On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Sensitive way to handle issues

It means entering into a relationship with God. Often, for
the faithful, it means a change of lifestyle. But the most poignant reality is
that sometimes, conversion into another religion is also because of love that
leads to marriage.

In the case of inter-racial marriages, the reality is that
sometimes, marriages fail and when that happens, people may want to go back to
their previous religion. In other countries, it would have been a simple and
straightforward matter, but in Malaysia,
it can become a thorny issue.

So, we have ended up in a murky situation. The moderate and
more sensible politicians have preferred to discuss these issues behind closed doors,
away from emotional and sometimes irrational individuals.

Then there are the legalists who argue their case strictly
from what is written in the Constitution. That means interpretation of
semantics. It can be a cold and elitist approach but they have valid reasons.

After all, what is the point of having a Constitution, a
properly defined document of laws and principles, if we are not going to
respect and follow what has been agreed upon?

For that matter, what is the role and function of the courts
and the legislature if these issues are hijacked by religious bodies or,
sometimes, by individuals with political ambitions?

Malaysians have yet to come to the point where we are brave
enough to adopt a critical attitude towards those who mesmerise us through
religion. Irrespective of our faith, not many of us dare to question religious
leaders even if their stand is flawed because we see them as God's men,
forgetting that they are mere humans.

They may be learned and trained but that doesn't give them full
control over followers of the various faiths. If we are to be progressive and
to move forward to become a civil society, then we must adapt ourselves to deal
with those who attempt to put up a theocratic structure for their own benefit.

It has to be granted that there would be disputes – with
religious and communal connotations – when it involves prayer, death or

In a multi-racial country, it is right that we take a
cautious approach, because the larger interest of the people is more important
than that of individuals. The unity and harmony of the community as a whole
must not be compromised.

That is why Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
has wisely called on various groups to exercise caution, especially in any
debate about syariah and civil jurisdictions.

The Prime Minister has rightly said that organisers must be
careful as the subject is sensitive. He has been just and fair-minded when he
said recently that the public forum on the protection of minority rights under
the Federal Constitution was legal and not banned but advised them that they
must avoid treading on dangerous grounds.

The organisers of Article 11, an umbrella group of 13
non-governmental bodies, must remember that those who oppose their views have
similar rights to hold meetings to express themselves.

When meetings with opposing views are held, there would be
some who may intentionally stir up arguments that can be hurtful.

Abdullah is correct in calling for caution because many of
us often see things only from our own perspective. We talk about our rights,
forgetting that others have rights, too.

The police must be commended for acting in a professional
manner, given the emotive situation, by asking the forum organisers to cut
short their closed-door meeting and asking the protesters to disperse.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Nazri
Abdul Aziz was harsher in his criticism of the protesters.

It can only be described as mob behaviour, which must not be
tolerated in any civilised society. No lawful society should accept such
behaviour by those who try to legitimise their actions in the name of religion.
There is such a thing as rule of law.

One leader of the protesters was the Penang Ulama
Association of Malaysia assistant secretary Hafiz Nordin. He is also the state
PAS deputy youth chief but he denied the party was behind the protest. Last
week, PAS Youth handed a memorandum to the Prime Minister's Office calling for
action against the organisers of Article 11.

Penang police chief Deputy Comm Datuk
Christopher Wan said that action would be taken against the protesters, who
called themselves the Anti-Inter Faith Commission Body, pointing out that they
were from "a political party".

I am reliably informed that active high-level discussions
are taking place among political, religious and non-governmental groups on
these issues. Those involved in these talks are a multi-racial and
multi-religious group of people with high integrity and credibility and I
believe that they would be able to come up with some fair and accepted

Issues affecting marriage, divorce, child custody and burial
rites should not be the monopoly of religious elites. Regardless of their
religion, they are not the sole, authoritative interpreters of their respective
religions by virtue of their religious training.

The "holier-than-thou" and narrow approach of the religious
establishment, who sometimes refuse to accept the perspectives of other faiths
beyond their own, can be obstacles to reform.

I am positive and optimistic that our Cabinet, which include
the heads of many Barisan Nasional component parties, would be able to tackle
these issues well. But certainly not politicians masquerading as religious

Our Barisan leaders are elected representatives of the
people, and they, and not the theocrats, should determine what is best for the
people. They should not get themselves clouded with issues, which some may want
to complicate, because at the end of it, it is about the personal and private
lives of ordinary Malaysians.

We must be alert against policies, seemingly religious,
which run contrary to our Constitution and laws. We must hold sacred to these
principles of laws because they were agreed by our founding fathers.

No one has a right to judge anyone because in any religion,
it is God and God alone who determines all, and that right to abrogate that
power has not been given to anyone. That should be clear.