Article 3 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia says Islam is the religion of the Federation, but other religions can be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation. What does that mean exactly? It means before the Great Britain granted Independence to then-British Malaya in 1957, everyone must agreed to the freedom of professing religion.
It also means Muslims cannot stop non-Muslims from practising their religion, the same way non-Muslims cannot question Islam as the religion of the Federation. After all, Malaya was already a multi-racial and multi-religious colony of the British Empire way before the independence. In fact, the initial suggestion to form Malaysia involved 5 colonies namely the Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei.
While Malaya got its Independence on August 31, 1957, Malaysia was not formed till September 16, 1963. But Brunei never got to join Malaysia (the oil-rich nation gained its independence from the United Kingdom on January 1, 1984) while Singapore was briefly with Malaysia, before separated to become an independent and sovereign state on August 9, 1965.
Brunei and Singapore made the right decision. The small nation of Brunei remains a wealthy country because it gets to keep all its oil and gas. Little “red dot” Singapore is today the second richest country in the world, behind Luxembourg. Sabah, on the other hand, is the poorest in Malaysia whilst Sarawak has the largest number of poor people in the country.
Sabah and Sarawak did not become poor overnight for no apparent reason. The Borneo states and Malaya were supposed to be partners of equal status as part of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 – known as MA63. Instead, the Borneo ceased to be a colony of Britain, only to become new colony of Malaya. Crucially, their precious petroleum resources were being robbed left, right and centre.
Abdul Razak Hussein, the country’s second prime minister whose disgraced son Najib Razak, the crook who stole billions in the 1MDB scandal, instructed Tengku Razaleigh to come out with a new law to seize the rights of the oil and gas. Until Razaleigh’s proposed Petroleum Development Act 1974, Sabah and Sarawak owned 100% of oil and gas found in their states.
The law was bulldozed in Parliament, leading to the establishment of Petronas on August 17, 1974 and Razaleigh became its chairman. Initially, Sabah refused to surrender the rights of its petroleum resources. Suspiciously, one week after the 1976 air crash which killed Sabah Chief Minister Fuad Stephens and other five state ministers, Sabah signed the oil agreement.
In return for surrendering ownership rights of their respective petroleum to Petronas, Sabah and Sarawak were given only 5% oil royalty. The Petroleum Development Act 1974 was clearly a breach of MA63 agreement, therefore, unconstitutional, null and void because it was approved without consultation at the state government’s level, as well as mandatory approvals by the State Legislature.
But petroleum was not the only resources Malaya has stolen. From his book called “The Malay Dilemma” in 1970 to the latest “Malay Proclamation” in 2023, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s never-ending racist politics continue to destroy the inter-religious harmony in the country. The latest religious extremism saw Sarawakian Christian being challenged.
On May 11, 2008, Home Ministry under Syed Hamid Albar of ruling Barisan Nasional government seized Christian religious CDs and books from Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, a Sarawakian of the Melanau tribe. The government, led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), said it was an offence for Christians to use the term “Allah”.
Some Muslims, especially in Peninsula Malaysia, believe the word “Allah” to be exclusive to Islam. However, the Arabic word had long been adopted in Bahasa Malaysia and even Bahasa Indonesia to refer to God, and is also part of the terms in the indigenous languages of the natives in Sabah and Sarawak that refer to God. And such usage can be traced back hundreds of years ago.
After a seven-year legal battle, Ireland, who was a member of the Borneo Evangelical Church of Sabah and Sarawak, was given back the CDs in 2015. But she maintained that the court had failed to address her constitutional right as a Christian to use the word. Her lawyer argued that at least 60% of Malaysia’s Christians speak the national language “Bahasa Malaysia”, which uses “Allah” for “God”.
In reality, long before Malaysia even came into existence, Arabic-speaking Christians call God “Allah” for hundreds of years. But radical and extremist Muslims in Malaysia refuse to accept that Allah is the standard Arabic word for God and is used by Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews as well as by Muslims. Heck, the term existed in the Arabic world long before Islam arrived.
The fact that Christians in the Arab world can use Allah to refer to God, but not in Malaysia speaks volumes about the lack of faith in Islam of certain Muslims in the country. Ireland’s attorney also argued that Christians were never consulted when the Mahathir government banned Christians from using the word in 1986, and that the blanket ban was both unconstitutional and discriminatory.
Ms Ireland, a 34 year old clerk who had brought the CDs from Indonesia in 2008, finally won her case in a landmark decision in 2021. After years of delays, the Court of Appeals judge Nor Bee ruled in Ireland’s favour that the 1986 directive by the Home Ministry to prohibit Christians from using four “prohibited” words, including “Allah”, was NOT a blanket ban.
Crucially, the judge also ruled that the use of the words (Allah, Baitullah, Kaabah and Solat) by Christians would not disrupt public order. Hence, they can be used by Christians as they have been in East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) and some parts of West Malaysia for more than 400 years. Judge Bee said the Home Minister has no right to limit anyone’s right to profess and practise their religion.
In truth, the Federal Constitution does not say “Allah” is exclusive to Islam. Neither does the Quran / Koran say “Allah” is a copyright word only for Islam. It was the politicians who use the race and religion cards to twist and spin the issue to confuse Malay-Muslims in the country to fish for votes. Playing politics again, the backdoor Perikatan Nasional appealed against Judge Bee’s decision.
The new government of Anwar Ibrahim, however, has decided to withdraw the appeal at the Court of Appeal on April 18, 2023. As expected, some extremist groups, including disgraced former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who has been charged with corruption in the RM600 billion Covid scandal, quickly capitalized on the issue by condemning Anwar government.
It’s not surprising that opposition Perikatan Nasional has started spewing anti-Christianity. After all, Bersatu president Mahiaddin Yassin and PAS president Hadi Awang have been promoting racist hatred, xenophobia, and all forms of bigotry. Muhyiddin said Christians were working with Jews to Christianise Malaysia, while Hadi actively radicalise people with violent Islamic extremism.
Mahiaddin (Muhyiddin) and his minions should be careful what they wish for. Christianity makes up the largest religion in Sarawak. It is the state with the highest percentage of Christians in Malaysia and the only state with a Christian majority. To push for an appeal to reverse the judgment in favour of Sarawak Christians to use Allah is an attack against all the Christians in the Borneo state.
Exactly what can you do if Christians in Sarawak continue to use “Allah” in defiance of orders not to use the word? Short of throwing millions of Christians in prison, there’s absolutely nothing you can do. Do you know that Abdul Taib Mahmud, the most corrupt former Sarawak Chief Minister (1981-2014) who is now the Governor, is of the same ethnic Melanau as Jill Ireland?
Even PM Anwar Ibrahim decides to play safe, defending the people of Sarawak’s rights to use Allah. GPS (Gabungan Parti Sarawak) has 23 MPs, critical for any Malaya political parties wishing to walk the corridors of power. Muhyiddin’s attack on Christianity in Sarawak will only strengthen Sarawak Premier Abang Johari Openg’s support for Anwar-led unity government.
When push comes to shove, it will be easier for Sarawak to secede from the Federation of Malaysian than the Kingdom of Johor. What the Borneo state needs is a referendum from the Sarawakian Christians to exit Malaysia, and bring the issue to a London Court with an argument that the Malaysia Agreement 1963 has been violated and Christianity is under attacked.