Religious Liberty

The State of Religious Liberty, 2002-04

Description: Forum IV "The Realities of Christian Living in Malaysia", pp100-107
        Author: Lee Min Choon

The State of Religious Liberty, 2002-04

Lee Min Choon

“A coherent agenda is necessary for the Church to dialogue and to engage with other players in Malaysian society.”


The period January 2002 to April 2004 was relatively quiet and uneventful in terms of problems of religious liberty issues in Malaysia. This was probably due to the caution and restraint exercised by most sections of the public and the Government in view of the changing political landscape.

Firstly, since the 1999 general elections, there has been a conciliatory approach by the government towards non-Muslims and, in particular, towards non-Muslim religions. This is probably due to the realisation by the Barisan Nasional government that non-Muslim votes were vital in offsetting the erosion of support for the Government among Muslims. As a result, the non-Muslim community enjoyed concessions which were unheard of in the past. Among them were permits given to Christian groups to hold large scale evangelistic rallies in public stadiums, the allocation of public funds for non-Muslim religions in the Government budget, the approval for the staging of Easter and Christmas processions in various towns and cities, the hosting of ‘open houses’ by the Federal and State governments and increased dialogue between non-Muslim religious leaders and the government.

Secondly, the prospect of general elections (which were finally held on 21 March 2004) resulted in increased efforts by the Barisan Government as well as opposition parties (including PAS) to win over the support of non-Muslim religious communities. There was also a period of uncertainty before the retirement of Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamed as Prime Minister and into the first few months of the premiership of his successor, Datuk Seri Abdullah Haji Ahmad Badawi. During this time, sensitive issues were either not raised or were kept to a minimum.

Thirdly, the 2002 publication of the results of the official Census carried out in 2000 showed that from 1992 to 2000, the Christian community was the fastest growing community in Malaysia. The Christian population jumped from under 7% in 1992 to just below 10% in 2000. In actual figures, the number of Christians increased by nearly 1 million. This means that Christians have become a significant electoral community. The sustained growth of Christians has significant political implications for the country and, in the past few years, Christians have been courted rather than being suppressed. All major political parties have sought dialogue with organisations representing the Christian community (e.g. the Christian Federation of Malaysia and the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship of Malaysia).

The landslide victory of the Barisan in the 2004 general elections put many known Christians into public office. This augurs well for the Church as it ensures that there is a Christian voice in Parliament and the Legislative Assemblies of certain states. However, this should not be a cause for complacency. Rather, the Church has to continue to find ways to engage multi-racial and multi-religious Malaysian society.

Religious issues

There were, however, developments during the period which demonstrated that, beneath the relatively calm religious scene, vital issues continued to exist.  These warrant the concern and prayers of the Christian community.

Legal developments


In September 2002, the state of Terengganu, under the PAS government, passed the Syariah Criminal Offences (Hudud & Qisas) Enactment, 2002. This law provided for the implementation of the Islamic Hudud law for a range of offences. Offences against the Islamic religion were classified into three categories and penalties for each of them were prescribed in accordance with Islamic tradition. Of interest to us were offences that criminalised the renunciation of Islam. Apostasy or the renunciation of Islam by Muslim (Irtidad or Riddah) was classified as a hudud offence. The offender would be given three days to repent, failing which he would put to death by stoning, his property confiscated and held by the Baitulmal (the Islamic public trust).

This law violates Article 11 of the Federal Constitution. The right to profess a religion carries with it the right to leave one’s religion. Thus, the exercise of the choice to leave one’s religion cannot be made into a criminal act. In addition, the penalty for apostasy contravenes the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965. This federal law caps the jurisdiction of state syariah courts to hand down punishments to three years jail, fine not exceeding RM5,000/- or whipping not exceeding 6 strokes. State laws that prescribe penalties in excess of these are not enforceable.

After the Barisan Nasional recapture of state government of Terengganu, it was announced that the government would review this law. No further developments have since been heard.

Court decisions

In the past two years, the ruling laid down by the Federal Court in the Soon Singh case was refined and extended by the High Court in a number of cases. In the Soon Singh case, the Federal Court ruled that only the Syariah court has the jurisdiction to determine the question of whether a Muslim had left the religion of Islam or not.

Since then, Muslims who have renounced Islam continue to file cases in the High Court asking the High Court to declare that they are no longer Muslims. Various High Courts have dismissed such cases on the strength of the Soon Singh ruling. However, a number of High Courts also took the ruling much further by declining to exercise jurisdiction in a variety of situations where a Muslim had renounced Islam.

In March 2003, the High Court in Muar dismissed the case of Tongiah bte Jumali and her husband who sued the governments of Malaysia and the state of Johor for wrongful arrest and imprisonment. Tongiah’s conversion from Islam to Christianity was evidenced by a statutory declaration and baptism. She married a Malaysia Chinese Christian by registration under Singapore laws. They returned to Johore and succeeded in re-registering their marriage with the Registrar of Marriages in Johore. She was subsequently arrested and charged with committing khalwat by the Kadi Court in Johor Bahru. During the hearing of her suit against the government for wrongful arrest and imprisonment, the defendants raised the Soon Singh ruling and argued that the High Court could not hear the case as it involved the question of her leaving Islam. Justice Jeffrey Wong agreed with this argument and dismissed her case.

Also, in March 2003, the Johor Bahru High Court dismissed Pastor Rajan’s case where he challenged the decision of the Malaysia Registrar of Marriages to revoke his appointment as an Assistant Registrar of Marriage for the Calvary Charismatic Centre, Johor Bahru. Pastor Rajan had solemnised two marriages involving Muslims who had converted from Islam to Christianity. The defendant also raised the Soon Singh ruling and argued that the High Court could not hear this case as it involved the question of whether the Muslims concerned had left Islam or not. Appeals to the Court of Appeal have been filed in respect of both there decisions.

In May 2003, the High Court in the case of Kubeydah binti Shaik Mohd. v. Kalaichelvan a/l Alagapan nullified a civil marriage on the basis of the Soon Singh ruling. A Muslim woman converted to Hinduism and married a Hindu under the civil laws. In the case filed by her mother, the High Court ruled (1) that the civil courts lacked the jurisdiction to determine whether a Muslim has renounced the religion and only the Syariah Court has the jurisdiction; (2) that a declaration of renunciation of Islam has to be validated by the Syariah Court. If the Syariah Courts do not validate the fact of her conversion, she will be unable to say that she has in fact renounced Islam; and (3) that her marriage under the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act was null and void.

Recently, the High Court in Kuala Lumpur continued to dismiss the case of a non-Muslim mother whose estranged husband had not only converted to Islam but also converted their children to Islam in order to deny her custody of the children. The Judge ruled that only the Syariah Court had the jurisdiction to decide on whether the children had been converted to Islam or not.

The issue of conflict of jurisdiction between the civil court and the Syariah court is causing great hardship to those who have converted out of Islam. The legality of their marriages and their custody rights to their children are affected. The civil courts have literally washed their hands off this problem and the Barisan Nasional government has so far refused to resolve this issue with appropriate legislation for fear of providing political capital to their opponents. This problem has been raised with the previous and present Prime Minister, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM), various political parties, the Bar Council and other authorities but no solution is in sight.

Administrative difficulties

Banning of the Bup Kudus

On April 11 2003, the government announced that 35 religious books had been banned on the grounds that they were detrimental to public peace. Among these books, were a number of Malay translations of Christian titles and the Bup Kudus, which is the translation of the Bible in the language of Malaysia’s largest indigenous group, the Iban people of Sarawak. The Iban Bible is central to the faith of Iban Christians who have used it for the past 15 years without any objections from the authorities. A large number of Malaysia’s 400,000 Ibans are Christians. This ban would have deprived Iban-speaking Christians of the use and distribution of their Holy Scriptures as well as disrupted the practice of the faith of Ibans in church services, small group meetings and personal use.

As a result of strong protests by the Christian community and prayers from within and without Malaysia, the government announced the lifting of the ban on the Bup Kudus. The government also admitted that the Iban Bible should not have been banned in the first place. It is pertinent to note that present Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi was (and still is) the Home Minister who signed the ban order and later the revocation of the ban.

Seizing of the Al-Kitab

Soon after the above incident, a shipment of the Indonesian Bible, the Al-Kitab, imported by the Bible Society of Malaysia, was confiscated by the government. There are over 1 million Indonesian immigrants and workers in Malaysia some of whom are Christians and in need of the scriptures in their own language. In addition, this is the preferred version of the Bible for many Malaysian Christians in the churches of East Malaysia. Sometime in the 1980s, the Bible Society had been given a letter from the Home Ministry authorising them to import the Al-Kitab. In spite of many letters from the Bible Society explaining the situation, the Home Ministry has, to date, not released the consignment. The Bible Society is continuing to appeal to the authorities to release the Bibles.

Grassroots extremism

On 15 June 2003, the press reported that parents in Penang had complained that teachers and students in several mission schools were being forced to recite Islamic prayers every morning.[1] They also had to don the Malay attire every Friday and it was reported that some of the students were now afraid to go to school.

This incident appeared to be another case of grassroots administrators making decisions influenced by their personal religious beliefs. Such an incident contravenes Article 12(3) of the Federal Constitution which provides that no person shall be required to receive instruction in or to take part in any ceremony or act of worship of a religion other than his own.

Political pressures

Demands for Islamic State

PAS continued to agitate for an Islamic State in the run-up to the general elections. Their Vice-President, Dr. Hassan Ali, on 4 January 2003, again announced PAS’ intention to establish an Islamic State in Malaysia based on the Syariah. Acting President, Abdul Hadi Awang, on 21 April 2003 announced that PAS would impose Syariah law if it came to power. PAS’ political agenda defiantly flies in the face of the multi-racial and multi-religious character of Malaysian society and the constitutional guarantees of a secular state. The ambitions of PAS had to be put on hold by their defeat at the March 21 general elections. PAS is unlikely, however, to abandon their stated political aims.

‘Islam Hadhari’

Since Tun Dr. Mahathir’s declaration of Malaysia as an ‘Islamic state’ on 29 September 2001, the debate has died down somewhat. However, in the campaigning for the last general elections, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi announced the concept of Islam hadhari. The press reported that “the Prime Minister’s concept of Islam hadhari propagates excellence as a way of life through proper Islamic teaching for a moderate and progressive nation”.[2]

However, little has been published in the non-Malay press about the content of Islam Hadhari. Until a fuller explanation of the Prime Minister’s concept is available, it is difficult for me to comment on how this concept will affect religion and religious rights of non-Muslims in this country.


The Christian community has experienced relatively fewer incidents and increased concessions over the past two years. However, this improvement is not secured by legal guarantees. Such gains can easily evaporate with a change in the political climate. Politicians, lawmakers and judges are still cowed by the power of Islamic fundamentalists and are unlikely to make concrete or long-terms concessions to promote or to further protect non-Muslim religions and their activities.

Christians must continue to open discussions among themselves and with those in power as to the place and position of the Church in the context of Malaysian society. A Christian agenda that can be placed before Malaysia’s decision-makers does not exist. The Christian agenda, if any, is ad hoc and piece meal. We are fighting brush-fires. We lack a vision and a plan for the future. A coherent agenda is necessary for the Church to dialogue and to engage with other players in Malaysian society. Perhaps, the Research Commission can initiate discussion for such an agenda.


[1] New Straits Times, 15 June 2003

[2] The Star, 11 April 2004

[ Back ] [ Print Friendly ]