Putrajaya has unilaterally introduced new curbs on the import of the Alkitab, or the Malay-language Bible, under the Home Ministry’s new SOP or standard operating procedures. It also affects the import and use of other Malay-language Christian publications.
But Joseph Kurup, the de facto national unity minister who unveiled the SOP last week is quick to assure church leaders that Barisan Nasional is “sworn” to protect their freedom of religion as guaranteed by the federal constitution.
This is far from the truth. The new SOP specifically targets Christians and concerns mainly the import and use of the Alkitab. Such imports are now subject to a law that was originally intended only for Muslims – the Printing of Qur’anic Texts Act 1986. Importers must now apply to the Qura’nic Text Division of the Home Ministry which has the final say whether such imports are allowed.
The sole criterion is that such publications cannot contain the word ‘Allah’. This is clearly in contravention of constitutional provisions for freedom of religion.
Article 11 (3a) of the federal constitution states, among other things, “Every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs.” The right for Malay-speaking bumiputra Christians to have their own Scriptures in the Malay language is an inalienable universal human right and Putrajaya should not interfere in ecclesiastical matters of other faiths. Two-thirds of the church in Malaysia comprise Malay-speaking bumiputras in East Malaysia.
What is alarming is that the new SOP comes at a time when the very constitutionality of the prohibition of the use of the word ‘Allah’ to refer God by Bumiputra Christians is still being litigated in the courts known as the Jill Ireland Sarawak and Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB) Sabah cases. To introduce the new SOP at this stage smacks of not only religious hegemony and arrogance but it also borders on contempt.
Although the new SOP also affect churches and bumiputra Christians in peninsular Malaysia most, neither Kurup nor the Home Ministry has consulted nor briefed them.
A Christian leader in Petaling Jaya who declined to be named pointed out, “I am of the view this is another shoddy attempt to please the religious bureaucrats on their terms so that the BN government is seen to have done something. In the end the church suffers and the democratic space and fundamental liberties is reduced to our detriment as the various G25 or G47 or G40 groups have said. This has got to stop here.”
But Kurup was reported as having told church leaders in Kuching: “We are not in the business of prosecuting our own people.” He went on to say, “The Barisan Nasional government is a responsible government. We are sworn to protect the federal constitution and the freedom of Malaysians to practise their respective religious faith.”
In Kota Kinabalu he was reported to have said: “I wish to reassure all those present that the BN government is responsible in fully defending the constitution and freedom of religion, something that the prime minister always reminds his cabinet ministers whenever matters such as this arise in cabinet meetings.”
It was Kurup who first disclosed that Putrajaya would come out with an SOP following the confiscation last November of 574 Bahasa Christian books and 419 CDs from Medan at the Low-Cost Carrier terminal in Sepang that were en route to Kota Kinabalu. Kurup intervened and the publications were released. He then said church leaders would be consulted in drafting the new SOP.
Stunned into silence
This again is far from the truth. There were no such consultations. Church leaders were stunned into silence when Kurup met them on April 16 in Kuching and one week later in Kota Kinabalu to announce the new SOP.
The briefing was by Hashimah Nik Jaafar, head of the Home Ministry’s Qur’anic text division. She only presented the new SOP on PowerPoint slides but those present insisted on being given a copy. Although almost similar in content, copies of the SOP given at the two briefings were not the same. For instance, one version states that the point is entry for the publications is at KLIA2 while the other did not specify any particular airport.
Those present said neither Hashimah nor Kurup would answer any query other than what was presented on the PowerPoint slides. There are no provisions for such publications coming in through ports or land borders in East Malaysia.
Essentially the nine-point new SOP requires importers of Bahasa Christian publications to apply for an import permit from the Qura’nic texts division of the Home Ministry. This is currently not required. Shipment on transit to Sabah and Sarawak is permitted only with a valid “immediate boarding” ticket.
However, any publication with the word ‘Allah’ is permitted to enter peninsular Malaysia on the basis “only for personal use.” He did not say how the Home Ministry is going to monitor “personal use”.
The bone of contention of the new SOP is that the whole procedures regarding import and use of Bahasa Christian publications is solely and arbitrarily under the jurisdiction of the Qur’anic texts division. The law relied on is the Printing of Qur’anic Texts Act 1986. However, there is no provision in this act to implement the new SOP. Clearly the SOP is defective and ultra vires the constitution.
The core issue of this controversy is the use of the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God which Putrajaya and the apex court (in the Catholic Herald case) have declared to be the exclusive right of Muslims simply on the basis that Islam is the religion of the federation. This is ludicrous, of course. This makes Malaysia to be about the only country having claim to such exclusivity for an Arabic loan word.
According to a recent book published by the Kuala Lumpur-based International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) titled Shariah and Legal Pluralism in Malaysia by Constance Chevallier-Govers, a law professor from France, “The Allah’ ban is rather ‘unusual in the Muslim world.”
She added, “There are even two verses in the Qur’an which show without ambiguity that the word ‘Allah’ can be used by ‘People of the Book’ (Jews and Christians).”
Claimed exclusivity to slew of loan words
Under the various Islamic state enactments there is a slew of some 35 Arabic loan words which the Putrajaya also claim exclusivity to Islam such as doa (pray) which bumiputra Christians must substitute as memohon while nabi (prophet) should be propet, wahyu (revelation) as revelasi, bersyukur (giving thanks) as berterima kasih and Alkitab (Bible) as Baibel.
Kurup, who himself is a bumiputra Christian from Sabah, should understand the ramifications of the new SOP and its absurdity better. In any case, the SOP is the job of the Home Ministry and not under his. He should stop acting like a mere messenger for the cabinet or Home Ministry at the risk of becoming a false prophet.
The new SOP, or standard operating procedures, in its present form is both wicked and unreasonable. It should be withdrawn immediately to make way for consultations with all stakeholders. This should include not just church leaders but leaders of other faiths even with the respective Islamic authorities to preserve the sanctity of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion while recognising Islam is the religion of the federation.
BOB TEOH was formerly secretary-general of the Confederation of Asean Journalists.