The recent Johor state election victory must have bolstered Umno’s confidence in forming the next government after the coming general election.
During the Johor election, the all-too-familiar message was that the sanctity of Islam and Malay supremacy were under siege, with the ominous threat coming from the non-Malays, the DAP in particular.
This message went down well among the less informed of the rural Malay population. It went down so well that some ethnic Malay DAP members campaigning for their party were bluntly told to go away, as their targeted communities would not vote for a non-Muslim candidate.
This mindset among many Malays has been developed from as early as the 1980s. It was started by Dr Mahathir Mohamad as his strategy, with the help of Anwar Ibrahim, to stave off the rising popularity of Pas on the back of a wave of Islamisation.
This trend gathered momentum and has developed from strength to strength. Today, it has become a phenomenal obstacle that would hinder any effort to build a tolerant multi-religious society in Malaysia.
With such a mindset already embedded in the minds of many Malays, they were further brainwashed into believing it was their sacred duty to convert non-Muslims to Islam, without any regard to the tenets of Islam and ethical and legal considerations.
While the propagation of religions other than Islam is limited by the Federal Constitution, the interpretation of this constitutional dictum is imaginatively stretched and perverted to allow acts that encroach into the rights of other religions.
The controversy that surrounded the Timah whisky issue is just one case in point. Then there are the occasional cases of ‘body snatching’ or cases of unilateral conversions and the snatching of minors from their non- Muslim parents.
For the affected non-Muslims, the experience is nightmarish and desperate, as they appear bereft of any government protection.
While not questioning the effort to openly and transparently convert minority groups to Islam, the clandestine proselytising and conversion activities carried out by certain parties appears to be unfair and superficial and does not positively serve to portray the image of a noble religion. The targets of these efforts include the illiterate, the homeless and the elderly and those in desperate need of help. Some even appeared oblivious to what was going on.
I stumbled upon this situation when I was volunteering with a friend to provide some help to a homeless non-Muslim, ethnic Chinese woman in the city. Having known her before, we were surprised to discover while arranging for her to be admitted to a hospital that she was a Muslim. The photo on her identity card showed her wearing a tudung (headscarf) and the word “Islam” was printed beneath.
The woman narrated to us the events that led to her conversion: a Malay woman had approached her at a food distribution centre for the poor that she normally frequented.
After a few encounters, the Malay woman took her to an organisation with the promise that she would be given financial aid. The Malay woman admitted that for her effort, she would be given a commission.
At the organisation, the homeless woman was taught to recite a few words, which she did. She was told she was now a Muslim. Her identity card was taken away from her to facilitate the change in her religious status. She also met a few other homeless people who went through a similar experience.
I have been involved in social work before this, and this was not the first time I came across devious conversions of vulnerable non-Muslims. In the 1990s, at a rehabilitation centre for ‘wayward’ children, I came across two Hindu boys being forced to wear skullcaps and observe Muslim rituals.
Other friends who had volunteered with NGOs also have stories to tell. One discovered that certain nurses in some government hospitals preyed on helpless old folk who seemed not to have any relatives visiting them. They were allegedly promised that after their conversion, they would no longer have to worry about their funeral arrangements, which would be taken care of.
The whole issue begs the question, who has been financing all these activities? Does it involve taxpayers’ money, whose contributors include non-Muslims?
Religious intolerance is a bane of any society, especially for a multi- religious society like ours. History shows that the use of religion to buttress the legitimacy of any government will eventually lead to its implosion.
Unfortunately, we in Malaysia have been caught in this trend, and nothing appears to have been done to buck the trend. Discussing the issue has become taboo or ‘sensitive’.
As the party that was in power for most of the period since independence, Umno has to take a hard look at this issue. Under Mahathir, the party started the momentum, and it appears it is not slowing down.
Religion has become an important element in our local political Game of Thrones. In one episode of the fictitious TV series, the queen, who wanted to amass power to strengthen her grip on government and the people, used a religious sect to vilify and persecute her enemies. The religious sect became too powerful and its members started to believe they were gods. They eventually went on to control and persecute the queen herself, alleging she had sinned.
Umno arguably has taken a similarly dangerous path. They should be aware of the treacherous consequence of using race and religion to strengthen their grip on power and to dominate the people.
With the possibility of their returning to power now looking better, Umno should reconsider its strategy of using religion to placate one community at the expense of the fundamental rights of the others.
Like in the Game of Thrones, religion is a potent instrument to keep a party in power, but it has a tendency to bite back. Umno may have wished that this strategy would work to its advantage. But it would be wise for the party to be careful what it wishes for.
Dr Teh Yik Koon, an Aliran member, is an academic from a local university with a PhD in sociology from the London School of Economics. She is also an executive committee member of Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia (Gerak)