Religious Liberty

Religious Liberty in East Malaysia: Promises and Assurances

Description: Published in Berita NECF Jul/Aug 2008 Issue
        Author: Dr David Fung

Religious Liberty in East Malaysia: Promises and Assurances

(NOTE: This is an extract. The full paper is available in the book titled Religious Liberty after 50 years of Independence.)

At the first anniversary of Independence Day, 31 August 1964, an oath stone was unveiled at Keningau witnessed by both State and Federal leaders. Inscribed on a plaque in Bahasa Malaysia were three principles agreed to by local chiefs: (1) freedom of religion in Sabah; (2) the Government of Sabah holds authority over lands in Sabah; and (3) native traditions and customs should be respected and preserved by the Government. It is significant that freedom of religion was the first principle. 

I shall now look at how well the states of East Malaysia have observed religious liberty since the formation of Malaysia in the larger sense of concerted government programmes that have breached this liberty. Of the two states, it is Sabah that has fared poorly.

During the era when Tun Mustapha Harun’s United Sabah National Organisation (USNO) led the Sabah Government from 1967 to 1974, there was a government-initiated and planned programme to “integrate” Sabah’s diverse ethnic groups into the Malay culture. It was being promoted by federal policy. Professor Gordon Means describes the programme as follows,


“This involved public emphasis upon symbols of Malay cultural identity, the rapid development of Bahasa Malaysia as the national language, and the promotion of Islam as the national language, and the promotion of Islam as a means to create cultural and religious conformity within the state. Under the direction of the United Sabah Islamic Association, which was supported by the USNO government, a very aggressive programme of Islamic conversion was instituted with much publicity given to mass conversions of many thousands of new Muslims. In 1973 Islam was made the official religion of the state and Bahasa Malaysia was adopted as the state’s sole official language. Pressure for conversion to Islam was particularly great on those in politics, since USNO viewed Islam as a prerequisite to ethnic power-sharing in the Mustapha government. By 1973, within the Sabah Legislative Assembly only five members still professed to be Christians, even though Muslim communities in Sabah constituted less than 40 per cent of the population and most of the leaders of the non-Muslim communities had earlier had nominal Christian affiliation.”


It was as a response to such programme that a pro-tem committee (later called the Sabah Council of Churches) comprising the mainline churches in Sabah, including the Roman Catholic Church, met to unite churches to speak in one voice on issues affecting the Church’s interest.

In the 1976 state election, USNO retained 20 seats and the newly-formed Berjaya Party led by Tun Fuad Stephens emerged the victor capturing 28 seats. Sadly Tun Fuad, the new chief minister, together with Datuk Peter Mojunting and other ministers in the new cabinet met with an untimely death when the light aircraft they boarded crashed just before landing at Kota Kinabalu on 6 June 1976. Datuk Harris Salleh, the deputy president of Berjaya Party, took over the helm. The first four-year term of Berjaya saw rapid economic development in Sabah.

In March 1981, Berjaya returned to power in a landslide election victory capturing 43 out of 48 seats.

However, the Berjaya government would be remembered for an unsavoury episode of blatant abuse of religious liberty through the manipulative classification of indigenous tribes. In the 1980 Census, the Berjaya government abolished the traditionally-accepted identification of tribal people and replaced the diverse ethnic people groups with a catch-all category “Pribumi” which unjustifiably include all the indigenous peoples of Sabah together with Malays from Peninsular Malaysia, and immigrants from the Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia.

The intended political effect was “to blur Sabah cultural and tribal identities.” The Berjaya government stepped up the process to integrate Sabahans into Malaysia; and in line with the federal policies, the Malay language and Malay-Muslim culture were promoted as the basis for national integration.

In the period from 1976 to 1985, the Berjaya government claimed to have converted over 32,000 to Islam in a flagrant disregard of the Twenty Points assurance and the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. The Kadazan indigenous people, among whom many were educated and raised in Catholic Missions schools, felt most maligned. The epitaph to the Berjaya government of Harris Salleh was written by another multi-cultural party, Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), led by the Kadazan Paramount leader Datuk Joseph Pairin Kitingan. In the 1985 elections, PBS spectacularly defeated the mighty Berjaya Party.

The fall of the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran at the hands of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 intensified Islamic revivalism starting from Iran and spreading ripple-like throughout the Muslim world. Another name for the Iranian Revolution was the Islamic Revolution. Multi-cultural and multi-religious Malaysia was not spared. Some of the developments discussed below could arguably be said to have flowed and gathered momentum from this world phenomenon, and I would relate them briefly in passing.

Dakwah organisations directed or sponsored by the government have been around but Islamic revivalism has increased efforts to proselytise and to lead a “pure” Muslim life in line with the strict dictates of the Qur’an. The Pertubuhan Kebajikan Islam Malaysia (Perkim) was one of the more notable ones. As the voice for the right to an Islamic way of life gain ascendency, so the sphere of Islam’s dominance increased in multi-cultural and multi-religious Malaysia. The territory gained by Islamic revivalism was at the expense of the religious space accorded to the people of Malaysia who profess and practise other religions. The heady mix of race and religion in Malaysia makes it an even more potent force.

No man is an island. Sabah and Sarawak, though situated on the island of Borneo together with Indonesian Kalimantan, felt the effects of Islamic revivalism. Dakwah has taken many forms. There were increasing complaints concerning secondary school students in the interior of Sabah and Sarawak being pressured to convert to Islam in the asramas (school hostels) ran by the government. Many of these students have to live away from their homes to attend schools that would typically take a few days’ walk.

The overzealousness of the state Islamic authorities affected everyone. On 11 December 2003 the Sabah State Mufti made and published a fatwa (ruling) in the State Gazette prohibiting non-Muslims from using 32 words in Bahasa Malaysia in their teaching and in the propagation of their belief. Some of those words are “Allah”, “Quran”, “Fatwa” and “Syariah”. On 29 December 2003, various government authorities entered and seized several titles in a Christian bookshop. The reason for seizure was that the books contained the word “Allah”.

The push for Islamic compliance is coupled with calls for a more Islamic way of life. There is little tolerance for freedom of religion among the Muslims. As recent judicial decisions have shown, sadly for Malaysia as a whole, there is no real freedom of religious choice for Muslims. There can be no real freedom, for the subjugation of a citizen’s right of access to the wider and generally accessible civil courts (which dispense justice in accordance with the law of the country) to the Syariah court (which by definition and existence would defer to Islamic rules and regulations) is not religious freedom. The basic human good that predicates religious profession and practice – freedom of conscience – is ignored.

In Sabah, since 1978 it has been an offence for anyone to propagate any religious doctrine or belief without the permission of the Sabah Majlis Ugama Islam among Muslims, and the offence shall be tried before the magistrate’s court and punishable with imprisonment of up to one year or a fine up to RM3,000 or both. Attempted apostasy out of the religion of Islam is apparently also an offence for the Muslim who has shown by word or conduct that he or she intentionally claims to cease to profess Islam or declares himself or herself to be a non-Muslim. The syariah court has the power to order that the apostate (murtad) be detained in the Islamic Rehabilitation Centre for a maximum period of 36 months on the pretext of rehabilitating the person so that the person could repent of the attempted apostasy. If such a detention occurred, it remains to be seen whether the draconian statutory provision contravenes Article 11(1) of the Federal Constitution and is unlawful.

All has gone awry. The idea of Malaysia was built upon goodwill and mutual trust among different communities spanning distinct racial groups with separate religious beliefs. The 13 May 1969 racial riots remained a blot in the nation’s short history.

The Rukun Negara, issued on 31 August 1970, is a document considered by many to be an instrument required to unify the various communities of this country into one united nation. It was intended as a complement to the Constitution. Its five principles formulated in relation to the Constitution – belief in God, loyalty to king and country, upholding the Constitution, rule of law, good behaviour and morality – are printed on the back cover of all Malaysian school exercise books. It is hoped that these five principles would capture for all Malaysians, starting from young, in a readily-comprehensible form the aspirations of all Malaysians with regard to their nation. Belief in God is of course based on Article 3 and 11 of the Constitution.

The East Malaysian experience has shown that the promises given at the time of Malaysia’s formation were and remain foundational to the writing of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia. The Article 11 guarantee of religious freedom, read together with Article 3, ought to protect and sustain the commitments made by the people of Malaysia.

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