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Hindu devotees carry milk pots on their heads as they gather at a shrine in Batu Caves during the 2019 Thaipusam celebrations in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Reuters

In Malaysia, cancellation of Hindu holiday stokes minorities’ concerns

  • Decision to cancel one-day Thaipusam holiday in Kedah over coronavirus concerns comes in for heavy criticism by opposition MPs and former PM Najib Razak
  • Analysts warned that the move – along with proposed strengthening of Islamic law, aimed at targeting LGBT community – reflects a growing conservative force

The cancellation of a public holiday for a Hindu festival in Malaysia’s Kedah state along with the country’s de facto Religious Affairs Ministry recently signalling that the country’s sharia law penalties could be strengthened – with the country’s LGBT community as one of the main targets – have unsettled religious minorities and some moderate Muslims who worry the country is moving towards greater conservatism.

The Kedah chief minister’s decision to cancel the one-day public holiday on Thursday to celebrate Thaipusam, purportedly out of coronavirus fears, has come in for heavy criticism by Malaysian opposition MPs and former prime minister Najib Razak.

Some analysts said that the Islamist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) was attempting to further entrench principles of Islamic conservatism in the country with the recent moves.

“This is expected with PAS in power,” said Mohamed Faizal, a visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “Those non-Muslims saying that Islamic conservatism won’t affect them are definitely wrong,” he said, adding that it would not be the last attempt by PAS to legislate its religious views.

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It will infect the whole country,” Faizal said, referring to PAS’s political agenda. “Conservatism is a pandemic.”

The festival, which celebrates the triumph of Hindu deity Lord Murugan over evil forces, was previously designated a public holiday in Kedah from 2014 to 2019 but did not enjoy the same status last year because it fell on a Saturday, which is a normal day off in Malaysia. Seven of Malaysia’s 13 states and three federal territories – including Kuala Lumpur – also celebrate the holiday, although Kedah was the only one to cancel it.

Najib said on Facebook that Thaipusam was one of the most important festivals for Malaysian Hindus, and that there was no need for its cancellation in Kedah just because festivities surrounding the holidays are not allowed in public due to Covid-19 movement restrictions.

“Let us maintain this tradition. We are 1Malaysia,” Najib wrote, referring to the national campaign during his rule to promote national unity.

Former prime minister Najib Razak pleaded for unity in criticising Kedah state’s decision to cancel the one-day Thaipusam holiday. Photo: Reuters

In stark contrast with Kedah, authorities in Kuala Lumpur allowed the traditional Thaipusam procession of a silver chariot through the city streets to proceed on Wednesday, but banned crowds from gathering to accompany it. Most Hindus heeded the call and celebrated the festival in their homes.

The cancellation of Thaipusam in Kedah came the same week that Malaysia’s deputy religious affairs minister, Ahmad Marzuk Shaary, said the government could amend existing sharia laws to mete out stiffer punishments for Muslim lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT), the state-run Bernama news agency reported.

The Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965, referred to as Act 355, provides for a three-year prison term, 5,000 ringgit fine (US$1,235) and six strokes of the cane for those found to have committed a same-sex act, or for those who do not dress according to their gender. He urged the public with information on “unhealthy activities” carried out within the LGBT community to file reports with local authorities, the Bernama report said.

The deputy minister said the current level of punishment was not seen as not having much of an effect on the LGBT community, according to the Bernama report.

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Both Ahmad and Kedah’s chief minister, Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor, are members of PAS, which has long sought to turn democratic Malaysia into an Islamic state. Ethnically Malay Muslims comprise about 60 per cent of the population of Malaysia, with the rest of the country mostly ethnic Chinese or Indian.

In 2016, PAS president Hadi Awang introduced Private Member’s Bill 355 in parliament to increase the powers of the sharia court by amending the Syariah Courts Act.

The amendments, if passed, would significantly increase penalties for offences from three years’ jail to 30 years, six strokes of a cane to 100, and a 5,000 ringgit fine to 100,000 ringgit. The bill has since stalled.

The increasing tide of conservative voices in the country is partly a reflection of the political instability occurring under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who is fighting to hold his fragile Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition together to stay in power.


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Muhyiddin, who is viewed by analysts as a moderate Malay nationalist, on Wednesday night extended Thaipusam greetings to all Malaysian Hindus and expressed hope that the celebrations would continue to foster unity.

Muhyiddin came to power in March last year following a political coup that ousted former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and his reformist Pakatan Harapan coalition.

Muhyiddin presides over the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) which only has 31 MPs in the 220-seat parliament and is dependent on his coalition partners to stay afloat. The partners include the conservative parties PAS, which holds 18 seats, and the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) which has the largest bloc of seats in the coalition, with 38.

Currently, PN is estimated to have the backing of 110 MPs after two Umno MPs recently withdrew their support.

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Mohd Tajuddin Bin Mohd Rasdi, a prominent political commentator and professor of Islamic architecture at UCSI University in Kuala Lumpur, said Muhyiddin “will accommodate what PAS is fighting for, as he needs their backing”.

He said he was “worried” about the recent developments, fearing that moderate Malay Muslins were no longer the majority in the country since many are above the age of 65 and were brought up during a time when the government was focused on racial unity.

Malaysia is lost to the conservatives
Mohd Tajuddin Bin Mohd Rasdi, political commentator

He also said that moderate Malays were not only getting old, but were no longer thinking “critically” and were supporting whatever conservative initiative was introduced in the country, “including the 355 Act,” referring to the proposed amendment to the sharia law.

“Malaysia is lost to the conservatives,” he said, adding that the country’s conservative groups and political parties largely had the support of the middle class. In addition, he said “We have not heard any of the prestigious, open universities issuing any statements opposing any conservative statements by PAS.”

Malaysia’s only chance to counter the conservative wave is for renaissance Islamic groups like the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), once headed by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, and like-minded Muslim groups to come together, said Tajuddin

“Another possibility is for PM Muhyiddin to find a new coalition partner – politicians who believe in a nationalist ruling coalition.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is under pressure to keep together a crumbling coalition government. Photo: DPA

Faizal of ISEAS said the solution was to bring in “Warisan-style” openness to all of Malaysia, referring to the nationalist, multiracial Sabah-based Warisan Party that previously ruled the state.

“With no checks and balances and one strain of religion, we will soon be another Saudi or Qatar,” he warned, contrasting Malaysia with Indonesia, which he said has “many strains of Islamic ideas” that lead to a more balanced society.

But Azmi Hassan, a political analyst at University Technology of Malaysia, said there was little chance of Malaysia “becoming a conservative nation or more Islamic in nature”.

The proposed strengthening of the anti-LGBT sharia law was a “non-issue” because PAS was “very reluctant to bring forward this issue for parliamentary debate,” because of the party’s fear that it would deepen divisions among Malays.

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“PAS realises they cannot afford to lose support not only from Malays but also non-Malays,” Azmi said.

“The current political scenario of pitting” Malay Muslims against non-Malays “is not healthy, and the majority of Malaysians realise the dilemma.”

Muslim cleric Ahmad Awang, a former senior member of PAS, said the Thaipusam issue and calls to amend the sharia law are attempts by the PAS to gain more votes from Malay Muslims.

“This is just propaganda for future elections. They will not pursue it,” said Ahmad who is currently an adviser to the moderate Islamic Amanah party.

Muhyiddin has said general elections will be held when the country’s Covid-19 situation improves.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: push to greater conservatism sparks concerns