*A Frayed Multiculturalism: The ‘Cowhead’ Protest in Malaysia

Six Muslim men have been charged under Malaysia’s Sedition Act – a relic of the colonial period, like the notorious Internal Security Act – over what has been termed as the ‘cowhead’ protest in Shah Alam.   Several weeks ago, they were among a group of some 50 to 100 people who marched from the state mosque to the state secretariat building with the head of a cow to protest at the planned relocation of a Hindu temple from Section 19 to their neighborhood (Section 23).   The Sri Maha Mariamman Temple is reportedly about 150 years old, and was left standing when Section 19 was brought under the jurisdiction of the State Economic Development Corporation and razed to make way for a housing estate.  The protestors claim that Section 19 is a Muslim majority area and that Hindu temples, a sure sign of idolatrous belief, offend the sensibility of Muslims.   One of the long-standing and controversial leaders of the Malaysian Indian Congress, S. Samy Vellu, has weighed in as a representative of Malaysia’s Hindu community, alleging that such conduct is calculated to promote ill-will against members of one community and bound to poison social relations between the Muslims and Hindus.  He has called for the strict disciplining of those who seek to disrupt the country’s racial harmony.

The Sedition Act might seem to be a curious piece of legislation under which to charge people for insulting practitioners of another faith, but in fact its present application is consistent with the history of its previous deployment.  The Sedition Act was promulgated in 1948 with the intention of putting down nationalist resistance to colonial rule.  Action or speech that would “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the government”, or engender “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races”, is proscribed under the Sedition Act and turned into a punishable offence.   The framers of the law had in mind, of course, feelings of ill will and hostility against the white race, and the legislation was utilized in the colonial state’s attempted repression of the Malay insurgency.   Both the Sedition Act, and the present action – the ‘cowhead’ protest — that it seeks to criminalize, have antecedents in the experience of the British in India.  Among many others, Mohandas Gandhi was charged under British India’s sedition laws.  Reports of official committees of inquiry appointed to look into law and order problems, as well as various other archival records, often pointed to incidents of religious animosity and provocation where, as it was argued, colonial intervention was required to keep peace between the two communities.  Hindu nationalists, it was alleged, would often throw a dead pig into a mosque; similarly, Muslim communalists would toss a dead cow’s head into a temple courtyard.

Malaysia has, not without some justification, long claimed that it is the site of one of the world’s most interesting experiments in multiculturalism – and without the noise that one hears constantly about America as a multicultural society.  The Malays constitute a numerical majority, but the Chinese (24%) and Indians (8%) constitute significant chunks of the population.  Most people in Malaysia are bilingual, many are multilingual:  though Malay [Bahasa Melayu] is the national language, English, Chinese, and Tamil are widely spoken.  More significantly, though the Malays, Chinese, and Indians occupy, to a considerable degree, different strata of society, in everyday life Malaysian society shows many signs of being integrated.  Nevertheless, over the last decade, as I have argued elsewhere [Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), 41, no. 35 (2 September 2006)], the state’s commitment to pluralism and religious ecumenism has been seriously called into question.  The distinct impression that Malays are first among equals is hard to dismiss, and Islam, notwithstanding the frequent proclamations of freedom of religious worship and belief, is unquestionably viewed as having priority over other religious faiths.  Under Malaysia’s laws, Muslims may proselytize to non-Muslims, but non-Muslims may not convert Muslims; even more egregiously, Malays cannot be other than Muslims, and courts have refused to recognize as legitimate conversions of Muslims to other faiths.

With the present ‘cowhead’ protest, which is certainly calculated to raise tensions, Malaysia’s frayed multiculturalism is being put to new tests.  There have been reports, over the last few years, of Hindu temples being destroyed or otherwise subjected to vandalism.  Some estimates speak of one temple being razed every three weeks.  It may be that many Hindu temples, which originated in the plantation and were rather ad hoc or casual affairs, are being torn down because plantations and estates where such temples were housed have themselves become obsolete in Malaysia’s onward drive to full development.  Such an explanation is not, however, likely to satisfy Hindus, who naturally want to know why Hindu temples must bear the burden of development.  The only thing that is reasonably clear is that, under conditions of industrial modernity, relations between Hindus and Muslims have deteriorated.  Should Malaysia, I wonder, be chalked up as another example of the nation-state’s inability to accommodate difference?


5 thoughts on “*A Frayed Multiculturalism: The ‘Cowhead’ Protest in Malaysia

  1. The question is- what then in the nature of a “modern” state, cannot hold differences within. Or should the answer be looked for in the nature of a faith – or really the intersection of faith and a modern state. Were relationships otherwise different in other times? What has changed between then and now – in the nature of faith? Does the remittance economy and globalization in the way of easy travel make it easy to replace Malay alluvium with Arabic sand – is this conversation the same type of conversation when the King of Malayan areas was known by different names to his Hindu and Muslim subjects – Raja Sri Rama Vikrama and Sri Iskandar Zulkarnain Shah. Is the tension between a certain recovery of a part of a self that is feared- or has that part died.


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