On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Inter-faith council will promote tolerance

Even his bold decision to speak at the world gathering of
church leaders in Kuala Lumpur
raised eyebrows among conservative Muslims.

The presence of a Muslim leader at a Christian function
in the Arab world, particularly in Palestine
and Jordan,
would be normal but in Malaysia
we have become more religiously sensitive over the years. Unnecessarily so, I
may add.

As an example, a young, idealistic non-Muslim lawyer
complained about the blaring of prayers from a nearby mosque. There was a hint
of intolerance, without doubt.

During my first year in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia,
I was placed in a first-floor apartment in campus. Moving into my room, I was
happy it came with a balcony, which meant I would have plenty of fresh air.

Later, I noticed that the apartment directly faced the
hostel surau and the speaker was positioned towards my room. For the first few
days, my sleep was interrupted but within a week I was no longer affected.

My Indian roommate and I slept like a log every night. We
accepted the call to prayer as being part of our rich culture rather than a

Growing up in Air Itam, Penang, I
used to go to the Cathay coffee shop in Paya Terubong
for nasi kandar. I still think it serves the best coffee in town.

As the coffee shop was often full, the Malay, Chinese and
Indian customers would share tables for our favourite Penang

It did not matter that the coffee shop had other stalls;
the Muslim customers would eat at the same table with the Chinese or Indians
who might be eating char koay teow or pork mee.

To the Malay customers, the coffee shop culture was as
part of the diversity in Malaysia.
For sure, their grievances of national issues are the same, even if they come
from different faiths!

Such tolerance continues today but increasingly we hear
of Muslims and non-Muslims showing their reluctance to sit together for a
simple meal.

We receive complaints about local authorities dragging
their feet in granting permission for religious buildings, especially churches,
even in areas where the majority of the residents are non-Muslims.

The position of the Government and political leadership
is clear. So is the Constitution on the rights of non-Muslims, but some middle
and lower-level bureaucrats have made it difficult because of their prejudice
and narrow-mindedness.

Recent court decisions have not helped clear the
confusion over the position of minors being converted to Muslim if a parent
embraces Islam while the partner chooses to retain his or her religion.

Abdullah, displaying his sincerity as a leader of all
Malaysians, had suggested the setting up of an inter-faith council, saying he
was a Muslim who wanted to initiate a dialogue with Christian friends.

It was important, he said, to talk in a world that "has
become increasingly difficult to do so", and we should realise that religious
tolerance went beyond mere co-existence. There was another reminder: promoting
moderation was not easy because many people practised their faith in absolutist

This is certainly true of some Christian preachers in Malaysia
who can be unnecessarily harsh on some Chinese customary practices, sometimes
causing family discord.

The Prime Minister has said what he has to say. There
have been efforts by many groups to initiate inter-faith dialogue but none has
made any headway.

Non-government organisations such as Aliran and the Bar
Council had arranged seminars on common religious values years ago, including
one on "Belief in God", by the former, in 1980.

Even the book One God Many Paths – that emphasised common
values among major religions – was published by Aliran.

But a credible inter-faith council, represented by
responsible leaders of the various faiths in Malaysia,
still cannot take off.

Such a council could deliberate on prickly issues such as
religious conversion, building places of worship and dissemination of religious
materials in a moderate and consensual manner.

The council could then organise programmes emphasising
national unity, tolerance and common values.

Such effort would cut off the bigots, irrespective of
their religion, who prefer to preach that their religion is more superior than
the others.

These are the disruptive extremists who exploit the
reluctance of the silent majority to speak up.

They place obstacles and conveniently push their agenda
down the throat of moderate Malaysians.

It is obvious that the religious NGOs have failed in
trying to set up an inter-faith council. Perhaps it is time the Government
takes the lead.