The Future of Religious Freedom in Malaysia

2014 has been a difficult year for Malaysia. In addition to suffering the emotional and economic impact of two tragic air disasters that have tarnished its previously glowing international reputation, the nation has also recently hit global headlines for its increasingly controversial domestic politics.

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Image courtesy of Sham Hardy, ©2011, some rights reserved.

Since achieving independence in 1957, Malaysia has developed rapidly into one of Asia’s largest economies whilst promoting an image of a multicultural and tolerant society where political and religious freedom are enjoyed by every citizen. Of course there have been difficulties along the way; affirmative action programmes in favour of the ethnically-Malay Muslim majority have caused tension between the country’s three major ethnic groups: the Malays, the Chinese and Tamil Indians. In response, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s high-profile 1Malaysia programme, launched in 2010, has made various attempts to address these issues, encouraging social cohesion and tolerance between Malaysians of all ethnicities and religions.

With a Muslim population of 61.3 per cent, Malaysia’s official religion is Islam, but the law protects followers of other religions and atheists, allowing them the freedom to practice (or not) as they wish.[1] However, despite the existence of this constitutional right, conservative Islamic ideas are becoming increasingly widespread; non-Muslims are condemned for practices that are banned under Islam whilst Muslims face criticism for wishing to practice a more moderate version of their religion. When combined with the several divisive and restrictive laws that also govern religion in Malaysia, this indicates that the level of religious freedom is in fact questionable.

The most recent example of public condemnation of non-Muslim behaviour came in the form of MP Nasruddin Hassan’s denouncement of the country’s Oktoberfest celebration, declaring that it should be banned on the grounds that it “affects the sensitivities of Muslims in Malaysia,” and perpetrates “a culture of evil and sin,”[2] despite the fact that the festival took place in a designated and enclosed area. Although Mr. Hassan, a member of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), was clear that he did not wish to deny non-Muslims the right to consume alcohol, his objection clearly highlights tensions between religious groups over behaviour. For many non-Muslims, such criticism is seen as an attempt at “Islamisation,”[3] a slowly-proliferating phenomenon that they fear will begin to take over their nation. Recent attempts at enforcing Islamic ideas on non-Muslims include proposals to make Islamic education classes compulsory for university students, regardless of religious background.

As well as facing criticism for behaviour that is not permitted by Islam, non-Muslims must contend with the inequality of their practices before the law. Among the laws that limit non-Muslim worship is a ban on all forms of proselytising any religion but Islam, as well as a ban on the use of the word Allah in Christian bibles, despite the word being a general term for “God” in the Malay language. The latter has caused such heated debate that last year a major public official called for bibles containing the offending word to be burned. This statement, shockingly, has gone unpunished, having been declared as a “defence of Islam” by Law Minister Nancy Shukri.[4]

Unfortunately, these laws are not the only ones causing religious inequality in Malaysia. In fact, Malaysia’s entire legal system is divisive, with Shari’a law being applied to Muslims and secular law for non-Muslims. Furthermore, a campaign is currently being held in Kelantan (one of Malaysia’s most conservative states) to implement hudud law, a higher level of Islamic law that would see a Muslim thief facing punishment such as the loss of a hand, while a Christian would only face a short jail sentence. If successful, this campaign would have particularly serious consequences for certain Malays, as the constitution states that all ethnic Malays are Muslim by law, and if they wish to change their legal religious status they must undergo a lengthy conversion process.

Such proliferation of conservative ideas and the inability to choose one’s own legal religion also limits the freedom of Muslims to practice a more moderate version of their faith. Malay women feel pressured to wear the hijab; Friday prayers are legally mandatory for men in Kelantan; and in 2010, three Muslim women were caned for having sex outside of marriage, an act which is not considered illegal for non-Muslim citizens. Next in the firing line was a “dog-patting” event organised in a bid to reduce the stigma around the animal, which is considered unclean in Islam. The event’s organiser Syed Azmi Alhabshi, himself a Muslim, has faced severe backlash from Islamic leaders and even death threats on social media for what he sees as an innocent community event promoting compassion towards animals and positive social change. He has since made a public apology, after pressure from conservative organisations and even government authorities.

While Malaysia is modernising in terms of its growing wealth and status, it seems that the future of its constitutional right to freedom of religion is in doubt. Unlike many countries who are gradually becoming more secular, Malaysia is feeling the pressure of the rising conservative ideas gaining traction in its Islamic-leaning government, which looks set to continue to impose limits on the behaviour of both non-Muslims and Muslims. However, with such restrictive laws cemented in the legal system, it is questionable whether religious freedom ever truly existed in Malaysia, despite its utopian multicultural reputation.


[2] Ibid.



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