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The furore over Hindu temples

Illustration of person stomping on cow head

THE cow head protest over the relocation of the Sri Maha Mariamman Hindu temple from Section 19 to Section 23 in Shah Alam shows, on one hand, the existence of racial and religious bigotry. But it also points to a deeper, more systemic neglect by town planners to adequately provide land for non-Muslim places of worship in a fair and just manner.

It goes as far back as 1977, when the Catholic Church first applied for a piece of land to build a cathedral in the township. Delays, including stop-work orders on construction, resulted in the church only opening in 2000, some 23 years later.

Xavier

Dr Xavier Jayakumar

The argument of majorities cannot hold water in a multi-religious society, says Selangor executive councillor Dr Xavier Jayakumar. He chairs the state committee on non-Muslim places of worship and hence, became the intended recipient of the cow head during the protest on 28 Aug 2009.

Xavier, who is from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), is also the assemblyperson for Sri Andalas. Additionally, he is the state executive council’s chairperson for health, plantation workers, poverty, and caring government.

In an interview with The Nut Graph on 15 Sept 2009 at his office in Shah Alam, Xavier traced Shah Alam’s development from the mid-1960s when the area was plantation and estate land. Indian Malaysians were the majority workforce then, until the land’s agricultural status was converted for development by Perbadanan Kemajuan Negeri Selangor (PKNS). But the Hindu temples stayed on as the city was built around them. This led to the Section 19 temple in question being a mere 20 metres away from residential houses.

In this first of a two part interview, Xavier explains how relocating temples is now all the more difficult because there is little land left due to rapid development. He also explains how the Pakatan Rakyat-led state government is attempting to resolve the issue.

TNG: A second site in Section 23 has now been identified (for the relocation of the Hindu temple). Why wasn’t this site chosen earlier?

Xavier Jayakumar: Shah Alam Member of Parliament Khalid Samad, executive councillor Rodziah Ismail and I felt that the first plot on industrial land was most appropriate. Even PKNS, the Shah Alam Municipal Council (MPSA) and the temple committee agreed.

Khalid Samad (file pic)

We were planning to consult the residents there although the state by-laws and rules don’t require us to do so. We only need to ask residents if their houses are within a 50 metre radius of a place of worship. The by-laws were created by Barisan Nasional and are still there. After we identified this area, people complained that it was too near a playground. So we moved the plot further in. But then all hell broke loose with the cow-head protest.

What borders the alternative plot in Section 23?

This plot is still under discussion and nothing is finalised. Suffice to say it is 200 metres from the nearest house and 300 metres from the nearest surau.

Based on that distance, you don’t need to consult the residents but will you anyway, so as to prevent more protests?

I don’t think we will. We’ll just inform them.

The perception after the town hall dialogue is that the state government has given in to the protesters when the Menteri Besar (MB) said the site would be reviewed.

It’s not true. We did not give in to the people who disrupted the meeting. What we said is that we’ve noted their objections and the state will now discuss it further.

But ultimately, since you didn’t have to consult the residents based on the by-laws, you also didn’t have to review the initial plot in Section 23. Couldn’t the state have stood firm?

True, we don’t have to consult them. But the temple committee also took a step back after seeing the reactions. They didn’t want to move to a place where there would be confrontation and they would have to put up with abuse. So they had a rethink about the whole scenario and they came back to us and said, if this is how it’s going to be, we don’t think that will be the proper place to go to. In response to that, Khalid said the state government would review the site.

The previous state government had identified an enclave in Section 18 as a place to relocate all temples. What was the problem with that?

The area borders a huge drain which passes through an abattoir once used to slaughter pigs and now goats and cattle. From the beginning, the temple committee refused to move to this place. There were many reasons. In Hinduism, the different deities have their own religions protocols which devotees have to follow. And the temples have to be built according to Hindu beliefs like whether the soil is right or what direction to face.

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And you don’t have mosques or surau all in a row like terrace houses, do you? Taking those things into account, they refused the site. After the [Section 19] temple didn’t move, there have been skirmishes and provocations on and off. Like when the Pewaris group was given permission to build a shed next to the temple on empty land and slaughtered two cows there. I don’t know why MPSA or PKNS didn’t put a stop to it because they could have said that the shed was an illegal structure.

Why weren’t you at the town hall meeting (on 5 Sept 2009)?

I was not supposed to be there. The people who brought the cow head to the state assembly building brought it for me. They called my name out and said this is for Xavier. The MB and others felt that my presence would be a provocation.

How many temples are there in Shah Alam?

About 12. I have stopped approving places of worship where the land given is beside septic tanks, monsoon drains, high-tension power cables, or Tenaga Nasional substations. Previously, these were the types of land given for temples.

Temple from Brickfields

Temples were given land of least value under the previous state administration (© Lainie Yeoh)

A place of worship has to be a place that is convenient to devotees, the travel time to that place should be as minimal as possible without having to go through heavy traffic, and it must be in a respectable area. As respectable as masjid and surau are, other places of worship should also have that respectability.

Which authority is it which gives land to temples?

Firstly, the state itself. Secondly, the developer. In the development masterplan they are supposed to earmark places of worship. But what I’m saying is that land earmarked for non-Muslim places of worship are of the types I just mentioned, the most useless of value. And it is approved by the state planning committee and the municipal planning committee.

So I am telling these committees now to look at the land they are approving. It should also be done in a way where people know that there is a place of worship in an area before they buy their property.

How bad is the issue of illegal temples in Selangor?

Quite severe. There are three categories.

One, a place of worship that has already been built on government or private land. Secondly, places of worship that were built on reserve land, whether for playgrounds, road reserves or TNB reserves. The temple also doesn’t have rights to the land. The third is applications for new temples to be built either on government or private land.

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My aim now is to authenticate temples that have been built on government land. For those on reserve land, it is more technical and would take more time to resolve. And for new applications, we are looking at the areas concerned and giving out approvals accordingly.

What is the cause of temples being constructed haphazardly?

The lack of proper regulations and planning for non-Muslim places of worship. The government closes one eye and a politician comes along and says there’s a group wanting to build a temple here and the government says go ahead. It is known that over the years, MIC people have obtained posts in the temple committees. So they have the political clout and protection to build wherever they want.

That is why we have this problem. You’ve allowed temples to be built haphazardly and now the temples are saying they want the land because they have been there for years. If the state were to de-gazette the land and convert it to use for a place of worship, it would be a long and tedious process.

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When Pakatan Rakyat took over Selangor, we decided that there would be no more temple demolitions. At the same time, we’ve also said that there won’t be permission for any new temples to be built without proper approval.

So you are in the process of giving temples the land they sit on?

Yes, but it will be a lengthy process. We are also trying to formulate a policy together with non-governmental organisations like Hindu Sangam and other Indian [Malaysian] NGOs (non-governmental organisations) for all districts to have committees that will self-regulate on how many new temples are needed in an area. If anyone wants to build a new temple, they will have to discuss with this committee whether there is a need for it.

Will this self-regulation also apply to other non-Muslim houses of worship?

There is some difference between Hindu temples and other religions. There is no governing body for Hindu temples. Every temple is an entity by itself. Whereas, churches, the Buddhists and Taoists each have a governing body.

Is the number of non-Muslim houses of worship in Shah Alam enough for non-Muslim residents?

Yes, I think it is. About 20% of Shah Alam is non-Muslim. For that 20% I think that there are enough places of worship. That would be the 12 temples, and six or seven churches. For Chinese religions, at present there’s been no problem, in the sense that I’ve not had any queries for a Chinese temple within Shah Alam.

It is alleged that some of the cow-head protestors were from PAS and PKR. Have you identified them?

There has been no proof. We have openly called for the names of those alleged to be our members (to be revealed) and we will immediately take disciplinary action against them. Till now there have been no names so this is just rumours by unreliable people.

But within PAS and PKR, too, there must be Muslims who feel very zealous about this…

But from the pictures and videos of the incident, we’ve not identified anyone from PKR or PAS. And of those charged, we’ve checked their names and they don’t exist in our membership database. PAS also says that none of the names are their members.

On hindsight, what were the weaknesses in the way the issue was handled and how could that have been avoided?

From the beginning, we knew that relocation would be a difficult task. But we started on the premise that everyone agreed the temple had to move. Even the temple committee agreed. I didn’t expect it to break out into a racial and religious issue.

From another spectrum, it was politically motivated. To me, it is pure politics where Umno is trying to prevent us from solving a problem they could never solve in 26 years. And this is not the end of it.

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In other areas we are facing obstruction to land that has been offered for places of worship. One case is a temple in Jenjarom, in the Lundeston estate. The estate temple is on land that was sold by Guthrie to a subsidiary, which subsequently sold the land to a private developer. It involves private land but as the state government, we decided to help. We called the temple committee and the developer for talks and it was agreed that the temple plot would be moved to the back of the land, with the initial structure provided by the developer and some compensation. When all this had been agreed upon, a group of Umno members from that area in Kuala Langat staged a protest and said they won’t allow a temple in that area because it’s too near their homes.

Is that true?

Not really. The temple site is in an oil palm area and there are Indian [Malaysians] in that area. But there is no place in Malaysia where the Indian [Malaysians] are the majority and you can say a temple ought to be built there. All places are majority-Malay [Malaysian]. Even if Indian [Malaysians] are 10%, they still need to pray. So why can’t you allow a place of worship for this 10% or whatever percentage they are? It’s a very racist and bigoted reaction. Negotiations have broken down, and we’re trying to re-start talks with the residents, the developer and the temple committee.

You know for a fact that the Kuala Langat protestors were from Umno?

Yes. You can quote me. favicon

See Part 2 tomorrow:
Federal interference in the state’s financing

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3 Responses to “The furore over Hindu temples”

  1. Nicholas Aw says:

    The federal constitution provides for all Malaysians to practise their religion freely. Unfortunately, the BN government does not allow places of worship (with the exception of mosques) to be built according to the wishes of the faithful.

    In most states, one can see Taoist temples and Christian places of worship operating from shophouses. Even if approval is given, it is because of threat of legal action, as in the case of the Divine Mercy Church in Shah Alam, which took 23 years before the church was completed. The architecture makes it look like a factory building.

    I hope that the present BN government [will practise] acceptance by allowing churches and temples to be built to look what they should look like. Otherwise, Najib’s 1Malaysia policy remains but a political slogan.

  2. Killer says:

    Strange…Xavier seems to able to recognise Umno members, something that even Najib or Khir won’t be able to….

    Xavier is on a major spin exercise here by issuing white lies as facts. Temples have been demolished under PR in Selangor and this can be easily verified by a Google search.

    The Section 18 temple was not near a drain, this is a lie. The location was opposed by Hindraf and Pakatan supporters (Manikavasagam, the Kapar MP, was one of them).

    The cow-head protestors had PAS and PKR as well as Umno supporters. PAS supporters have been harassing the Section 23 temple for years until the GE. Only recently they stopped.

    I could go on and on about [what] Xavier has spun.

  3. myop101 says:

    It all boils down to proper urban and town planning. Fifty two years Peninsula Malaysia (46 years for Sabah and Sarawak) has enjoyed independence and yet this basic function of a government can’t even be properly done by a BN-led government.

    How many responsible developers are willing to set aside land for building of houses of worship? The state must enforce it and ensure that the needs of the rakyat are taken care of regardless of their race, religion and creed.


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