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Which God? Whose Country? -Freedom of Religion and Belief in Malaysia

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This is published in the Commonwealth Lawyer - Journal of the Commonwealth Lawyers' Association (Volume 28, No 3), December 2018. The original draft was presented at the Forum on Freedom of Religion and Belief, held at Lambeth Palace, London, on 17-18 April 2018, by the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion of Belief and the Archbishop of Canterbury, as reported in https://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/news/latest-news/archbishop-convenes-forum-freedom-religion-or-belief-commonwealth
6 © Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association and Contributors 2018
Which God? Whose Country? – Freedom
of Religion and Belief in Malaysia
Wong Chin-Huat
Articles
Introduction
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
(UDHR) affirms that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and
religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or
belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others
and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in
teaching, practice, worship and observance.
The inconvenient reality is of course that neither the
provisions of the UDHR nor human rights more generally are
universally accepted. In fact, in Malaysia, human rights are
seen by some as a threat to their religion.
In a Friday summon in 2013, a functionary of the
Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM), one
of the government-sponsored custodians of Islam, warned
that demands for religious freedom and gender inclusion
could confuse people and this can destroy the harmony and
undermine Islam’s special position in Malaysia.1
Special position for Muslims
The constitutional “special position” of Islam is almost
inseparable from the political supremacy of Muslims, an
overwhelming majority of whom are Malays and Borneo
natives. Such people enjoy special privileges under Article
153 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia. The Article
153 “special position” provides for preferential treatment in
public sector employment, education and business licensing,
which have been extended in policy terms after 1969 to also
cover private sector employment, equity ownership and home
ownership.
The special position further makes Islam a key ethnic
marker for the Malays, linking spiritual identity with temporal
interests. Originally designed for the Malays, it necessitates
a constitutional definition of Malays as the beneficiary
group, which interestingly lists no genealogical requirement
1 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/human-rights-a-
facade-to-destroy-islam-says-jakim-in-friday-sermon.
but only geographical origin (Malaya-Singapore) and three
behaviourial conditions: professing Islam, habitually-speaking
the Malay language, and observing Malay customs. In practice,
globalisation and Islamism have reduced the importance
of language and custom in Malay identity while political
expediency had long made geographical origin irrelevant, hence,
leaving Islam as the most salient defining element of Malayness.
Understandably, religious freedom, in both the inter-faith
and intra-faith senses, is thus portrayed as an existential
threat to the political dominance and socio-economic well-
being of Malays/Muslims. While Islam is the fastest-growing
faith in the world,2 and many non-Muslims are embracing
Islam in countries with uninhibited freedom of religion like
United Kingdom,3 Malaysian Muslims are often terrified
by unsubstantiated news of Muslim apostasy. In November
2016, Harussani Zakaria, the Mufti of the Perak state, spread
a rumour about en masse baptism of Muslim students in a
Catholic Church in the city of Ipoh, Perak, which led to
a commotion and terrified the 100 Catholic children who
attended their first holy communion.4 Earlier in 2009, two
reporters from an Islamic magazine impersonated Catholics to
investigate if apostasy took place in churches. Many ‘Malay-
looking people’ were reportedly spotted in one of the churches
where the reporters had entered surreptitiously and where
services were conducted in Malay.5
Apostasy
Exit from Islam is extremely difficult, if not impossible,
for Malaysian Muslims today. While Muslims could leave the
faith quietly in the past, the door was officially closed for Lina
Joy, who was born Azlina Jalaini and a Malay.6 She converted
2 https://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/02/living/pew-study-religion/index.
html.
3 https://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/09/
economist-explains-17; http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-
1343954/100-000-Islam-converts-living-UK-White-women-keen-
embrace-Muslim-faith.html.
4 https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2006/11/13/baptism-
message-started-by-woman-claims-perak-mufti/.
5 http://www.thenutgraph.com/catholics-lodge-report-against-al-islam/.
6 www.reuters.com/article/us-malaysia-religion-ruling/malaysias-lina-
joy-loses-islam-conversion-case-idUSSP20856820070530.
© Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association and Contributors 2018 7
Which God? Whose Country? – Freedom of Religion and Belief in Malaysia
to Christianity at the age of 26 but the National Registration
Department (NRD) refused to change her religion in their
record, making it impossible for her to marry her Christian
boyfriend in Malaysia where inter-faith marriage involving
Muslim is illegal.7 Seventeen years after her conversion, Lina
Joy lost her case to update her religious status in the land’s
highest court which ruled that only Syariah courts could
decide on cases of apostasy. Except for Perlis, Negeri Sembilan
and Selangor, Syariah laws in most states do not provide an
exit mechanism, which includes counselling.8 In comparison,
apostasy is criminalised and harshly punished in many other
states. Currently unenforceable because of constitutional and
legal obstacles, Syariah laws in Kelantan9 and Terengganu10
allow the state to take away both life and wealth from apostates.
Syariah courts in many states send apostates to religious
counselling and, in some states, impose a fine or imprisonment
if they do not desist from their original decision to quit the
religion. Apostates from those amongst born, converted or
registered as Muslims have continued to knock at the doors
of the civil courts door after Lina Joy, but with very few
exceptions,11 they have usually met with the same fate.
In sharp contrast, religious conversion to Islam is a highway
with busy traffic. In the populous state of Selangor alone, it is
estimated that annually 3,200 Malaysians convert to Islam.12
Religious agencies and Muslim NGOs are active and open
in dakwah (evangelism) activities. In 2016, aggressive Indian
Muslim evangelist Zakir Naik was hailed as a hero in his
Malaysian roadshows and on-the-spot embrace of Islam was
celebrated on national media.13 For the socio-economically
backward orang asli (Peninsular indigenous) community,
where only 20 per cent were Muslims according to the 2010
census, JAKIM implements systematic evangelical programmes
with the assistance of other state agencies including Jabatan
Kemajuan Orang Asli Malaysia (JKOAM).14 In the Borneo state
of Sabah, allegations have been made about “paper conversion”
by NRD officers15 and manipulative conversions by Muslim
7 http://says.com/my/news/marriage-between-muslim-and-non-muslim-
illegal-says-jakim.
8 https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/415372.
9 http://www2.esyariah.gov.my/esyariah/mal/portalv1/enakmen2011/
Eng_enactment_Ori_lib.nsf/f831ccddd195843f48256fc600141e84/
edd5daa1361eaa7d482580140012da26?OpenDocument.
10 http://www2.esyariah.gov.my/esyariah/mal/portalv1/enakmen/State_
Enact_Ori.nsf/f831ccddd195843f48256fc600141e84/cb36901c419
ea86448257385002c3dc8?OpenDocument.
11 http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2016/march/malaysia-rules-
muslim-can-convert-to-christianity.html.
12 http://english.astroawani.com/malaysia-news/what-we-can-learn-
muslim-converts-malaysia-151800.
13 https://www.nst.com.my/news/2016/04/139600/four-convert-islam-
zakir-naik-lecture.
14 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/291074565_Aktiviti_
Dakwah_JAKIM_Terhadap_Masyarakat_Orang_Asli_Peaksanaan_
dan_Cabaran.
15 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/nrd-urged-to-
stop-alleged-paper-conversion-of-sabah-villagers-to-islam.
NGOs offering welfare assistance.16 The victims in both alleged
sets of cases were poor non-Muslim indigenous villagers. Quite
obviously, the idea of “free, prior and informed consent” has not
become a norm in government or private bodies who engage
with the indigenous peoples. The apprehension of Christians
in the state of Sabah about involuntary conversion into Islam
is understandable given that there was a concerted state effort
from the national capital to make Muslims the dominant group
in a land which was once a Catholic-majority state, using
various means from aggressive conversion campaigns to instant-
enfranchisement called Project IC for foreign Muslims.17
The idea that conversion can only be one-way process in
favour of Islam is inferred from Article 11(4) of the Federal
Constitution which qualifies religious freedom when it comes
to Muslims as follows:
State law and in respect of the Federal Territories of Kuala
Lumpur, Labuan and Putrajaya, federal law may control or
restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among
persons professing the religion of Islam.
State authorities have used this provision not only to outlaw
propagation of non-Islamic faiths to Muslims, but also to
control propagation of Islam amongst Muslims. It is therefore
more about thought policing of Muslims than mere protection
of Islam.
The phobia of Muslim apostasy or murtad (which might
be called murtadophobia) has led to various restrictions on the
propagation of other faiths, justified by the catch-all expression
“confusion”, with the ban on the Arabic-origin word Allah (The
God) as the most illustrative example. First used in an early
Malay Bible since 1629, the word Allah, which is also widely
used by non-Muslims in Arab countries, India and Indonesia
without any difficulties, has sparked much contention in
Malaysia in the past four decades. The first attempt by the
authorities to ban it came in 1981, the significant year when
efforts by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)
and the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) to out-Islamise each
other picked up momentum. After Sunday school childrens
books and CDs containing the word Allah were withheld by
customs officers in 2007, churches and individual Christians
filed judicial review applications challenging the ban. A High
Court decision favouring religious freedom on December 31,
2009, was followed by a series of attacks on churches and
missionary schools – accompanied with occasional desecration
of mosques18 – in early 2010.19
16 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/sabah-
christians-claim-bribed-tricked-into-islam.
17 http://www.loyarburok.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/
Disenfranchisement-of-bona-fide-Sabahans-by-Daniel-John-Jambun.
pdf.
18 http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Kuala-Lumpur,-mosques-desecrated-
with-pig%27s-head--17460.html.
19 https://www.iclrs.org/content/events/44/1577.pdf.
8 © Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association and Contributors 2018
Journal of the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association
The high court decision was however overturned by the
Court of Appeal in October 2013, in which Justice Mohamed
Apandi Ali (later to become Attorney General) made a far-
reaching and twisted interpretation of the constitutional
provision for religious freedom, Article 3(1), which states
that, “Islam is the religion of the federation but other religions
may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the
federation”. For him, this meant that the condition of “peace
and harmony” in Article 3(1) was to “protect the sanctity of
Islam” and to “insulate” it against any threat. In other words,
religious freedom of other faiths had to take a back seat if
the condition of peace and harmony ceases to exist. Another
judge, Abdul Aziz Abdul Rahim, cited the arson attacks on
churches and mosques after the 2009 High Court judgement
which overturned the ban on “Allah” to justify the ban on non-
Muslims.20 Unfortunately, the Court of Appeal judgement was
not overruled by the Federal Court in June 2014, effectively
shrinking the space for religious freedom.
While some have tried to argue that the suitability of non-
Muslim usage is a theological question, the real consideration
is very much a political one. Words that are not allowed to
be used by non-Muslims go beyond “Allah”.21 For example, a
fatwa issued by the state mufti of Sabah effectively banned 31
other words including “Firman” (decree/command [by God]),
“Wahyu” (revelation), “Iman” (faith), “Rasul” (Messenger
[of God]), “Nabi” (Prophet) and “Injil” (Gospel).22 The
idea is to basically keep the national language exclusively for
Muslims. This mentality was admitted by a straight-speaking
senior minister Nazri Abdul Aziz, “it is interpreted that if you
translate any religious books into Malay language, then that is
seen as an act to propagate religions other than Islam to those
who profess the Muslim faith.”23
Intertwining of religion, ethnicity and language
This idea of policing the Malay language to protect the
Malays from conversion to or confusion caused by other
faiths sheds light on the delicate and nuanced context wherein
ethnicity, religion and language intertwine. Malay was and
is largely a mono-faith language in Malaya (and later West
Malaysia), as Chinese and Indians who are Buddhists, Hindus,
Christians, Sikhs and Taoists do not use Malay in their
religious activities. Hence, any attempt to discuss religious
matters in Malay is often read as a proselytising tactic to
convert the Malays. Thanks to decades of state policy, Malay
20 http://penanginstitute.org/v3/resources/articles/opinion/516-
uncommon-sense-with-wong-chin-huat-on-the-allah-judgement.
21 http://penanginstitute.org/v3/files/issues/oct_10_2017_OKH_
download.pdf.
22 http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2013/10/18/
withdraw-10-year-fatwa-prohibiting-32-words/.
23 http://www.theborneopost.com/2010/01/16/the-following-is-the-
exclusive-qa-by-the-borneo-post-team-of-phyllis-wong-general-
operations-manager-of-the-borneo-post-thesundaypost-and-utusan-
borneo-and-francis-chan-thesundaypost-senior-editor/.
has replaced English as the dominant language for many
Bornean Christians.24 In other words, Malay is functioning
as a multi-faith language in the Borneo States. Free from the
toxic communal suspicion common in bipolar societies like
Malaya, Muslims in Sabah and Sarawak do not feel threatened
by Malay-language bibles. The apprehension with Malay
being a multi-faith language comes from Malayan Muslims,
many of whom are disturbed by the cognitive dissonance that
a Malay-looking and Malay-speaking person may be a non-
Muslim. This dissonance obstructs social and moral policing of
Muslims when differences are not distinct and unmistakable.
The inconvenient but logical question to ask is: if a minority
is encouraged to use a language that is exclusively preserved for
a dominant faith, will their religious freedom not be impeded?
The restriction of propagation following the line of thought
in Article 11(4) was not limited to preachers of non-Islamic
faiths, but also Muslims who are perceived to have deviated
from the official doctrinal position, which may differ across
states. All states except Perlis follow the Shafie school within the
Sunni denomination. Muslim preachers are required to have
accreditation (tauliah) by the state authorities and those who
preach without accreditation can be prosecuted under syariah
laws. In 2009, a former state mufti of Perlis, often accused of
being a Wahhabist, Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, was arrested
by police for conducting religious classes in Selangor, although
eventually no charge was pressed.25 In 2017, Khalid Samad, an
opposition parliamentarian from Selangor was fined RM 1,900
– RM 100 short of the punishment required to becoming
disqualified from Parliament – for delivering a talk in a surau
(chapel).26 In 2015, the National Fatwa Council declared
that “Wahhabism has no place in Malaysia”.27 In 2014, the
Selangor Islamic Religious Council (MAIS) issued a fatwa that
declared religious pluralism and liberalism as “deviant” and a
feminist group, Sisters in Islam, lost their battle to challenge
that fatwa in the Federal Court.28 But the greater persecution,
from state agencies or non-governmental organisations, is
felt by followers of the Shia denomination and sects like the
Ahmadiah. In 2017, around 200 Iraqi post-graduate students
were arrested for taking part in a Shia ceremony in Selangor.29
According to sociologist Prof Syed Farid Al-Atas, Malaysia is
the only country in the Muslim world that officially condones
Shia persecution30 (Shias are, it may be noted, persecuted
24 https://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/76487.
25 http://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/updated-former-perlis-mufti-
be-probed-no-charges-yet.
26 http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2017/12/11/
khalid-samad-not-challenging-guilty-verdict-over-tauliah/.
27 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/no-place-for-
wahhabism-in-malaysia-fatwa-council-says.
28 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/mais-gets-courts-
nod-to-continue-bid-to-stop-siss-deviant-fatwa-challenge.
29 http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2017/10/03/poser-
over-arrests-of-200-iraqi-shia-muslims/.
30 http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2018/01/27/
prosecution-of-shia-muslims-due-to-apathy-says-syed-farid/.
© Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association and Contributors 2018 9
Which God? Whose Country? – Freedom of Religion and Belief in Malaysia
in countries like Pakistan and Iraq). In the same year, the
National Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) defended
the religious freedom of the Ahmadiahs in Selangor in response
to a threat made against them by a Muslim vigilante group.31
Sunni Muslims are to be ‘protected’ from the influence of
not only non-Islamic faiths and non-Sunni denominations/
sects in Islam, but also atheism. Atheism is not a crime under
Malaysian law, but deliberately wounding others’ religious
feeling is. However, in August 2017, when Atheist Republic,
a Canada-based non-profit organisation, posted on Facebook
a picture of its “Atheist Republic Consulate of Kuala Lumpur
annual meeting”, Dr Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, deputy minister
in-charge of religious affairs in the Malaysian government,
issued a stern warning: “If it is proven that there are Muslims
involved in atheist activities that could affect their faith, the state
Islamic religious departments or JAWI could take action.”32 In
November, the deputy minister claimed that atheism contradicts
Malaysia’s official ideology established after the 1969 riots,
Rukunegara, the first of its five principles being “a belief in
God” and citing Article 11(4), which stated that “spread[ing]
ideologies that incite people to leave a religion or profess no
religion at all” is unconstitutional.33 His assertion was however
refuted by constitutional lawyers. Syahredzan Johan pointed
to the federal structure and opined that Islam is a state matter
controlled by each state’s respective Malay Ruler, and that the
federal minister could only comment on Islam in the Federal
Territories like Kuala Lumpur. And yet no Syariah legislation
passed for the Federal Territories make it an offence to propagate
atheism. Andrew Khoo of the Malaysian Bar Council stressed
that, the Federal Constitution does not force citizens to have
a religion, let alone a belief in a deity, theos or God (which
technically Buddhists do not subscribe to, for example), nor
does it lay down that propagation of atheism as an expression
can be suppressed on the ground of public order or morality.
Khoo also underlined that the Rukunegara is not part of
the Federal Constitution and therefore a precept binding
on citizens.34 Earlier in January, a group led by prominent
academic-activist Dr Chandra Muzaffar began lobbying the
Malay Rulers, lawmakers and the public for Rukunnegara
to be adopted as the preamble to the Federal Constitution,
arguing that the ideology embodied in it is important for
31 http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2017/10/05/
suhakam-defends-religious-freedom-as-ahmadis-face-threats/.
32 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/malaysia-
atheist-group-muslim-apostate-members-lapsed-faith-south-east-
asia-a7881301.html.
33 https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/01/23/chandra-
muzaffar-launches-rukun-negara-as-preamble-to-constitution/ ;
https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/11/23/atheism-is-
unconstitutional-says-deputy-minister.
34 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/lawyers-being-
atheist-promoting-atheism-protected-by-constitution.
national unity.35 However, adopting the official ideology a
part of the Constitution would affect the right of atheists to
not believe in God, and religious freedom guaranteed by Islam
covers atheists, argued Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar, president of the
Muslim Lawyers’ Association.36
If the propagation of non-Islamic faiths needs to be prevented
at all cost because of fear of apostasy and “confusion”, the
manifestation of non-Islamic faith is obstructed often for
the same reasons but also sometimes just to underline Islam’s
supremacy. In the west coast states of the Malaysian Peninsula,
non-Muslims often find it hard to get a permit from the
unelected local governments to build their houses of worship.
Hindus often complain about demolition of their temples and
shrines, some decades – or even a-century-old, but without
legal documents.37 In 2009, a group of Muslims in Shah Alam
staged a violent protest with a freshly-severed cow head against
the state government of Selangor run by the federal Opposition
for approving the relocation of a Hindu temple to the vicinity
of their neighbourhood. This protest was later defended by a
senior federal minister, Hishammuddin Hussein,38 before some
protesters were eventually charged and convicted for sedition.39
One of the reasons given for the objection was that the temple
would be too near to a playground and Muslim parents would
not allow their kids to play next to a Hindu temple.40 A
rowdy protest in 2015 forced a church housed in a shop lot in
Taman Medan, Selangor, to remove the cross. The protesters
alleged that ‘the sight of the cross in a Muslim-majority area
“challenged Islam” and could influence the young’, combining
both the supremacy and threat narratives.41 However, one of
the reasons why many churches and other religious groups
are housed in commercial and industrial areas is structural.
“Not enough land is being allocated for non-Muslim religious
purposes”, said Eugene Yapp, a church activist. And if the
religious groups could not get the land use status of their
premises converted from commercial to religious, a process
which can be obstructed by objections from neighbours, such
houses of worship would be technically illegal.42
The root cause is eventually political, where the presence of
the non-Islamic faiths is seen by some as a challenge to Islams
35 https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/letters/2017/02/15/why-
rukunegara-must-be-preamble-to-constitution/.
36 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/lawyer-what-
happens-to-atheists-if-rukunegara-included-in-federal-constitut.
37 https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2008/0207/p04s01-
woap.html.
38 http://www.thenutgraph.com/muddying-the-cow-head-protest/.
39 https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/138423.
40 http://malaysiabreakingnews.blogspot.my/2009/08/cow-head-protest-
was-end-of-tether-for.html; original link: http://malaysiainsider.net/
index.php/malaysia/36376-cow-head-protest-was-end-of-tether-for-
sect-23-folk.
41 https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2015/04/20/50-stage-
protest-against-cross-on-new-church/.
42 https://poskod.my/features/malaysias-shoplot-churches/.
10 © Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association and Contributors 2018
Journal of the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association
dominance within Malaysia. In the sea resort of Langkawi
Islands, even cross-shaped air wells triggered a controversy that
eventually forced the developer to repaint them.43 A retired
Court of Appeal judge Mohd Nor Abdullah, claimed that the
presence of a 42.7-metre high statue of Lord Murugan in the
Batu Caves Temple in Selangor and a 30.2-metre high statue
of Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) in the Kek Lok Si Temple in
Penang threatened Muslims and hurt their feelings. As Islam
forbids idols, these idols, he argued, should be covered up to
be allowed.44
It is important to note that these complaints over the
manifested presence of non-Islamic faiths are both a recent
phenomenon and geographically limited to the west coast of
the Peninsula. In the 95%-Muslim east coast state of Kelantan,
the presence of Southeast Asia’s longest sleeping (reclining)
Buddha, tallest standing Buddha and largest sitting Buddha has
never raised an eyebrow.45 Similarly, in Penang, the first colony
acquired by Britain in 1786, a 800m-long street in the heart
of historical George Town hosting two mosques, two Chinese
temples, one Anglican church and one Hindu temple is now
celebrated as the “Street of Harmony”.46
Far-reaching implications of restrictions
Restrictions on freedom of religion and belief have much
farther-reaching implications than which deity a person
worships or which interpretation of a holy scripture a person
subscribes to. Their impact is felt on the institutions of
marriage and family, gender and sexual inclusion, personal
freedom, media and academic freedom, and personal security.
Marriage and family
When interfaith marriage involving Muslim is unlawful, the
impact of unilateral and irreversible conversion in favour of
Islam is often felt – perhaps intentionally so – by the marital
partner and children of a Muslim apostate or new convert to
Islam. In February 2018, four Muslims – three of whom were
non-Muslims before marriage - failed in their legal bid to leave
Islam, in a situation comparable to that of Lina Joy. According
to Dr Johan Ariffin Samad, the spokesperson of a secularism
advocacy group, Borneo G20, since it was politically impossible
for the authorities – not that they should try – to force the
quartet to re-embrace Islam, denying them an official exit was
“purely to punish them in marital matters so that they cannot
marry non-Muslims.”47 Such was also the fate of Lina Joy who
waited till the age of 43 but still could not marry her Christian
43 www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/stir-over-langkawi-housing-projects-
cross-shaped-air-wells-prompts-developer-to-repaint.
44 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/huge-hindu-
buddhist-statues-against-islam-ex-judge-says.
45 https://www.thestar.com.my/metro/focus/2017/08/28/this-is-the-
default-headline/.
46 https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/4723/.
47 https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/40285/.
boyfriend.
For non-Muslim divorcees like Indira Gandhi Mutho,
custody rights over – and even contact with – their children
may be lost if their estranged spouses decided to embrace Islam.
Her ex-husband, Mohamad Riduan Abdullah, unilaterally
converted their three children – then aged 12 years, 11 years
and 11 months old – to Islam shortly after his own conversion.
She filed for judicial review over the conversion of the three
children and finally won her case in 29 January 2018 after a
protracted nine-year-long battle. The Federal Court ruled that
conversion of children requires consent of both parents and the
unconsented conversion by Indira’s ex-husband was invalid.
More principally, it ruled that that the Syariah Court may not
exercise the civil courts’ inherent judicial powers, including the
power of judicial review. A non-Muslim has no legal standing
to appear before the Syariah courts and the Syariah courts have
no jurisdiction over non-Muslims.48
However, in less than a month after the Gandhi case, the
door opened for those wanting relief from a civil court was
seemingly closed by another Federal Court judgement on the
Sarawak quartet. The quartet wanted an order of mandamus to
compel the director of the Sarawak Islamic Affairs Department
(JAIS)/Sarawak Islamic Council (MAIS) to issue a “letter of
release” (surat murtad) from Islam and the NRD to drop Islam
from their identity cards. On February 27, 2018, the Federal
Court ordered them to go back to the Syariah Court, asserting
that apostasy cases could only be heard under a section in
the MAIS ordinance. This was despite JAIS confirming that
it had no power to issue “letter of release”, which the NRD
demanded for changing the religion status of the applicants in
registration record.49 In other words, until the Syariah law was
changed, these apostates would likely be just pushed around
and could not secure their exit. While realistically they cannot
be forced to reembrace Islam, they also cannot marry a non-
Muslim unless the latter converts to Islam.
Adding insult to injury, inadequate judicial remedy is further
compounded by the shadow of communal anger over the rule
of law. Even after the Federal Court’s ruling, Indira Gandhi
could not meet her youngest daughter, Prasana, who was taken
away by her ex-husband since the unilateral conversion and
both were ‘missing’. The Malaysian Association of Muslim
Scholars (PUM) warned that religious violence might erupt
if police continued to hunt for Gandhi’s ex-husband and
daughter.50 But this was not the first time that Gandhi found a
court order to be unenforceable. The Ipoh High Court had on
March 11, 2010, placed the children in her custody, overruling
48 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/simplified-the-
federal-courts-groundbreaking-indira-gandhi-judgment.
49 http://m.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/top-court-to-hear-
who-has-power-to-decide-four-sarawakians-conversion-out-o; https://
www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/40038/.
50 https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/35454/.
© Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association and Contributors 2018 11
Which God? Whose Country? – Freedom of Religion and Belief in Malaysia
the Ipoh Syariah court’s earlier decision on September 29,
2009, to grant custody to her ex-husband. When he refused
to return Prasana to her, the court cited him for contempt and
ordered the police to return the child to the mother. The then
Inspector-General of Police (IGP) Khalid Abu Bakar however
refused to act on the order claiming that the police were
caught in a quandary between two custody orders from the
High Court and the Syariah High Court, and “executing one
would mean showing disrespect to the other”. On September
12, 2014, upon Gandhi’s application, Ipoh High Court Judge
Lee Swee Seng issued a mandamus for the police to arrest
Riduan and retrieve the child, ruling that the police must
enforce the civil court’s order, not that of the Syariah court.
The mandamus order was overturned by the Court of Appeal
in December. On April 29, 2014, the Federal Court affirmed
High Court’s order to arrest Riduan but refused to order for
the retrieval of the child because it has “consequences”. In the
Sarawak case, the Catholic Archbishop of Kuching Simon Poh
was heckled by a crowd of Muslims loudly chanting “Allahu
Akbar!” when leaving the court but he smilingly said he was
not intimidated.51 When individual well-being is treated as
a contest of might between communities or even Gods, and
communal rage overshadows court decisions such as in the
case of Gandhi and the ‘Allah’ ban, just and fair arbitration of
disputes involving people in different faith categories becomes
difficult, if not impossible.
Body snatching is the third type complication caused by the
prohibition of interfaith marriage and unilateral conversion.
When some non-Muslims died, their bodies were taken by
the Islamic authorities for Islamic burial claiming they had
quietly converted to Islam, a fact that was either unknown to
or rejected by the grieving families. Beyond emotional shock,
such posthumous identification as Muslim has also legal and
financial implications to the families as the deceased’s civil
marriage may become invalid and they lose their right to
the deceased’s estate. In one of the most well-known cases,
Moorthy Maniam an ex-soldier who became a national hero
for climbing the Mount Everest died after being in a coma
following a fall from wheelchair. Three weeks after Maniam
was in a coma, his wife Kaliammal Sinnasamy was informed
by a military officer that her husband had converted to Islam
and would be given an Islamic burial upon his death. After his
death, she approached the courts for a declaration that Maniam
continued to profess Hinduism and that, therefore, his body
should be given to her for cremation. Her evidence included
the fact that just 11 days before his accident, he appeared on
national television sharing his celebration of Deepavali (the
Hindu Light Festival). Before her case was heard in the High
Court, the Syariah court ordered that Maniam had embraced
Islam and must be given an Islamic burial, on the application
of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council. Sinnasamy was not
51 https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/413633.
named as a party to those proceedings. Nor was she given any
proof of Maniam’s alleged conversion. The authorities claimed
that the High Court could not question the decision of the
Syariah court and Sinnasamy summarily lost her case, Maniam
was buried as a Muslim.52
Gender and sexual inclusion
Sodomy is an offence under Section 377A of the Penal
Code. It is described as “Carnal intercourse against the order
of nature” and is punishable with imprisonment up to 20 years
and whipping.53 In reality, few people have been charged with,
or convicted for, this crime, with the notable exception of
opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim who was twice jailed under
highly controversial circumstances.54 Syariah criminal laws in
Kelantan55 and Terengganu56 both offer the Hudud punishment
of stoning to death for married Muslim offenders and 100
lashes and a year’s imprisonment for unmarried ones. However,
these punishments are not enforceable because the federal law
takes precedence and the power of Syariah courts is currently
capped at delivering only punishments of up to three years of
imprisonment, fines of up to RM 5000 and whipping of up
to six lashes of the cane under the Syariah Courts (Criminal
Jurisdiction) Act, also known as Act 355.57 Should these
constitutional and legal safeguards be removed in the future,
Muslims will have to pay a huge price for such private acts.
Muslim transgender persons are also at risk of punishment
under Syariah laws in certain states, including with jail terms.
In 2015, religious officers raided a birthday party in Kelantan
and arrested nine transgender women who were later convicted
and slapped with fines, with two of them also being imprisoned
for a month each.58 In 2012, three transgender women in the
state of Negeri Sembilan who worked as bridal make-up artists
mounted a constitutional challenge against Section 66 of the
state’s Syariah Criminal Enactment 1992 which makes any
Muslim male wearing a womans attire or posing as a woman
a criminal offence punishable with a fine of up to RM 1000
and six months in jail.59 They secured a victory in the Court
52 http://www.malaysianbar.org.my/bar_news/berita_badan_peguam/
re_everest_moorthy_.html?date=2017-11-01.
53 www.agc.gov.my/agcportal/uploads/files/Publications/LOM/EN/
Penal%20Code%20%5BAct%20574%5D2.pdf.
54 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/10/anwar-ibrahim-
guilty-in-sodomy-case.
55 http://www2.esyariah.gov.my/esyariah/mal/portalv1/enakmen2011/
Eng_enactment_Ori_lib.nsf/f831ccddd195843f48256fc600141e84/
edd5daa1361eaa7d482580140012da26?OpenDocument.
56 http://www2.esyariah.gov.my/esyariah/mal/portalv1/enakmen/State_
Enact_Ori.nsf/f831ccddd195843f48256fc600141e84/cb36901c419
ea86448257385002c3dc8?OpenDocument.
57 http://www.malaysianbar.org.my/constitutional_law/jurisdiction_
of_state_authorities_to_punish_offences_against_the_precepts_of_
islam_a_constitutional_perspective.html.
58 https://globalfreedomofexpression.columbia.edu/cases/the-case-of-nine-
transgender-women-malaysia/.
59 http://www.loyarburok.com/2015/10/09/transgender-case-summary/.
12 © Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association and Contributors 2018
Journal of the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association
of Appeal which was however soon overturned by the Federal
Court in 2015.60
Protection for children from child marriage61 also differs by
religion in Malaysia although the legal consensual sex is 16
across the board. A non-Muslim female can legally get married
at 18, but must get parental consent if below 21, and must get
the approval of Chief Minister if she is only 16. Under Syariah
laws, a Muslim male and a Muslim female can get married at 18
and 16 respectively but Syariah judges are given wide discretion
to waive the minimum age requirement based on signs of
puberty. Consequently, child marriages are not uncommon:
between 2011 to 2015, the annual average number of child
marriage has been reported at 1029 for Muslims and 421 for
non-Muslims.62 Child grooming was outlawed in 2017 but
a proposal to criminalise child marriage was shot down. Ease
in obtaining approval for child marriage is effectively used as
a way out by some rapists to escape charges of statutory rape,
an offence that is attracted when the other party is below 16.
Some Syariah judges allegedly just interview the parents and
not the girl when deciding on applications for child marriage.
A parliamentarian belonging to the previous ruling coalition
(who had been a Syariah Court judge previously) even argued
in 2017 that a rape victim marrying her rapist could spare her
a “bleak future.”63
Marital rape is not a crime in Malaysia although any
man causing hurt or fear of death or hurt to his wife in
connection with sexual intercourse with her is an offence under
Section 375A of the Penal Code. A proposal submitted to a
Parliamentary Select Committee by SUHAKAM advocating
the criminalisation of marital rape was criticised by Mufti of
Perak, Dr Harussani Zakaria, as a case of the national human
rights guardian going against God’s law. More interestingly, the
religious advisor to the government, Abdul Hamid Othman,
reportedly alluded to separate treatment of martial offences
by religion, saying that “... the subject of marital rape, when
a husband forces a wife to have sex against her will, is relevant
only to non-Muslims” and that “Islamic law is adequate to
check a husband’s abuses” as a Muslim wife can turn to the
Syariah Court if she is treated cruelly and can demand a
divorce under a procedure called ‘fasakh’.64
Policing of womens bodies in daily life is also on the rise,
but its association with restrictions on religious freedom must
be treated with even more nuance especially in relation to
60 http://english.astroawani.com/malaysia-news/transgender-case-federal-
court-overturns-court-appeals-decision-75716.
61 http://penanginstitute.org/v3/files/issues/july_11_2017_OKH_
download.pdf.
62 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/three-things-
about-child-marriages-in-malaysia.
63 http://www.dw.com/en/malaysia-criminalizes-child-grooming-not-
child-marriage/a-38327680.
64 https://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/30115.
issues such as the wearing of the headscarf (tudung). Since
2014, Muslim women who do not cover up their hair or wear
tight-fitting outfits while working in markets, restaurants
and other commercial premises in Kota Bahru, the state
capital of Kelantan may be fined up to RM 500 by the
municipal government.65 On the other hand, in the name of
uniformity, Muslim women are denied certain jobs for wearing
headscarves by certain employers such as international hotel
chains, which testifies to the fact that religious freedom may
also be restricted by market forces and not just by the state.66
Nevertheless, restrictions on display of womens bodies are still
overwhelmingly imposed by state organs, which sometimes
make no express reference to religion but only to vaguer terms
like “respect” and “politeness”. Women – and occasionally men
too -- have complained of being denied access to hospitals67,
Parliament68, courts69, and local authorities on the grounds that
they were seen to be ‘improperly’ dressed.70
Personal freedom
Muslims in Malaysia are subject to moral/social policing
imposed by state agencies and sometime social groups. The
most common form of such policing is the raid on premises
based on ‘close proximity’ (khalwat) of a man and a woman
who are neither kin nor in a marriage. Conducted by religious
officials sometime backed up by the police, such raids are based
on tip-offs which are sometimes arbitrary or discriminatory on
the basis of class. Wan Saiful Wan Jan, a prominent think tank
leader, once encountered such a raid at 3.20 am when he and
his mother were staying in a budget hotel. He questioned if the
religious officers dared to conduct raids in five-star hotels.71 In
a traumatic case, a married couple staying in hotel was raided:
even after showing a photo of their marriage certificate, the
raiding officers showed no let-up in their zeal. They instructed
the wife to put on her clothes in front of the husband and male
officers, while one of them filmed her on video.72 In another
case, a religious officer demanded sexual favours by way of a
bribe from a subject of one of his raids.73
65 https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2015/01/15/council-attire-
ruling-not-for-all-dress-code-only-for-muslim-women-in-service-
industry-says-secretar/.
66 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/nazri-tudung-
ban-for-hotel-workers-discriminatory.
67 http://www.asiaone.com/malaysia/woman-denied-entry-hospital-
wearing-shorts-gets-apology.
68 http://says.com/my/news/security-guards-told-these-2-women-that-
their-skirts-were-indecent-for-the-dewan-rakyat.
69 https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2015/06/25/penang-court-
skirt/.
70 www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/elderly-pair-barred-
from-ipoh-city-council-for-wearing-bermuda-shorts.
71 https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2014/12/25/wan-saiful-
wan-jan-checked-for-khalwat-in-hotel-room/.
72 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/married-couple-
sues-jawi-after-traumatic-khalwat-raid.
73 https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2007/11/05/former-jais-
officer-tried-to-get-sex-bribe/.
© Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association and Contributors 2018 13
Which God? Whose Country? – Freedom of Religion and Belief in Malaysia
Conformist pressure on Muslims is not limited to sexual
conduct but also deviation from deeply-rooted social norms.
One such example is touching dogs, which are perceived as
filthy in Islam. While the Maliki school of jurisprudence
permits keeping dog as pets, the Shafie school dictates that an
extensive cleansing ritual is required after one’s contacts with a
dog. Naturally, most Malaysian Muslims loathe and fear dogs,
which are commonly kept as pets by Chinese and Indians.
Sometime, dogs become a source of neighbourhood tension
between Muslims and their non-Muslimrs. In 2014, social
activist Syed Azmi Alhabshi organised a “I Want to Touch a
Dog” event with a member of the Islamic clergy demonstrating
cleansing ritual to change this cultural taboo. The event
drew nearly 200 dog owners with their pets and hundreds of
Muslims, all willing to touch the canines. Photos of headscarf-
wearing Muslim women carrying dogs went viral on social
media. While many hailed Syed Azmi as a hero who brought
closer not just humans and canines but more importantly
humans from different cultural backgrounds, he was also
painted by some Muslim conservatives as a villain, a traitor to
Islam or even a Christian or a Shia.74
The growing consciousness amongst Muslims over what is,
in religious terms, permissible (halal) and what is not (haram)
in daily life also has a spill-over effect on non-Muslims.
For example, pork must be sold in a secluded corner in wet
markets, away from the sight of Muslims. Alcoholic drink
disappears from the menu in many outlets. Such attitudes
have also led many Muslims to shy away from eating food
prepared by non-Muslims, leading to complaints of a religious
apartheid. In 2017, two laundries made national headlines for
serving only Muslim clients, claiming that clothing brought by
non-Muslims might be unhygienic.75 The practice was stopped
following royal instruction. But a year earlier, a Chinese-
owned hypermarket chain, NSK, had introduced “halal” and
“non-halal” trolleys, and the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives
and Consumerism Ministry proposed to set guidelines on
the segregation of trolleys as part of the business licensing
requirements in future.76 Notably, such a practice was dismissed
as unnecessary by a cleric, Ustaz Wan Ji Wan Hussin,77 and
heavily criticised by prominent scholar Prof Syed Farid Al-Attas
as a dangerous push “down the slope to apartheid”.78
Freedom of speech
While the requirement of official accreditation to speak
74 www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/syed-azmi-the-touch-
a-dog-organiser-who-turned-hero-and-villain-in-a-week.
75 http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/another-muslim-only-
launderette-found-in-perlis.
76 https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/327465.
77 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/no-need-for-
halal-haram-trolleys-muslim-preacher-says.
78 www.themalaymailonline.com/what-you-think/article/pushing-a-
trolley-down-the-slope-to-apartheid-in-malaysiasyed-farid-alatas.
on Islam has been conventionally applied to those who give
religious lectures in mosques, it was alarmingly used to stop
academic forums in 2017. Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish author, was
arrested and deported from Malaysia after speaking on freedom
of conscience and arguing that the Quran forbids compulsion
in religion. He was invited by the Islamic Renaissance Front
(IRF), a liberal Islamic non-governmental organisation that
had translated his book Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case
for Liberty into Malay.79 Akyol was eventually released without
charge but his case suggests that the religious authorities may
now stop at whim any intellectual discourse touching Islam,
when Islam’s presence in Malaysia’s life is so extensive that
hardly any in-depth discussion on society, politics, law and
economy can escape from referring to Islam.
The more common form of thought control is book banning.
From 1971 to 2017, a total of 1,695 books have been banned
and 604 (36%) of them were related to religion. Famous
international authors whose titles are banned include Karen
Armstrong (The Battle for God, Muhammad: A Biography of the
Prophet, Muhamad: A Western Attempt to Understand Islam),
John L Esposito (What everyone needs to know about Islam),
Bernard Lewis (What went wrong? – The Clash between Islam
and Modernity in the Middle East), Mustapha Akyol (Islam
without Extremes), Charles Darwin (The Origin of Species),
Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet) and V.S. Naipaul (Amongst the
Believers).80 Amongst Malaysian titles banned are seven books
by scholar and novelist Mohd Faizal Musa (Faisal Tehrani),
the two volumes of Wacana Pemikiran Reformis (Discourse
of Reformist Thoughts) edited by IRF chief Dr Farouk Musa,
Ulamak yang bukan pewaris Nabi (Those clergy who are not
the Prophet’s successors) by liberal cleric Wanji Wan Hussin81
and Breaking the Silence: Voice of Moderation – Islam in a
Constitutional Democracy by the pro-reform eminent persons
group G25 which incidentally has a forward by former Prime
Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.82 The banning of
books that denounce extremism in their titles like Akyol’s and
G25’s is telling about how even moderation is seen as a threat
to the system.
More intriguingly, the most policed language is Malay/
Indonesian, in which 40% of the books banned from 1971
to 2017 are published. In fact, some books like those by
Charles Darwin and Farouk Musa are only banned in Malay/
Indonesian while the English versions are still legally and
commercially available. In a parliamentary reply to opposition
79 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/28/opinion/mustafa-akyol-
detention-malaysia.html.
80 http://penanginstitute.org/v3/publications/issues/1018-the-policing-
and-politics-of-the-malay-language.
81 https://www.article19.org/resources/malaysia-joint-statement-by-
civil-society-and-individuals-on-book-banning-thought-control-and-
academic-meddling/.
82 https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/01/09/g25-granted-
leave-to-challenge-book-ban/.
14 © Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association and Contributors 2018
Journal of the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association
lawmaker Zairil Khir Johari, the Home Ministry explained
why the Indonesian edition of Charles Darwin needed to
be banned, because it “endangers public harmony” with its
depiction of the “origin and creation of species that goes
against Islamic teachings and is in contravention of the Islamic
Materials Censorship Guidelines as well as the beliefs of the
Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah [Sunnis]”.83 This leads to the next
logical questions: Why is not the English version banned
too? Why would only Malay-speaking Muslims be negatively
affected by Darwin’s theory of evolution but not the English-
speaking ones? Like in the banning of ‘Allah’ and other
Arabic-origin words, the real motivation here is political rather
than theological. It is to keep Malay a monofaith language in
which only religious orthodoxy is allowed to be practised and
propagated.
Personal Security
While the zeal to crack down on the threat – real or imagined
- of proselytism targeting Sunni Muslims has led to churches
being raided84 or set on fire or minority Muslim sects being
harassed, by 2016 it escalated into enforced disappearance of
four religious activists, three Christian pastors and a Shia social
activist. Amri Che Mat, 43, and Pastor Raymond Koh, 62
were professionally abducted respectively in the northern state
of Perlis on November 24, 2016, and in the central state of
Selangor on February 14, 2017. Six days after Amri’s abduction,
Pastor Joshua Hilmy, an ethnic Malay, and his Indonesian wife
Ruth, went missing. These three cases, within a span of three
months, point to a common pattern: the victims were accused
or suspected of proselytising their faith to Sunni Muslims.
Koh was known for his charitable work with the marginalised
groups with many Malays amongst them, single mothers, drug
addicts, sex workers and persons with HIV/AIDS. His former
church, Damansara Utama Methodist Church, was raided in
2011 by the Selangor Islamic Religion Department (JAIS) for
allegedly converting Muslims.85 Dr Mohd Asri Zainal Abidin,
State Mufti of Perlis who was accused by Amri’s wife as being
involved in her husband’s disappearance, in turn accused
Amri’s charity group, Perlis Hope, as possibly working towards
a Shia theocracy and hence threatening national security. The
Mufti who asserted his credentials in speaking on human rights
claimed that the activist had “crossed the limit” and made
people around him “confused”.86
The professional abduction by armed men in sports utility
vehciles (SUVs) of Koh – his snatching was captured on
83 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/how-is-
translated-darwin-a-danger-to-malays-asks-dap-mp.
84 http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2011/08/12/dumc-
maintains-jais-raid-unlawful/.
85 http://www.atimes.com/article/malaysias-disappearing-religious-
activists/.
86 www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2018/01/23/asri-attacks-
missing-amri-says-shia-islam-threatens-national-security/.
CCTV87 – and Amri as well as the police’s lukewarm
attitude in investigating the cases led to public suspicion
that the enforced disappearances were carried out by state-
aligned actors. Revelations in an ongoing inquiry conducted
by SUHAKAM and the police’s moves strengthened such
speculation. Koh’s abduction on a road in a residential area
lasted only 47 seconds, and an eye-witness reported to the
police, only to be told by an officer that it “looked like a police
operation” given that it took place swiftly, in broad daylight,
and under video-recording. The police also insisted that Amri
had just gone missing and was not abducted88 and a statement
was taken only a year later from an eye-witness who saw
Amri’s car was boxed in by dark-coloured SUVs.89 Lastly, the
authorities also offered bizarre stories to explain the cases, with
the Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar suggesting
that Koh’s abduction was related to a smuggling ring90 while
the Perlis Mufti speculated that Amri might have gone to
Iran or is practicing ‘pleasure marriage’ (mu’tah, a short-term
relationship permitted by Shia teachings) in Thailand.91
The big questions of why and how
The fundamental challenge to protection of freedom of
religion and belief in Malaysia is more political than theological.
Notwithstanding all the rhetoric, it is a battle less over which
God is true as over whose country Malaysia really is. Fears
of Muslims leaving Islam and advocacy for the expansion of
Syariah laws are but manifestations of Muslims’ response to the
plural post-colonial state, and their yearning to return to the
pre-colonial order, which once consisted of only small Malay
kingdoms with insignificant numbers of non-Muslim traders.
Colonisation and the proto-globalisation which took place
during that period shaped Malaysia’s society in three ways.
First, Chinese and Indians were brought in en masse as miners,
plantation workers and labourers by the British colonialists, as
well as local Malay rulers who wanted Chinese to work in tin
mines and cash crops. Second, in Malaya, the British on one
hand helped making Islam a key marker for Malays’ ethnic
boundaries and on the other hand kept Malay commoners
in the informal sector and thus socio-economically backward
vis-à-vis the Chinese and to a lesser extent, the Indians. Third,
animist natives in Sabah and Sarawak were converted to
Christianity before Islam could reach them.
The combination of cultural difference and economic
inequality prevented a real cross-communal consensus over
87 https://youtu.be/MzlmLHQzSHs.
88 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/igp-only-pastor-
koh-abducted-the-rest-just-missing.
89 http://www.thesundaily.my/news/2018/03/20/police-recorded-my-
statement-year-after-amri-disappeared-witness.
90 https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/6012/.
91 www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2018/01/23/asri-attacks-
missing-amri-says-shia-islam-threatens-national-security/.
© Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association and Contributors 2018 15
Which God? Whose Country? – Freedom of Religion and Belief in Malaysia
how the post-colonial nation should be, when the British, in
1946, started preparations for the eventual decolonisation of
their territories across the South China Sea. The theme that
coloured Malayan/Malaysian politics since might be generically
phrased as the 1946 Question: “Can citizens be different yet
equal?” A full “Yes” would mean a liberal plural nation while
a full “No” would mean an ethnocracy where citizenship
can only be given to assimilated aliens. Unsurprisingly, most
Malay-Muslims take a No position while most members of the
minorities hold a Yes position.
In Malaya, the pragmatic compromise reached in 1957
which won the country independence from Britain was that
the Malays be given the “special position” under Article 153
of the country’s constitution in exchange for citizenship to the
Chinese and Indians. Facilitated by a ‘winner-takes-all’ political
system, the discontent to the inter-ethnic bargain eventually
triggered the 1969 post-election ethnic riots, which in turn led
to an expansion of preferential treatment for the Malays and
the indigeneous Borneans.
With the importance of language and custom fading over
time, Islam becomes the overarching ethnic marker of Malays.
Beyond its spiritual function, Islam has acquired a powerful
role in keeping the Malays together politically to ensure their
socio-economic interests being protected. Unsurprisingly, then,
freedom of religion and belief is seen as a Trojan horse of ethnic
minorities or foreign powers to fragment the Malays and erode
their political dominance. This explains why secularism in its
full sense (which must entail state impartiality to all citizens)
never did take root in Malaya/Malaysia. The early ruling
elites in the dominant United Malays National Organisation
(UMNO) were secular in only the anti-cleric sense. The
non-appreciation of the need for state impartiality explains
why religious freedom lacks fundamental acceptance in the
Malay nationalist narrative and ultimately paves the way for
its overriding by, and convergence with, Muslim nationalism
championed by UMNO’s arch rival the Pan-Malaysia Islamic
Party (PAS).
Islamisation however only picked up momentum in 1981
when UMNO and PAS intensified their competition of one-
upmanship. Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who
ruled from 1981 to 2003 and is not known for his religiousity,
introduced a modernist project of Islamisation led by Anwar
Ibrahim, then a firebrand and charismatic young Islamist. This
has resulted in the mushrooming and strengthening of Islamic
institutions, from universities, banks, courts, and religious
bureaucracies.
Cornered by UMNO’s Malay Unity narrative, which makes
the presence of any Malay-based opposition illegitimate by
default, a charismatic and young PAS clergy Hadi Awang who
would lead the party by 2002, produced the famous “Hadi’s
Message” (Amanat Hadi) three months before Mahathir came
into power. The doctrine not only led PAS members to
excommunicate their UMNO families, friends, and neighbours
(a practice called takfir), but also spelled out an alternative
vision for Malaysia’s post-colonial state, one that would restore
an imagined pre-colonial socio-political order dominated by
Muslims and based on the Syariah. He rallied pious Muslims
to oppose BN because that coalition has “preserved the colonial
constitution, infidel laws and pre-Islamic rules.92 Hadi’s
position may be seen as a far more radical “No” answer to the
question referred to above than to UMNO’s Malay nationalism,
and therefore more appealing to those who feel stronger that
Malay-Muslims are losing their rights to the minorities. While
PAS has diluted its demands over time – from wanting to
establish a full-blown Islamic state to implementing Hudud
punishments to equating the status and power of civil courts
and Syariah courts – especially when it joined the opposition
coalition, its core ideas have also been mainstreamed over
time. If making Syariah laws official was a fringe idea in 1981,
it had gained the support of 86% of Malaysian Muslims by
2013, according to a Pew Research Centre study.93 Recently,
Hadi Awang, now the president of PAS, sketched a religiously-
segregated Malaysia with a two-tiered cabinet in which only
Muslim ministers can make decisions while non-Muslim
ministers will be restricted to aid in their implementation.94
Encroachment on religious freedom will not stop until the
factors fuelling an exclusivist and domineering Islamisation
project is addressed with two fundamental paradigm shifts in
socio-economic policies and political institutions.
First, the ethnic preferential system established in 1957
and reinforced in 1969 must be substantially reformed and
affirmed by, first, ensuring effective empowerment of the
poorest segments of the Malay-Muslim community instead
of enrichment of their elites, and second, lessening the role of
religion as the qualifying criterion and the sustaining force of
such empowerment.
Second, the political system may also need to be modified
and made less ‘winner-takes-all’ to reduce inter-communal
anxiety, distrust and jealousy. This points to some measures
in institutional engineering to build a consensus democracy,95
which may a require a proportional representation element in
the electoral system as well as decentralisation and diffusion
of power. Ultimately, Malaysia’s party politics need to be
restructured in such a way that parties may offer and even
compete on differentiated positions on issues relating to
religious freedom, but everyone would refrain from cut-throat
competition to tear apart the multi-religious society’s social
92 https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/393375.
93 http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-
politics-society-beliefs-about-sharia/.
94 https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/36100/.
95 Lijphart, A. (1999). Patterns of democracy: Government forms and
performance in thirty-six countries. New Haven: Yale University
Press.
16 © Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association and Contributors 2018
Journal of the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association
fabric for extra votes and seats. The legitimacy of Malaysia’s
post-colonial state and plural society must be unconditionally
embraced rather than questioned or rejected, where the Malay
Rulers and the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak may play
pivotal roles when the judiciary is less dependable.
Modelled on the Westminster system, the Malay Rulers are
the head of Islam in their respective states, just as the British
Monarch is the defender of the Anglican faith. But given the
more pervasive role of Islam in Malaysia, the Malay Rulers are
more than figureheads in religious affairs. Article 38(2)(b) of
the Federal Constitution places in the Conference of Rulers the
task of “agreeing or disagreeing to the extension of any religious
acts, observances or ceremonies to the Federation as a whole”.
Beyond formal power, the palaces yield extensive public
influence especially on matters relating to Malay-Muslims on
which even senior government leaders avoid open disagreement
with them. In September 2017, as noted above, two laundries –
in Johor96 and Perlis97 – courted public controversies for serving
only a Muslim clientele but stopped their discriminatory
practices soon after royal condemnation, although the palaces’
position came to be criticised by a JAKIM officer. In a rare
move, the Rulers issued a public statement to condemn the
actions of individuals that go “beyond all acceptable standards
of decency”, subsequently putting the country’s harmony at
risk. The statement said,
The rulers are of the opinion that the damaging implications of
such actions are more severe when they are erroneously associated
with or committed in the name of Islam. 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 which may lead to rifts
among the people.
Meanwhile, Sabah and Sarawak stand out from the rest of
Malaysia, not only because they were much more plural in
ethno-religious makeup, but also because religious freedom
was a key promise in the negotiation for their merger with
Malaya and Singapore to form Malaysia in 1963. In the
eloquent words of Borneo G20, “not only was the Federation
of Malaya established as a secular federation where Islam as
the ‘religion of the Federation’ plays only ceremonial roles, but
more importantly, Sabah and Sarawak, which have never been
part of the ‘Negeri-Negeri Melayu’ [the Malay States], proudly
embrace their diverse ethnic and religious heritage … Malaysia
is a secular federation with the rule of law grounded on the
Common Law heritage. Neither the Federal Constitution
nor the Common Law legal system is un-Islamic. They are
96 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/johor-not-a-
taliban-state-sultan-tells-muslim-only-laundry.
97 www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/muslim-only-perlis-
launderette-now-open-to-all-after-visit-from-perlis-mufti.
what made Malaysia possible in 1963 and viable till today.”98
As these two over-represented states hold a quarter of seats
in the federal parliament, and they deliver one-third of the
government seats, they are seen by some as politically the last
defenders of religious freedom in Malaysia.
The constitutional and political significance of the Malay
Rulers and the Borneo States is most telling over the PAS-
dominated Kelantan State Government’s renewed push since
2015 to implement Hudud punishments including amputation
for theft and robbery, stoning for adultery, and 40-80 lashes in
whipping for consuming alcohol. To that end, Hadi Awang
tabled a private member’s bill to amend the Syariah Court
(Islamic Jurisdiction) Act [Act 355], popularly dubbed as Bill
355. The Bill aimed to raise maximum punishments permissible
for Syariah Courts from 3 years to 30 years of imprisonment,
from RM 5,000 to RM 100,000 in fine and from 6 to 100
lashes in whipping, thus enabling some Hudud punishments.
An unprecedented rapprochement between UMNO and PAS
led to Hadi’s controversial bill being fast-tracked for debate.
Citing Article 38, a former UMNO parliamentarian, Taufik
Ismail, has filed for an order to stop the Parliamentary speaker
from tabling Bill 355 on the ground that such bill must first
get the consent of the Conference of Rulers. The parliamentary
speaker’s bid to strike out his suit was rejected by the Kuala
Lumpur High Court in February 2018. Meanwhile, Borneo
argued that “the founding fathers of Sabah and Sarawak
did not sign up for a federation where personal religious
misconduct of Muslims could be punished far more heavily
than robbery. To insidiously alter the contract of marriage
after 54 years unilaterally with an ill-thought bill is morally
wrong and politically disastrous”. Borneo G20 cautioned that
it may undo the Federation of Malaysia. In 2015, Bornean
NGOs called for renegotiation of the Federal Constitution
if Kelantan got to implement Hudud punishments.99 Rahim
Noor, a retired Inspector-General of Police too made a point
blank warning that Sabah and Sarawak may seek secession if
Kelantan got its way to implement hudud punishments.100
However, ultimately religious freedom requires a civilisational
basis to take root on Malaysia’s soil. If religious freedom is
rooted in the Enlightenment paradigm in the West, it must
find its nurturing ground in Islam here in Malaysia.
Islam needs to be upheld as a promise of blessing for all
in the universe (rahmatan lil alamin) rather than a basis of
worldly supremacy for Muslims over others, or simply as an
ethnic marker to distinguish Muslims from others. The pursuit
of the former inevitably also means the pursuit of substance
98 https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/05/07/say-no-to-
ruu355-for-malaysias-sake/.
99 https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2015/04/08/renegotiate-
constitution-is-kelantan-wants-hudud/.
100 https://humanrightsinasean.info/article/sabah-sarawak-may-secede-if-
kelantan-hudud-goes-through-warns-ex-igp.html.
© Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association and Contributors 2018 17
Which God? Whose Country? – Freedom of Religion and Belief in Malaysia
over form, where the values of Islam may be found within
non-Muslims. Such was the case for Sheikh Muhammad
Abdul, the 19th century reformer and jurist, who famously
claimed, “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims;
I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but no Islam.”101 In
a thought-provoking 2010 study, two professors at George
Washington University, Scheherazade S Rahman and Hossein
Askari, constructed an Economic Islamicity Index with 113
variables in 12 dimensions to measure how well the values of
Islam are realised in economic life in 208 countries. Ireland
was found to be the most Islamic economy, followed by
Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden, United Kingdom, New
Zealand, Singapore, Finland, Norway and Belgium. Malaysia
ranked highest amongst the Muslim countries at 33rd place,
followed by Kuwait at 42nd and at Kazakhstan at 54th.102
If the implementation of Syariah is seen as a threat to
religious freedom, the reconciliation may lie in a purposive
approach to Syariah called “Maqasid” (higher purposes). A
twelfth century theologian, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, listed as
the purposes of Syariah the protection of five fundamentals:
life, religion, property, progeny, and intellect – a list to be
expanded over time by later scholars. Two centuries later,
another scholar, Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi, focused the study of
maqasid on “maslaha” (pubkic interest), to overcome the
rigidity caused by literalism and analogical reasoning. This
approach gains currency as political Islam matures, as the
so-called the second-generation Islamist parties are looking for
pragmatic policy solutions, especially after the Arab Spring in
2011, instead of championing the establishment of an Islamic
state, an idea that was born in British India. A year before the
absolute sultanate of Brunei expanded its Syariah law in May
2015,103 the democratised Tunisia adopted a new constitution
that protects freedom of conscience and excludes Syariah law.104
Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s Islamist party,
Ennahda, even declared in 2016 his party’s migration from
101 http://hossein-askari.com/islamicity/.
102 http://hossein-askari.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/islamicity-
index.pdf.
103 http://www.dw.com/en/sharia-in-brunei-the-sultans-new-
laws/a-17627008.
104 http://www.mei.edu/content/tunisia%E2%80%99s-new-constitution.
political Islam to Muslim democracy.105
Conclusion
An inclusive Islam cannot take centre stage until enough
Muslims can break free from their colonisation trauma and
the reactive religious nationalist frame that sees religious
communities as inherent rivals competing against each other
for dominance. Under such a frame, non-Muslims can either
be hostile or subservient, but not equal and friendly. Such
supra-nationalist sentiment is certainly not the prerogative of
Muslims but shared by many other communities – religious
or other – who had suffered repression and domination. In
the past, one’s religious freedom might hinge on the might of
one’s political community, which naturally generates cynical
and conspiracy theorists’ view on universal values, including
freedom of religion and belief. A healthy state of inter-faith
relations at the global level may require inclusive solutions
to some decades-old conflicts like the one obtaining in
Palestine. But faith leaders can still drive home the point
that a reciprocal, if not symbiotic, relationship exists between
religious communities, and exclusion begets exclusion.
To paraphrase President Theodore Roosevelt’s words of
wisdom on people and countries, “This world will not be a
permanently good place for any religious community to live
in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all religious
communities to live in.”106 As a borderless world makes
selective and incongruent positioning untenable, initiatives to
promote freedom of religion and belief must bring wisdom to
every religious community for them to spell out what rights
they want as a minority in one context and what rights they
will give to minorities as the majority in another, such that
inconsistencies may be exposed and eliminated. Only when
all religious communities see religious freedom as a public
good and would defend each other at their own Niemöller’s
moment,107, the cause for freedom of religion and belief may
advance in a meaningful sense.
[Dr Wong Chin-Huat is Head of the Institutional Reforms and
Governance Programme at the Penang Institute, Malaysia.]
105 https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/tunisia/political-islam-muslim-
democracy.
106 http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/site/c.elKSIdOWIiJ8H/b.9297493/
k.7CB9/Quotations_from_the_speeches_and_other_works_of_
Theodore_Roosevelt.htm
107 http://hmd.org.uk/resources/poetry/first-they-came-pastor-martin-
niemoller.
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In this updated and expanded edition of his classic text, Arend Lijphart offers a broader and deeper analysis of worldwide democratic institutions than ever before. Examining thirty-six democracies during the period from 1945 to 2010, Lijphart arrives at important-and unexpected-conclusions about what type of democracy works best. Praise for the previous edition: "Magnificent...The best-researched book on democracy in the world today."-Malcolm Mackerras, American Review of Politics "I can't think of another scholar as well qualified as Lijphart to write a book of this kind. He has an amazing grasp of the relevant literature, and he's compiled an unmatched collection of data."-Robert A. Dahl, Yale University "This sound comparative research ...will continue to be a standard in graduate and undergraduate courses in comparative politics."-Choice