Sadly, Malaysians are now dealing with whether to shake hands or wish each other because we are no longer sure if it is okay. If these are not checked, we will surely lose our 'moderate' tag.
IT’S the kind of stuff that Malaysians read about happening in Afghanistan, Pakistan and in some Islamic State-controlled areas in the Middle East.
No one would ever have imagined that our religious leaders would call for statues, which are meant to be merely symbolic and perhaps for beautification purposes, to be demolished.
And many of us shudder at the thought that these religious personalities have become so powerful that even a mere proposal or a remark – not even an edict – is seen as being sufficient for the act to be carried out.
Our politicians, the ones we elected and whose authority we provided, are now seemingly mute, lacking the courage and power to bring some sense to these religious personalities, who are pushing their boundaries, more than ever before.
We expect our leaders to make rules that govern how we live our lives. For sure, this is not a task for the non-elected political-religious figures. The perception given now is that some of these political-religious figures, including those in Perak, are competing for puritanical notoriety.
Well, as we celebrate Malaysia Day this Friday, many of us have reasons to be worried about the rate religious and racial bigotry is taking root in Malaysia.
In 2001, the Taliban blew up the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan to the horror of the world.
Never mind if these statues were no longer used for worship and were more of a historic legacy but it was sufficient for these Taliban extremists to find these statues offensive with the same warped rationale used before destroying these structures.
And we always believed such religious idiosyncrasies in Malaysia would only be confined to states like Kelantan and Terengganu where PAS is strong.
After all, when PAS came to power in Terengganu in 1999, the first thing the then mentri besar Datuk Seri Hadi Awang did was to demolish a replica of a turtle at a roundabout in Kuala Terengganu, using the same reason that it was similar to idol worshipping.
One year later, Terengganu PAS state executive councillor Wan Hassan Mohd Ramli vowed to tear down every sculpture in the state, including those of prawns and squids in the fishing district of Marang, where Hadi holds the rein.
Again, no one in Terengganu, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, were known to have worshipped any of these sculptures of prawns or squids.
In Kelantan, the PAS state government destroyed the replica of a deer at the Tuan Padang roundabout in Kota Baru immediately after it came to power in 1990.
It also changed the name of the famous Pantai Cinta Berahi (Beach of Passionate Love) to Pantai Cahaya Bulan (Moonlight Beach).
But the religious push is no longer just confined to states controlled by PAS as officials in government departments attempt to push their narrow interpretation of religion in all states.
For example, they imposed dress codes which included ordering security guards or Rela officers to stop women, including non-Muslims, who wear skirts which they deemed as too short, from entering government offices.
If it wasn’t for the loud protests, we would have to live by the rules set up by these Little Talibans in the civil service.
Recently, two signboards forbidding couples from sitting close together placed at a popular park in Taman Jubli had to be covered up following protests from the public.
Workers from the Sungai Petani Municipal Council (MPSPK) used black plastic sheets to cover up the signboards.
The MPSPK expressed surprise at the strong reaction of the public.
That is basically the problem. No one told them that it is not the business of the council to be moral guardians. We are sure the council has got enough public problems to deal with.
MPSPK councillors, Ko Hung Weng, who is Sungai Petani MCA division secretary, and Tan Kok Seong, the Merbok Gerakan division chairman, reportedly watched as council workers taped up the two signboards with the sheets.
Not many of us want to talk about it but the reality in Malaysia now is that many of us do not quite know whether to shake the hands of Muslim women or not, for fear of feeling awkward if one were to be rejected. It is the same for non-Muslim women: many do not know if it is okay to offer a handshake to Muslim men.
My Muslim friends assured me that I should not worry too much as they too face the same predicament. Well, at least the Sultan of Johor has openly talked about some females who refused to shake his hand.
Another Sultan, who is the chancellor of a local university, lamented to me that some female graduates refused to shake his hand during convocation.
We can shrug off these little signs and practices that have surfaced, and pretend they are not a sign of creeping religious radicalism. But the reality is that they could one day become entrenched in Malaysia because our leaders are too weak to stop the trend or they prefer to close an eye because they need the votes.
Malaysia is at the crossroads. Our focus has turned upside down with Malaysians having to deal with issues like whether we can greet one another on festive occasions or to celebrate certain festivals, which we never had to think about previously.
And suddenly words like liberal, progressive and democrat have become politically incorrect, just because some people say so, which is incredulous really. And sadly, they include some personalities in authority.
If these extremists are not checked, Malaysia will lose its identity as an open and moderate country, no matter how much we claim ourselves to be to the world.