The furore over Hindu temples

(The Nut Graph) 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.

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.

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.


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.

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