Religion in Modern Asia Newsletter

Special Report: Malaysia


In late March, I accompanied Inoue Nobutaka on a brief trip to Malaysia, in order to gain a bit of experience in current religious conditions in that part of Asia. Our guide during our stay was Cheu Hock-Tong, professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (National University of Malaysia) and contributor to this Newsletter. Although Professor Cheu was extremely busy with university exams during the period of our stay, he was truly gracious in finding time to guide us to religious facilities in the Kuala Lumpur area, providing us with detailed explanations of each site. We would like to express our appreciation to him for his deep hospitality.

It was our purpose to observe as much of the pluralistic religious situation in Malaysia as possible during our one-week stay, so we tried to visit as many Islamic, Chinese, Hindu and other religious facilities as we could manage.

We first visited several Islamic mosques, and I was particularly awed by the architectural details and their blue theme. While I had seen religious architecture from a number of religions before, this was the first time I had directly observed any based on the color blue. The color was like a deep ocean or eternal sky, expressing a depth removed from the sacred space of the religious facility, and into which the land (this world) blended. Merely standing there and viewing that color was enough to give one a sense of freshness and revival.

It was not possible to make detailed inquiries at the mosques, so we primarily viewed them from the outside. We were able to learn a bit more, however, at some of the other religious facilities we visited. For example, we attempted to visit the Chinese shrine to the founder of Kuala Lumpur, who is worshiped as an ancestor of a certain clan. But when we made inquiries at the building where the clan was centered, we were introduced instead to the branch office of the Unification Church, which had its facilities on another floor of the same building. This led to the unexpected chance for an interview with representatives of the Unification Church.

When visiting a famous Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur, we were fortunate to observe a colorful wedding ceremony taking place. When one considers that the Japanese "Shinto" wedding ceremony appeared as the result of Westernizing influences, it appeared that this Hindu ceremony likewise had adapted itself in some way to modernization. Even while considering that possibility, the serious countenances of the new bride and groom, and the stunning attire of their relatives reinforced in me the sense of the sacred frequently felt in such rites of passage.

Little organized research has yet been undertaken regarding the comparison of Hinduism and Japanese folk religion (the amalgamation composed of Shinto, Buddhism, Shugendo, etc.). It immediately appears, however, that there are many points in common. North of Kuala Lumpur are located the Batu Caves, a famous site holy to Hindus and closely related to the Hindu temple we had previously visited. The blend of light and shade inside the caves, together with the sacred atmosphere created by the smoke of incense was immediately reminiscent of a Catholic cathedral, yet the small wayside shrines and minor sites for meditation were likewise suggestive of Japanese Shugendo and other mountain religion. Further, the worshipers who had come to visit the shrines inside the cave were pilgrimage groups from specific regions, and they somehow reminded me of the similar pilgrimage confraternities in Japan. I was impressed with the need for international comparative research regarding folk religion and other localized and strongly indigenous religious systems.

With the spectacular rate of social change being experienced in modern Asia, it would already appear insufficient to attempt to engage in religious research-even regarding folk religion-while limiting one's discussion of issues to a single country. Limited to my own observations, it would appear that faith in the Indian guru Saibaba has now spread among certain non-Malay segments in Malaysia, the middle-upper class in Thailand, and even among some Japanese. The issue of the guru has also been taken up by the popular media. In short, it would appear that religious phenomena Indian in origin are spreading simultaneously not only through south Asia, but to South-East Asia and East Asia as well. Likewise, the Malaysian Islamic sect of Al-Arqam, which was persecuted in its home country, has now spread beyond its original national borders and is now at the focus of "freedom of belief" controversy in the neighboring country of Thailand, as noted in the previous issue of this Newsletter. In the same way, the encounter of Christianity and indigenous folk belief has resulted in the spawning of numerous Christian and quasi-Christian groups in Korea, including the Unification Church, whose expansion to global scale has been accompanied by widespread social conflicts and concerns.

In other cases, it is not religious groups themselves, but only religious information, which achieves international distribution. For example, a current "fad" being taken up by the media in Japan (and one must add, such news reportage is accompanied by a certain degree of self-fulfilling prophecy) is the ancient Chinese practice of feng shui or "geomancy." The practice of divination of land and houses was originally widespread throughout Asia; some commentators have pointed out that the Japanese revival of popularity in the practice is in part due to a recent renaissance of interest in wider Asia, and an increase in news about Asia.

On the other hand, the spread of such religious movements and religious information beyond national borders is not the only phenomenon of interest in modern Asia. For example, single-nation fundamentalist religious movements or modernists religious reform movements (in Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc.) are showing remarkable vitality in those countries which possess national or comparable ethnic religions. At the same time, a variety of new religious movements are developing outside the borders of such majority movements. Most of these movements are limited to within a single country, but we must not ignore the fact that other Asian countries as well display closely similar phenomena at rates roughly coincidental with the progress of industrialization and urbanization.

Such examples are determined by the specific historical and social contexts of the countries where they occur, but it is likely also important to consider the relationship of religion and modernization by comparing such examples with similar cases in other countries. Needless to say, that has the additional advantage of helping accentuate the unique features of the respective examples as well. In that sense, my trip to Malaysia impressed me with the need to include such basic comparative work in my own research on modern Buddhist movements in Thailand.

In closing, I would like to express once again our deep thanks to Professor Cheu Hock Tong for his service in guiding us during our trip.

-- Apr 1, 1995, YANO Hidetake

Last updated: 2001/11/28 14:33:42

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