Lost Legacies and Lingering Pain: The Plight of Hindus in Modern Malaysia

The Painful Journey of Hindus in Malaysia

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  • Despite a rich history spanning over 2,000 years, the Hindu community in Malaysia faces marginalization due to Islamization.
  • Discriminatory Bumiputra policies favoring Muslims and Malays have left Hindus as third-class citizens, impacting housing, jobs, education, and religious freedom.
  • The unequal allocation of resources, such as public college admission quotas and government jobs, exacerbated socio-economic disparities for Hindus.
  • The biased legal system, institutionalized by the recognition of Shariat law, resulted in unequal treatment, undermining justice and further suppressing Malaysian Hindus.

Do you recall the well-known Malaysian advertising slogan, “Malaysia – Truly Asia”? The campaign portrayed Malaysia as a multicultural destination with bustling cities, pristine beaches, delectable cuisines, and happy people. But scratch the surface and the harsh realities become evident. Malaysia is now a hotbed of Islamic intolerance where Hindus have been reduced to third-class citizens with no rights.

The Deep Historical Roots of Hinduism in Malaysia

Hindus in Malaysia have a rich history that traces its origins back to the third century BCE[1]. During this time, the influence of Sanatan Dharma began to make its mark on the Malay-speaking world. As Sanatan Dharma spread across the archipelago, it enriched the cultural and spiritual landscape of the region.

Between the 7th and 13th centuries CE, Hindu culture in Malaysia reached its zenith. It was during this period that the influence of Hindu monarchs was particularly notable. Raja Sri Isanavarman I, who ruled in the seventh century, was instrumental in promoting Sanatan culture in the region. Another key monarch was King Rajendra Chola I[2], who in the 11th century, undertook naval expeditions and established Chola dominance over parts of Malaysia. This era witnessed the construction of several Hindu temples and the establishment of institutions that furthered the study and practice of Sanatan Dharma. These events solidified Sanatan culture’s footprint in Malaysia and showcased its lasting impact on the country’s history and culture.

Muslims come knocking

By the 10th century, Islamists had also reached the archipelago. They first established their presence in the coastal maritime kingdoms. From these strategic points, the influence of Islam began to spread more widely across the region. The nature of Islam’s spread typically involves conversion, and in this case too, it began converting significant portions of the Malay-Indonesian world.

By the 15th century CE, the once-dominant Hindu empire was in a decline. Islam had become the primary religion in many areas. Under Sultan Iskandar Muda[3] of Aceh (1607-1636), the sword of Islam had begun raiding and pillaging the Hindus in the country. The Islamization of this beautiful country was complete.

Subsequent to the period of Islamic consolidation, the British entered the scene. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the British Empire extended its influence over the Malay Peninsula. The interplay between Islamic traditions and British colonial governance shaped the modern-day nation-state of Malaysia. After achieving independence in 1963, Malaysia embarked on a trajectory that proved distressing for the Hindu community.

Bumiputra: Sanskrit Origins, Hindu Marginalization

The exit of the British from Malaysia was not a straightforward affair of transferring power back to the locals. The British, while departing, left behind a constitution that favored the Muslims and the ethnic Malays. This favoritism was enshrined in the policies known as Bumiputra, which translates to “sons of the soil.” The irony lies in the etymology of the word “Bumiputra.” Derived from Sanskrit, ‘Bhumi’ means ‘earth’ or ‘land,’ and ‘Putra’ means ‘son,’ which illustrates the ancient influence of Sanskrit in the region. This very word, rooted in Sanskrit, was now employed in a system that marginalized Sanskrit speakers, the Hindus.

The Bumiputra policies[4] and related provisions did more than just favor Malays and Muslims, they left non-Malays, particularly Hindus and Buddhists, in a compromised position, rendering them third-class citizens. This system is more than just discriminatory on paper, it provides the very legal backbone for the oppression of ethnic and religious minorities in Malaysia.

The definition of a “Malay” according to the Malaysian constitution is also a point of contention. As per the constitution, a Malay is “a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, and conforms to Malay custom.” This conflation of religious and ethnic identities is puzzling. One’s ethnicity and religious belief are distinct facets of identity, yet they are inexplicably intertwined in Malaysia’s legal understanding.

Muslim Malays have an undue advantage when it comes to housing, jobs, medical care, and education. The education sector, in particular, showcases this disparity clearly. Although Malays and Muslims constitute roughly 64% of the country’s population, they are allocated about 90% of the public college admission quotas. This disparity doesn’t end at education. The job sector, especially government jobs which are considered stable and lucrative, is dominated by Malays. Over 90% of these positions are held by them, leaving a tiny fraction for other ethnicities and religions.

Religious freedom is also skewed in favor of Islam in Malaysia. Legally, a Muslim can proselytize to Hindus and the non-Muslim population. However, if someone from a non-Muslim community tries to proselytize to Muslims, they could face legal repercussions. This one-sided freedom extends to matrimonial matters as well. In the case of Hindu-Muslim unions, the Hindu partner is mandated by the country’s laws to convert to Islam.

In addition to these socio-economic disparities, Hindus face challenges at the very root of their spiritual practice: the establishment of religious sites. Over the years, there have been multiple instances of hindrances in building and even maintaining Hindu temples.

Demographic Shifts in Modern Malaysia

Malay individuals form the majority, accounting for 51% of the country’s population. When considering religious affiliations, Malays along with other Muslim communities collectively constitute about 64% of the entire population.

A noteworthy shift has been observed within the Hindu community in Malaysia. Only a few decades back, Hindus made up 12% of the Malaysian population and were among the most affluent groups. However, over time, their numbers have decreased to 6%. This reduction is not just numerical, it has also translated to a socio-economic decline[5]. Presently, the Hindu community represents the poorest segment of Malaysian society.

Kangaroo Courts, Prejudiced Judgements

In Malaysia’s legal system, the past few decades have witnessed the rise of a concerning dynamic. In 1988, the Federal Constitution of Malaysia was amended to grant official recognition[6] to Shariat law. This move was emblematic of the increasing influence of Islamists in the nation.

With this amendment, Malaysia effectively institutionalized a parallel court system. This dual structure consists of secular civil courts, which operate on principles of general civil law, and Shariat courts, which operate based on Islamic jurisprudence. This bifurcation could, in theory, cater to the diverse religious affiliations within the nation. However, the reality has been less than harmonious.

The core of the issue resides within the judiciary. A clear imbalance of power has emerged in these courts, disproportionately favoring Muslims. This inequity not only undermines the principle of justice but also poses a threat to the rights and dignity of non-Muslim citizens, particularly Hindus.

Several cases highlight this troubling trend. In a particularly notable incident, the Shariat courts took an extreme step that caused an international uproar. A 15-month-old baby was forcibly separated from its mother, Revathi, because she had converted to Hinduism from Islam.

Beyond the confines of the courtrooms, the broader legal structure of Malaysia has also presented challenges for the Hindu community. Sedition laws, designed to maintain communal harmony, have been invoked in ways that disproportionately target Hindus. These laws criminalize any speech or act that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.” However, their application has mostly been selective and biased. For instance, in March 2019, a man faced a severe penalty of six years in prison, along with a hefty fine of $12,200, all for a Facebook post perceived as “offensive to Islam.”

Contrastingly, offenses against the Hindu community receive a different kind of treatment. A significant incident occurred in April 2019. The head of an Islamic information center, after making derogatory remarks[7] about Sanatan Dharma during a seminar that was broadcast on social media, faced arrest. But in a stark display of unequal justice, the attorney general chose not to press any charges against him.

This disparate treatment under the law has had chilling effects on the Malaysian Hindu community. Due to the perceived judicial bias and the fear of retribution from Muslim authorities, many Hindus in Malaysia are wary of voicing their concerns.

Persisting Islamist Influence in Malay Politics

Malaysia has a morbid fascination with Islamist figures and nations. A glaring instance of this was the nation’s decision to provide refuge to Zakir Naik[8], the controversial preacher accused of promoting terrorism after he fled India. This act alone set the tone for Malaysia’s stance on Islamist issues.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad[9] brought up the Kashmir issue at the UNGA and commented on India’s CAA/NRC bill, delving into India’s domestic matters. This elicited a strong response from the Indian government.

Malaysia now identifies itself more with countries like Pakistan and Turkey that wear Islamism on their sleeves. Even as leaderships change, the underlying Islamist influence in Malaysia suggests an Islamist trajectory that might persist for the foreseeable future.

Malaysia’s Path Forward

Malaysia stands at a critical juncture in its socio-political landscape. Ensuring the equitable treatment of its minority and non-Malay population is not only a matter of ethical imperative but also crucial for sustainable national progress.

The nation must revisit its current legislative framework. Laws that curb essential freedoms related to speech, assembly, and association have no place in a modern democracy. Religious equality, a cornerstone of any inclusive society, needs reinforcement in Malaysia. All religious communities, irrespective of their size or influence, should experience the same rights and freedoms.

The evident disparity between the civil and Islamic court systems cannot be ignored. An equitable judicial system, where justice remains blind to religious affiliations, must be the nation’s aim.

A critical revaluation of the Bumiputra policy is the need of the hour. The future of Malaysia depends on policies that provide equal opportunities to every citizen, regardless of their ethnicity or religious beliefs. Unless Malaysia implements these measures, the Hindu community will continue to face marginalization and oppression.



[1] https://www.hinduamerican.org/blog/5-things-to-know-about-hindu-challenges-in-malaysia

[2] https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Rajendra_Chola_I

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iskandar_Muda

[4] https://www.orfonline.org/research/malaysian-indian-community-victim-of-bumiputera-policy/

[5] https://www.indiafacts.org.in/the-status-of-hindus-in-malaysia-a-travelogue/

[6] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/tarun-vijay/the-right-view/intolerant-malaysia-tolerant-faith/articleshow/2577230.cms

[7] https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/malaysia/

[8] https://www.theweek.in/news/india/zakir-naik-refuge-malaysia.html

[9] https://tfipost.com/2020/02/mahathir-goes-down-worlds-oldest-and-possibly-the-stupidest-president-resigns/

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