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Malaysia at the Crossroads -

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Malaysia at the Crossroads

Broadcast: 31/10/2006

Reporter: Helen Vatsikopoulos


VATSIKOPOULOS: It looks, sounds and even smells like it could be a night out in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi
or Doha but it's the middle of the Arabian summer, when gulf Arabs come to Kuala Lumpur to cool

Since September 11, it's become the tourist destination of choice for many Arabs, especially those
from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. And why not? It's safe and terrorist free. A country with
Islamic institutions. Yet what makes Arabian tourists so comfortable here, is making some
Malaysians feel like the outsiders.

M. MANOHARAN: The non-Muslims are treated as a second class citizen. The Muslims are given the
priority so they are not interested whether you are a Malaysian, they are more interested whether
you are a Muslim Malaysian.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Malays benefit from affirmative action and other government policies designed to
raise their living standards, something minority ethnic Chinese and Indians don't get and in the
past two decades, the ruling Umno Government has strengthened Muslim or Sharia laws. The rationale
being, these would curtail the growth of the Islamic opposition.

IMAM: Praise be to Allah, creator of all beings who speaks in his holy Koran, the most truthful of
words. He did create in pairs, male and female, from a seed...

VATSIKOPOULOS: Joined in an Islamic marriage, Malays are bound by Sharia law.

GROOM: I agree to be punished by whichever Sharia court, if I ever harm any part of her.

VATSIKOPOULOS: It's a personal code overseeing rites like marriage, divorce, inheritance and morals
- and it's enforceable by the Sharia courts.

When Dr Mahathir amended clause 121 of the Constitution in the late 80s, he elevated the Sharia
courts, giving them equal powers to that of civil courts, thereby creating two parallel legal
systems replacing what was a secular judicial system.

Now Sharia courts only decide on family and Islamic issues but what happens when there's a
religious dispute involving both a Muslim and a non-Muslim? Well it's in the lap of the Gods.

Kaliammal Sinnasamy is praying for the soul of her dead husband. She says it was stolen from her by
Muslim bureaucrats. Sinnasamy remembers Moorthy Maniam as a devout Hindu who performed sacred rites
but he's been buried as Muhammad Bin Abdullah.

Moorthy Maniam was a Malaysian hero, a commando and part of the team that climbed Mt Everest. An
army accident left him a paraplegic and when he lapsed into a coma and lay dying, Sinnasamy was
told by an army major her husband had converted to Islam. It was news to her.

KALIAMMAL SINNASAMY: What Moorthy would do was to worship God according to Hindu practices,
together with me. He would take a pot with fruit for worship which is a Hindu practice. He would
read religious books on Hinduism. He knew the Hindu practices of worship.

VATSIKOPOULOS: When he died, the Islamic Religious Council sought permission from the Sharia court
to claim his body and a large group of Muslim men arrived to make it happen.

M. MANOHARA: They used him with the intention to show that in this country, Islam is supreme. We
have dominance over the non-Muslims. It is the government that is doing these things to the non
Muslims. I think they should stop funding this religious movement, going around the country
claiming dead bodies, claiming that they have converted, claiming that they are Muslims, taking the
body and burying in their cemetery without even giving the family members their right to pay last

VATSIKOPOULOS: Moorthy was buried in a Muslim ceremony that same day. Sinnasamy took the case to
the civil courts, wanting to know exactly what happened.

KALIAMMAL SINNASAMY: I don't know what happened when he was in a coma. I was very confused. I
wondered how he could have converted.

VATSIKOPOULOS: But the High Court ruled it had no jurisdiction over the Sharia Court and what it
saw as a Muslim matter. Sinnasamy is now appealing against the decision. The case has captured the
attention of multi-religious Malaysia and people are asking what's supreme? Muslim law or the
country's secular Constitution where Article 11 guarantees religious freedom. And there are other

On a sunny day back in August 2003, romance was in the air for university sweethearts Ooi Kean
Thong and Siow Ai Wei. Reuniting in a city park after a three month absence, they read out each
other's love letters. They may have embraced, held hands, even hugged but they deny ever kissing.

OOI KEAN THONG: For me it's the holding hands, or maybe hugging - but not doing that thing. I think
you can say it's acceptable not doing, how you say, make love or whatever in a public space.

VATSIKOPOULOS: But two municipal inspectors claim they breached indecency laws.

SIOW AI WEI: He said you did wrong and you will be fined and you have to give me money and if not
you will be... the school will punish you and I will tell your mother and father.

VATSIKOPOULOS: And so three years on, though they're no longer a couple, they're defending their
conduct as acceptable behaviour.

DANIEL SELVAM: [Lawyer] If the defence are called, then you will have to explain your part of the


DANIEL SELVAM: The two enforcement officers, they were basically Malay origin. Maybe they were
putting their values when they are booking these two for the offence.

VATSIKOPOULOS: But creeping Islamisation is not just affecting non-Malays. Malay women say it's
taken their rights backwards.

NORANI OTHMAN: [Sisters in Islam] We have to find and interpret the whole thing consistent to our
situation and our cultural heritage. What we are doing is we are embracing, we are actually, it is
not so much Islamisation as some of my friends and I have called it 'Arabisation' of Malay's way of
life, Malay culture.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Sisters in Islam, a lobby group and irritant of the religious bureaucracy, says
changes in Islamic family law have created a sexual apartheid among Malays.

WOMAN AT CENTRE: My husband just divorced me.

RAZLINA RAZALI: [Lawyer, Sisters in Islam] Did he say it clearly, that I want to divorce you?

WOMAN AT CENTRE: He said "I divorce you". That's all.

VATSIKOPOULOS: And it's not even necessary to tell your spouse face to face. You can divorce them
by SMS or even fax. It's then ratified by the Sharia judges. The sisters claim Sharia judges are
taking Koranic edicts too literally and patriarchy is operating under the veil of Islam.

RAZLINA RAZALI: They pick and chose. This is what we are afraid of because they pick and chose the
one that is favourable towards man but the one that is favourable towards women, they just keep it

VATSIKOPOULOS: Razlina Razali is talking about scholars like Harussani Zakaria, the Mufti of the
State of Perak. He leads the government funded religious bureaucracy in the state and he has no
time for liberal Islam.

HARUSSANI ZAKARIA: Intellectual groups come out they say that Islam... the Koran should be
interpreted and all this. And of course these ideas we cannot accept because why? The Koran to us
is the Word of God.

VATSIKOPOULOS: And the Mufti has allies in the wealthy and educated middle classes. Dr Mazeni Alwi
is an Australian educated paediatric cardiologist who set up the Muslim Professional Forum as a
lobby group that warns against liberal Islam.

DR MAZENI ALWI: One of the areas that we are concerned about when basic tenets of Islam which
ordinary Muslims have practised and held for a long time and still practised today, are being
challenged in a way which is disrespectful of the religion. We find that that is unacceptable.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Dr Alwi says the conservative Islamic push is restoring what was usurped by British

Do you think it's a good idea for polygamy in this day and age?

DR MAZENI ALWI: It depends. I think you cannot deny that there may be some role in it but in
general, people don't want, I don't want to do it.

VATSIKOPOULOS: What role, what role would there be in the year 2006 for...?

DR MAZENI ALWI: For example widows who need support. It's good to have someone who can provide some
kind of support and livelihood for children, for divorcees and also for young children.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Islamic civilisation or Islam Hadari has also been on the mind of the Prime Minister
Abdullah Badawi.

PRIME MINISTER BADAWI: Islam is appreciated and admitted by the whole world because it is known for
emphasising knowledge, which is an order from Allah. So we are empowered by knowledge and this is
what contributes to the development of mankind.

VATSIKOPOULOS: He's proclaimed Islam Hadari Malaysia's Islamic creed, a modern progressive Islam
that should not be feared but it's definitely being talked about in the corridors of the country's
secular court system.

MALIK IMTIAZ SARWAR: [Human rights lawyer] The idea underlying the introduction of Hadari was aimed
at curbing more extremist practices but on another level that's to me a bit worrying because in
essence what it's done is to validate assertion, assertions by some quarters that in governance and
administration, Islam has a place.

[Addressing group] So I would urge all of you today to be very, very worried.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Liberal Islamist and human rights lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar is apart of a coalition
of thirteen human rights and religious groups. They call themselves 'Article 11'. Two out of four
of their forums have been disrupted by fundamentalists.

MALIK IMTIAZ SARWAR: Critics of these policies, of these measures have in turn been characterised
as being anti-Islamic. I've been characterised as being anti-Islamic for doing the kind of work I

VATSIKOPOULOS: Death threats have been made against him and the Prime Minister has asked Article 11
to stop their public meetings.

Officially, Malaysia prides itself on being a multi-ethnic, religious and cultural success story
and with good reason. It has been that way since racial riots in 1969 left hundreds dead.

M. MANOHARAN: There is no future for non-Muslims in Malaysia. The non-Muslims have got no place to
go to fight for their religious rights, to fight for their fundamental or rights enshrined in the
federal constitution.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Fuelled by an increasingly conservative religious bureaucracy, Muslims are
identifying with their religion rather than their country.

MALIK IMTIAZ SARWAR: Malaysia to some extent is at a cross roads and the next five to ten years
could be definitive of the kind of nation we will have in the years to come.

HARUSSANI ZAKARIA: Do not disturb Islam. That's all. That's our worry. If you are trying to disturb
Islam then something will come up.

VATSIKOPOULOS: What cost, what do you think?

HARUSSANI ZAKARIA: Cost, the cost may be racial conflict.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Like in 1969?

HARUSSANI ZAKARIA: Maybe. That's why I'm scared. Because we cannot accept all this. Now, the rich...
now, who's having the rich economy in this country? The Indians and the Chinese. They bully the
Malays. That we know... that I know.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Kaliammal Sinnasamy knows differently. She's living with constant bullying. Under
Islamic law, the child of a convert is considered a Muslim. Twelve year old Dineshweri is on a list
for conversion so Sinnasamy's taken her out of a multi-ethnic school and enrolled her in a Hindu
one. Having lost her husband, she's desperate not to lose her only child.