ALSO BY

By Stefan Hu

Illegal temples must go but be sensitive about it

Laws are needed to control the illegal establishment of shrines, altars and temples on public and state lands. These days, it is not uncommon to find shrines and altars of all sorts in every nook and cranny in public places.

In a multi-religious country, people must respect the religious sensitivities of others. Those who construct places of worship under trees and rocks illegally, especially in public areas, in housing estates or beside roads, can't find any sympathy from those who may find such a practice offensive. The hue and cry raised by protestors cannot be justified when religious altars and buildings were illegally established in the first place. Illegal altars are like illegal hawkers, they may be liked by those who use them, and be a public nuisance to others.

The fact is people can't expect the government and authorities to continue to overlook the illegality and inappropriateness of those structures because they have been there for a long time. Malaysians don't need to look hard to spot illegal altars everywhere. Even graveyards are not spared and graves are desecrated allegedly by superstitious gamblers seeking supernatural help. Some of these illegal structures are often located along busy roads and intersections.

The authorities ought to take a tougher stand against the illegal use of public and private land to establish religious edifices or temples especially if they encroach on public safety. I recall an incident some years ago in a northern state where a road-sweeper began to establish altars along the cliffs surrounding a hilly road. He endangered his life and those that followed him each time he went there to use the altar because of the hazardous traffic in the blind bend.

Then there was this rock by the side of the road and a red ribbon was tied around it, then a roof was constructed over it and I saw how it grew into a little shrine to by now a temple. The evolution of an illegal roadside temple from its humble origins can be quite quick and amusing, especially if a worshiper strikes a four-digit numbers win, so I am told.

It is better to nip the problem in the bud. The authorities should be vigilant to avoid it becoming a political hot potato in future. But destruction of illegal structures ought to be done with sensitivity because religion is an emotive subject and the proper protocol should be established for the demolition work to be carried out. Rambo-style destruction of illegal temples may hurt the feelings of adherents who come into the picture later and know nothing of a building's history and illegal status.

People's constitutional right to places of worship is a separate issue. It is something for the followers of religion to sort out with the authorities. It should not be linked with the construction of illegal temples which the authorities have a right to remove. It would be presumptuous for people to claim that because the authorities don't provide enough space for the erection of temples, they can establish their own anywhere without weighing the consequences.

But I think it is time people are dissuaded from erecting places of worship illegally and willy-nilly and turning them into de facto temples. Because the authorities failed to act before does not mean they can't or shouldn't act now. The law still stands.