Tuesday, July 04, 2006


The Fifth Malaysia Plan, on nation building said “A greater understanding and appreciation of the sensitivities of the various communities as well as a recognition of the commonness of experiences and values would go a long way in promoting racial harmony and tolerance and serve to strengthen the bonds among all Malaysians.”

Twenty years on (Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi tabled the Ninth Malaysia Plan in 2006), Non Muslims continue to face great difficulties in obtaining approval and place of worship.

The problems and tension would not have risen, had the government not only ensured that there was harmonization of local municipal laws and state laws with the Federal Constitution in respect of Non Muslims places of worship but also kept abreast and taken into consideration demographic changes. In a rapidly developing Malaysia, local municipal planning policies have not kept up with the need for clear, fair and equitable guidelines for Non Muslim places of worship. Progress and economic boom meant new housing areas and new townships. Alas, housing areas and townships were approved and even developed without consideration for places of worship for Non Muslims. Worst of all, temples situated in private and government land had to make way for development often without alternative land being made first and even if made the proposed alternative is not suitable.

While religious groups can purchase land or even properties, Non Muslims face the difficulty in obtaining the necessary approval for converting the land use to that of a religious use.

Further, there are other obstacles. Under the Garis Panduan Perancangan: Tempat Ibadat Bukan Islam, Jabatan Perancangan Bandar Dan Desa Semenanjung Malaysia, Kementerian Perumahan dan Kerajaan Tempatan (September 1988) the ministerial guideline directs local councils to refuse application for building of Non Muslim religious buildings in Muslim majority areas. Also, for a long time regulation have remained that all application for building of Non Muslim place of worship must be referred to State Islamic Religious Council and Jabatan Kuasa Ketua Kampung for approval. Then there is the requirement that there should at least be 5000 adherents of the same faith before a place of worship can be considered. In fact, the Menteri Besar of Johor on 21st December 2001 in the Dewan Undangan Negeri (State Legislature) said that permission for building of places of worship will not be given unless the adherents of faith constitute a majority of the area. Going by the strict criteria it would mean that no church would ever be approved since it is unlikely that the Catholics will ever constitute a majority in any place.

For effective practice of religion one must be able to congregate with others of the same faith. Due to the difficulties in obtaining places of worship, some religious faith have acquired houses in residential areas, shop houses, factory lots and even commercial buildings for the purpose of using them as places of worship. Admittedly and to a certain extent and praise God, the authorities have often kept an eye closed unless their presence and activities is such that it gives rise to objection and protest. Not withstanding this tacit approval, the fact remains that the local authorities has a whole gamut of laws which can be invoked to prosecute not only the religious group but even the owners of the building and even the devotees.

There are a number of ways the present problem can be resolved. A complete review and drafting of a fair and equitable guideline for Non Muslim places of worship is long overdue. The government should make it mandatory that developers set aside land for Non Muslim places of worship. The government should stop the practice of general demarcation presently practiced by developers as it does not identify which Non Muslim religious group is entitled. Land should be made available for all major religion or if that is economically not viable then at least make the land available for Non Muslim religious groups to acquire them. While it may be impractical for every housing area to have temples and churches, every constituency should have places of worship of the major religions.

Another alternative and a better alternative is to permit conversion of buildings such as shop houses or even disused halls and cinemas or even abandoned shopping complexes as places of worship. In fact in Johor there are many such building which have been left abandoned since the Asian economic crisis of 1997 and these buildings can easily be converted to churches.

Recent incidents ought to be a reminder that if this issue is not handled sensitively, fairly and at the earliest, it can easily in the long term turn out to be another issue and which can be much more divisive.