While meandering about in downtown Saigon recently I chanced upon the Sri Mariaman temple close to Ben Thanh market. It was an interesting visit to say the least, for the riotous colours of the temple were matched by the riotous conjunction of many faiths that had come together in that singular enclosed and sacred space.
The reasons for this are obvious to those familiar with Vietnam’s recent history: In 1975 when Saigon finally fell to the triumphant North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong, practically all the foreigners and migrant residents had made a bee line for the dock. The temples, churches and mosques of Saigon – thereafter renamed Ho Chi Minh city – were left vacant and the devotees wondered if they would be allowed to remain standing at all after their departure. At the height of the Cold War the Vietnamese
Communists were seen as a rather uncompromising, tiresomely dogmatic, no-fun bloodthirsty lot and many had assumed that the religious texts would be recycled as toilet paper (as the Khmer Rouge treated the Bibles and Qurans that fell into their hands later) and that the sacred sites would be desacralised in the most outlandish manner.
But what followed next was a surprise many. They, the dreaded Commies, not only allowed the religious buildings to remain, but they also made use of them in a host of imaginative ways. Many of the churches and mosques were restored and preserved, and some were turned into schools or clinics. Not a stone was touched, save by the restorer’s paint brush.Today the Sri Mariaman temple in central Saigon has once again become a religious site for many, but ironically most of the devotees happen to be Buddhists and Taoists, not Hindu – for there are scarcely a dozen Hindus left in the city. So I sat and watched as mothers and aunts, grannies and grand-kids perambulated around the precinct of the temple, offering their prayers and sending up their hopes and wishes to the Gods of the Himalayas on a cloud of incense smoke. The Hindu priests are still there, though one wonders what they make of it all, with Buddhists and Taoists coming to offer prayers and light joss-sticks before the many avatars of Lakshmi, Durga, Kali and Krishna.
If human beings have proven their intolerance time and again, at least the Gods seem more kindly and benevolent to entertain the vainest of wishes even from strangers.Hop on the next cheap flight and find yourself here in multi-culti Malaysia, just in time to see the bulldozers smash through another Sri Mariaman temple in Selangor.
It was a double blow to me to return to KL in transit to hear the news that not one, but two, Hindu temples had just been flattened on the same day by our endearing developers in the vicinity of Shah Alam. Even less heart-warming were the accounts of the devotees of the temple who were manhandled and forcibly marched out before the hammers came down, some at gun point. If nefarious Commie Vietnam can protect their temples, why can’t we ‘plural, multicultural, multiflavoured’ Malaysians extend the same comfort and protection to our fellow Malaysians too? Of course there will be the nay-sayers who will point me to the legal fine print and remind me of the legally dubious status of some of these temples. Then there will be those who will insistthat this is an Indian-Hindu issue which I should not stick my nose in (even though the issue is a Malaysian one as these are Malaysian temples being destroyed on Malaysian territory andMalaysians are affected). Then there will be the gung-ho testosterone-driven macho types who will yelp and whine about Malay identity being the paramount defining factor that defines what being Malaysian is, etc. etc. But prattle and legalese notwithstanding, the bottom line is this: These happen to be Malaysian temples built on Malaysian soil with Malaysian devotees and the Malaysian government is presiding over their systematic and calculated destruction, one by one. One shudders at the thought of the long-term global repercussions of this campaign, for already recorded footage of these temple demolitions are being transmitted to websites all over the globe and the issue taken up by Hindu conservatives in India.Nor are the parallels being drawn an attractive one:
If the Taliban could have leveled the Bamiyan statues of Buddha with a flick of the trigger-finger (to be followed by the mass slaughter of goats and cows all over the benighted land, which did not make it to the headlines); then what is happening in our plural wonderland called Malaysia? How are we to hold our heads up high and invite the world to visit our wonderfully diverse and colourful country when the very same landscape is being flattened in a rather indecorous way at the same time? Taliban, Wot? Here? Blimey!The tragedy of course is that the deliberate reconstruction of Malaysia’s urban landscape is being done in broad daylight under the flag of a nebulous formulae of ‘moderate Islam’ that issaid by some hopefuls to be the last chance to save the pluralist spirit of the country. However one finds it hard to accept such talk of mutual love and inter-communal cuddliness when the bulldozers parked outside don’t look all that cuddly. Nor do the cops with their tear gas canisters and batons. Or the Orcish horde of construction (or should we say destruction) workers with mallets and hammers slung precariously over their shoulders, ready to rock and roll.
Looking back at the fate of the two Sri Mariamman temples, the question remains: Who were the ones who protected the rights of the religious minorities better? The Godless Commies or the faithful Malaysians? These are the times when I am not proud to admit that I am a Malaysian, I have to say.