Global Perspective

May 23, 2006 Vol. 4, No. 4

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Gregore Pio Lopez is researcher for the Monitoring Sustainability of Globalization project www.monitoring
and a coordinator for Young People for Development



Now is the time for Malaysia’s laity to lead

By Gregore Pio Lopez

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Malaysia is currently undergoing profound changes. More than 20 years of iron-fisted rule by former prime minister Mahathir Mohammad saw the erosion of civil and political rights and the submission of independent institutions such as the judiciary, the media and the police to the prime minister. His successor in 2003 Ahmad Badawi has provided some breathing space. The judiciary seems to be regaining its independence, alternative media especially on the Internet are thriving, and civil society groups are able to voice their opinions more freely.

However, this new found space has also allowed groups that are not so civil to rear their ugly heads. The ugliest scene is the current Constitutional crisis in relation to the shariah law. In Malaysia, the federal constitution is the supreme law of the land; however, the constitution provides for shariah law to govern Muslims in religious matters, such as conversion and morality, and family law such as marriage, divorce, custody of children and the division of property. The nub of the current conflict is: Which law is supreme when one party in a dispute is a non-Muslim?

On December 21, 2005, Mr. Maniam Moorthy, a Malaysian soldier of Hindu birth, and paralysed for some years, died after a fall. Moorthy, 36, was somewhat of a national hero as a member of the first Malaysian team to scale Mount Everest in 1997.

At the mortuary, his body was literally snatched from his grieving wife by approximately 50 Muslims who claimed he was a Muslim. This personal issue became a national issue as the widow went to court to get an order that her husband be buried as a Hindu. But, the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled that it had no jurisdiction in the case, thus denying his widow her right to redress. Moorthy was subsequently buried a Muslim.

Then there is the case of community rights. Also in December 2005, an indigenous community that had been relocated by the Johor state government completed construction of a Christian church at their new site. Days before Christmas, local officials had the church demolished. The only reason they gave for the demolition was that the structure was on state land, although they could produce no document or court order giving authorization for the demolishment. The indigenous community petitioned the Johor state government requesting permission to rebuild the church, noting that the land they had left for this location had a church. They were denied permission, and the reason cited was that construction of churches was prohibited on state land.

Two Malaysian newspapers decided to run the cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad that were first published in Denmark. For this, the oldest newspaper in the state of Sarawak, The Sarawak Tribune, has been suspended indefinitely, and the Guang Ming Daily, a leading Chinese newspaper was suspended for two weeks. Legal action was started against the country’s the oldest newspaper The News Straits Times when it carried a cartoon strip, “Non Sequitur,” which some thought was poking fun at Muhammad. Thousands of Muslim Malaysians demonstrated in the streets, shouting slogans such as “Destroy Denmark,” “Destroy Israel” and “Destroy Bush.”

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The root cause of these seemingly isolated but increasingly frequent events is the politicization of Islam in Malaysia. In their competition to win the hearts and minds of the 60 percent majority Bumiputera Muslims, the ruling coalition, which is led by the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), and the opposition party called Party Islam Se Malaysia, have gone to extremes to demonstrate how Islamic each party is. Mahathir set the ball rolling in 2002 when he stated that Malaysia is a fundamentalist Islamic state. As these two parties try to out-do each other, their supporters become bolder and Muslim fundamentalist take advantage of the space created. Malaysia suffers as it becomes more intolerant and Islamic.

Non-Muslim Malaysians face two contentious issues: First, sorting out what rights under Malaysia’s secular laws minorities have in disputes with Muslims. Second, facing emboldened Muslim fundamentalism, evidenced by the sheer force with which the small group of Muslims snatched Moorthy’s body.

What is the role of the Church, both the hierarchy and the laity at times like this? Can the hierarchy provide a leadership role or should the laity take on these issues themselves as citizens of Malaysia?

Though disappointed with the High Court’s decision in the Moorthy case, the hierarchy of the Catholic church in Malaysia made no move on its own. The official Malaysia Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism, which has Catholic representation, issued a statement calling on the government to amend the Constitution to correct “this grave defect in our legal system.” Suffice it to say that the prime minister has not felt compelled to seek the amendment.

Thirty years ago, the church of peninsular Malaysia organized its first pastoral convention, our very own aggiornamento in response to the Second Vatican Council. This year the church will meet in convention for the third time. The clergy have already spent three weeks reflecting on the future of the Catholic church in peninsular Malaysia. The clergy, religious and laity will meet Aug. 30-Sept. 2, to chart the church’s future. Will the clergy be concerned about the erosion of the fundamental rights of non-Muslims citizens in this country?

The Catholic church in Malaysia is weak politically. It is not made of men or women like Karol Wotyla or Oscar Romero. In fact, the Catholic church of Malaysia reflects the spirit of most Malaysians, passive and non-confrontational.

Yet, the threat of repercussions against any Malaysian Catholics who would go against the government is real. Muslim zealots in the government administration can victimize Malaysian Christians in many ways, as was demonstrated by the demolition of the indigenous community’s church.

The church hierarchy always falls back on the wisdom of pragmatism. “It is better not to rock the boat,” they say. “ Malaysia is not such a bad place after all.” The clergy treads lightly on issues of political and civil rights. Priests who speak on these matters are not looked upon favourably. The church’s social action focus is limited to corporal works of charity and mercy. Malaysian Catholics who are vocal often find their expression outside the church through civil society movements.

The laity therefore cannot wait for instructions from the hierarchy. This could be a case where the laity can and must lead the hierarchy and clergy. We have our duty as citizens and obligations as Catholics. We must demonstrate that living the faith is more than fulfilling the sacraments. It is also about taking part actively in the life of our nation and laying down our lives for our friends.

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