Monday, April 07, 2008


Sunday, 06 April 2008 08:39am

©New Sunday Times (Used by permission)by Roger Tan in a multi-religious country like ours, religion is one issue which always invokes and provokes strong passions and reactions if not handled carefully.

In the last general election, many non-Muslims turned away from Barisan Nasional and voted for the opposition.

In some cases, church leaders even openly encouraged their Christian congregations to vote for Pas - something hitherto unthinkable, especially when Pas has always been advocating the establishment of an Islamic state.But why had non-Muslims voted for the opposition so resoundingly this time?The reason is obvious. The non-Muslims' gravamens are essentially these:

• the authorities were trigger-happy in demolishing illegal places of worship.

• the government's inaction, especially by the non-Muslim component parties in BN, in resolving the conflicts of civil law and syariah arising out of Article 121(1A) of the Federal Constitution. The problem is compounded when non-Muslims could more or less predict the outcome of the decisions of civil courts whenever a remedy was sought there.

• religious polarisation caused by the rivalry between Umno and Pas, each wanting to outdo the other in being more Islamic.

• non-Muslims find it increasingly difficult to build their places of worship.

Of these, I would only like to deal with the last grievance.

Article 3 of the Federal Constitution declares that non-Muslims are entitled to practise their religions in peace and harmony while Islam is the religion of the federation.

This is reinforced by Article 11(1) which provides that every non-Muslim has the right to profess and practise his religion. Article 11(3) also states that every religious group has the right, inter alia, to establish and maintain institutions for religious purposes and to acquire and own property and hold and administer it in accordance with law.

Sadly, in practice, this is not the case. The time taken to obtain approvals to build non-Muslim places of worship is incredibly long. In almost every case, it takes years.

The application and approval process is most cumbersome. For a start, it is almost unheard of that state governments would alienate lands for erection of non-Muslim places of worship. Hence, the lands involved are usually private lands and so before it could be used for religious purposes, the land has to be first converted for religious use. So an application will have to be made to the state authority (which is the state executive council), and it will be processed by the land office.

However, because it involves the erection of non-Muslim places of worship, most states require the matter to be first referred to a district security committee. At the district security committee level, the district office will have to obtain comments from various government departments, including the police.

The least palatable aspect of it all is that views from the Religious Affairs Department will also be sought.

Even if the district security committee approves it, the matter would still have to be referred to the state security committee, which is chaired by either the chief minister or state secretary.

In most cases, the process of obtaining comments from the various government departments is repeated.

If the state security committee okays it, it does not mean the application has been approved. It then goes to another committee chaired by the state executive councillor in charge of land matters, a position usually held by the chief minister.If the committee approves it, the state executive council has to give its final approval.

As the process takes such a long time, it is no surprise that along the way, the file is either misplaced or goes missing. In addition, sometimes there is a delay in submitting the papers for deliberation by some over-zealous junior government officers, who are mono-religious and feel that it is against their religion to support it.

The story does not end there even when the land has been converted for religious use. The next thing is to put up the building.To do that, an application will now have to be submitted to the local authority for approval of the building plans.But because it involves a non-Muslim place of worship, the process of going through the district and state security committees has to be repeated.

Even if the final approval is obtained, it still takes a few years for the building to come up. The reason being the costs of financing the construction and completion of these places of worship have to be privately raised and borne. All in all, it is not uncommon for at least 10 years to pass by the time a project comes to fruition.It follows that because the approval process is so difficult, it is no wonder illegal places of worship mushroom here and there.What is most insulting to them is the erection of their places of worship is viewed as a security threat.

Often, it has to be referred to a security committee whose composition includes representatives from the Religious Affairs Department.On the other hand, the erection of mosques is efficiently co-ordinated by one body - the state Muslim Council (Majlis Agama Islam).Land is easily made available and whenever a new housing development is completed, a place will be reserved for the construction of either a mosque or surau. Financing its construction is not a problem either.

Some two years ago, I suggested in this column ("Religious freedom the keystone" - NST, Jan 8, 2006) that each state government should set up a non-Muslim religious department to look into the religious issues affecting non-Muslims and to co-ordinate applications and funding for non-Muslim places of worship.I repeat this call and it is hoped that all state governments, whether under BN or Pakatan Rakyat, will consider this.

I am confident that any step taken to expedite the approval process and provide funding for non-Muslim places of worship will, in turn, expedite the healing process among these Malaysians who certainly feel aggrieved by this course of events.

By allowing them to freely and easily exercise their constitutional right to establish their religious sanctuaries will go a long way towards winning their hearts and minds.

In this respect, the Selangor government's decision to waive quit rent and assessment rates for all registered places of worship and schools in the state is laudable.

They now only need to pay a token annual fee of RM1.Likewise, the statement from the Pahang state secretary that it will now adopt a more liberal approach to matters concerning religion and places of worship is most welcome.

Similarly, the prime minister has pledged to improve the situation.But the most assuring of all came from the Sultan of Selangor, who said that although he is the head of Islam in Selangor, he will not hesitate to take action against any extremists and that it is important to ensure that religious freedom is defended by all.

It is hoped that everyone, be he a leader of BN or Pakatan, a Muslim or otherwise, will now take heed of the voice of the people expressed in the last general election.It is hoped, too, that politicians will be often reminded by what the regent of Perak Raja Dr Nazrin Shah said exactly a year ago at the Young Malaysians' Roundtable Discussion on National Unity and Development in Malaysia that Malaysia belongs to all Malaysians equally, and all have an equal right and responsibility to take ownership of their country and its future.

He added that the sine qua non of building a strong nation is when its citizens feel a sense of belonging and a common destiny and in our case, when Malaysians of all races, religions and origins are bound together in a common purpose.Therefore, history has always shown that suppression of a person's inherent right to freedom of religion is a recipe for disaster.

Consonantly, our leaders have also much to learn from the fair and just Muslim ruler in Sultan Abu Bakar, who ruled the state of Johor from 1886 to 1895.Though a Muslim, he was much loved by his non-Muslim subjects. Hailed as the Father of Modern Johor, he granted many plots of land for the erection of churches and temples throughout Johor.

The best testimony of his sense of fairness and justice is reflected in the Johor constitution promulgated during his reign, wherein it still contains an article proclaiming as follows:

"All the laws and customs of the country shall be carried out and exercised with justice and fairness by all the Courts of Justice and all Officers and Servants of the State between all the people of the country and the aliens who sojourn and reside under its protection, whether for a season or for a lengthened period, that is to say, without their entertaining in the least degree more sympathy or regard to partiality towards those who profess the religion of the country, namely the Muslim religion, or making any difference between those who are the subjects of the State and those who are not.

"Let us all Malaysians join hands as one people respecting each other's right to practise his religion in peace and harmony.Let us take pride rather than cringe with shame if this country is filled not only with mosques but also churches and temples.

If it is so, it is only because Malaysia is truly Asia.

May God bless us all.

*The writer is a member of the Malaysian Bar Council.