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Religion-sensitization courses should be compulsory not only for civil servants and municipal councillors, but also university administrators, MPs and policy-makers
by Lim Kit Siang
Ongkili, who has special responsibility over the National Unity Department and chairs the Parliamentary Select Committee on National Unity, was commenting on a statement of the Christian Federation of Malaysia urging the Government to address issues related to non-Muslims, including sectarian divisions, the impinging of an alternative legal system on rights guaranteed by the Federal Constitution and ethnic discrimination in public and private sectors.
I will go one step further, making religion-sensitization courses compulsory not only for civil servants and municipal councillors, but also for university administrators, Members of Parliament and policy-makers to make them realize that Malaysia is a plural society of diverse races, religions, languages and cultures.
The need for such broader religion-sensitization was illustrated by two incidents in Parliament last week, demonstrating that religion-insensitivity in a multi-religious nation is becoming an increasingly vexing problem, when it has infected even the highest legislative and political chamber in the land.
In the first instance, during the winding-up of the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Nazri Aziz during the committee stage debate of the 2006 Budget last Wednesday , the parliamentary jester Badruddin Amirulddin (Jerai – BN) had questioned why the two non-Muslim female staff members were given the option to decide whether to wear the tudung inside the Chamber.
In the previous week, the two non-Muslim female staff members entered the Parliament chamber in tudung and the MP for Batu Gajah, Fong Po Kuan had immediately stood up to ask whether there was a compulsory rule requiring non-Muslim female staff to wear the tudung when on official duties inside the Chamber.
The Parliament Speaker, Ramli Ngah, who was in the Chair, clarified that there was no such compulsory rule and that it was up to the non-Muslim female parliamentary staff to decide whether or not to wear the tudung.
After this clarification, the two non-Muslim women parliamentary staff members were seen without the tudung when they entered the chamber.
The second instance involved the case of International Islamic University (IIU) law graduate, Foo Yueh Jiin, 25, who was barred from attending the IIU convocation for her second-upper honours law degree on August 30, 2005 because of her objection to the compulsory IIU dress code to don the tudung.
When Fong Po Kuan, herself a law graduate from IIU, raised the same issue in Parliament in 2003 and recounted her experience when she was forced to don the tudung against her will at her convocation in 1997, the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education, Dr. Mahadzhir Mohd Khir gave the categorical assurance that non-Muslim students in IIU were encouraged but not compelled to don the tudung.
It would appear that the IIU Senate had subsequently in 2004 introduced the rule on the compulsory donning of tudung for non-Muslim for the IIU convocation in clear disregard of the parliamentary undertaking by the Education Ministry and the fact that Malaysia is a nation with citizens from diverse ethnicity, religions, languages and cultures.
While defending the compulsory rule on tudung for the IIU convocation, Ongkili undertook to discuss the matter with the IIU Senate and authorities in view of the strong objections to the compulsory tudung rule expressed in Parliament, which was regarded as insensitive to non-Muslim Malaysians with regard to their different religions, customs and ways of life.
There were however UMNO MPs who objected strongly to any approach reflecting greater sensitivities to the diverse religions, customs and ways of life in Malaysia – whether in allowing non-Muslim parliamentary staff to have the option to decide whether to don the tudung or to reconsider the compulsory IIU rule on tudung for IIU convocations.
There was even one UMNO MP who said that asking non-Muslims to have the option to decide whether to don tudung was most insensitive in itself!
This led me to ask Barisan Nasional MPs whether in future they would want to see MCA, Gerakan, MIC and non-Muslim Barisan Nasional women MPs to compulsorily don the tudung in Parliament, to be followed later by DAP women MPs!
The case of Foo Yueh Jiing has sparked a debate among lawyers as well as the larger society on both the constitutionality and propriety of compulsory tudung requirements in plural Malaysia and whether the IIU was setting a bad example of corporate citizenship in being insensitive to the feelings of non-Muslim Malaysians by imposing the compulsory tudung rule.
Nobody doubts that the IIU is an International Islamic University in Malaysia, which is fully accepted and respected, but IIU in turn cannot disregard the fact that it is a public institution in a plural Malaysia which must be fully cognizant of its responsibility to set a good example of respecting the sensitivities of non-Muslim Malaysians.
The IIU Senate and authorities should review its compulsory tudung rule for its convocation and make the necessary amendments to fully respect the sensitivities of non-Muslim Malaysians who are its students and graduates.
I will convene a parliamentary roundtable on “Religion sensitization” in Parliament in the second week of November. I will invite Ongkili, all political parties, religions, public institutions particularly IIUM and concerned NGOs to come together to reach a consensus on religion sensitization.
Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP
Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission
Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman