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In Malaysia, a new attempt to know one's neighbor – and his faith

Why We Wrote This

Proximity doesn't always breed familiarity. In religiously diverse Malaysia, many people feel they tolerate each other's faiths without understanding them. But a new government may offer new opportunities, some hope.

Lai Seng Sin/Reuters
Devotees climb the steps to Batu Caves during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in February 2017.

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Malaysia is a country of many faiths – as is clear from just a walk through the neighborhoods of Kuala Lumpur. In one yard stands a red wooden Taoist altar box, covered in yellow gilded Mandarin characters. Next door, a stone Buddhist statue is poised on a pedestal in a carefully arranged garden. And nearby, a villa’s welcome sign reads “Ma Shah Allah”: the Islamic equivalent of saying “God bless this house.” But despite centuries of living side by side, many Malaysians say they know little about each other’s religions. In part, analysts say, that’s the result of recent years’ increasingly identity-based politics, meant to distract from the last government’s mounting scandals. “We keep employing the term ‘tolerance,’ but we are unable to go beyond it,” says Victoria Cheng, whose nongovernmental organization promotes interreligious understanding. “By saying tolerance, we send the message: I tolerate your presence enough not to attack you but I do not like you enough to understand you. And that has to change.” After an upset election in May, however, some Malays hope the time is right to promote interfaith events – starting with something as simple as breaking bread together.

Jason Lee holds three smoldering incense sticks at his forehead and bows three times at the altar in the open courtyard. He then pauses in prayer. As he places a candle on a mantle in front of the altar, the Muslim call for noon prayer, the adhan, rings out overhead.

Mr. Lee is a Buddhist, his neighbor is a Hindu, his cousin is a Taoist, his best friend is a Christian. They are all Malaysians living in a country whose official religion is Islam. 

“We are many faiths but one country,” Lee says while leaving the Maha Vihara Buddhist temple, which has stood in Kuala Lumpur since 1894.

Yet while Malaysia's mix of faiths and cultures have lived side-by-side for centuries, increasingly ethno-sectarian politics have built barriers between communities over the past two decades.

Many Malaysians say they tolerate each other, but do not understand each other – not yet, anyway.

Since the May election, when voters ousted the party that had ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain, some are now looking to transform the country into a better model of interfaith harmony. And the first step, they say, is to know one another.

“It is part of Malaysian society and culture to be tolerant. We keep employing the term ‘tolerance,’ but we are unable to go beyond it,” says Victoria Cheng, lead program manager at Projek Dialog, a nonprofit that promotes interreligious understanding.

“By saying tolerance, we send the message: I tolerate your presence enough not to attack you but I do not like you enough to understand you. And that has to change.”

Diverse but divided

Religions came in waves to Malaysia. Islam was brought by merchants between the 10th and 12th centuries; Buddhism and Taoism came over with Chinese immigrants; Hinduism and Sikhism arrived with Indian immigrants; and Christianity first appeared with Arab Christian traders, then flourished with the conquests of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British.

This legacy has given Malaysia an unusual mix of faiths: 61 percent Muslim, 20 percent Buddhist, 9 percent Christian, and 6 percent Hindu, in addition to smaller numbers of followers of Sikhism, Taoism, indigenous beliefs, and other religions. Although Islam is the official religion, other faith communities are free to practice and organize themselves.

Yet the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the party which had dominated Malaysia since the late 1950s, frequently turned to identity-based politics to frighten and mobilize its Muslim Malay base – particularly as political scandals mounted. 

Analysts say former prime minister Najib Razak wooed more hardline Islamist voters as the 1MDB graft scandal engulfed his administration. Mr. Najib was arrested and charged with corruption related to 1MDB earlier this month. He has denied all wrongdoing. 

“The use of ethno-politics and Islamism was not common, but UMNO increasingly resorted to it recent years to get their base mobilized, get the Muslim Malay vote and distract the public from corruption,” says HuiHui Ooi, a Malaysia analyst and associate director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.

The government’s Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM) and its local offices would restrict interfaith initiatives involving Muslims, advocates say. They describe an increasingly intolerant atmosphere, from public condemnation of “un-Islamic” events, to restrictions on non-Muslims using the word “Allah” to refer to God. The previous government cancelled a Christian prayer gathering during Ramadan, saying it would upset Muslims during the holy month.

Malaysia bans proselytizing to Muslims, and conversion from Islam requires rarely-given approval from a shariah court. To avoid accusations of proselytizing, Buddhist newsletters have “for non-Muslims only” written in a banner across the top, while Buddhist bookstores post signs in the window barring Muslims. Church newsletters are not distributed outside churches.

“There were always attempts from Malaysians of different faiths to reach out, to have true interfaith initiatives, but the authorities would prevent them from happening,” says Kevin De Rozario, a lawyer and activist CAN Malaysia, a Christian organization.

Religion 101

The policies have left a lasting mark. Many Malaysians say they have never stepped into a house of worship other than their own; others struggle to differentiate between the different religions or understand the basics of Islam.

Projek Dialog has hosted a series of forums explaining the basics of Malaysia’s different faiths, delivered by religious experts and activists in Kuala Lumpur and other locations, from “Shariah 101” to “Taoism 101.” Malaysians are invited to ask about stereotypes they have held for years but would otherwise go unanswered and unchallenged, activists say.

Participants have openly asked whether it is true that Sikh men must never cut their hair (Yes), or whether marrying four wives is compulsory in Islam (No, but it's allowed).

“Sometimes we get complaints that Chinese Malaysians are building a second temple in the same neighborhood, and we have to explain this is Buddhist temple and that is a Taoist temple, and they all must have access to their houses of worship and they do not threaten yours,” says Mohd Faridh Hafez, of the outreach bureau at the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM). “We are working against the disinformation that has been spread over the years.”

Breaking barriers can also be as simple as breaking bread. After UMNO lost the election on the eve of Ramadan, Malaysians looked for ways to capitalize on the Muslim holy month to show solidarity. ABIM worked with a Christian group and Komas, an anti-discrimination NGO, to organize an interfaith iftar – a fast-breaking meal at sunset – at a Kuala Lumpur mosque, featuring Muslim and Catholic leaders.

This time, JAKIM did not shut it down. While a small crowd was expected, hundreds showed up to pass out porridge and water and share the meal. The symbolic act of breaking the fast went viral, symbolizing hope for a new, more inclusive country.

“There is a strong urge among Malaysians to meet and learn about each other; it is only a question about allowing a meeting space,” says Faribel Fernandez, financial officer of Komas.

ABIM, for example, opens its social services to all Malaysians. “We all want to see Malaysia as a model as a Muslim country with a pluralistic society where all live together in harmony and understand each other,” says Ahmad Fahmi, the group’s vice president.

There are signs that average Malaysians are eager as well. At the Batu Caves, a 300-foot staircase up a mountain to a Hindu cave temple outside Kuala Lumpur, ethnic Chinese and Malays in Islamic headscarves make the trek to watch the prayers.

And in Putrajaya, the federal-government district, hundreds of non-Muslim visitors snap selfies and read informational signs outside a palatial rose-granite mosque that floats, seemingly suspended on the water. 

In other subdivisions, a common sight is one yard with a red wooden Taoist altar box covered in gilded Mandarin characters, next to one with a stone Buddhist statue on a pedestal in a carefully-arranged garden, adjacent to a villa with the Arabic words “Ma Shah Allah”: the Islamic equivalent of a plaque saying “God bless this house.”

The walls between these neighbors will soon be lowered, some Malaysians hope.

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