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Monday, August 8, 2011

The world is watching

by R. Nadeswaran | The Sun

READERS will remember that in the past, this columnist had refused to touch on race, religion and politics. Today, an intrepid step is being taken to address an issue which has tarnished the name of the country. The actions of a few have embarrassed all Malaysians, especially our leaders who exemplify moderation, tolerance and restraint. The many words of our founding fathers and their successors appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Instead, selfish individuals are defying the government in their zest to impose their own beliefs and values without any consideration whatsoever.

In May, I was sitting in the audience and applauded after the prime minister gave a resounding talk on Islam and moderation at Oxford. Quoting the Torah, the Bible and the Quran, he explained Malaysia’s success in embracing multi-cultures and multi-religions. Two weeks later, watching the royal wedding on television at a street party, I gladly pointed out to English friends the presence of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the Raja Permaisuri at Westminster Abbey.

My English friends asked me about religious restrictions and my reply was: “As far as I know, Islam does not restrict its followers from entering a church. I have met many Muslim colleagues and friends who attend church weddings.” The king of Malaysia, they were told, is head of Islam in Malaysia like the queen of England is the head of religion in England. Last month, the prime minister was granted an audience with the pope with a view to establish diplomatic relations with the Vatican, endorsing our country’s temperance on religion.

These actions reinforced the principle that although Islam is the official religion, there’s room for other faiths to co-exist without any fear or harassment. It took just a few hours last Wednesday to demolish these efforts of promoting a “moderate Malaysia” to the world. The raid at the community hall of the Methodist Church in Petaling Jaya and its repercussions reverberated around the world, painting Malaysia and the religion as intolerant establishments.

One publication summed up the action as “religious police harassed Christians attending a dinner”. Sitting away from Malaysia, one cannot make a valid judgment and verify such claims, but reading online versions from Malaysia and around the world, one cannot deny that, yet again, we have shot ourselves in the foot.

A report filed by the Associated Press which has thousands of subscribers said: “Malaysian Christian officials accused Islamic authorities on Thursday of unlawfully entering a church and harassing guests at a community dinner. The incident reignited criticism that authorities in the Muslim-majority country fail to respect the rights of Christian, Buddhist and Hindu minorities. Government officials have repeatedly denied being unfair to minorities, despite complaints about a wide range of issues including court disputes involving religious conversions and restrictions against Malay-language Bibles.”

This and others by news agencies have put not only Malaysia in bad light, but Islam itself. To make matters worse, British newspapers reported on Friday that a Westminster court had found four Muslims guilty of putting up posters declaring “Christmas to be evil”. The posters claimed Christmas was “responsible for rape, teenage pregnancies, abortion, promiscuity and paedophilia.” Reading both reports together could very well present an entirely different picture.

The four may have acted as individuals and may not have belonged to any religious organisation or were backed by any group but their actions have resulted in the religion being perceived as intolerant. Similarly, the raid in Malaysia may have been carried out by religious officers, but when it makes the news, it is perceived and reported as “Malaysian religious police”, although we do not have a separate arm of the Royal Malaysian Police enforcing religious diktat.

When government servants misuse or abuse their powers, it is reflected on the state and the leadership. People who read the reports tend to attach labels to both the country and the religion.

The government and its leaders are spending time, effort and money in trying to promote Malaysia both as a holiday destination and for investment opportunities. Besides, we are wooing talent from abroad. What messages are we conveying to them with such actions? We have to take immediate steps to change the perception of the outside world by re-emphasising that religious acceptance – not mere tolerance – is the hallmark of our multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. That means that the actions of zealots and fanatics must be curtailed and those who choose to misuse and abuse their power must be dealt with severely.

To the legal mind, it may be just trespass because religious officers have no power of search and entry. It is much more than that. If a group that allegedly distributed pamphlets and was in possession of T-shirts can be charged with subversion, than what these officers have done is much more serious. Let us be reminded that the world is watching and if nothing is done, let us not blame anyone but ourselves for being labelled in the same lines as Iran or Zimbabwe. The western media, the opposition or “anti-national” elements should not be the scapegoats for the country being pigeon-holed and written off as intolerant and insensitive.

R. Nadeswaran is compelled to make a stand as the actions of a few are hurting all Malaysians. He is theSun’s UK correspondent based in London and can be contacted at:

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