as a wakeup call for Hindus in particular and Indians in general over their rights and position in a plural society.”
“I see the year 2008 as being pivotal for the Hindus in determining the way forward not only in their faith but in their socio-economic standing as well,” said Vaithilingam, who is also MCCBCHST president.
He was asked if non-Muslims were still free to practise their faith in Malaysia, following several high-profile cases such as the divorce and custody tussle between R. Subashini and T. Saravanan, who assumed the name Muhammad Shafi Abdullah after his conversion to Islam; the tussle over the body of Mount Everest team member Maniam Moorthy (Mohammad Abdullah); the demolition of non-Muslim places of worship to make way for development; and legal conflicts involving Muslims and non-Muslims.
In recent months, the Hindu Rights Action Force and others have taken to the streets to voice their concerns over the plight of the Indians.
“Despite the differences in our belief system, Malaysians remain tolerant of one another and respect each other’s faith,” Vaithilingam was quoted as saying. “We must appreciate the fact that the Malays, being the majority, have accommodated us in many ways. Nonetheless problems do crop up from time to time, testing the tolerance limit of the freedom of religion enshrined in the constitution.”
Asked to comment on the interests of people from other faiths, Yusri said, “Their concerns are valid of course.”
“We are committed to genuine dialogue. We look forward to a proper setting where we can sit with our friends from the other groups,” he told MalaysiaVotes.com after the press conference. He stressed the need for “genuine” dialogue in a closed-door setting instead of a public forum, for more effective discussion.
“It does not have to be a zero sum game. It is not realistic or practical to play an equal number game – Muslims get 50 and non-Muslims get 50. We should go by the needs of each community,” he added.