Body-snatching practice divides Malaysian society

June 25th, 2009 - 8:52 am ICT by IANS  

By Christiane Oelrich
Kuala Lumpur, June 25 (DPA) The sudden death of Malaysian Mohan Singh, 41, came as a shock to his family. But worse was the nightmare that followed: the country’s religious authority confiscated the body, saying the man converted to Islam in 1992 and had to be buried according to Muslim rites.

“He was a practising Sikh until the end,” his family protested, but without much success. The family is still fighting for Singh’s remains in court.

Singh’s is only the latest in a series of “body-snatching” cases, as they are labelled by those affected, a practice which deeply divides Malaysia’s multicultural and multi-religious society.

More than three years ago, it was the case of Maniam “Everest” Moorthy. In 1997, the Hindu climber was a member of the first group of Malaysians to reach the top of Mount Everest. Moorthy died in 2005 after an accident. His family was shocked when the authority confiscated his body and buried him as a Muslim.

In December 2006, it was Catholic Rayappan Anthony, in January 2008, Buddhist Gan Eng Or, and there have been others. Often the authorities turn up with a police escort in the dead of night and take the bodies, said Datuk A. Vaithilingam, president of the multi-religious Malaysian Consultative Council on Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST).

The organisation unites all those religions, except Islam. The big Muslim organisations declined to form an inter-religious council including all of them.

“When people are alive, no-one from the Islamic authority cares, only when they are dead,” said MCCBCHST deputy V. Harcharan Singh. “We are second-class citizens,” added Brother Augustine Julian of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference. “They say: you are immigrants. We are merely tolerated.”

Malik Imtiaz Sarwar is one of the few Muslim lawyers in the country who openly protests against the practice.

The ruling United Malays National Organization party has been pushing ahead with Islamisation to head off the increasing popularity of the Islamic opposition, observers say. However, only 60 percent of Malaysians are Muslim, 19 percent are Buddhists, 9 percent Christian and about 6 percent Hindus.

The government allowed the setting up of Islamic sharia courts to deal with Muslim personal law disputes. “However, these courts set themselves up in competition to high courts,” Malik said. “That violates the constitution.”

However, Malaysia’s supreme court refuses to clarify this matter, he said.

In 2001, then prime minister Mahathir Mohammad declared Malaysia an “Islamic state”.

“The vast majority of Muslims stay silent, because they are afraid of annoying their community and rocking the boat in which they enjoy privileges,” Malik said.

Malaysia’s government introduced a two-class society after race riots in the late 1960s. Back then, ethnic Malays, who are Muslims by definition according to the constitution, had been underprivileged for decades although they were and still are the majority population.

The country’s elites were made up of ethnic Chinese (26 percent) and ethnic Indians (8 percent). Now, Malays are entitled among other things to more university places, cheaper housing and the lion’s share of government contracts.

Muslims are only allowed to convert with the approval of a sharia court, which is almost never given. Therefore the reasoning is simple for the religious authorities: once someone converts to Islam, he or she dies as a Muslim.

The family may challenge that, but again, sharia courts have jurisdiction. If the judges rule the deceased a Muslim, he has to be buried according to Muslim rules. The word of Muslim witnesses is sometimes enough.

“Why quarrel about a dead body?” Harcharan Singh asked. Maybe it’s something like a one-up for religion, Malik argued. “It is all about power and supremacy.”

Brother Augustine is frustrated: “We see no light at the end of tunnel. They listen but close their minds.” Vaithilingam is more optimistic, not giving up hope that things may change.

There may be movement within society, Malik said. Increasing numbers of Malay students do not return from abroad “because they do not want to come home to this regimented scenario”, he says. They are ready for change, he believes.

In April, former deputy premier Najib Razak took over the premiership, and vowed to pursue a “One Malaysia” policy. One Malaysia is supposed to emphasise national unity, key elements being mutual respect and trust among the different races.

Meanwhile, Mohan Singh’s family keeps on fighting. A sharia law confirmed Singh’s obscure 1992 conversion - “despite the fact that Mohan later got married as a Sikh and has a daughter who is a Sikh and his ID papers say he is a Sikh,” Jagir Singh, the family’s lawyer, said. A civil law court surprisingly accepted their appeal.

As the legal tug-o-war enters another round, Singh’s body is in a morgue, awaiting its final fate.

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