Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Taoist statue project scrapped: Ethnic Chinese Community feel insecure


Scrapping of Taoist statue stirs resentment among Malaysia's minorities

The Associated PressPublished: January 8, 2008

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: A Malaysian state's refusal to allow the construction of a giant Taoist statue is making the country's non-Muslim minority increasingly insecure about their religious and cultural rights, politicians said Tuesday.

Ethnic Chinese community leaders began work in 2005 to build a statue of Mazu — the Taoist goddess of the sea who is believed to protect fishermen and sailors — in the coastal town of Kudat in Sabah state on the northern tip of Borneo island.

State officials ordered the project halted in June 2006, citing objections to its location. This sparked a protracted dispute that recently escalated after Chong Kah Kiat, a prominent Sabah politician, sought a court order to reverse the state government's decision.

"The Chinese no longer feel secure and they no longer trust the government," said Chong's lawyer, Ansari Abdullah, who is also a key state opposition leader. "They feel there has been an encroachment on their religious and cultural rights."

Opposition activists expect the spat to hurt support for Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's ruling coalition in Sabah — traditionally one of the federal government's strongholds — in general elections widely expected by mid-2008, Ansari said.

Ethnic Malay Muslims comprise about 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people. Ethnic Chinese Buddhists, Taoists and Christians are the second largest ethnic community, forming a quarter of the population. Ethnic Indians and various indigenous groups comprise the rest.

Malaysia has prided itself on decades of multiracial harmony, but minorities have voiced growing fears in recent years that their religions get second-class treatment. National debates have erupted over issues such as a government ban on non-Muslims using the word "Allah."

The Mazu statue on privately owned land in Sabah was to have become the world's tallest, standing at 32 meters (108 feet). Sabah media have said the objections to it were based on an Islamic cleric's claim it could offend Muslims because it was considered too near a mosque.

Granite carvings made by craftsmen from China had been shipped to Sabah and a 1 million ringgit (US$300,000; €200,000) platform was built before the stop-work order was issued, according to Chong's petition filed in Sabah's High Court last month.

Kudat's town board officials could not immediately be contacted.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak called last week for the dispute to be settled amicably, saying "confrontation must be avoided at all costs" for the sake of racial stability.

Some ruling coalition leaders representing non-Muslim minorities have pledged support for the project, saying it would be a major attraction for tourists from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand.

"If you are part of the community belonging to the Buddhist and Taoist faiths, you will feel frustrated because (this is) a legitimate project," V.K. Liew, president of the Liberal Democratic Party, a ruling coalition member, told The Associated Press.

State officials have suggested an alternative site, but activists insist there is nothing wrong with the current one. The High Court has not scheduled a hearing for Chong's petition.

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