The Ten Points: The Blessed Aftermath

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American poet Robert Frost wrote a famous poem of chancing upon two divergent paths in his walk in the woods. He wrote that he took the path less travelled and it has made all the difference. I have lost count of the number of people I’ve met who defined their life’s achievement by Frost’s “road less travelled.” I imagine that if I were ever to discover that road, it would be choked by a massive human traffic jam. Recently, Nelson Mandela died. Throughout the world, people like Najib and Dr Mahathir not only shared about the time they met him but tried to hint that they too are like him: little Mandelas. I think God broke the mould when he made Mandela.

The truth of the matter is that non-conformity is not as commonplace as we think. That is why it’s called non-conformity. It’s rarity lies in the price that has to be paid for breaking ranks with the majority.

At the height of the Al-Kitab issue in March 2011, the Bible Society of Malaysia refused to allow its Malay Bible to be turned into a political issue. When the Ten Points Solution was offered, BSM ended its stand-off with the Government, collected its detained bibles and forgave the Government over the incident.

Many in the Christian community were extremely unhappy that BSM by its actions took the wind out of the sails of a scandal that could have a damaging effect on the performance of the Government in a coming state election. A leading evangelical organisation decided to put BSM out of the Malay bible business by making plans to order  Malay bibles directly from BSM’s supplier to compete with BSM. A leaked e-mail showed that they had a problem with the expense of such a project. Their solution: to ask BSM to give them the money so that they can put us out of business. In any event, we had no money to commit this kind of suicide.

The Ten Points Solution left us with the happy situation of the Government undertaking not to interfere with our future imports of Malay bibles. However, we had no money to buy more Malay bibles. The batch of 5,000 bibles cost us RM70,000 and we had waived compensation from the Government as a demonstration of the sincerity of our forgiving them. That was a pretty big hole in our bank account.

What were we to do? There had been no supply of Malay bibles in the country since 2008. The shipment that came in 2009 was to meet that need. It was detained for 2 years and in 2011, it was spoiled and not fit for sale. With serial numbers, these bibles were potential snares for the buyers. It looked like the famine would go on. Had the opponents of the Al-Kitab finally won their victory?

It is when we are totally helpless that God acts. Within days, BSM received an offer to fund the purchase of Malay bibles provided that they be distributed free of charge. BM-speaking Christians are among the poorest in the Christian community. What an apt reward for the 1.2 million BM-speaking Malaysian Christians who had faithfully prayed for years that God will end their bible drought!

An order for 100,000 Malay bibles was immediately placed. The cost: RM1 million. Within months, the first shipment arrived at Port Klang. We waited with bated breath to see whether it would make its way past KDN officers at the port. Will the Government honour the Ten Points Solution?

The bibles were immediately inspected by KDN as expected. Within two days, they were out of the port and on its way to BSM’s office. A few more shipments arrived some months later. They too cleared the port without problems.

The following year, 2012, BSM believing that God will provide more than He did in 2011 ordered 300,000 copies of Malay bibles at a cost of RM3 million. Then we informed the Christian community and within months every last cent that BSM needed was provided. This massive order was delivered on a staggered basis, arriving every few months. Like the year before, every shipment was cleared immediately by KDN without delay and without incident.

Thus, in a space of 3 years (2011-2013), God had provided 400,000 copies of Malay bibles to BM-speaking Christians in Malaysia. We call this the 1M Al-Kitab Project (1M stands for 1 million). By God’s grace, the Federal Government had kept its promise contained in the Ten Points Solution.

Also, in 2011, a young seminary professor, Dr Lim Kar Yong, made the discovery that the Malay bible was first translated in 1612. This made the Malay bible the first bible to be translated in a non-European language. What a feather in the cap for the Malay bible! Thus, in 2012, BSM celebrated the 400th Anniversary of the Malay Bible with joint functions with bible seminaries in Seremban, Petaling Jaya and Kota Kinabalu culminating in a anniversary dinner in November graced by 800 people including church luminaries.

What little that God took away in order to test us, He has replaced in numbers beyond our imagination. Also, the unhappiness against BSM over the 2011 incident evaporated the following year with the success of the 1M Al-Kitab Project and the closing of ranks as seen in the celebrations over the 400th Anniversary of the Malay Bible.

At the end of 2013, we decided to call time-out on the project. It was time for a well-earned rest or so we thought. God had other plans. The raid by JAIS took place on 2 January 2014. This is a reminder from God that the struggle is far from over and the task is not completed.

This incident is from God. He is in control and He has a purpose. He pulls the strings, not JAIS nor the Selangor state government nor the Federal Government. A reporter asked me this morning “Do you think the bibles will ever be returned?”

From the story I just told, what do you think?

 

Story of the Ten Points Solution (Conclusion)

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I had opened a Pandora’s Box when I issued a protest statement on behalf of BSM on March 16, 2011 accusing KDN of desecrating our holy books by stamping them and marking them with serial numbers. In spite of Idris Jala’s press statement on March 22 about the concessions to be made by the Federal Government, the tide of Christian anger refused to abate.

The issue was played up by opposition parties in anticipation of the Sarawak State Elections due to be held in early April. On the evening of Wednesday, March 23, over 3,000 Christian pastors attended a rally in Kuching. They expressed extreme disgust with the Government’s treatment of the Al-Kitab. Their mood and their influence over Christian voters in Sarawak spelled potential disaster for the ruling party in the approaching state elections. On the other side, UMNO politicians defended the Government and belligerent media statements issued from Nazri Aziz, a cabinet member, Pembela a fundamentalist Muslim lawyer group and the Mufti of Perak.

On Friday, March 25, Idris Jala called BSM and informed us that the Government had basically agreed to the 2005 position.

Now, what is the 2005 position? In 2003, KDN detained 1,000 Al-Kitabs. In order to break the impasse, CFM suggested that in future all Al-Kitabs will carry the symbol of the cross and the words “Penerbitan Kristian” (A Christian Publication) on its cover. This was accepted by then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi in a letter to the head of CFM.

At this stage, the Government had conceded to all the demands made by BSM. As for the unfortunate incident of the stamping of our bibles, the Government had offered to compensate us for it. Added to that was one more concession which we did not expect, namely, in order to prevent a recurrence of this incident, the Government would take disciplinary action against any civil servant if they detain Al-Kitabs which complied with the 2005 agreement. It appears that the Government had agreed to everything we asked for and more.

The next day, on Saturday March 26, the BSM exco attended the funeral of past-president, Mr Diong Chin San. We discussed the latest Government offer and felt that with this offer, we had achieved all that we had asked for. Tensions were still running high and a CFM meeting due to be held on March 29 would probably produce a strongly worded media statement against the Government that may worsen the Christian – Government/Muslim relations. We did not feel comfortable about our bibles remaining in KDN custody and feared the possibility of further desecration or even possibly destruction of our bibles if the situation got out of hand. Thus, we decided that a closure of the issue for BSM was necessary with the immediate collection of our bibles before anything else could happen.

On Monday March 28, BSM informed CFM of our decision to collect our bibles. However, on the request of the head of CFM, we decided to postpone it till after CFM had met on March 29. This meeting had been called to consider the Government’s offer to resolve the Malay Bible issue as communicated by Idris Jala.

CFM met on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 29. BSM and Gideons, the bible importers who had their bibles detained by KDN were invited to address the meeting. There was a range of views over how the Christians should respond to the Government’s offer. On behalf of BSM, I informed CFM about our intention to collect our bibles. The overwhelming majority preferred BSM not to do so. I was not agreeable to this. Leaving the bibles with KDN would only keep the detention of our bibles alive as a political issue especially with the Sarawak State elections due in 2 weeks time. I insisted that BSM must not get involved with politics. If it is time to collect the bibles, then we will collect our bibles. After all, the Government had completely capitulated. At the end of the meeting, CFM decided to leave it to the importers whether to collect their bibles or not.

The next day, BSM informed the public about their collection of the 5,000 Al-Kitabs from KDN by the following press statement:

“In view of KDN’s tendency to take arbitrary action without consultation of affected parties or respect for the religious sensitivities of the Christian community, BSM decided to collect the 5,000 copies of the Al Kitab to prevent the possibility of further acts of desecration or disrespect being committed against the holy books of the Christians by KDN and its officers.

The 5,000 copies of the Al Kitab that have been defaced by KDN cannot be sold to Christian buyers. Instead, they will be respectfully preserved as museum pieces and as a heritage for the Christian Church in Malaysia. This unfortunately will result in a loss of RM70,000 for BSM.

Concerning the offer to compensate BSM for the costs of this shipment, BSM wish to make its stand clear that BSM will only accept a cheque from KDN and will not accept any money from so-called Christian donors.”

The issue started to subside in the press when BSM collected the detained Al-Kitabs.

Early in the morning of Sunday, April 3, before I left my house to go to church, I read in the newspaper a media statement made by Idris Jala on behalf of the Government. He announced the solution to the decade-long issue of the detention of the Malay Bible and reduced the various measures agreed to by the Government to ten points. Hence, this was called “the Ten Points Solution.” The salient points are:

  • The Malay Bible may be imported or printed locally.
  • For East Malaysia, taking into account the large Christian community, no conditions will be attached to the importing and printing of the Bible in all languages including Bahasa Malaysia.
  • For West Malaysia, taking into account the interest of the larger Muslim population, bibles imported or printed in Malay or Bahasa Indonesia must have the words “Christian Publication” and the cross imprinted on its front cover.
  • There are no prohibtions or restrictions on Christians bringing their bibles with them when they travel between West Malaysia and East Malaysia.
  • A directive has been issued by the Chief Secretary of the Government to ensure compliance with the Cabinet decision. Failure to do so will subject government officers to disciplinary action.
  • The owners of the impounded bibles can collect them free of charge and the Government will ensure that they be reimbursed.

At the end of his media statement, Idris made a startling and unprecedented remark. He called on the Christian community to forgive the Government over this incident. In all my years, I had never seen the Government, firstly, admitting they had done anything wrong, and, secondly, asking to be forgiven.

As I drove to a church in Kuala Lumpur which had invited me to give a sermon on the topic “Grace,” I wondered what should be the Christian response. In my sermon to the church, I asked them what they thought and suggested that they may speak with me about this after the service. A group of us gathered round to discuss this. The crucial question that came to our minds was: What would Jesus do?

The answer was obvious. Jesus had taught non-retaliation and showing love and forgiveness to one’s persecutors in his Sermon on the Mount. Impractical? Naive? Well, Jesus practiced what he preached. When Jesus was crucified, he prayed for all those who conspired his unjust arrest and execution saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

I contacted the rest of the BSM exco members and very soon, I received a mandate to make the following press statement on behalf of BSM:

“BSM deeply appreciates the Government’s 10-point solution which is not only an affirmation of the 2005 agreement but also include additional safeguards to ensure that incidents that have recently been the bone of contention should not happen again.

BSM is also deeply touched by the Government’s humility in admitting to shortcomings in the handling of the Al Kitab issue and their request for forgiveness. BSM, without hesitation, forgives. BSM also releases the Government of any obligation, legal or moral, to compensate BSM for the 5,000 copies of the Al Kitab that cannot be sold.”

A few days later, The Ten Points Solution was formally communicated to the Christian community in a letter from the Prime Minister addressed to the head of CFM.

PM’s Letter on 10-point Solution – 11 April 2011

With the Ten Points Solution, it was open for BSM to import Malay Bibles without the unpleasant experiences of the past. With great excitement, I said to Rev Simon Wong, the general secretary of BSM, “Let’s bring in a big shipment of Malay bibles now.”

“We have no more money to buy bibles,” Simon answered, “You gave up RM70,000 when you forgave the Government.”

The Story of the Ten Points Solution (Part II)

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News of KDN stamping the 5,000 Al-Kitabs with serial numbers exploded in the online press on the evening of March 16, 2011. By the following day, the print and internet media was filled with protests from Christians, other religious communities, human rights groups and opposition parties. At the same time, the Sarawak State elections were getting nearer.

It was later revealed in the press that a special Cabinet committee “comprising the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Home Affairs, Minister of Unity, Minister in PM’s Department (Law and Parliamentary Affairs), Minister of Religious Affairs and Minister in PM Dept/CEO of PEMANDU (Idris Jala) and the Attorney-General met on Thursday, March 17, to discuss the issues at hand and find a fair and amicable solution” (Bernama, March 22, 2011).

By the evening of March 17, I received news that I had been invited for another meeting between Idris Jala and CFM.

This meeting held on the morning of March 18 took place at the Hilton Hotel, Petaling Jaya. A meeting room on the first floor had been prepared. BSM was represented by myself and General Secretary, Rev Simon Wong. Also present were the general secretaries of the various Christian organisations: Tan Kong Beng (CFM), Hermen Shestri (CCM) and Sam Ang (NECF). Idris Jala was accompanied by Attorney-General of Malaysia, Abdul Ghani Patail.

Idris announced to the meeting about the formation of the special cabinet commmittee. He also apologised for the stamping of the bibles and said that it was not on the order from the cabinet but was an initiative by the department head. Idris then announced that the Cabinet had decided that in future there will be no interference with the import of the Al-Kitabs as long as copies intended for West Malaysia carried the cross and the words “Penerbitan Kristian” (Christian Publication) on its cover. However, copies bound for East Malaysia need not have the cross and the words on its cover. The AG then explained that this solution was in line with the existing laws of the country.

At this point, I remarked, “The last time the Government promised to return our bibles, it ended up being chopped and spoiled by KDN officers.”

“What is there to prevent KDN officers in the future from interfering with the importation of our bibles? We need to have something in black and white, something concrete to ensure that this promise will not be broken.”

Idris then turned to the AG and asked what could be given in writing.

The AG thought for a while and very quickly suggested that the Chief Secretary of the Federal Government could issue an administrative directive requiring all civil servants to comply with this decision of the Cabinet and that if any civil servant went against it, he would be disciplined and punished.

Idris also announced to us that the Government will compensate BSM for the bibles that had been stamped and which cannot now be sold. He asked me how much this shipment cost. Simon answered, “RM70,000.”

To the best of my recollection, there was no protest or disagreement expressed by anyone present at the meeting. To be fair, this was not a negotiation meeting. Idris had come to announce to us the concessions made by the Government. The meeting yielded an additional element in that it was proposed that the concessions would be backed up by an enforcement procedure within the Government machinery. Would it work? We had no way of knowing. Short of repealing or amending the law, this was the best possible solution on the table.

A few days later, March 22, Idris made a press statement on behalf of the Government that he had met with Christian leaders on March 18 and announced the solution put forward by the Government as follows:

“1. The BM Bibles currently impounded in Kuching and Port Klang will be released with the words “For Christianity” stamped clearly in font type Arial/size 16 in bold. No other words or serial numbers will be stamped on the Bibles.

2. To ensure that there is no misrepresentation in its implementation by civil servants, the Government will issue a directive from the Director-General of the Ministry of Home Affairs. As with all similar directives, failure to comply with this directive will subject the relevant officers to disciplinary action under the General Orders.

3. To highlight the Government’s commitment to resolving this issue amicably, the Government has received an offer from Christian donors who are prepared to pay for the cost of all the Bibles, which have already been stamped and serialised. These BM Bibles can either be released in their present state (with stamps and serial numbers) or arrangements can be made to put stickers with the words “For Christianity” to cover the existing stamps and serial numbers. The choice is for the importers of these Bibles. In the event they do not wish to take possession of these impounded Bibles in the present state, the Christian donors will pay for the full cost of new bibles to be brought in with the words “For Christianity” printed at source or stamped with these words “For Christianity” by the Ministry of Home Affairs at Port Klang and Kuching.

At the end of this meeting, the representatives from Christian groups requested for time to meet and discuss and have advised the Government that they would revert on their decision as soon as practicable.”

(Next: The Story of the Ten Points – The Conclusion)

 

 

Recollections: How Did We Get Here? (Part II: Laws and Bans)

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In early 1976, Malaysian Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak, passed away in London when undergoing medical treatment. I remember the date as the university examinations were postponed as a mark of respect. Tun Hussein Onn succeeded him as Prime Minister. Later that year, Hussein Onn announced on live television that he had appointed Dr Mahathir Mohamed as the Deputy Prime Minister. I remember the Prime Minister broke down at one point and wept as he said, “I hope I did not make a mistake.”

Coming back to our subject, why did Terengganu pass an anti-propagation law in 1980?

In 1980, Terengganu was ruled by Barisan Nasional. The Prime Minister at that time was Hussein Onn who was also the leader of BN. However, Hussein Onn’s popularity in UMNO was at a low ebb (Wain, Malaysian Maverick, pp. 39-40). He was also very sick and in early 1981 had to go to London for medical treatment prior to his retirement. In his absence, Dr Mahathir was acting Prime Minister. Terengganu was a backwater state and the state legislative assembly was made up of Muslims. The passage of that law went unnoticed.

In 1980, the country was in transition. It was preparing for a change of leadership. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 gave a new leash of life to many Islamic movements in Malaysia primarily PAS, the Islamic opposition party which back then agitated for an Islamic state. UMNO responded to the claims of PAS, as later events would show, by portraying itself as the true champion of Islam in Malaysia instead of PAS. Later on, the challenge of the country’s most radical Islamic youth movement, ABIM, was neutralised by Mahathir co-opting its leader, Anwar Ibrahim, into UMNO and the Government. In the 1982 general elections, Anwar defeated PAS in their own backyard to win a parliamentary seat.

The passing of the Terengganu law in 1980 was the first demonstration of UMNO’s credentials as Islam’s champion. The war to protect the honour of Islam had begun. The following year in 1981, Kelantan passed a similar law. Kelantan at that time was under the rule of BN since the declaration of emergency in Kelantan in 1977 (by doing so, the Federal government was able to kick out the PAS-led state government).

The next stage was the banning of the Malay Bible. Thus, at the end of 1981, the Home Minister issued an order under the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA) to ban the Al-Kitab on the grounds that it was prejudicial to the security of the nation. Why? The Al-Kitab contained words which contravened state laws. An outcry from the Christian community in 1982 led to the Government modifying the ban into a partial ban. Thus, in 1983, a new order was issued by the Home Minister banning the Al-Kitab except for use by Christians in churches.

Thus, the passing of the Terengganu law was necessary to criminalise the Al-Kitab’s use of certain words and provided the justification for the Federal Government to impose a nation-wide ban on the Malay Bible. By doing so, the UMNO-led government would be clearly seen as the champion and protector of Islam in Malaysia.

In 1987, the nation tottered at the brink of communal violence due to an UMNO-MCA dispute over Chinese vernacular schools. Hundreds of people were detained without trial under the ISA. One of the groups of people detained were Christian evangelists accused of propagating Christianity to Muslims. It was in this atmosphere of religious paranoia existing in 1988 that the states of Kedah, Malacca, Perak and Selangor passed laws similar to that passed by Terengganu in 1980. Pahang followed suit a year later and in 1991, Negeri Sembilan and Johor also passed this law. It would be 20 years later in 2002 when Perlis became the the latest state to adopt this law.

By the time the Federal Government took action to systematically restrict the importation of the Al-Kitab in the mid-2000s, they were able to argue that the words in question had been banned for a long time and the Christians had no business using it in their Malay Bible. Furthermore, this argument had been repeated so often in the Malay and Islamic media by UMNO politicians that in the minds of most Malays the word Allah was without doubt the sole preserve of Muslims. A recent survey by the Merdeka Centre showed that 77% of Muslims believe that Christians should not use the word Allah.

Some pointers can be drawn from the above historical treament. Firstly, the ban on the use of the word Allah is the result of politics. Secondly, the danger of non-Muslims using the word was an idea manufactured by a political agenda and implemented by laws and governmental orders to convey the appearance of illegality. Thirdly, the anti-propagation laws were passed by BN-ruled states. Fourthly, when these states fell into the hands of opposition parties (eg. Kelantan, Selangor and Kedah), their was no interest or commitment by the opposition parties to undo these laws or to alleviate its harsh effects.

RECOLLECTIONS: HOW DID WE GET HERE? (Part I)

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The heart of the ongoing Allah controversy and also the basis for the raid on The Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) by Islamic Department of Selangor (JAIS) is a Selangor state law which seeks to control and restrict the propagation by non-Muslims of their religion to Muslims. In particular, the law makes it an offence for a non-Muslim, in a published writing or broadcasted speech, to use the word Allah (among others) to refer to anything in a non-Muslim religion.

We need to ask the question: Why did these laws even exist in the first place? In order to answer this question, we need to understand the historical context.

In the 19th century, the British colonised the Malay peninsula. Singapore, Malacca and Penang called the Straits Settlements fell under the direct rule of the British. For the rest of the peninsula, the British intended to introduce a system of indirect rule. The Treaty of Pangkor was entered into between the British and the ruler of Perak in 1874. The Perak ruler had to accept a British Resident who would in effect rule the state. By this treaty, the British gained effective and absolute rule and control over Perak. However, the British did not want the local people to think that they had ousted the sultan. So, it was important to give the appearance that the sultan was still in control. Thus, the Treaty of Pangkor stipulated that the sultan had to accept the advice of the British Resident in all matters except matters relating to Malay religion and custom.

From the inception of British colonisation, residual powers like these were given to the sultans as the British took away everything else. The sultans were still the heads of Islam and they retained the power to decide on and administer matters relating to Islam and Malay customs. This model was followed in the rest of the states that the British colonised except that in the Unfederated Malay States the Resident was called Adviser.

For the next 80 years when the British ruled Malaya, they did not allow any Christian missionary work among the Malay peoples. Significant defections of Malays from Islam would reduce the power base of the sultans and this would chip away at whatever little power the sultans were left with. The British were more concerned with the success of their colonial programme and did not want anything, in particular, missionary activity, to upset the Malay sultans and the Malay people (see Michael Northcott, “Two Hundred Years of Anglican Mission” in Hunt, Lee and Roxborough, edd, Christianity in Malaysia, Pelanduk Publications, 1992, pages 35, 36 and 40).

Thus, British policy gave rise to a thinking that, firstly, matters relating to Islam belonged exclusively to the Malay rulers, and, secondly, propagation of other religions to Muslims must be avoided.

On the insistence of Malay nationalists and the Malay rulers, this thinking was reflected in the Malaysian Constitution when the country gained its independence in 1957 (see Joseph Fernando, The Making of the Malayan Constitution, MBRAS, 2002) . The Yang Dipertuan Agung became head of Islam for the Federal Territories and the sultans were the heads of Islam in their respective states. In the division of powers between the Federal and State governments, it was enshrined in the Constitution that the power to legislate on Islam belonged to the States. While a chapter on human rights was introduced, freedom of religion was qualified by Article 11(4) which stated that states may pass laws to control and restrict the propagation of other religions to Muslims.

While this power was given the States, it was never used for more than 20 years. In 1980, the state of Terengganu passed the first of such laws, the Control and Restriction of the Propagation of Non-Islamic Religions Enactment (No. 1 of 1980) of Terengganu. Other states followed suit. The complete list is as follows: Terengganu: 1980; Kelantan: 1981; Kedah: 1988; Malacca: 1988; Perak: 1988; Selangor: 1988; Pahang: 1989; Negeri Sembilan: 1991; Johor: 1991; Perlis: 2002. Only 4 states do not have such laws: Federal Territory, Penang, Sabah and Sarawak.

Why did Terengganu pass the law in the first place? An examination of the social and political situation in Malaysia in the 1970s does not disclose any friction between the various religious communities. The only inter-religious conflict I could think of was the Kerling Incident in 1977 where a number of Muslim zealots were killed by temple caretakers when they attacked a Hindu temple in Kerling in the middle of the night. This incident had nothing to do with the use of Quranic expressions but arose from the sensitivity of some Muslim extremists towards religious images.

In his article, “Allah judgment: The role of Mahathir, PAS and Anwar,” Rama Ramanathan identified Dr Mahathir’s diabolical diagnosis of genetic and mental weakness of Malays as the root cause of the present “Allah” dilemma. He said:

“Mahathir became Deputy Prime Minister in 1976 and became Prime Minister in 1981 when his predecessor Hussein Onn resigned “due to health reasons.” At that time, Mahathir was considered unlikely to succeed. There were serious doubts over whether he could lead Umno to victory. He was vilified by PAS. Mahathir soon proved his critics wrong. He patiently and vigorously sculpted strategies to ensure his survival for long enough to achieve his vision for Malaysia. Mahathir devised a powerful strategy to rob PAS of the claim that Umno is not ‘Islamic’. He would ‘show the people’ Umno was Islamic, and would make Malays rich. Mahathir used Islam as a tool to sculpt the new image of Umno. Barry Wain has put it so well, I can do no better than to quote him again: “Recast overnight by his critics as an “anti-Muslim villain” and contemptuously labelled Mahazalim, Mahakejam and Mahafiraun – the Great Oppressor, the Cruel One and the Great Pharoah: in summary, the cruellest of them all – Dr Mahathir chose not to address the many sources of discontent. Instead, he tried to recover Malay affection by further out-bidding PAS on religion, offering some of the items on the fundamentalist agenda he had always opposed. Encouraged and emboldened, religious bureaucrats flexed their muscles and tried to impose a grim form of Islamic orthodoxy (Barry Wain, Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times, Palgrave: 2009 p. 218). Mahathir co-opted Anwar Ibrahim, then leader of ABIM. At the time Anwar joined Umno in 1982, only Terengganu and Kelantan had passed the restrictive enactments. How did Umno get its Islamic credentials? (1) The co-option of Anwar, a politician with stellar Islamic credentials; (2) Mahathir’s strategy of doing “Islamic things” like passing legislation to ‘show’ Umno is Islamic – and thereby silence PAS; (3) courting the international media and showcasing Malaysia as an Islamic nation.”

(Tomorrow: The next step in the grand plan)

 

Recollections: ARREST OF CHRISTIANS – Another chequered history

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To further put the events of January 2, 2014 into perspective, it is also necessary to ask: Have there been occasions when Christians were arrested for practising their religion? The answer is Yes. I know because I was the lawyer for all of them.

Joshua Jamaluddin

Jamaluddin bin Othman grew up in Muar, Johore and in his late teens he converted to Christianity. He then enrolled in Far Eastern Bible College in Singapore. Upon his graduation he came to Petaling Jaya where he eventually got involved with a group of Christians discussing the prospects of sharing the Christian Gospel with Malays. By this time he was about 25 years old and called himself Joshua Jamaluddin.

In late 1987, the political and social situation in the country was very tense. UMNO and MCA had been embroiled in a bitter dispute over Chinese vernacular schools. Added to that, there were other divisive political and inter-communal issues. Earlier, PAS MPs had alleged in Parliament that 60,000 Muslims had converted to Christianity. They produced two Muslims whom they claimed had infiltrated churches that had plans to convert Muslims.

One night in October, the police rounded up over 300 people including opposition and BN politicians, social activists, trade unionists, artists, writers and Christian evangelists. This massive round up was called Operation Lallang. Why was the name given? My take is that this was the government’s exercise to catch those whom they considered to be “snakes in the grass” or lallang (the Malay word for a tall grass).

Joshua and about 10 other Christians were arrested on suspicion that they were involved in proselytising Muslims. They were interrogated by the Police and from their statements the Police pieced together their plan.

Later, five of them including Joshua was ordered by the Home Minister to be detained under the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA) for a further period of two years while the rest were released. The charges against Joshua which formed the basis for his detention was that he was part of a group that planned to proselytise Muslims and had participated in programs organised for that purpose.

I was appointed to be Joshua’s lawyer and met with him about once a month at the government detention centre at Kamunting, Perak. Other notables held there at that time included Lim Kit Siang, Karpal Singh, V David and Mohd Sabu. I had advised Joshua to seek his freedom by applying to the High Court for a Writ of Habeas Corpus. For many months, Joshua said that the Christians were told that the government will issue a general amnesty on Merdeka (Independence) Day on August 31, 1988. When that did not materialise, I filed a case in the Kuala Lumpur High Court for Joshua’s release. Up to that time, the High Courts in various parts of the country had been dismissing applications for Habeas Corpus.

Joshua’s case was predicated on the argument that Article 149 of the Constitution which created the ISA allow for the suspension of various civil liberties like freedom of speech, assembly, movement, etc. However, Article 149 did not mention that religious liberty under Article 11 could be suspended. As Joshua was detained for exercising his religous rights under Article 11, he was therefore wrongly detained. Justice Anuar upon hearing this argument promptly ordered Joshua’s release.

The next day, I travelled to the Kamunting Detention Centre to present the order for release to the authorities and escorted Joshua to freedom. We arrived at my house late in the night where Joshua spent the night. The next morning, a Saturday, Joshua went to the Immigration Department to renew his passport. On Sunday, he attended church for the first time in 12 months. The next day, Monday, Joshua went to the Australian embassy to apply for a visa and then boarded a flight to Australia. From Australia, he went to New Zealand and then on to England. Joshua has never returned to Malaysia.

Footnote: The other Christians who were detained in Kamunting were Chow Kai Foo, Hilmy Nor, Poh Boon Seng and Phillip Cheong. They were represented by other lawyers. After Joshua’s case, they were all released. Hilmy Nor was the last to be released in April 1989.

[Addendum: In his comment,  Rev David Paul says that 27 pastors were arrested and released gradually. That is probably right. I was not sure of the exact number as no official statistics were available from the mainstream media. Under the ISA, a person was detained by the Police first for 60 days and after that if the Home Minister decides that he should be further detained, an order for a 2-year detention will be issued. Out of all those arrested by the police, only 5 as mentioned in my post were ordered to be detained for a further 2 years at Kamunting Detention Centre. The rest were released at different times during the the 2-month detention period by the police]

(See my next post for 2 other cases)

Recollections: Al-Kitab’s Chequered Past

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March 14, 2014: The seizure of 321 copies of the Malay Bible was nothing new to The Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM). The raid and the arrest of Sinclair and me, well, that was something we did not expect nor had experienced before. The following is a history of government action against the Al-Kitab leading up to the events of January 2, 2014.

1981: Before BSM was registered as a society in 1985, the predecessor of the Al-Kitab was already banned. On December 2, 1981, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order banning the Indonesian Al-Kitab which was used by Malay-speaking East Malaysian Christians since the early days of the twentieth century. There was no local edition of the Bible in Bahasa Malaysia available then. According to the gazetted order, the printing, sale, issue, circulation or possession of the Indonesian Al-Kitab was prejudicial to the security of the country.

1982:  As a result of an outcry from the Christian community, the Home Minister in 1982 modified the order to say that the ban of the Al-Kitab is subject to its possession or use only by Christians in Church. In other words, from an absolute ban, it was modified to a partial ban.

1995: BSM publishes the first ever Malaysian Malay-language Bible, the Al-Kitab: Berita Baik.

1998: A shipment of the Indonesian Al-Kitab was detained at Port Kelang by KDN (Kementerian Dalam Negeri or Home Affairs Ministry) and released only after the words “Untuk Agama Kristian” (For the Christian Religion) were stamped on the inside front cover of every copy.

2001: Another shipment of the Indonesian Al-Kitab was detained. KDN officers required the Bibles to be stamped but the BSM refused to do so. After 2 weeks, the shipment was released by KDN on the condition that the bibles should not be distributed.

2003: In March, the Iban bible, Bup Kudus, another Malaysian language Bible published by BSM was banned. The Iban word for God “Allah Ta’ala” was thought to be a use of the word “Allah.” As a result of public pressure and objection by the Christian community, the government lifted the ban a few weeks later.

In April, a shipment of 1,000 copies of the Indonesian Al-Kitab was detained by KDN at Port Kelang.

2005: In mid-2005, the Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, agreed to release the bibles on condition they be stamped with a cross and the words “Penerbitan Kristian” on the first page before they are distributed. It took another 2 years for the bibles to be released.

2006: BSM thought that KDN’s harassment of BSM imports of bibles could be avoided by having the Al-Kitab printed locally. In February, KDN officers visited BSM’s printer in Penang and ordered work on the printing of the Malaysian Al-Kitab to be stopped. After some meetings with the General Secretary, Mr. Joel Ng, KDN said that the bibles must have the cross and the words “Penerbitan Kristian” on its front cover.

2007: KDN wrote to BSM revising its earlier condition and required the words “Untuk Agama Kristian” to be imprinted on the front cover of the Al-Kitab. By that time, the covers of the Penang batch of bibles had already been prepared using the words of the earlier condition.

In 2007, the 1,000 copies of the Indonesian Al-Kitab detained by KDN in 2003 was finally released.

2009: KDN seized 5,000 copies of the Malaysian Malay Bible, the Al-Kitab Berita Baik. After complaints by the Christian community, KDN agrees to release it in 2010 but did not do so.

2011: In March, BSM initiated a prayer campaign for the release of the 5,000 copies of the Al-Kitab. Extensive press coverage and impending Sarawak state elections turned this into a national issue and embarrassment for the Federal Government. KDN agreed to release the bibles but stamped and serialized each copy before doing so. Christians cried desecration. In April, the Government issued the “Ten Points Solution” allowing the Malay Bible to be imported or printed locally provided that copies meant for West Malaysia should have the symbol of the cross and the word “Penerbitan Christian” (Christian Publication) printed on its front cover.