Malaysia’s Shame

Farish A. Noor

Posted Jul 9, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Malaysia’s Shame

By Farish A. Noor

It seems as if there are some folk in Malaysia today who believe that the
country cannot get enough bad publicity. Over the past few years the
country’s religious authorities in particular have been at the forefront of
the effort to show Malaysia and Islam in the worst light imaginable: A few
years ago Malaysia made the international headlines when members of the
religious morality-police vice squad raided a nightclub in the capital,
arresting and detaining all the young Malaysians there who happened to be
Muslims, while allowing their non-Muslim friends and companions to party the
night away. Those arrested later complained to the media that they were
harassed and abused, locked in cages and humiliated by the morality police

Then came the spate of other raids of peoples’ homes, including a rather
embarrassing raid on the flat of an elderly American couple who were woken
up in the middle of the night on the grounds that they were suspected of
having Malaysian Muslims in their flat and presumably up to no good. The
fact that the raid took place on the resort island of Langkawi further
dampened Malaysia’s efforts to promote the country as a holiday paradise and
second home for retiring couples from abroad…

Over the past three years the country has witnessed angry public
demonstrations by conservative Muslims over the issue of freedom of
religion; sparked off by the case of Lina Joy, a Malay-Muslim who had
converted to Christianity only to be told that her conversion would not be
recognised unless she put herself through the religious court system first,
thereby incriminating herself in the process.

The latest case involves Massosai Revathi, a Malaysian citizen whose parents
had converted to Islam but who was brought up by her Hindu grandmother and
who had lived most of her life as a Hindu. Revathi is therefore one of the
unfortunate cases of Malaysian citizens whose complex identity was bound to
get her into trouble with the religious authorities in Malaysia, and it
finally did. Following her marriage to her Hindu husband according to Hindu
rites, they had a child who was also brought up a Hindu. Revathi was later
called in by the religious authorities and told in no uncertain terms that
she was legally a Muslim and had therefore committed a crime in the eyes of
Islamic law and Muslim jurists: She was then sent to one of the country’s
‘Faith Rehabilitation Centres’ so that she could be ‘persuaded’ to return to

The plight of Revathi and others like her has brought to the public’s
attention the existence of the so-called ‘faith rehabilitation centres’ that
were created as part of the Islamisation programme of Malaysia since the
1980s. Though little is known about these state-funded institutions and what
happens in them, Revathi’s case has brought certain facts to light.
According to her husband’s affidavit statement made to the court, his wife
was kept in the rehab centre and lectured on Islam for weeks on end. As part
of her re-indoctrination into Islam, she was made to eat beef – which as
many people know, is not allowed for Hindus. Revathi was kept away from her
husband and child for six months, until media pressure and constant lobbying
by both Hindu and secular NGO groups led to her release this week.

Upon her release Revathi has spoken of her ordeal to the Malaysian and
international press, revealing the conditions of the camp and the fact that
many who were there had chosen to escape. Furthermore she has been told that
she cannot renounce Islam, despite the fact that she was brought up by her
Hindu grandmother and had lived as a Hindu most of her life. This also puts
into jeopardy her marriage to her Hindu husband and the custody of her

Needless to say, none of this bodes well for Malaysia, Islam or the image of
Muslims in the country. At a time when religious issues have become
ultra-sensitive in Malaysia, cases such as Revathi’s points to the growing
intransigence and belligerence of the country’s religious authorities who
increasingly behave like a law unto themselves. Furthermore one wonders how
many more cases exist out there, of people like Revathi or Lina Joy who have
been forced into a life of secrecy and hiding for fear of the wrath of the
morality police and shariah enforcers.

Of course, all of this is taking place against the backdrop of a Malaysia
that is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary and which is currently
celebrating ‘Visit Malaysia Year 2007’. Tourists who come to the country
will undoubtedly be bedazzled by the pastiche of post-modern consumerism run
amok in the capital, where shopping and capitalism seem to be the real credo
of the land. The Malaysian government under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi
prides itself with the claim of being a moderate Muslim state where a
‘civilised Islam’ is being promoted under the vague banner of ‘Islam
Hadari’. But where, pray tell, is the ‘civilised’ aspect of religious moral
policing that locks people in cages, verbally abuses female Muslims accused
of indecent dressing, breaks into the homes of citizens in the dead of
night? Underneath the glitz and glamour of Malaysia’s polished façade, the
unfettered religious bureaucracy of the country points to a growing tide of
Malay-Muslim communitarianism that is increasingly intolerant and demanding
a greater slice of public space. Some Malaysians living in multiracial
neighbourhoods have even been told that they cannot keep dogs as pets, for
fear of upsetting their Muslim neighbours.

The victims of this politicised religious politics, like Revathi, are left
to fend for themselves with only the help of the country’s small NGO
community and the international media to highlight their cases. Yet the
verdict is clear: After being detained for six months, Revathi confesses
that she ‘hates Islam even more now’. Hardly surprising when one considers
what she has been put through in the name of ‘saving her soul’. The question
is, what is the current government of Malaysia going to do about the current
state of affairs? Malaysia’s religious authorities have proven to be a
menace to themselves, and some would argue the country as well.


Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist at the Zentrum
Moderner Orient Berlin and visiting professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic
University, Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site.