A few weeks ago, I mentioned that a Malaysian High Court ruled that only Muslims could use the word “Allah” to describe God. Now, it seems, the government of Malaysia is engaging in damage control to mitigate the fallout of the decision. According to BBC, Prime Minister Najib has stated that christians in states of Sabah and Sarawak could continue to use the word “Allah”, particularly in bibles in the Malay language (coincidentally, parties from Sabah and Sarawak form a key part of the Barisan Nasional coalition). In essence, it appears Najib is attempting to add footnotes to the court’s decision after it has already been published. Given that courts in Malaysia are not entirely free from government influence, it will be interesting to see if his comments have any effect on future rulings on the issue.
Category Archives: Malaysia
Several years ago, I posted news about a case in which the Catholic weekly magazine The Herald attempted to use the word “Allah” to describe God. The government attempted to suspend The Herald and the magazine filed a petition for constitutional review. Initially, the High Court ruled in the magazine’s favor and struck the government’s action down. However, this week, the Court of Appeal overturned that ruling, deciding that the government acted within its discretion.
I had suspected that the original 2009 decision might signal a new willingness of the judiciary to challenge the government. Despite UMNO’s very narrow margin of victory in the general elections earlier this year, this does not seem to be happening. There is still one more level of appeal – the Federal Court – so this case might not be over. However, the Federal Court has tended to be sympathetic to the government, so it seems unlikely that it will overturn this decision.
On May 5, 2013, Malaysia’s ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, won a resounding victory in Malaysia’s 13th general election. Few were surprised that it captured a majority of Parliament (133 seats vs. 89 for the opposition Pakatan Rakyat). What was surprising was how disproportionate the BN’s seat share was compared to its popular vote share (60% vs. 47.38%). The opposition alleges not just that gerrymandering has created safe districts for the BN, but also that the BN engaged in vote-rigging and foul play.
Now, the PR has filed a lawsuit against the Elections Commission before the Malaysian High Court. Malaysian judges are not known for their willingness to confront the political elite. Malaysian legal scholar Ratna Rueban Balasubramaniam argues judges ought to view the elections case as an opportunity to enforce the rule of law, not as a improper infringement in political activity.
While the judiciary’s past actions do not hint at judicial activism, this will certainly be the closely watched case in Malaysia for years – at least since the Anwar sodomy trial(s).
I haven’t written recently about the trial of Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia, partly because I’ve been busy but also because it seemed nothing surprising was happening in the trial. Even top Malaysia experts figured a guilty verdict was inevitable. However, earlier today Judge Zabidin Mohamad Diah ruled that the prosecution had not satisfied its burden of proof and there was still some question about the DNA evidence.
It’s not yet clear what this means for the rule of law in Malaysia. According to BBC, Information Minister Rais Yatim proclaimed that “Malaysia has an independent judiciary” and that Prime Minister Najib’s reforms extended to the courts. However, political analysts suspect that the acquittal might have been orchestrated to diffuse opposition to Najib, especially after the Bersih 2.0 protests last July 9 – rights ends, wrong means. While we probably won’t ever know for sure (unless Judge Diah keeps a journal), we might get more clues if the government appeals.
Greg Lopez at the New Mandala blog points to a startling poll showing that over 70% (71.6% to be precise) of Malaysians would want to replace the Federal Constitution with the Quran. Lopez puts this in the context of an increasingly Islamicized Malaysia, although his conclusions are admittedly alarmist. It actually isn’t fairly unusually for Muslims to hold Islamic law in higher regard than their country’s constitution. Unlike secular law, Islamic law is religious law and inherently viewed as morally superior. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean the average Muslim approves each tenet of Islamic law, or even understand Shariah. In fact, if we look at the rest of the poll, we find evidence for this proposition. Overwhelming majorities of Malaysians support Islamic law, but very few have actually read the Quran, and even fewer claim to understand its verses. In short, we shouldn’t read too much into the 70% statistic as it might simply indicate that respondents want a more “moral” law, not the specific provisions of Shariah.