Recently, the Kelantan Islamic Religious and Malay Customs Council (Maik) said it planned to convert all Orang Asli in the state to Islam within 30 years.
The announcement came amid a disease outbreak at Kampung Kuala Koh, Gua Musang, Kelantan.
Since May, at least 15 members of the Bateq Orang Asli tribe in this village have died; three of the deaths are confirmed to have been due to measles.
From June 3 to 18, 113 people in this Kelantan village were treated for respiratory-related diseases, including 43 with measles.
Utusan Malaysia reported Maik deputy chairman Nik Mohd Azlan Abd Hadi as saying that more than 100 preachers, including from the Federal Islamic Development Department (Jakim), were working with – note this – Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) on the proselytisation mission.
Should we assume that Azlan and the Kelantan government feel this is more important than providing the Orang Asli with healthcare and working for their physical betterment first?
Should we assume that UKM feels this is more important than producing thinkers who will, say, devise economic models to lift the poor in Kelantan out of their misery or create innovative technology to put Malaysia at the forefront of development?
I have nothing against people changing religions of their own free will. I am well aware that Islam, like Christianity, is a proselytising religion and, therefore, Muslims and Christians will attempt to convert others to their religions.
But I note that in recent years, much inter-religious suspicion, angst and anger in Malaysia were linked to religious conversions.
The case of Indira Gandhi and several other women who fought long battles – some successfully – to get justice and regain their children who were converted to Islam without their knowledge or agreement comes to mind.
Most Malaysians would remember, too, the protests and claims by Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia and others that certain Christian groups and churches were trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.
There was also a call for a revival of Christian unity by Perpaduan Anak Negeri Sabah to fend off conversions of Christians by Muslims through alleged dubious means.
Education Minister Maszlee Malik certainly will not forget the uproar over his remark that teachers of Islam being sent to Sabah and Sarawak should treat the two states as “medan dakwah” or fertile ground for the propagation of Islam. He later clarified that “medan dakwah” did not necessarily mean to spread Islam. “Dakwak also means to be hard working, have high integrity and fight corruption,” Maszlee said.
Pastor Raymond Koh, who has been missing since Feb 13, 2017, is alleged to have attempted to convert Muslims, and some suspect that is the reason he is missing. Another person who has disappeared without trace – since Nov 24, 2016 – is Amri Che Mat who was active with Shia groups. One local Shia group has linked his disappearance to a “systematic Shiaphobia” campaign by the Islamic authorities.
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, or Suhakam, after an inquiry, said these were enforced disappearances and that the police Special Branch had a hand in it.
One can find many more examples of how conversion has added to the inter-religious and inter-racial tensions in the country.
I think one way to diffuse or reduce these tensions is to change ourselves first before trying to change others.
Conversion shouldn’t be like a person changing clothes; it must be about a person changing himself or herself for the better. For instance, managing our anger if we are prone to anger; or taking greater interest in our child, especially if we have been neglecting her; or reading more to broaden our knowledge; or seeing that what pains me also pains a person of another religion or race.
Conversion takes place when a Christian becomes a better Christian, a Muslim becomes a better Muslim, a Buddhist becomes a better Buddhist, a Hindu becomes a better Hindu and a Sikh becomes a better Sikh.
The way I see it, conversion should be a movement from being a bad person to a good person, from being a good person to a better person, from being a better person to the best possible person.
I am very clear about this: Conversion is, and must be, an internal revolution.
It is a revolution that will transform us into good human beings who treat others as human beings too – not as a member of this or that race; of this or that religion; of this or that group.
Now, if you and I were better citizens, better human beings, we would surely want to, say, help improve the lives of the downtrodden such as the Orang Asli if we could. And if we were in a position of authority, we would surely want to ensure they get the same health facilities that other Malaysians enjoy.
A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.