May 5 (Bloomberg) -- Malaysian women's rights activist Marina Mahathir, daughter of the country's longest-serving premier, said the government isn't doing enough to stop conservative Muslims from eroding the rights of citizens.
A slew of incidents, including the trial of a couple for kissing in public and new rules that force non-Muslim policewomen to wear headscarves in parades, signal an incursion of conservative Muslim values into public life, she said.
"All these developments are worrying," said Marina, whose father, Mahathir Mohamad, was prime minister from 1981 to 2003. "We want to promote ourselves as a moderate Muslim country, so we have to walk the talk."
Malaysia since independence has tried to balance the religious priorities of the 60 percent of its population who are Muslim with the rights of minority Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs. Still, the main opposition group in parliament, Parti Islam SeMalaysia, has called for an Islamic state, and observers say Islamic law is having an increasing impact on daily life.
"There certainly does appear to be a rising tide of conservatism in Malay society," said Bruce Gale, an independent political consultant who has covered Southeast Asia since 1988.
Islam is the official religion in the nation of 27 million people, and ethnic Malays are required by law to be Muslims. Non-Malays may practice other religions. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's government describes Malaysia as a "moderate" Islamic nation.
Even so, Muslim authorities in December overruled family wishes and gave an Islamic burial to a prominent Malaysian climber. They alleged the ethnic Indian had converted to Islam from Hinduism, a claim disputed by his wife.
In addition, the city of Kuala Lumpur is prosecuting an ethnic Chinese couple for indecent behavior for hugging and kissing in a park beside the Petronas Twin Towers in August 2003.
"People know the difference between affection and lewdness," said Marina in an April 21 interview. "Kissing, hugging being classified as disorderly conduct, I think that's really extreme."
The charges prompted Housing and Local Government Minister Ong Ka Ting to ask local authorities not to send officers to spy on courting couples. He said the cabinet would devise a uniform definition of indecency.
Ong was ignored by Malaysia's Department of Islamic Advancement. Director-General Mustafa Abdul Rahman said his office, known as Jakim, is "directly in charge of taking care of the moral standard and behavior of the masses, particularly Muslims," according to the New Straits Times newspaper.
"Cabinet says put a hold on all these bylaws on indecent behavior, Jakim says: `No, we're still going to go out and arrest Muslim couples."' Marina said. "You're a government department, the cabinet says this and you're defying it? Come on."
Mustafa declined to comment, his secretary said. Jakim's enforcement officers don't have the power to arrest people unless authorized by local religious authorities, said Mohd. Kori Jusoh, an officer in Jakim's legal division.
The opposition Democratic Action Party, backed by the members of the Chinese community, has protested the kissing charges as "moral policing." The charges are "a manifestation of the Islamization of Malaysia without respecting the rights and freedom of the non-Muslims," it said in a statement.
Prime Minister Abdullah oversees Jakim through the Prime Minister's Department. In March, he backed a police decision to force policewomen to wear Muslim headscarves, or tudung, during official parades.
That precedent may encourage religious authorities to impose standards of dress on all Muslim women, Marina said.
"There are Muslims who are worried about these laws being applied to us," she said. "If you make non-Muslims wear tudung, what about Muslims who don't wear tudung?"
Abdullah Md Zin, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department in charge of Islamic affairs, couldn't be reached for comment.
"The present government has been commended for allowing greater space and healthy environment for the expression of views, including those on intricate subjects such as race and religion," Malaysian Bar Council Chairman Yeo Yang Poh said in a statement. "Such progress must not be halted or -- worse -- reversed."
Abdullah, who has a degree in Islamic studies, in 2004 led a coalition of Malay, Chinese and Indian parties to their biggest parliamentary win in 30 years, routing Parti Islam. Even so, religious authorities appear to be gaining power, and politics is the driving force, Marina said.
Islamic conservatism, with a strong emphasis on moral values, is becoming more appealing, said Gale, the political consultant. Ambitious politicians and bureaucrats are trying to advance their careers by adopting a more Islamic stance in public, he said.
"It's a very dangerous thing," Marina said. "You should keep religion out of politics -- any religion."
TORONTO, May 5 (Bernama) - Malaysia, with a majority Muslim population, is a model of a progressive, modern and moderate Islamic country, Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz, Minister of International Trade and Industry (Miti), said.
"Malaysian Muslims practise Islam in a moderate way. They practise peace, tolerance and harmony," she said.
This practice is reflected in the approach of "Islam Hadhari", or civilisation Islam, in public governance and daily life, she this on Thursday to about 300 participants at the seminar on "Business Opportunities in Malaysia" here.
Rafidah said the Islamic approach focuses on enhancing the quality of life through mastery of knowledge, development of the individual and the nation and implementation of a dynamic economic, trading and financial system.
"I hope people will remember that Malaysia is a Muslim country but not the one that they should be afraid of," Rafidah said.
She pointed out that Islam does not encourage terrorism.
"Islam does not allow us to kill people or become suicide bombers. These people who do harm are extremists," she said.
Rafidah said Malaysia, a multi-religious and multi-racial country, is strongly against terrorism.
Toronto is the first stop for Rafidah, who is leading a 49-member trade and investment mission to Canada and US. She is accompanied by representatives from the private sector, Miti, Malaysia Industrial Development Authority, Malaysia External Trade Development Corp, the state governments of Penang, Perak, Kedah, Sabah and Selangor as well as Multimedia Development Corp Malaysia.
After Toronto, she will move to San Francisco (May 8) and Irvine in California (May 10) next week.
The mission aims to inform the Canadian and the American business communities about trade and investment opportunities in Malaysia, update them on the economic situation and woo investors.