Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (CNN)With the Lunar New Year round the corner, Chinese around the world are preparing to welcome the Year of the Dog.
But in Malaysia, where people of ethnic Chinese descent make up almost a quarter of the population, images of the dog have been omitted from Lunar New Year decorations and merchandise for fear of offending the country’s Muslim majority.
The omission has raised hackles in the Chinese community and caused concern among Malaysians of all faiths, who see it as yet another symptom of the country’s growing Islamic conservatism, driven by the government’s flirtation with hardline Islamist policies and a cultural shift by religious students returning from the Middle East.
Sunway Pyramid, a busy shopping mall just outside the country’s capital of Kuala Lumpur, is one of several major commercial hubs that has opted not to depict dogs, which are considered unclean by many Muslims, in its Lunar New Year decorations.
Sunway Pyramid decided not to display dogs because they wanted to be respectful to what they perceive as Muslim sensitivities, but it suffered for its decision.
A communications officer for the mall said her company has been the target of a backlash on social media for its decision not to display “contentious” cultural emblems, with calls for a boycott of its mall.
Ms Tan, a 40-year-old Malaysian-Chinese shopkeeper in the mall, who declined to give her full name, said: “This is a multiracial country, when they do something like that it shows disrespect to the Chinese race here.”
“If this is the case they should just make this only an Islamic country, but we have Buddhists, Hindus and other… (religions) as well here,” she added.
Several shops selling the customary red and gold new year decorations in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown have kept those featuring dogs inside rather than on display out front.
Last month, Reuters reported that Pavillion Mall, a shopping mall in the heart of Kuala Lumpur which gets about 3 million monthly visitors, also chose not to depict dogs in its decorations, citing religious and cultural sensitivities as a factor in their decision.
Earlier this year, a hypermarket chain around the country was embroiled in controversy when it emerged that Lunar New Year t-shirts being sold there depicted 10 animals in the Chinese zodiac, but not the dog or the pig.
The reason? The country’s Islamic department said ‘dog’ would confuse Muslims.
Malaysia’s 30-million population is estimated to be 60% Malay Muslim, with prominent Chinese, Indian and other minorities.
Though Islam is Malaysia’s official religion and the country has Sharia courts for civil cases for Muslims, it is constitutionally secular.
Maria Chin Abdullah, a prominent pro-democracy activist, says what’s happening with the Lunar New Year decorations are “just small signs” of growing Islamic conservatism.
“The secularism in our system that we enjoyed seems to be disappearing.”
As evidence, Chin pointed to the increasing frequency with which Malay women now wear the tudung, (headscarf), the Arabisation of Malay vocabulary — for example the word “Eid” being used for the Islamic religious holiday instead of the Malay “Hari Raya Puasa”, and books being banned for espousing moderate forms of Islam.
Other contentious recent issues include a beer festival in Kuala Lumpur that was canceled last year on security grounds, dress codes being imposed on international performers at pop concerts and Christians being prevented from erecting crosses on buildings.
“Schools have become less multi-racial and things are becoming scary,” said Chin.
“My own son will come back from school and tell me we can’t touch dogs and ask why I’m not wearing a headscarf.”
Other critics have pointed to the presence in Malaysia of hardline Indian Muslim televangelist Zakir Naik. He is banned in the UK and his views have sparked a criminal investigation in his native India.
Last year, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government confirmed it had given Naik permanent residency, a decision to which activists have mounted a legal challenge.
Najib’s support for more Islamist policies has grown since his ruling coalition lost the popular vote in the 2013 general election – its worst ever electoral performance – as he seeks to strengthen his hold on the ethnic Malay Muslim vote.
Malaysia’s evolution has raised alarm bells at the UN, which has urged the country to protect its tradition of tolerance from the rise of fundamentalism.
“I have heard worrying reports of attempts at Islamization spreading in many areas of society which could lead to cultural engineering,” said UN human rights expert Karima Bennoune last year following a 10-day fact-finding mission to the country.
‘Conservatism is becoming worse’
The government, which is widely expected to win elections due before August, drew criticism last year for allowing the opposition Pan Malaysian Islamic Party to put forward a parliamentary bill calling for harsher punishments — including more flogging – for moral “crimes”.
Malaysia’s nine sultans, the official guardians of Islam in Malaysia, last year issued a call for religious harmony after what they described as excessive actions.
The move came after the Sultan of the state of Johor forced the owner of a launderette in his state to take down a “Muslim-only” shop sign.
Ahmad Farouk Musa, founder of a moderate think-tank, Islamic Renaissance Front, is yet another who says Islamic conservatism is worsening.
“One of the reasons is that Malaysia sends thousands of students to Saudi Arabia, where they are indoctrinated with hardline intolerant forms of Islam like Salafism and Wahhabism.”
“They bring back intolerant ideas, for example, a hatred of Shias. That never existed in Malaysia before,” he added.
But there’s another fundamental problem that dates back to the birth of the country – its race-based political system.
Parties set up on ethnic lines originated under the country’s former colonial rulers, the British, who imported Chinese and Indian labor to Malaysia, largely keeping Malays in impoverished rural areas.
After Malaysia won independence in 1957, its new leaders granted privileges to Malays, including cheaper land, easier access to tertiary education and preference for civil service jobs, to try to help them reach economic parity with the Chinese community.
This policy was strengthened in 1969 after Malay animosity over increasing Chinese economic and political power boiled over into a race riot in Kuala Lumpur in which scores of people, mostly Chinese, were killed.
Reformists argue the system has made Malays dependent on handouts and has bred demagoguery that thrives on religious and ethnic tension.
Over the years, Najib’s United Malay National Organization (UNMO) has cast itself as the guardian of Malay privileges. As the next election approaches the prime minister has also sought to burnish his party’s credentials as the defender of Islam, while at the same time raising the suggestion that an opposition win would result in diminishing the influence of the religion in the national arena.