Faith in multicultural Malaysia

MAY 16 — Tomorrow, I’ll be having lunch with grandma. With mum’s mum on a Friday. Mind you, she’s handy with a sickle. More a farmhand than housewife. 

My only living grandparent — let alone parent — she lives over 2,600 kilometres away in Alangudi. It’s a quaint village south of Trichy (Air Asia lands there) and adjacent to Karaikudi, the source of Brickfield’s best cooks — Chettinad lads.   

Since it’s the land of 330 million gods, it seemed appropriate to wade into Malaysia’s — knickers in a twist — episode over proselytisation. The process of getting people to leave one club to join another.

Speaking about Zamri Vinoth Kalimuthu, the man under fire from Indian Malaysians.

By the way, the family moved from the old house to a new one a stone’s throw away over feng shui. Don’t compete with Tamils when it comes to superstition. The new place on Koil (Temple) Street probably is next to some temple, just like the previous house.

Grandma lives with her son, my maternal uncle, and the clan. After that pow wow, it’s over to my dad’s village eight miles away. They have a large temple by the pond. My paternal uncles are very involved with the annual festival. And yes, a shrine within the family compound.

That’s only two families — not that the numbers of temples and gods would surprise the preacher from Seremban.

When 80 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion associate themselves with some variant of Hindu practice, they’d muster a decent god count.

But does it matter?

The ongoing community outrage about their personal faith being insulted offers an opportunity to discuss the world’s widest operating multi-level marketing activity, religious outreach.

Invariably promotional materials will be objectionable, but how to recruit if all faiths were equal in the sales pitch?

From bald pasty Hari Krishna devotees at airports to missionaries slipping nursing the disenfranchised in economically deplorable zones, religions have to make a mark to convert a Mark.

However, Malaysia’s caveat complicates matters and maybe explains why certain segments feel aggrieved.

I took the one most travelled

Let’s put the positives out there, Zamri is an articulate and charismatic fellow. He is. However, he is equally smug, condescending and lacks contrition. Which is consistent with most preachers of all kinds of faiths from around the world.

It goes with the territory, but in our multicultural society how to manage cultural overzealousness?

When promotions upset the colourful peeps of the Malaysian federation.

Which is how Zamri Vinoth got into a pickle.

His opponents felt he dissed conventional Hindu practices too much.

And legal and demographic conditions compound dissent.

Firstly, Malaysian laws disallow “efforts” to draw Muslims to other faiths. Secondly, the members of the other faiths are minorities. Thirdly, government “aids” in efforts to draw Non-Muslims to Islam.

I’m not asking for those laws to be reviewed, but they need to be outlined to weigh their effects to those with strong religious proclivities.

Safe to say the majority of police reports filed against Zamri last month were by Indian Malaysians of not the Muslim persuasion.

As a minority, and in an environment conducive for propagation of Islam, when they see a Muslim convert preach they feel wrong done. To them he’s ashamed of his roots. I don’t believe Zamri is but Malaysians can understand why a community arrives at the conclusion even if they do not agree with the perception.

I found no joy in his four-day detention. It’s dangerous when we have people behind bars because of arbitrary things like upset feelings. His actions must demonstrate actual harm on society, and if prosecution relies on how emotions are affected, then it is a slippery slope which can boomerang back onto our collective faces.

Setting aside Malaysia’s specific settings, our multicultural society by large appreciates the diversity.

The banana leaf restaurants and incense sticks at the Wat Chetawan PJ for Wesak next week, lend to our common personality. Malaysia, a place of many things.

To continue this way of life, to nurture togetherness, all must exert effort.

Empathy is an important tool to rationalise other values in our shared space. To care for others regardless of the insistence or protection of the laws. Zamri may have an obligation to his faith, but does he have an obligation to other Malaysians, those who do not profess his faith?

It’s splendid Zamri found meaning and purpose, more power to him. But, surely he realises his words are often mischievous even if not meant to be.

They give him a rise and bring cheers from the side he bats for now. They are not merely stories, they form his journey to salvation. And to those he walked away from, they’d be peeved a little by the regaling.

However, it is not Zamri’s job to agree with his detractors. They are welcome to feel unhappy.

What is imperative is to ensure while we play out our human sentiments, we do not abandon our humanity.

Calm down

There are never completely happy endings in all conversion stories, they are what they are.

In lieu of that observation, probably those displeased with Zamri Vinoth must suck it up most often unless there is an enormous harm perpetrated by the preacher man.

Harms which must be measured from the perspective of nationhood and not merely communal groups.

My late mum was a pious woman, so was her father whom I never met. My grandmother bothers more about the fields, planting seasons and irrigation. I’m with her, except for the irrigation part I guess.

I adore my countrymen, whether they have a single god or enough gods to dwarf the stars in the night skies or tick “other.”

It’s time to come to terms that there are personal worldviews we can’t reconcile, but we can reconcile with each other as Malaysians.

That should be on our minds the next time we express our articles of faith or value the expressions made by others.

By the way, my great-grandma’s name was Karupaiye (Blackie).

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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