Delicate matters – race and religion in Malaysia

Updated On: Jul 13, 2007

In light of recent controversy surrounding Muslim apostates, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told religious authorities to hear out those who wished to renounce Islam.

Badawi’s statement underlines his prioritisation of a tolerant and moderate Islam, while on the economic front, he remains adamant that the pro-bumiputera National Economic Policy (NEP) must stay.

His comments on the first issue concerning religious conversion came in the wake of the release of Ms M Revathi from a rehabilitation centre run by the state’s Islamic authorities.  Ms Revathi claimed she had been ill-treated at the centre and was adamant  about renouncing Islam to be a Hindu even after “detention” and “counseling” in the rehabilitation centre.

The Prime Minister, who was asked to comment on the spate of court cases involving people seeking to leave the faith, admitted that he did not know why “suddenly these things seem to be coming out one after another.”  Another long-drawn court case involving Christian convert, Ms Lina Joy, had grabbed international media attention and thrown the spotlight on religious freedom which is guaranteed under Malaysian constitution.  Ms Lina Joy has sought to have the word “Islam” removed from her identity card in the Federal court so that she could proceed with her marriage to a Catholic. However, she lost the battle in the highest court and was told that her case involving Islam has to be held in a Sharia court. 

These two cases were just a sampling of several cases involving religious matter that have had non-Muslims feeling that their rights have been undermined as Article 11 of Malaysia's constitution declared that “Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion”. 

The differential treatment for Muslims and non-Muslims is probably most unmistakable to preacher Sazali Pengsang, whose church was demolished under government decree. His was one of several non-Muslim places of worship recently torn down by the authorities for not having been built with an official approval. But the buildings were built on private land, and needed no approval under Malaysian law, reported Reuters. Episodes like these have led “many people of other faiths in Malaysia [to] view the gradual erosion of their rights,” said Reverend Hermen Shastri, an official at Malaysia's Council of Churches, quoted Reuters. Mosques are commonplace while non-Muslims encounter difficulties getting approval for construction of their places of worship. Proselytizing of Muslims is illegal, with the penalty of imprisonment in most states. Last month, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism appealed to the government “to make urgent legislative reforms” to safeguard religious freedom as guaranteed under the constitution. Chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party Lim Kit Siang said these recent religious episodes showed “a narrow and intolerant face of Islam which must be of increasing concern to progressive and moderate Muslims,” quoted AP.

Still, the vision of progressive and moderate Islam is what this government is working toward. “The current leadership gives more freedom of expression, greater tolerance and accountability” said former deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam. The New Straits Times reported PM Badawi telling Malaysia to be proud that inter-ethnic and national unity was top priority. His speech, which received a standing ovation by senior civil servants, academics, politicians and others, stressed that the way to achieve unity was to involve Malaysians of all races and religions in various aspects of civic engagement. “They must be together in politics, in government, in school. That’s the way it was (when Malaysia was formed) and that’s the way it should be.” He told his 55-member panel to “Have the right attitude, be sincere, be pragmatic but don’t sweep the issues under the carpet. And most of all, you must first love your country.”

His comments come in the wake of international criticism of the National Economic Plan, a key policy in Malaysiathat privileges ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups in jobs, education, business and other areas. Last month, the Head of the European Commission Delegation to Malaysia Thierry Rommel said that the NEP was an excuse for “significant protectionism” in several sectors of the Malaysian economy, including the automotive sector, steel, consumer goods, agricultural products, services and government contracts. He said “there is no level playing field for foreign companies even when in partnership with [bumiputeras]”, and that it would hinder EU-ASEAN free trade negotiations. Prior to this, issues with ‘bumiputera’-skewed policies had been a sticking point during free trade talks between US and Malaysia. AP reports that Rommel implied that the NEP ought to be revised, saying that “We (in Europe) have bitten the bullet on a number of sensitive issues, why can't you?”

Rommel’s unusually pointed criticism provoked a diplomatic imbroglio. International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz decried the comments as “totally unwarranted and rubbish”, while Foreign Minister Datuk Syed Hamid and deputy prime minister Najib Razik castigated him for interfering in Malaysia’s internal affairs, reported Bernama. In the NEP’s defence, Rafidah said that it provided the political and economic stability so important to foreign investors. Badawi also said the 37-year old policy had allowed the expansion of an educated and multiethnic middle class, which prevented racial riots from occurring in Malaysia during the Asian financial in 1997. The goal is to “disassociate race from occupation or social standing”, explained PM Badawi, which is “critical in ensuring the long-term unity and cohesion of our country”, AP reports. Indeed, “to ignore economic inequity just to attract FDI will not bring justice to our multiracial (country) and reflect an irresponsible government” Rafidah said, quoted by Bernama. Thus the NEP is meant to “achieve distributional objectives in the most sustainable, competitive and meaningful way possible”, reported AFX, and Badawi also said that his government was “open to reviewing related policies or regulations that do not achieve the distributional objectives by which they were established.”

Their receptivity to review, however, might be doubted by Dr Lim Teck Ghee, a former director and researcher in the Asian Strategic and Leadership Institute (Asli), who published a report highlighting that Bumiputeras already hold 45 per cent of the country’s total equity. Their findings contradicted the government’s estimate that Bumiputera corporate ownership is 18%, and undermined the necessity of the NEP, which aims to achieve 30% equity for Bumiputeras. In a letter to Malaysiakini, Director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies Dr Lim Teck Ghee explained that the researchers had used an alternative methodology that took into account the shares held by government-linked companies (GLCs), which were among the major holders of equity in corporate Malaysia. Amidst a flurry of controversy, the report was rejected by PM Badawi who called it ‘baseless’, reported Bernama, and ‘an irresponsible act’ based on information from ‘inauthentic sources’.

Open and moderate as Badawi’s administration strives to be, the recent controversies over religious converts and the NEP belie the sensitivity that continues to shroud racial and religious issues in Malaysia. (12 July 2007)


Musa: Middle-class Malaysians look beyond race (The Star, 13 July 2007)

Unity must prevail for continued peace and a safe Malaysia(New Straits Times, 12 July 2007)

PM open to review policies that miss distributional objectives (The Edge, 11 July 2007)

‘Religious authorities should listen to grouses’ (New Straits Times, 11 July 2007)

Malaysian PM For Resolving Conversion Woes (Newspost India10 July 2007)

PM: Find out grouses of those wanting to leave Islam (The Star, 10 July 2007)

Malaysian PM defends affirmative action (AP, 10 July 2007)

Malaysiaaims to keep afffirmative action policies – PM (AFX News, 10 July 2007)

Umno calls for Lee to withdraw remarks (Bernama, 10 July 2007)

PM says NEP still needed (AP, 10 July 2007)

Rise of Islam rankles Malaysia's minority faiths (Reuters, 9 July 2007)

MalaysiaPM vows to resolve Muslim conversion woes (Reuters, 9 July 2007)

Malaysian woman still insists she wants to be Hindu after 6 months in Islamic rehab (AP, 6 July 2007)

Malaysian Hindu recounts ordeal in Islamic camp (Reuters, 6 July 2007)

EU envoy: Malay policy 'discriminatory' (ISN Security Watch, 4 July 2007)

Rafidah Slams Rommel For Making Disparaging Remarks (Bernama, 29 June 2007)

Malaysian state stiffens penalties to stifle Muslim conversions (AP, 27 June 2007)

I've No Intention To Meddle In Malaysia's Domestic Affairs – Rommel (Bernama, 25 June 2007)

EU Envoy Blasts Malaysia's NEP (AP, 21 June 2007)

Lina Joy affair sparks apostasy debate among Muslims (AsiaNews, 12 June 2007)

Asli findings on Bumi equity stake baseless, says Abdullah (Bernama, 5 October 2006)

CPPS response to comments in malaysiakini on corporate equity distribution study (Malaysiakini, 28 September 2006)