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Malaysian sultans in rare intervention on intolerance

[KUALA LUMPUR] Malaysia's nine state sultans have issued a rare statement expressing concern about "divisive actions" in the name of Islam, as fears grow of rising intolerance in the multi-ethnic country.

Referring to a controversy last month over laundrettes in two states which banned non-Muslim customers, the revered sultans urged people to follow principles set out in the country's constitution which say respect must be accorded to everyone regardless of their faith or ethnicity.

"The Malay Rulers take very seriously the issues of unity and harmony among the citizens of this multi-ethnic and multi-religious country," they said in a joint statement late Tuesday.

About 60 per cent of Malaysia's population of some 30 million are Muslim Malays and the country is also home to sizeable Christian, Buddhist and Hindu minorities.

The statement said recent actions of certain individuals had "gone beyond all acceptable standards of decency", and that such actions could be damaging "when they are erroneously associated with or committed in the name of Islam".

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The laundrettes in the states of Johor and Perlis eventually agreed to serve all customers regardless of their religion after they were condemned by the state sultans.

"As a religion that encourages its followers to be respectful, moderate and inclusive, the reputation of Islam must not ever be tainted by the divisive actions of certain groups or individuals," the sultans said.

The statement came ahead of their annual Conference of Rulers.

The laundrette controversy was the latest incident to stoke concerns that a traditionally tolerant brand of Islam is being eroded by the growing influence of fringe hardliners and conservative politicians.

There was widespread anger last month after an annual beer festival in Kuala Lumpur was cancelled following opposition from an influential Islamist political party.

A parliamentary democracy, Malaysia has a unique system in which Islamic sultans serve as the ceremonial heads of nine of the country's 13 states, alternating as the nation's figurehead king every five years.

The sultans have no formal power, rarely dabble in politics, and their proclamations are not binding.

But the centuries-old royal families are accorded great respect as symbols of Malaysia's heritage and guardians of the Islamic faith in the country.


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