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Malaysia’s religious laws under review

Updated On: Jan 24, 2006

Malaysia– Nine ethnic minorities’ ministers had called for a review of laws affecting the rights of non-Muslims.

The memo seeking a review of laws, submitted last Wednesday was however retracted after an uproar in the ruling Malay party.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi criticized the ministers for making the request in writing instead of raising it in a Cabinet meeting. “I met them and I told them that they need to retract the memorandum and they all agreed. I hope the memorandum will no longer be an issue from now on,” said the Prime Minister.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said that the move by the nine ministers had created uneasiness among the people. “As politicians they wear many dresses-as ministers, the people’s elected representatives and as citizens. But being ministers, they cannot simply change their dress and criticize the Government. It is against governmental ethics,” he said.

The withdrawal of the memorandum sent a clear message that the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, which dominates Malaysia’s coalition government, will not tolerate insubordination from minority Indian and Chinese parties.

Behind the unease in UMNO is the fear that racial and religious harmony will be disrupted. Religion and Malay rights in this multi-ethnic country is a highly sensitive issue and tensions have been rising with Muslim groups opposed to any changes. The seeking of religious review had prompted a demonstration by 200 Muslim university students and opposition party leaders at the National Mosque asking non-Muslims not to infringe on their rights.

Prime Minister Abdullah clarified that there will be no amendments to Article 121 (1A) of the Federal Constitution, which gives equal but separate powers to the civil courts and the Islamic Syariah Court. Non-Muslims felt that this is disadvantageous to them as decisions made by the Syariah Courtcannot be questioned by the civil courts. The government was however willing to review subsidiary legislation to remove the ambiguities concerning the jurisdiction of the two courts system.

The issue has placed PM Abdullah in a difficult situation of protecting the interest of his non-Muslim voters and at the same time, and not upsetting his core Muslim constituents.

The issue was triggered by events surrounding the death of Mount Everestclimber Sarjan M. Moorthy alias Muhammad Abdullah last month which led to the tussle between Moorthy’s widow and the federal Territory Religious Department over the right to bury him. Moorthy was given a Muslim burial against the wishes of his Hindu wife after a Syariah High Court ruled that he was a Muslim and the civil courts had no jurisdiction to intervene in the case.

On Sat, the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism began a signature campaign calling for review of the Constitution.

Less than a day PM Abdullah closed the issue of religious rights, another dispute started between the Islamic authorities in Negeri Sembilan and the Chinese family of an 88 year-old woman, Nonya Tahir who died recently.  Madam Tahir is a Malay Muslim who married a Chinese and had embraced Buddhism for most of her life. While her children want her burial to be in accordance to the Buddhist rites, the Islamic officials are applying to the state Syariah Courtto have her buried as a Muslim. The case will surely be closely watched again by leaders of the minority communities.

Sources:

* Non-Muslim ministers retract memo seeking KL religious law review (The Straits Times, 22 Jan)

* Abdullah tries to cool tempers in row over religious rights (The Straits Times, 21 Jan)

* Plea for Buddhist funeral goes to Syariah Court(The Straits Times, 23 Jan)

* Memo issue settled, says Ong (The Star, 23 Jan)

* Five Cabinet ministers meet Pak Lah over memo (The Star, 22 Jan)

* Najib: Stick to conventional ways (The Star, 22 Jan)

* PM: The matter is now closed (The Star, 22 Jan)

* Call for review of Malaysia’s religious laws is retracted (The ChinaPost, 23 Jan)

* Malaysian ministers pull minorities memorandum (Taipei Times, 23 Jan)