By Bob Teoh
COMMENT Time flies and we are already at the doorstep of 2013. But time has stood still for three long years since Dec 31, 2009 at the gates of justice. It was on that New Year’s Eve that the judiciary gave a flicker of hope for fundamental liberties when a landmark judgment ruled in favour of the Herald, the Catholic weekly.
But the attorney-general fought back and appealed against the decision. The Court of Appeal has not set a hearing date nor is it likely to do so with any urgency. Justice obtained in one of His Majesty’s courts is denied by another one higher up through undue judicial delays.
My New Year wish is that the attorney-general will do the sensible thing by withdrawing the appeal and let the High Court judgment stand. In doing so, one of the most fundamental civil liberties guaranteed by our Federal Constitution will be restored. So too will our confidence in constitutionalism.
Three years ago, the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled in favour of the titular Roman Catholic archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, who is the publisher of Herald, that even though Islam is the religion of the federation, this does not empower the government to prohibit the use of the word ‘Allah’ in the Malay edition of the Herald. It also found that the word ‘Allah’ was not exclusive to Muslims.
The Catholics won but the victory clearly belonged to all Malaysians because the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion – the right to profess, practise, and propagate one’s faith – was bravely upheld by the judiciary. This is not about religion but about fundamental liberty.
The Herald case goes back a long way to the days of the now defunct Internal Security Act 1960 and the old Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984. Under the Najib administration, the ruling coalition tried making good its promise of opening up public space by reforming some of the draconian laws.
The ISA was repealed and replaced by the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 last April while the PPPA was also amended earlier this year where renewal of annual publishing licences are done away with, among other things.
The restriction on ‘Allah’
But ‘Allah’ remains more than just a word. In 1980, the Umno-led Terengganu government became the first Malay state to enact laws to control or restrict the propagation of other religions among Muslims. It decreed a list of 25 Arabic words and 10 phrases that are deemed exclusive only to Islam. One of these words is ‘Allah’. This was done under the Hussein Onn administration.
Other states, including non-Malay majority states, followed suit and issued their own fatwas on usage of Arabic words and legislated them as state enactments. But these are essentially fatwas or Islamic edicts and are seemingly unenforceable on non-Muslims under the Federal Constitution.
The following year, the Alkitab or the Malay-language Bible which uses the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God was banned under the Internal Security Act 1960 on the basis that it is a threat to national security. Two thirds of the two million Christians in the country are Malay speaking bumiputeras who use the Alkitab as their daily Bible.
This ban came five months after Dr Mahathir Mohamad became the country’s fourth prime minister on July 16, 1981, after Hussein Onn stepped down for health reasons. He relented upon appeals from church leaders but the Alkitab remains under a restricted ban to this day.
His successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, continued the Alkitab ban. In addition, he banned the ‘Bup Kudus’, the Iban Bible while in his capacity as acting prime minister and home minister in early 2003 as it contained the words ‘Allah Taala’ (God Most High). The ban was withdrawn two months later following protests by Iban Christians.
Under the Najib administration, an attempt was made to resolve the Alkitab and ‘Allah’ word problems under a ‘10-point solution’. But this is merely a superficial attempt as the Alkitab remains under a restrictive ban. The usage of the ‘Allah’ word by non-Muslims is still prohibited even though the High Court has ruled that this is untenable. This is because the attorney-general has challenged its judgment.
This matter affects everyone not just Christians. It strikes at the root of our constitution that allows us to believe what we believe.
The gangrene has been festering like a thorn in the flesh for far too long; 32 years under four prime ministers. The laws under which the disputes first arose are now defunct or amended. There is no further need for such laws that have outlived their usefulness.
The attorney-general would do all of us justice by withdrawing his appeal against the High Court judgment favouring the titular Roman Catholic archbishop of Kuala Lumpur and the Herald. Leave ‘Allah’ alone, please.
And Happy New Year to all.
BOB TEOH currently lives in Indonesia and is author of ‘Allah, More than Just a Word’ (2010).