Next Steps for Malaysia: Religious Freedom Post General Elections 14

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Malaysia’s 14th General Elections were held on May 9, 2018. What was expected to be a victory for the incumbent government turned out to be a shocked surprise. The opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan secured a total of 121 Parliamentary seats as opposed to the ruling coalition taking 79 seats. The Pan Malaysia Islamic party and her alliance managed 18 seats.

While the extent of the victory was rather unexpected, one cannot deny that the signs were already on the wall for the then ruling coalition. The level of corruption exposed through the 1MDB saga coupled with the abuse of power and human rights violations created a “loss of faith” crisis between the government and the general populace. The brandishing of race and religion for political gains, along with subversion of basic fundamental liberties like freedom of expression and association only served to marginalize the people further from the government thereby leading to their first loss of power in 6o years. 

In aftermath of the General Elections, the new government wasted no time to set in place institutional reforms. Investigations into alleged corruption cases previously thought impossible began to take shape with the arrest of key personalities and political appointees removed from office. The people saw new ministers appointed, senior civil servants and positions changed hands with the promise of new policies that are equitable and the review of draconian laws and legislations.

While many lauded the attempts at institutional reforms and the positive optimism emerging, the fact remains Malaysians are seeing a change of government for the first time in 60 years. Things needs to be put right, but all this cannot happen overnight or instantaneously much as Malaysians wish it to be. Recent events such as the controversial child marriage in the northern region and the public canning of a woman following Sharia suggests the administration of the country is still very much in a volatile and uncertain state.

For now, Malaysians still lack the imagination of what sort of multi-cultural or multi-religious society Malaysia will be. The absence of such a social vision contributes in large to a rather thin common ground or common culture that could serve to bring the different ethnic, religious and regional groups together. Although efforts have been made to define a narrative that would serve as a common social vision for Malaysia in terms of religious harmony and ethnic integration, details are still somewhat sketchy for an ideal. This state of affairs impinges very much on freedom of religion and belief and its place within the national polity.

Just last week, the Minister of Islamic Religion and Affairs, Datuk Dr. Mujahid Yusof Rawa outlined three main thrusts as new narratives to ensure racial and religious harmony in the country. The first is what he calls Islam as a religion of “rahmatan lil alamin” (blessings for all).The second is “Maqasid Syariah” which is taken to mean Islam does not only revolve around hudud and Islamic law, but also is concerned with justice and humanity. The third is his aspiration for Malaysia to serve as a good model in overcoming diversity with Islam given the central place as the official religion of the country.

While we are thankful for his version of Islam that serves as a blessing for all and this care for nature and the natural realm, along with the focus on justice, compassion and mercy, which by extension argues well for the right to freedom of religion and belief, there remain two critical areas which he has yet to address. I believe these two areas are essential and need to be addressed adequately if Malaysians are to enjoy the full rights and maximum benefits in accordance with the universal right to freedom of religion and belief. 

First, Mujahid has yet to define clearly the role of the religious bureaucracy, its powers and limits under the law. This includes the respective state Islamic departments and Sharia Courts. Reforms are supposed to be underway, but we have not heard any reports or progress as to such reforms. If freedom of religion and belief is to be upheld and respected, the role and powers of the Islamic bureaucracy as it relates to this right ought to be clarified to ensure proper governance and harmonious relations especially in regard to non-Muslim communities. in a pluralist democracy like modern Malaysia, the Islamic bureaucracy and religious institution must not act with impunity, as in the past, and then claim they answer only to the Sultans or the Conference of Malay Rulers.

Second, as intimated by Mujahid himself, there is now a real possibility that legal instruments such as racial and religious harmony legislation and hate speech laws will come into place. There are, of course benefits in having such legislation, especially when its intend and purpose is to curb racial abuse and religious bigotry. The concern however is that civil society nor anyone other than ministry officials have ever been consulted on its provisions. While Mujahid may announce the intent of such legislations is to curb scurrilous, abusive and discriminatory remarks or expressions, the same legislation could potentially be used to stifle basic human rights like freedom of religion and belief and act against minority interests. The clarion call is clear – Malaysians and all those concerned for Malaysia need to push for maximum consultation on the provisions of such legislation before it is passed in Parliament.

In the absence of a commonly agreed on vision of what kind of multi-cultural society Malaysia is and the role of religion in her public life and affairs, Malaysian society will continue to be plagued with the ongoing struggles of race and religion. Religious communities will remain polarized and basic human rights, like freedom of religion, marginalized further into private spaces.

Notwithstanding, there are some positive signs and developments. One comes from the words of our Prime Minister as he addressed the 73rd UN General Assembly in New York recently. Dr Mahathir said,

The new Malaysia will firmly espouse the principles promoted by the UN in our international engagements. These include the principles of truth, human rights, the rule of law, justice, fairness, responsibility and accountability, as well as sustainability. It is within this context that the new government of Malaysia has pledged to ratify all remaining core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights …… (italics added mine).

With this speech at the UN General Assembly, Malaysians are generally hopeful that the ratification of core UN instruments related to protection of human rights such as the ICCPR, ICERD and the removal of qualifications under CEDAW will serve as firsts among many steps to facilitate more positive actions toward the protection of basic human rights.

No doubt, the journey will be a long and an arduous one, but it’s necessary for nation building.  

If freedom of religion and belief is to take center place among the cluster of human rights deemed integral and essential for the wellbeing of all human beings, the new government must put in place “favorable conditions” to enable all people to express their characteristics and to develop their culture, language, religion, traditions and customs and to exercise fully and effectively all their human rights and fundamental freedoms without any discrimination with equality before the law.  

This agenda remains an urgent one and the new government should not make excuses by “deprioritizing” these issues for even the slightest moment in favor of actions against the more obvious wrongs like bribery and corruption.

Freedom of religion and belief in Malaysia is at the heart of the nation’s wellbeing. Though it is not yet taken that place in the consciousness of the people and consequently in the national policy debate.


Eugene Yapp is the Director of RFL Partnership, an organization for the promotion of religious freedom for all people in Malaysia and a Senior Fellow of RFI’s South and South East Asia Action Team.


All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.

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