MOST churches believe that registering with the Registrar of Society (ROS) is a legal necessity, when the structure of the ROS is not designed for governing religious bodies.
The matter was clarified at a recent NECF Malaysia Current Issues seminar for Klang pastors and church leaders.
NECF Secretary-General Rev Wong Kim Kong explained during the question-and-answer session that NECF’s legal panel had studied both the ROS and the Federal Constitution and concluded that churches, as religious institutions, need not be registered with the ROS. This, he said, was concurred by at least two former deputy ministers of Home Affairs.
Rev Wong quoted Article 11(3) of the Constitution to support the panel’s interpretation. The article states: “Every religious group has the right to: manage its own religious affairs; establish and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes; and acquire and own property and hold and administer it in accordance with the law.”
Normally, churches register with the ROS for the purposes of acquiring and managing properties, and opening bank accounts.
There are other alternatives, Rev Wong pointed out. For example, with regards to property transactions, churches can appoint trustees to act on their behalf under the Trustee Act.
As for opening bank accounts, churches can, for example, join NECF as members and with that, gain access to banks that have arrangements with NECF.
Churches started to register with ROS as far back as the 1960s, perhaps thinking that doing so would legitimise their gatherings. Or perhaps the misconception arose as a result of a clause in the Police Act 1967 that states it is unlawful for three or more persons to assemble in a public place without a police permit.
Lee Min Choon, in his book Freedom of Religion, clarified: “Firstly, Section 27 of the Police Act refers to gatherings in public places. Places of worship like mosques, temples and churches are not considered as public places. They are not places where there is unrestricted access for all members of the public. Sometimes, a religious group may meet in places not normally used for religious purposes. For example, a group of devotees may meet in a house or office to celebrate a religious festival or to perform religious acts. Again, a house or office is not a public place and a religious gathering there cannot be considered an illegal one.”
Churches registered with ROS are subject to all ROS requirements. In certain situations, this may pose a disadvantage to the churches concerned. For example, they must get the ROS approval to effect any changes in their constitution, or they may get de-registered on technical grounds. Another common problem is changing address. Churches, which have moved location, have been told by the ROS that they must get their town councils’ approval to use the new location as a place of worship before the ROS can effect the address change.
However, para-church organisations must be registered with ROS.
On the issue of burial grounds for Christians, Rev Wong advised churches against buying parcels of lands and then attempting to convert them into burial grounds. Providing burial grounds is the responsibility of the state governments, he said.
“If burial land is lacking in your region, the churches within the region should come together to present their need to the state government. Form a cemetery committee to negotiate with the relevant authorities,” he advised.
“Churches must work together if they want to ensure enough burial plots for their members. Let the dead unite the living,” he quipped. “And don’t wait until the last plot of (burial) land before applying to the government.”
The Government has become more stringent in allowing churches to hold marriage registers. To help smoothen the marriage process for Christian couples, NECF is currently negotiating with authorities for a mobile marriage register that can be shared among several churches within their regions.
Religion in MyKad
Christians should not shy away from stating their religion (Christianity) in the application form when changing their identity cards to MyKad. Some Christians did not state their religion, perhaps out of fear of discrimination by the government, or future persecution.
Commenting on this, Rev Wong said that firstly, Christians should not be afraid nor ashamed to state their faith. Secondly, Christians are duty bound to state the truth when filling in any official documents. Thirdly, by filling in their religion, Christians help to provide accurate statistics.
Although the religion of the card-bearer is not stated in the card itself, the information is stored in the department’s database. There have been reported cases where the department filled in “Buddhist” and “Hindu” for Chinese and Indian applicants who did not fill in the religion slot.
“This affects the percentage of the total Christian community. In situations relating to the government, more accurate statistics may ensure our views are taken seriously,” Rev Wong said.
“No conditions are found in Article11 (of the Federal Constitution) or in the rest of the Constitution that require a religious group to incorporate or register themselves before they can be regarded as a religious group.”
– LEE MIN CHOON in his book Freedom of Religion in Malaysia