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In recent months, Malaysia has made the headlines in the United Kingdom for all the wrong reasons. The latest case involves a Malay singer arrested in Ipoh and allegedly ill-treated by religious officials for dressing 'indecently'. What people here must have found shocking was the attitude of those who prosecuted her. The problem was that she was treated with little respect.

Deliberately shamed, the officers took many photographs of her. Here righteousness, the type that accompany religious superiority, has taken over. Muslims who do not conform to what these officials consider 'decent' are being prosecuted.

The intolerance of these religious officials springs from entrenched power. If there are no debates, and meaningful self-reflection that results in political action, then we will have members of parliament equating criticism of the government with criticism of the Prophet. That Malay power and Islam has fused into an exclusive and intolerant body is leaving Hindu temples in ruins, banana leaf restaurants empty of its religious symbols and a Hindu, raised as one and married to one, forced to 'rehabilitate' herself .

To make her, a Malaysian citizen protected by a secular constitution, subject to the religious court that was created to 'defend' the religion she was never part of is mind-boggling. That she was then separated from her children and husband is the height of cruelty.

That none of the mainstream newspapers have had the courage to do a special report on this problem, that no public intellectual has spoken up, that nobody in the government has had the tenacity to stop this type of prosecution in its tracks reveals how deeply cowed Malaysians are about religion.

If there can be no mainstream public debate on such pertinent an issue then the very fabric of Malaysia's democratic society is in jeopardy. Democracy is not about holding elections. It is about giving citizens the right to discuss and debate issues. It is the mark of a mature democracy to be able to rationally debate sensitive issues when they present themselves.

But the real victim of the actions of these few religious zealots is the religion itself. No religion can survive such assaults. That Malaysians are witness to the smearing of Islam, its good name, its philosophy of tolerance and kindness and remain totally unaffected is quite amazing.

The prime minister, who probably has more facts that any of us, has to act carefully. But act he must for he is quickly losing the support of moderate Malaysians.

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