Earlier this month, the Malaysian Court of Appeal upheld an administrative direction by the government prohibiting the Catholic Church of Malaysia from using the word “Allah” to denote “God” in the Malay version of the Church’s newsletter, The Herald.
The government asserts that the direction, along with a condition that the newsletter was only to be circulated among members of the Catholic Church, is aimed at preserving public order. The unimpeded use of the word “Allah” by the church, it explains, will result in confusion among Muslims.
The ruling was handed down in a controversial appeal brought by the government against a lauded 2009 decision of the first court striking down the prohibition as unreasonable for, among other things, it not being reconcilable with the long history of the use of the word by Christians in Malaya (later Malaysia), and the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, expression and association. It was also, in the mind of the court, irrational in light of the word “Allah” being freely used to denote God in the Malay translation of the Bible.
One Malaysia? Not so much
That the government felt it necessary to appeal the ruling in the first place was questionable. The government, led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, had spent much time, effort and money in a branding exercise, centred on the use of the slogan “1Malaysia”, to showcase itself as a moderate and inclusive government. “1Malaysia”, in Najib’s view, was the blueprint for a participatory democracy that would be the envy of others. Justifiably, questions arose as to why it was necessary to pursue an appeal against a decision that did nothing more than state the obvious.
It would seem that the appeal was not prompted by concerns about the state of public order, Malaysia has, after all, shown itself more than capable of dealing with actual threats in the past. The fact that the government has in the wake of the decision of the Court of Appeal clarified that the prohibition only applies to The Herald and not to other publications, including the Malay version of the Bible, undermines any assertion that the national security of the country would be threatened by the unimpeded use of the word.
The initial ruling, and other hard-won decisions on various aspects of religious freedom, would not have been welcomed as landmark decisions if that were the case.
Rather, the decision of the government appears to have been a strategic appeal to the ethnocentric sentiments of a Malay, and as such Muslim, majority voter base in a move that Malaysians have come to recognise as a leaf out of the playbook of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the political party which Najib heads and which has led the coalition government that has ruled since independence.
The UMNO-led coalition suffered a setback at the 12th general election in 2008, when it lost its two-thirds majority in parliament and the popular vote in peninsular Malaysia. Persuaded by the meritocratic rhetoric of the opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, more Malays were voting against UMNO. UMNO placed the blame for this state of affairs at the feet of Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, whose attempts to reduce the emphasis on race and religion in the politics of the coalition that he ledwere characterised as weakness.
Ratcheting up racial and religious sensitivities was, in the minds of influential members of the party, the way to go. Reactions to the initial ruling point to that having been a factor in the decision to appeal the first ruling, as does government rhetoric surrounding the decision to appeal.
Though it is tempting to blame the judiciary for the way things have turned out, this would be unfair. It cannot be overlooked that leading the charge was the attorney general, who appeared on behalf of the government. It was his arguments that ultimately led to the Court of Appeal concluding that the use of the word “Allah” was not integral to the Christian faith, and did not correspond with the supremacy of the Islamic faith in Malaysia.
Equally, the current home minister was in a position to withdraw the appeal when it came up for hearing in September. That he did not do so in the face of the then imminent UMNO elections, and a potential leadership challenge, and in the aftermath of the 13th general election that saw the ruling coalition lose the popular vote is, I think, not coincidental.
The self-evident truth is that the government, and as such Malaysia, is constrained by deeply divisive racial and religious politics. It is not the model multi-faith society that some characterise it as being. For it to be so, the government must recognise that it has no choice but to play the role of an honest broker in the public sphere, irrespective of its political ideology. That would mean that the government must give due recognition to the fundamental freedoms of all citizens, regardless of their race or religion. It must also, more fundamentally, recognise that the way forward for Malaysia does not lie in pandering to ethno-religious sentiment but rather in an empowering process for all its citizens.
Sadly, that does not appear to be the case at the present time. The initial ruling, and other hard-won decisions on various aspects of religious freedom, would not have been welcomed as landmark decisions if that were the case. They would have been nothing more than routine administrative law decisions. The reality is that Malaysians are confronted by a worrying state of affairs that, if left unchecked, will have disastrous consequences for the nation.
Malik Imtiaz Sarwar is the Immediate Past President of the National Human Rights Society of Malaysia and practices law in Kuala Lumpur.