A Thai in our midst
Writer: Sharyn Shufiyan
Published: Fri, 10 Feb 2012
"It was way back in 1956, at a time when the then Malaya was on the verge of gaining independence that the idea of building a sizable Buddhist temple close to the federal capital of Kuala Lumpur was first conceived. The temple was also to reflect the status of Buddhism as one of the major religions in the country, and also serve as a symbol of the long standing close relationship that existed between Thailand and Malaya.”
And so was the introduction to the Thai Buddhist Chetawan Temple in its 50-year commemorative issue 2007. One forgets how old the temple is – its age concealed behind bright blue and red stones embellished in glittering gold, its colours danced amidst the sun’s rays, its Chor Fah rising majestically towards the heavens – also reparative works take place quite often I presume. During my visit there last weekend, construction materials littered the temple complex and handymen were painting green scales on the dragon ornament, Thai pop music blasting in the background.
Although the idea of building the temple began in 1956 initiated by a Thai monk Phra Kru Palat Vieng, it was only until 1962 that the building of the temple commenced, starting with the most sacred structure – the Ubosot, where monks are ordained. The proposal was submitted in 1957 and the subsequent year saw the Selangor state government allocating two acres of land for the temple. Through donations, the temple grounds extended to four and a half acres and additional structures were built. Today, apart from the Ubosot, the temple complex consists of a meditation hall where a Sleeping Buddha resides, a bell tower to announce the commencement of religious ceremonies, the monks’ Kuti or living quarters, the Sala – a sort of rest area, the Brahma and the Kuan Yin pavilions and a columbarium. Two significant trees in the Buddhist doctrine were also planted in the complex – the Bodhi tree, under which Chinese deities encircled the trunk, and the Sala tree.
Designed by the Fine Arts Department of Thailand and built by Thai craftsmen and local builders, the temple was opened by King Bhumiphol Adulyadej on June 26, 1962 with the raising of the Chor Fah – the temple roof. Prior to the construction of the temple, a fundraising rally was initiated and received wide support not just from Buddhists, but also the Government of Malaya which through Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj contributed a grant of RM100, 000. A further RM45, 000 was contributed by Dato’ T.H Tan, then secretary-general of the Alliance.
As I was writing this, I was distracted and agitated by the midnight explosions of damaging decibels that threatened a deaf ear any time soon. I had originally intended to develop the story into celebrating multiculturalism until I stopped myself short, realising that I was cursing and wishing I hadn’t lived in such a predominantly Chinese community. Multiculturalism had a time cap.
I was then overcome by this sudden guilt in the pits of my stomach, but then I thought, that’s the exact complexity of the Malaysian society. Many of us aspire to be so politically correct that we are cautious with the words that we use around each other. As a reaction towards racial supremacy and bigotry of a very loud minority, we tend to distinguish ourselves by avoiding ethnic labelling and promoting a ‘Bangsa Malaysia’. But there is no way of getting out of it. Racial differences are so inherent in us that they dominate the temporal lobe of any Malaysian.
And as much as I complain about the fireworks, others complain about double parking during Friday prayers. And while Malaysians rejoice at the luxury of public holidays, expats grumble because they just can’t get anything done.
Without these racial stereotypes, there wouldn’t any good joke left for comedy nights.
But while we are conscious of race and religion, its sensitivities and stereotypes, some are just pushing the boundaries. Just recently, another pig’s head was found on the grounds of a Rawang mosque on top of the other five that was found last year in Johor Bahru. And let’s not forget the cow head protest. Only the Christians were spared of heads but they received cocktails instead. When it comes to making a point, even holy grounds are not spared. And often, these cowardly acts are justified as ‘politically motivated’. If we start justifying these acts as part of dirty political tactics, somehow we’re dismissing it as ‘nothing serious’ because the GE must be around the corner. We must have gone wrong somewhere.
Being Malaysians, we have multiple identities; just because a person is an ethnic Chinese Christian, doesn’t mean he or she can’t pay respect to the ancestors, as has been with the Chinese custom. We’re always so fearful of confusions and conversions that we don’t trust ourselves. Chetawan also displayed multiplicity – the Kuan Yin pavilion and the Chinese deities surrounding the Bodhi tree are testament that the Temple is not exclusive to the Thais but also sacred to Chinese Buddhists. Chetawan reminds me of our many identities and cultural similarities. It teaches me that it’s okay to be a little bit conflicted.