Religion in Modern Asia Newsletter

Religious Movements Draw Criticism


A spokesman for the Ministry of Home Affairs of Malaysia has recently announced that it is probing into the allegation that a number of new religious movements have been using mainstream religious traditions, such as Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity, as a camouflage for the spread of deviationist teachings. The spokesman expressed concern that these movements might bring undue harm to the tender fabric of industrializing Malaysia.

One of the new movements involves a group of pseudo-Buddhist religionists who have been actively recruiting new members through a peculiar form of swearing-in ceremony, by which new recruits are required to take an oath of secrecy. Such oaths of secrecy/allegiance, and the strict observance of vegetarianism, are known to have caused schism and discord among family members. Spouses turn their backs on one another, and children on their parents, as they shift their loyalty to the "free-Masonic" movements based on the doctrine of "Buddhist" brotherhood and sisterhood.

Other movements using the labels of Taoism and Confucianism have also adopted the same modus operandi to propagate cryptic teachings with the subtle purpose of hoodwinking members for the socio-economic interest of leaders who have direct control over the members at different levels of the organizational hierarchy. It has been learned that some of these movements have been banned in their home countries and elsewhere. However, they continue to function in Malaysia by assuming new names or by using new religious labels.

These "free-Masonic" movements share many characteristics in common. They practice oath-taking initiation rituals for admitting new members. They impose strict observance of vegetarianism on members. Their promoters are secretive in their approach to proselytizing. New members are recruited through the network system based on members' introductions. Uninvited guests or strangers are not welcome in their meeting sessions. If strangers attend their functions out of curiosity, members would more often than not change their topics of conversation or discussion, or put up a front to show that their beliefs and practices are in line with the teachings of mainstream Buddhism, Taoism, or Confucianism, as the case may be.

Besides the above, numerous charismatic movements using the name of Jesus Christ or the label of Christianity have also adopted similar tactics in the propagation of charismatic faiths. They gather in small groups in private homes, rented houses or apartments, under the charge of one or two leaders. They sing and make physical gestures during worship sessions. Some of them "speak in tongues," the ability at which is regarded as a sign of the working of the Holy Spirit and therefore a blessing of God. Some sway their bodies, yell, and engage in dialogue with one another, affirming one another's claim to direct communion with God. Some even bang on the tables and throw books in the air in a state of frenzy--sometimes as acts of exorcizing demons, satans, and evil spirits. To these followers, God is the only object worthy of respect in the world. They identify themselves as "children of God," by which they subtly impress upon young believers that (1) their true parent is God and hence earthly parents are of no significance to them; and (2) fellow members are their true brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God, and hence members must assume the role of biological brothers and sisters. It is therefore understandable that members who join these movements tend to set themselves apart from their parents and siblings who do not share the same faith.

Movements of this kind form small pockets of close-knit social units of believers based on specific sets of beliefs and practices to meet the psychological needs of individuals who find it difficult to adjust to the rapid pace with which Malaysia is developing economically and the rate at which the country is undergoing social change in the attempt to industrialize. In their wake, however, they have left disharmony within the wider context of human relations, in the family and society at large. Their oaths of secrecy/loyalty, for one thing, render members vulnerable to sexual abuse and material exploitation by unscrupulous leaders.

Observers are fearful that, if these movements are allowed to go unchecked, they might in the long run defeat Malaysia's purpose of creating a "caring society" with the family as its base, and undermine the country's efforts to realize its vision of becoming a fully developed nation by the year 2020.

-- Oct 1, 1993, CHEU Hock-Tong

Last updated: 2001/11/28 14:33:44

Copyright © 2001 Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics, Kokugakuin University. All Rights Reserved.