Malaysia

For a country that stands for the freedom of religion

Every morning, when I alight at the Bangsar LRT station, I am greeted by a movie poster depicting a Malay man and a Chinese woman in traditional Malay wedding get-up. Both look nervous.

Without fail, the poster always reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend engaged to a Malay girl he had known for a decade.

He loves her to bits and for all the right reasons. Yet, over lunchtime one day, he tells me that he is afraid.

Not of the commitment of married life, but that he would be forced to adopt an identity he didn’t want.

To him, Islam is unappealing. And he believes that he fell in love with her because she had a certain appeal that turned him on. Not because of Islam.  

He thanks his lucky stars that she understands his choices and is willing to journey the rough road ahead. To her, it is the relationship that matters, not one’s religious devotion.

He also never thought much of the idea of being a self-styled Muslim while enjoying pork bacon and a weekly pint in secret.

Their parents are divided over their decision to get married. But perhaps what’s painful to everyone is their decision to migrate.

He is choosing to do so because he’d rather be an alien in a country that respects the liberty of one’s beliefs, as opposed to being a citizen in a country which coerces him to follow its stipulations.

“It’s like that Eagles song, bro... ‘Hotel California’. Once you check in, you can never check out,” he tells me and a short silence ensues.

Both of us are at a loss for words. Being typical guys, we break out into jocular remarks of what he’d need to do if he embraced Islam. And we laugh it off. But the concerns don’t go away.

Interfaith initiatives have been abuzz lately, from dialogues to peace walks to Facebook groups and whatnot. But are we doing enough to promote a safe environment where everyone can exist peacefully, regardless of their religious choices? It seems we have a long way to go.

I believe it’s time we lobby for the fundamental value of the freedom of religion and consign religious beliefs and authorities to the community that subscribes to them. Not turn them into an overarching power that governs everyone within its view.

And what more, at a time when we have individuals and groups who are going mental over establishing themselves as part of a supreme race and religion, asserting themselves over others?

A few years ago when I was just starting out as a writer, I had the opportunity to interview a United States-based Malaysian mixed-media artist at his temporary studio in Ampang.

He was in Kuala Lumpur for an upcoming showcase on “Merdeka” for a renowned advertising firm, and kindly entertained me for an hour. 

During my chat with him, I noticed his depiction of Malaysia as that of a fragmented nation. And when asked why he depicted us like that, he said:

“Boy, you know... we always say we are a multiracial country. But the moment something serious happens... the Malays will run to the Malays, the Indians to the Indians. More so, if it’s a religious issue.

“The reason I decided to stay in the US is because I want my kids to be in a free environment. If my kid wants to be a Christian, go ahead. If he even wants to be a Jew, go ahead. At least I know that I never forced him to do something against his wishes. And that he turns out to be a positive influence in society.

“To provide him that space is the best thing I believe I can give... After all, I am a father first, a Muslim second.” – March 1, 2014.

* Emmanuel Surendra is a sub-editor at The Malaysian Insider.

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