KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 18 — The South China Morning Post has suggested that Muslim Malays are starting to leave Malaysia as the country’s lurch towards authoritarianism and fundamentalism starts to bite.
A report in the weekend edition of the Hong Kong paper, titled: “Malay Muslims fleeing country as fundamentalism takes hold” painted a grim picture and suggested an exodus of members of the majority race but gave no numbers or hard data.
It cited a female researcher so disgusted with the state of affairs after her shared accommodation with other women was searched for the presence of a man by Islamic authorities on a morality raid that she has resolved to leave the country in two years.
“An anonymous phone call to the religious department alleging a man was seen entering her flat was all it took for the religious officials to descend on her home,” the paper said, adding that six or seven men from the Selangor State Islamic Department (Jais) had entered her flat.
Unaccompanied by any woman, the men were said to have searched all the bedrooms, closets and even under the bed.
"I don't feel safe in this country anymore," the researcher was quoted as saying. "It's like you are guilty until proven innocent. Anyone can make a phone call to accuse another person out of malice or vengeance and, without proof or investigation, the religious authorities will come to your place."
Figures hard to pin down
But apart from anecdotal accounts, evidence is on just how many Malays have left Malaysia is hard to come by. Most existing data has not been broken down by ethnic composition.
According to a World Bank report in 2011, an estimated one million Malaysians are residing overseas.
More than two million Malaysians have emigrated since Merdeka.
Last year, a total 308,834 high-skilled Malaysians moved overseas, with 47.2 per cent going to Singapore, 18.2 per cent to Australia, 12.2 per cent to US and the rest to other countries like UK and Canada.
According to the same report, the number of skilled Malaysians living abroad rose 300 per cent in the last two decades, with two out of every 10 Malaysians with tertiary education opting to leave for either Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries or Singapore.
These figures have not been broken down to show ethnicity.
But in October former de facto law minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim said that more Malay-Muslims could be expected to leave the country if local religious authorities continue to pursue and prosecute those whose opinions they deem “deviant”.
Over the years, Islamic authorities have gradually become more rigid in their interpretation and application of the Shariah code in Islam.
They vilified and attacked a recent dog-petting event in which some Muslims touched dogs, which are considered unclean to people of the faith. The programme triggered such outrage that its organiser received death threats.
In October, the National Fatwa Council issued an edict banning Muslims from “celebrating” Halloween, which it categorised as a Christian celebration of the dead.
Kelantan, meanwhile, plans to enforce Hudud laws by way of state level enactments, even though its allies in Pakatan Rakyat are opposed to the idea.
An Oktoberfest-themed beer festival in Selangor also drew the ire of Muslim groups despite the promotional event being targeted at and restricted to non-Muslims.
Muslim intellectual Kassim Ahmad is also being prosecuted by Islamic authorities for allegedly suggesting that Muslims need only follow the Quran, and not the accompanying Hadith. The view differs from that which is officially approved.
Malaysia has also outlawed the Shiah denomination of Islam, which it considers deviant from the Sunni school that is officially sanctioned here.
Malaysia’s religious authorities also frequently warn against liberalism. The federal government’s Islamic Development Department (Jakim) has also stated that the National Fatwa Council had at its 74th meeting in 2006 declared liberal thinking as heretical.
Social activist Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir told Malay Mail Online in October she knows of several Malays who say they do not want to return to their homeland.
“It’s not for economic reasons, but simply because they feel that the environment here has become so negative and oppressive that it’s impossible to be able to live as peaceful, productive citizens anymore,” said Marina, the daughter of Tun Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister.