Tun Haniff Omar: Bury those grouses

The Star

When land becomes an increasingly rare commodity in major cities, it’s not just non-Muslims who have difficulty in getting permission for building their places of worship or for burial grounds.

WE went through 18 holes of golf last weekend – and right through I was almost overwhelmed by the deafening sound of silence. Not so long ago, it was the hottest topic in town but last weekend my three playing partners did not utter a single word about the Altantuya murder trial. Why?

I asked some other friends soon after. Apparently, they are also not so glued to the ongoing trial any more because “we already have the postscript ready and are just waiting for the verdict so that we can append our postscript”.

What have been more on my non-Malay friends’ mind were the questions of religious freedom and the New Economic Policy. At first, there were the couple of activist friends who would e-mail to me every shred of literature produced by anyone who showed the Muslims and the Malays as being unreasonable on these two issues. Then I started to get direct questions on these issues from friends and even relative strangers with whom I sat down. How do I answer these questions in a plausible way? This time I will stick only to the first issue.

Article 11 of our Federal Constitution is often brought up and cases like Lina Joy’s are brought up to prove the lack of freedom to profess, practise and propagate one’s religion. My view is that we have as complete a freedom as is envisaged by Article 11 which, by the way, does not give absolute freedom in every sense. Clause 4 of Article 11, for instance, restricts the propagation of any religious belief among Muslims. Thus, adherents of other religions who evangelise, openly or secretly, among Muslims fall foul of this stricture. But what the punishment is for doing so I do not know, as my limited interest in this field in the past has not brought me to discover any Act of Parliament covering this. Perhaps someone knowledgeable will enlighten us in time.

I am not aware of any lay authority or Muslim religious affairs department interfering with the way Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, etc, practise their religion unless such practices infringe any general law relating to public order, public health or public morality. This limitation under Clause 5, Article 11, equally applies to Muslims!

So, what is the general grouse about? I discerned that it used to be – and still remains largely so – about the difficulty of getting land or planning permission for churches or temples to be built, and for cemeteries. If we are referring to government land here, I can vouchsafe that it is an increasingly rare commodity in certain cities and towns, and this is felt even by Muslims who want to build their own places of worship or acquire additional government land for burial.

In Kampung Gajah, Perak, my family donated a piece of inherited land for building the Sultan Azlan Shah mosque. The Hutan Melintang mosque built decades ago on land donated by my grandfather is now able to expand after I donated a further 2 ½ acres land some years back. We must look to the able among our congregation to solve some of these problems.

But from my knowledge of the feeling of the Muslims in general, they would rather that other places of worship are not built too close to mosques and surau. Ask them why and the answer would probably be that the bells, serunai, tok-tok or cymbals may disturb their concentration during prayers and the idols may jar their sensibilities. I am sure that followers of other religions generally feel the same way that there should be some distance between different religious places of worship as all want to worship in peace.

Talking about idols reminds me of the building of that towering statue of Kwan Yin in Penang almost three decades ago. A huge outcry welled up from Penang Muslims, both Malay and non-Malay. A compromise was found that didn’t quite please either side but it helped to calm the situation.

A more recent controversy was the stop-work order on a similar statue in Kudat that, in spite of having received planning permission, was alleged to be too close to a mosque. But two huge statues of the Buddha in Perak and in Kelantan have not elicited objections even from the serambi Mekah (Mecca veranda) state. Why? Perhaps because of the non-competing locations and, who knows, perhaps because a reclining statue, no matter how long, is not “challenging” compared to a towering idol.

Talking about a towering challenge and noise disturbances, I remember that the London authorities capped the height of the Regent Park Mosque and the loudness of its azan calls before giving it planning permission.

As for land for cemeteries, it is a problem for all, even Muslims. Gone are the days when Muslims can elect to be buried in any Muslim cemetery. In Kuala Lumpur, he gets buried where he lived if the local cemetery still has vacant plots or his family would have to beg for a place in a faraway cemetery, or take him back to his kampung cemetery.

Thus the Ampang Road Cemetery is for those living in the Kampung Baru area; and Bukit Kiara is for those in the surrounding areas. Thank God that many non-Muslims find cremation acceptable, otherwise this would be an even bigger problem with each passing day. In Jakarta, they were contemplating burying Muslims on their feet, so to speak, so that they would occupy minimal land.

Both my parents and three other close family members lie in the same grave, so my family doesn’t occupy much land in death and I have already instructed my grandson to bury me in my second daughter’s grave in the Ampang Road cemetery or to rebury her with me so that someone else can have her space. We have to be practical here or we’ll end up in hysterics. The Prophet Mohammad said the best grave is an unmarked one, indistinguishable from the area around it.

Faced with their difficulty in getting land for churches, I find that the Christians have opted for practical solutions. They have turned many shophouses, no less than two in my area alone, into places of worship – a solution most Muslim communities in England resort to.

As long as they can do this, I do not buy the allegation that they are oppressed in this respect. It would be quite different if they are prevented even from having this alternative. I remember when I was in Manila to accompany Tunku Abdul Rahman for the Maphilindo Summit, there was no Muslim burial ground and our Tunku asked President D. Macapagal to reconsider this policy. I remember Tunku telling us that the President said he would have to give serious thought to that as it was bound to be an unpopular suggestion in his staunchly Catholic city.

But today I discerned that part of the grouse is about the inequality of official treatment between Islam and the other religions. I think it is unreasonable to “demand” equality of official treatment when the Constitution singles out only Islam as “the religion of the Federation”. The Constitution does not even say what the other religions are! This is part of our social contract. If we challenge this, we lay ourselves open to further challenges from all sides that will unravel our national fabric.

To the Malays in the years of bargaining leading to Merdeka, few things were more important than to preserve the special place that Islam had had in this land from before British colonisation. Thus the question of religion occupies the third Article of the Constitution, immediately after the name and constituent of the federation (Article 1) and the admission of new territories and the inviolability of state boundaries (Article 2).

In my humble opinion, in this situation a soft sell by the adherents of other religions may go further than a hard sell – or a “demand”. Unless the Constitution is in their favour, political reality, particularly the Umno/PAS rivalry, will make it difficult for the non-Muslims to successfully pressurise the Muslims leaders.

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