Growing up Malaysian made me aware of diversity from a very young age. The experience of a pluralistic society where different people lived in peace and harmony was my norm. As I got older, I started to see the flaws in the political system. One of the many issues that exist in Malaysia, is the restriction on religious freedom. Due to it’s politically-sensitive nature, there isn’t a lot of discourse on the matter. However, I believe that mature dialogues are necessary to spark conversations in civil society. This is especially crucial since the rakyat (Malaysian people) have such conflicting views and opinions on religious freedom.
Malaysia is a South-East Asian state filled with rich diversity, various religions, and unique cultures. Ethnic groups span from a large majority of Malays, to the smaller minorities of Chinese, Indians, and many other prominent groups of indigenous people. With a 61.3%¹ majority, Islam prevails as the largest religion among Malaysian citizens.
Within a multi-ethnic and multi-religious fabric of society, the imposition of Syariah laws² on Muslims in Malaysia has been rife with contentious issues³ that often affect non-Muslims in its wake.
Article 3 of the constitution states that Islam is the official religion of the federation. Article 160 defines a “Malay” as a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, and conforms to Malay custom. This ties all ethnic Malays to the Islamic religion, right from birth.
Although Freedom of Religion is written in the constitution, the parliamentary bureaucracy may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam. This allows strong influence by the government in shaping and enforcing Islamic policies and regulations. For example, federal legislation prohibits and criminalizes non-Muslims for preaching or converting Muslims into their religion, even though the reverse is allowed. Muslims that seek to renounce Islam face legal obstacles, societal push-back, and harsh penalties. From 2000–2010, only a total of 135 out of 686 applications by Muslims seeking to change their religious status were granted⁴. Many don’t come forward due to fear of repercussions and persecutions.
Malaysia’s judiciary system functions in a dual court structure. The civil court deals with federal and secular matters, while the Syariah court pertains to Islamic law. The Syariah Judiciary Department is the federal agency charged with coordinating the Syariah courts. The largest Islamic body in government is the federal Department of Development of Islam or Jabatan Kemajuaan Islam Malaysia (JAKIM). Each state enforces Syariah law through State Islamic Religious Councils, or Majlis Agama Islam Negeri. Jurisconsults, called Muftis, issue fatwas that offer Islamic guidance for Muslim citizens.
A constitutional amendment provides that civil courts have no jurisdiction with respect to any matter within the jurisdiction of Syariah courts. This creates fundamental issues when it comes to freedom of religion because the powers to determine a “Muslim” person’s identity; regardless of whether they’ve chosen to adopt another faith, lie in the hands of the Syariah courts.
Muslims seeking to convert out of Islam must obtain approval from the Syariah court; a process that involves forced detention at Pusat Pemulihan Akidah (Faith Rehabilitation Centers⁵) for up to three years. Detainees receive counseling aimed to correct “deviant teachings” and promote “repentance”. Penalties differ by states, but in Perak, Melaka, Sabah, and Pahang, apostasy is a criminal offense punishable by fine and imprisonment⁶. Though it cannot yet be implemented, in Kelantan and Terengganu, refusal to repent may lead to a death sentence. Both those states made international headlines in recent years; the former for a 41 year old Muslim man taking an 11-year-old child bride as his third wife⁷, and the latter for publicly caning two women in front of a hundred people for violating the Syariah law of Musahaqah⁸ (lesbianism).
Marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims are illegal. Non-Muslims have the option to renounce their religion by adopting the Islamic faith, but Muslims aren’t allowed to leave theirs; creating giant hurdles for people who wish to establish peaceful lives with their loved ones.
In 1997, a 25 year old woman named Nor’aishah Bokhari⁹ made a decision to convert to Christianity in order to marry a man named Joseph Arnold Lee. She presented a statutory declaration renouncing Islam before a Commissioner for Oaths, claiming that her parents collaborated with the police to kidnap and confine her to their house in order to prevent her from marrying Joseph. The couple eventually managed to escape, but went into hiding to avoid scrutiny and prosecution. Nor’aishah’s letter to the High Court stated:
“Why can’t my family and relatives respect my wish? Why can’t they leave me and my boyfriend Joseph alone? I love my family very much but how can I continue loving them after what they have done to me and my boyfriend . . . they are hunting us like deer.”
A 2007 landmark case pertains to a Christian convert named Lina Joy. Lina Joy (prior name Azlina Jailani) was born to Malay parents; thus making her Muslim by birth. In her 20’s, she was baptized as a Christian. She had plans to marry her boyfriend and start her own family, but it was impossible since her MyKad (an ID that all citizens receive) still stated that she was a Muslim. The National Registration Department officials refused to modify her religious status to reflect her new faith; prompting her to the civil court to affirm her religious status. After more than half a decade of legal battles, the case made its way to the highest Supreme Court of Malaysia. The judges delivered a 2–1 majority verdict ruling that they had no jurisdiction over apostasy cases.
The court argued that all ethnic Malays are constitutionally defined by the Muslim religion, making Lina Joy’s Christian conversion illegal. The court of appeals wrote that allowing her conversion could “subsequently be inviting the censure of the Muslim community¹⁰.”
The federal Court Chief Justice at the time, Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim claimed that Lina Joy “can’t at whim and fancy convert from one religion to another. She must follow rules¹¹.” By rules, he’s implying Islamic rules; ones that Lina Joy abandoned when she decided to accept Christ as her lord and savior.
Civil society reacted in two ways: NGOs from Sisters in Islam, Malaysian Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism; and the Malaysian Women Lawyers Association supported Lina Joy’s fight for religious freedom, while Islamic conservatives and many extremists rallied for what they deemed to be a “just” victory for Islam.
Lina Joy was undoubtedly a Christian. She attended Sunday Mass, Catholic study, and even produced a certificate of baptism to back her religious legitimacy. Ultimately, none of it mattered in the eyes of the Syariah court. With her entire faith and dignity being forsaken, she fled the country to escape death threats amidst public backlash.
The dissenting judge, lamented:
“In my view this is tantamount to unequal treatment under the law. In other words it is discriminatory and unconstitutional and should therefore be struck down. For this reason alone, the relief sought for by the appellant should be granted, namely for a declaration that she is entitled to have an identity card in which the word ‘Islam’ does not appear.¹²”
Another tragic instance of religious intervention involves a woman named Revathi Masoosai¹³. Revathi was born into the Islamic faith, to Indian-Muslim convert parents. As an adult, she had fallen in love and married a man named Suresh Veerappan via Hindu ceremonial rites. They started a family together, and were excited to welcome a beautiful baby girl named Divi Dashini into the world. Things took a dark turn when Revathi had trouble registering her newborn as a Hindu; she went to the Syariah court in Melaka to change her religious status, but was charged with apostasy and taken into custody to be detained at Ulu Yam Faith Rehabilitation Center for 178 days.
The Syariah High Court judge at the time, Dato’ Mohd Radzi Abd Latif, said “Islam is not only between man and Allah but is also the responsibility between the community and country, and to come out of it is ‘treason’¹⁴”.
Muslims have been able to renounce Islam in Malaysia, but it is extremely rare¹⁵ and is reviewed on a case-by-case basis¹⁶ by the Syariah courts.
The encroachment and over-regulation by the Malaysian government impacts and harms many citizens. Something as fundamental as freedom of religion (a basic human right recognized by most global nations) is restricted from a majority of Malaysians under the guise of ‘Asian Values’. It’s a heated debate among the global audience when Asian states throw the ‘Asian Values’ card up to defend their arguably unconventional systems of political ethics. Stagnant progressive reforms and human rights violations¹⁷ hide behind the walls of upholding these “values” in order to protect the “collective good” and “political stability”.
It’s hard to imagine the absence of identity politics in Malaysian society. It has been deeply rooted under years of the Barisan Nasional coalition (made up of an UMNO majority) ruling regime¹⁸. Barisan Nasional (BN) used their financial means to monopolize the “3M’s” (money, media, and government owned machinery.¹⁹) This created a legacy of corruption that fostered cronyism, gerrymandering, malapportionment, political-patronage²⁰, and clientelism²¹. The BN government also imposed methods of repression and control through the ISA (now replaced with SOSMA), Sedition Act, Police Act, Peaceful Assembly Act, PPPA, OSA, and Societies Act to intimidate opposition parties and silence dissidents (in order to protect the “social stability”, “security”, and “public order” of the country). That should give you an insight into the quality of Malaysia’s historical democracy.
Voters tend to lean with their own ethno-religious and regional identities, leading to ethno-nationalistic policies over inclusive ones. Many Malays feel threatened by the possibility of losing their privileged ethnic status and Islamic rights²². They’re also more likely to hold skeptical views on Western culture and values. It certainly doesn’t help whenever former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad issue statements that demonize the West:
“In recent times, Western societies have witnessed an almost complete separation of religion from secular life and the gradual replacement of religion with hedonistic values²³.”
Islamic leaders and distinguished government officials tend to defend strict rulings on apostasy; viewing the act as a grave sin. There seems to be a sense of obligation to safeguard the Islamic institution and protect the country from “moral chaos”. Perak’s Mufti, asserted that listing apostasy under individual rights and freedom of religion will undermine the collective effort to prevent it, stating:
“Keep in mind that this ‘apostasy virus’ is too dangerous to be dismissed merely as a personal issue and a conflict of belief alone where negligence and selfish attitude lead to the future weakness and decline of Islam.²⁴”
Penang’s Mufti wrote an op-ed piece on the definition of “freedom” when it comes to apostasy. In a rough translation, he states:
“A person doesn’t have a right to break traffic laws willy-nilly, to steal another person’s property, nor rape another person’s child or wife. Human beings must always adhere to laws, religious rulings, and moral values. If ignored, life will turn into chaos. The freedom that we seek for is human freedom, not animal freedom²⁵.”
Influential Chinese Muslim Firdaus Wong, famously known as “Bro Firdaus” claims that apostates haven’t received proper Islamic care/upbringing/education. He brags about “spies” being sent to observe an Atheist support-group meeting; mentioning that many of the attendees suffered from his described symptoms²⁶.
In 2017, deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department at the time, Dato’ Dr. Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki made statements that Atheism is against the federal constitution, and could pose a national threat disturbing the public order, saying:
“Freedom of religion is not freedom from religion²⁷.”
In contrast, there are progressive and tolerant opinions on matters of faith-relations in the country. For example, Marina Mahathir, daughter of the former Prime Minister, shared her views on Islam; claiming that Muslims in Malaysia are found to be more restricted than non-Muslims, stating:
“I think religion is personal because each one of us is answerable to God, nobody can intercede for us, except the prophet. How can an authority, like a bureaucracy, tell us what to do?²⁸.”
Keep in mind that ‘Civil liberties’ is Malaysia’s lowest category on the Democracy Index²⁹. This is a clear indicator that our democratic system is in dire need of improvements. It’s impossible to rally both the far-right and far-left, so perhaps we can make room for more cooperative solutions. Straying away from identity politics is going to be challenging because unfortunately, pandering to the “Malay-Muslim” vision and agenda has always been effective. Even Khairy Jamaluddin admitted to being in the “small minority” when it comes to shifting the political ideology of his party³⁰.
Nevertheless, it’s crucial to be active in political advocacy if we wish to live in a more democratic country. Repeat these phrases like a mantra as we prepare for future General Elections: Civil liberties are important. Transparency in governmental affairs are vital. Kleptocracy does not help the marhaen (ordinary citizens). We deserve free and fair elections.
As we anticipate future progressive reforms, I hope we remember those who have been wronged by the hands of the government throughout our history. Imagine being treated so unfairly and subjected to discrimination for your faith and personal beliefs. As Rakyat, we have the responsibility to ask ourselves: How much longer will religious freedom be restricted? How can we protect the rights of marginalized and minority groups in Malaysia? Will all citizens be able to practice their faith and live life peacefully one day?
For more information on the history and politics of Malaysia, I recommend the following readings:
 Central Intelligence Agency (2020). The World Factbook: Malaysia
 The Borneo Post (2010). Syariah laws in Malaysia
 Human Rights Watch (2019). Malaysia — World Report 2019
 Lim, Ida (2014). In Malaysia, path to leave Islam is far from easy
 Sabrina Noor (2018). THERE IS AN ISLAMIC REHAB CENTRE IN ULU YAM?! HERE’S WHAT HAPPENS INSIDE
 Office of International Religious Freedom (2018). Report on International Religious Freedom: Malaysia
 Hannah Beech (2018). 11 and Married: Malaysia Spars Over an Age-Old Practice
 Kate Lamb (2018). Women caned in Malaysia for attempting to have lesbian sex
 Anil Netto (1998). Conversion from Islam Upsets Muslims
 Allen D. Hertzke (2012). The Future of Religious Freedom: Global Challenges
 Ian Smith (2007). Misjudgment In Malaysia: High Court Fails To Protect Woman’s Religious Liberty
 Raficq S. Abdulla, Mohamed Keshavjee (2018). Understanding Sharia: Islamic Law in a Globalised World
 Dharmender Singh (2007). Revathi case can’t be heard because she’s freed
 Lim Kit Siang (2007). Revathi released to custody of her parents, her 18-month daughter still no birth certificate
 The New York Times (2008). Malaysian court allows Muslim convert to go back to Buddhism
 Ida Lim (2016). Sarawakian Christian Roneey Rebit finally gets new IC without ‘Islam’
 United States Department of State (2019). Malaysian 2019 Human Rights Report
 Tashny Sukumaran (2019). Malaysia by-election: a win for Barisan Nasional — and racial politics
 Meredith Weiss (2000). The 1999 Malaysian General Elections: Issues, Insults, and Irregularities
 Edmund Terence Gomez, Thirshalar Padmanabhan, Norfaryanti Kamaruddin, Sunil Bhalla, Fikri Fisal (2018). Minister of Finance Incorporated Ownership and Control of Corporate Malaysia
 Meredith Weiss (2016). Payoffs, Parties, or Policies: “Money Politics” and Electoral Authoritarian Resilience
 Harian Metro (2018). Tuntutan bela agama Islam dan hak Melayu (Advocates claim Islamic and Malay rights)
 Mathew Doidge (2011). The European Union and Interregionalism: Patterns of Engagement
 Muhammad Zulsyamini Sufian Suri (2020). Bertindak segera tangani ‘virus’ murtad (Immediate action to deal with Apostasy ‘virus’)
 Wan Salim Mohd Noor (2020). G25 mungkin ikhlas isu murtad tapi keliru (G25 might be honest about apostasy issues but confused)
 Malaysian Progressives (2015). Marina Mahathir: Hudud is not God’s law
 The Economist Intelligence Unit (2019). EIU Democracy Index
 Meredith Weiss (2019). An interview with Khairy Jamaluddin