By Eugene Yapp
The country of Malaysia, situated in Southeast Asia and home to the Straits of Malacca, has historically always been an important trade route. Today the country boasts a multi-racial and multi-religious society leading many to describe her as Asia’s melting pot. Malaysia’s diverse composition can be seen in its large majority of Muslims, with sizeable minority populations comprised of Chinese, Indian, and indigenous people. Each of these ethnic groups embraces different religions, including Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sikhism, Chinese ancestral worship (on a smaller scale), and, more recently, the Baha’i faith.
With such a diverse religious backdrop, how does Malaysia manage the social expectations and demands of each of these groups? As with the many complex questions of our day, there are no easy or straightforward answers. The past 30 years have seen the rise of religious resurgence and piety in Malaysia, particularly within Islam. With this resurgence, Malaysians have also witnessed the frequent politicisation of religion. These actions have led many religious minorities to feel marginalised—at times, even dominated. Interreligious tensions are high with the rise of religiously motivated ethnocentrism.
The key challenge lies ahead as to how the citizens of Malaysia and Christians, in particular, navigate this state of affairs to make Malaysia truly multicultural with religious freedom as the bulwark of our existence as a nation-state. By providing first-hand knowledge regarding my country’s religious climate, the aim is a better, more effective partnership between religious freedom advocates in the West, their counterparts in my country, and the Malaysian church.
Malaysia is a federation of 13 states and three federal territories. The federation was formed on September 16, 1963. Although the East Malaysia states of Sabah and Sarawak came together with Singapore (seceded in 1965) to form the federation, the Malaysian states were accorded certain special rights and privileges that are guaranteed and protected pursuant to the constitution and an inter-governmental agreement with the United Kingdom and others known as the Malaysia Agreement. Freedom of religion is the first of these special rights and privileges.
As a federation of states, Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy. This means Malaysia subscribes to a constitution that is the supreme law of the land while retaining a ceremonial head of state, who is elected by nine hereditary state sultans to a five-year term. The monarch appoints the prime minister based on the confidence of the majority of the MPs in that person. There is not discretion in the matter and this is to ensure the democratic process is upheld. Then based upon the prime minister’s counsel, the head of state then appoints the cabinet. Much power resides in the federal parliament.
There are two types of constitutions: the Federal Constitution governs the whole land of Malaysia, and the other are the respective state constitutions that protect individual state interests, such as land and local council matters.
The U.S. government estimates the total population of Malaysia at 31.8 million (July 2018 estimate). “Figures from the most recent census in 2010 indicate that 61.3% of the population practices Islam; 19.8%, Buddhism; 9.2%, Christianity; 6.3%, Hinduism; and 1.3%, Confucianism, Taoism, or other traditional Chinese philosophies and religions.” Shi’a Islam, Ahmadiyya, and Al-Arqam groups are deemed ‘deviant’ by Islamic authorities and are banned in Malaysia.
Ethnic Malays, who are defined by the Federal Constitution as “Muslims” from birth, account for 55% of the total population. Rural areas—especially on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia—are predominantly Muslim. Islam is the largest religion in all the states except Sarawak, where Christianity is the majority religion (a majority of approximately 200,000). There are also large Buddhist minorities in the states of Penang and Selangor, while the second East Malaysian state of Sabah has a large Christian minority. With such a diverse religious population and makeup, how does Malaysia manage its religious diversity and practices?
FREEDOM OF RELIGION IN MALAYSIA
The Federal Constitution of Malaysia guarantees the right to freedom of religion and belief. This right is provided under Article 11(1) which gives the constitutional protection to an individual to profess, practice, and propagate one’s religion. This means every citizen has the right to profess and practice the religion of his or her choice.
There is, however, a significant difference between the words and expressions used in the Malaysian constitution compared to those used in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The constitution of Malaysia uses the words “profess and practice,” but not “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” and “freedom to change one’s religion or belief” as upheld in the UDHR. This raises the question whether it is unconstitutional to convert a Muslim or for a Muslim to be converted out of Islam. Much controversy and tension have arisen over this very sensitive and perplexing question. I will address this tension later in the series.
For now, I should note freedom of religion must necessarily recognise the right to collective worship. This is made clear in Article 11(3): “Every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs, to establish and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes, and to acquire and own property and hold and administer it in accordance with the law.” This is an unfettered right, which should not be denied to any religious group. Further, freedom of religion means nothing if the right to expression is not guaranteed (freedom to externally manifest one’s internal beliefs). In this respect, Article 10 expressly guarantees the right of every citizen to free speech and expression. There are also other legal documents created during the formation of Malaysia that guarantee freedom of religion. These documents comprise the aforementioned Malaysia Agreement.
Religious freedom is a human right treasured by the Malaysian people since the inception of our country as a nation-state. Its inclusion in the Federal Constitution is proof of this. Yet, there are some practical obstacles to overcome in light of some of the seeming contradictions alluded to earlier.
Malaysia is a Muslim majority country. Its cultural fabric is different from that of the West. The clearest manifestation is its societal makeup which is collectivistic. There is a long term commitment to a “member group,” i.e. family, extended family, or extended relationships. Therefore, the adoption of religious freedom in this setting might look different.
In addition, the country is communal and feudal in mindset. This complexity presents challenges to its individual and national identities. Often, human rights, such as freedom of religion, are often perceived and conceived as threats to Malaysia’s communal heritage and life. Specifically, religious freedom is seen as syncretic and viewed as weakening faith in God and displacing Islam as the state religion.
What shape or form does this adoption take in order to remain true to the intrinsic components of freedom of religion, which has mainly been developed in the individualistic West? How does the Malaysian government ensure a healthy respect and encourage a flourishing of diverse religious life for its citizens?
In the next article, I will examine the apparent contradictions in Malaysian law concerning freedom of religion and answer the question, “Is life on the streets different from what has been determined in the halls of government?”
Eugene Yapp is a non-resident fellow at The St. Charles Institute. He is also the program consultant for Plan of Action Malaysia where he oversees their “Unity in Diversity” programs, including issues of religious freedom and harmony. He is also the Director of RFL (Religious Freedom & Liberty) Partnership. He was formerly the Secretary-General of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship Malaysia (the evangelical alliance of Malaysia).
Over the years, he has contributed to numerous publications including NECF Religious Liberty Report, Lausanne Global Analysis, Occasional Papers in the Study of Islam, and The Church under the Shadow of Shariah: A Christian Assessment.
He holds a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B Hons) from the University of London and a certificate in legal practice (CLP) from the University Malaya & Malaysia Legal Qualifying Board. He was an advocate and solicitor of the High Court of Malaya from 1993 to 2007.