Man of the Year 2014

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This website has one purpose: to document the entire episode of the raid on the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) by Selangor’s Islamic enforcement department (JAIS) and their seizure of 321 copies of the Malay language and Iban bibles on 2 January 2014. This website’s job was almost completed when the story of the return of the bibles by the Sultan of Selangor on 15 November 2014 was published (story here).

There is one last thing to do: to name the Man of the Year for 2014.

The award of malaysianbible.net’s Man of the Year 2014 goes to the Malaysian Christian who has made the most significant contribution to the cause of the Malaysian Bible in 2014 and who more than anyone else reflects and exemplifies the principles and values taught in the Bible.

This website’s Man of the Year for 2014 is Archbishop Datuk Bolly Lapok.

Archbishop Datuk Bolly Lapok

Archbishop Datuk Bolly Lapok

The Anglican Church’s official website describes him as “Archbishop of South East Asia & Bishop of Kuching.

Bolly, as most Christians call him, was not involved at the start of this incident. Neither was he a member nor an officer of BSM. In August 2014, the Sultan of Selangor in his effort to resolve this incident, decided to return the bibles out of state. It was then that BSM’s new president, Anglican Bishop Datuk Ng Moon Hing, requested Bolly to receive the bibles in Kuching on behalf of BSM.

All went well from the negotiations right up to the royal ceremony at the palace on 15 November 2014 when the bibles were symbolically handed over by the head of MAIS (Selangor’s Islamic Council) to Bolly.

A few weeks later, news broke that the released bibles were stamped by MAIS. Christians protested. Muslims rallied in defence of MAIS. The Sultan had the final word when he made it clear in an interview that he knew and approved of the stamping of the bibles. The issue died down immediately. To further protest the stamping would be to challenge the Sultan himself. However, mouths may be silent but hearts were restless.

It was at this time that Bolly rose to provide spiritual leadership to Malaysia’s Christians. The Star on 13 December 2014 carried this report:

 “Sarawak Archbishop Datuk Bolly Lapok said there was no intention on the part of the authorities releasing the said Bibles to desecrate them or be otherwise disrespectful to the Christian community.

 “In this holy season of Christmas, which Christians, celebrate God’s ultimate generosity to mankind, let us rejoice that this matter has been settled and go forward together to build a future for our nation, which embodies unity, peace and hope,” Bolly said in a statement here yesterday.

 The association, he said, viewed the Sultan of Selangor’s intervention in gaining the release of the Bibles as a demonstration of the muhibbah spirit and an earnest call to Malaysia’s diverse religious communities to live in harmony together.

 “Change is necessary as nations grow and develop.

 “The process must involve continuing dialogue and have it conducted in a manner which affirms mutual learning and respect – the principle of muhibbah,” he said.

This was a brave statement. It did not go down well with Christians brandishing knives in their demand for justice and satisfaction (link).

However, Bolly showed that the spirit of forgiveness and peace was truly in his heart when he preached his Christmas sermon one week later saying:

“We should not be mistaken that the shepherds [in the Christmas story] were oblivious to the politics of the day. They were troubled by political oppression and injustice from the Roman colonisers. I can imagine that in the face of such injustice, their discontent would have been mounting and anger boiling in their hearts at their own helplessness.

“But God intervened with the startling proclamation that a Saviour was born for them. The shepherds did not dismiss this encounter. Instead it moved them to act, to go and see the thing that had happened, and it transformed them into the first evangelists of the church.

 “We too have our own burdens and concerns. It could be harsh political realities, or a constant struggle to make ends meet, or relationship issues. For some the situation could be so hopeless that there is nothing left to live for.

 “Yet Christmas talks about a Saviour born, God with us. Because God is present in the world, there is no person so lonely, no place so forsaken, that God cannot offer forgiveness and reconciliation, justice and mercy, healing and hope.”

 “God’s presence in the world means that nothing could separate us from his love.”

 “Let us rise from our present concerns, fears and burdens and, like the shepherds, be moved to go and see the wonderful thing that has happened.”

Every now and then, God brings challenges to His Church in Malaysia. At the centre of each crisis is a man of God’s choosing, one divinely selected to represent the Christians of Malaysia to not only manage the crisis but also to show the true face of Jesus Christ to Christians as well as the rest of Malaysia.

Bolly could have protested the stamping of the bibles and he would easily have the support of Christians. But that would mean another collision course with the Muslims of Malaysia. Bolly instead chose forgiveness and reconciliation. To some, this was an act of weakness and cowardice. But people who think that have no understanding of Jesus Christ and his teachings. Forgiving requires strength and character. It is not the human thing to do. Forgiveness comes from God and the man who forgives is doing the work of God.

The year long bible issue needed a closure that would not open old wounds again. Bolly’s gestures ended the saga with grace and dignity that was unmistakably Christian and Christlike. Even the head of MAIS was later to admit being touched by Bolly’s magnanimous gesture. Would this be the seed of healing long needed between Muslims and Christians?

Bolly did not preach peace 6 months earlier when he reflected on the assaults by some Muslims on the Christian community. In his Easter sermon on 29 March 2014, this was what he said:

 “Today, we are gathered here in Bandar Sri Aman, a town whose very name means peace. This is indeed an historic assembly. History will surely judge us by what we say and do from today henceforth. We are on a prophetic threshold as children of God.

The Bible reminds us in Ecclesiastes 3:8 that there is a time for war and a time for peace. It seems a paradox that we are called to be peacemakers by our Lord and Saviour Christ Jesus (Matthew 5:9). Yet at the same time we are also to brace ourselves for war. Herein lies the mystery of living out our faith in obedience to our calling as Christians and to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

In the words of a highly respected clergyman, “Because by the grace of God we are defined as family with a call to action in reconciliation, then we have to find not only the call but also the means of being reconcilers, when our instincts and passions often lead us in the opposite direction.”

If the Church is not a place both of conflict and of reconciliation, … it is a failing or failed church. It has ceased to be the miracle of diversity in unity, of the grace of God breaking down walls.

Turning the other cheek is not the right answer in this situation.

With its multi-ethno-religious makeup, Malaysia can present itself as a model to be a miracle of diversity in unity. Unfortunately, the scourge of that ethno-religious strife is fast approaching its flashpoint with extremist elements of political Islam relentlessly stoking the fire of hatred and bigotry.

How then do we live? Some among those who mean well have suggested that when slapped on one cheek we are to offer the other.

 This is half-baked theology if turning the other cheek tantamounts to sending a wrong message to the provocateurs and extremists in political Islam that we are willing to abandon our calling to being peacemakers and reconcilers.

These extremists among political Islam are, in fact, a tyranny by the minority while the rest of us including peace-loving Muslims and non-Muslims, have been sucked into the spiral of silence only to become the suffering majority. Ultimately, it is for all Malaysians of goodwill to ensure that Malaysia is not hijacked by the deluded minority.

To turn the other cheek in these circumstances is indeed to bear false witness to the Gospel of reconciliation itself. This we will not do.”

The Bolly of 29 March was different from the Bolly of 12 December. The important point is this: the evidence of true humility and obedience to God is the willingness to change. It is said that the higher a man is, the harder it is for him to change. A man of courage and conviction has nothing to be ashamed of when the change is a result of following Jesus’ example and His teachings.

Archbishop Bolly Lapok, you are a man called by God to lead His people in Malaysia in the paths of peace. You have acted and spoken admirably in difficult times. You have shown Malaysians who Jesus really is. You have also shown Malaysians that Christians are builders not destroyers and that we have within us the spirit and love that will help this nation overcome its even greater challenges in the coming year.

You are my Man of the Year 2014.

ONE YEAR LATER: How the Bibles were returned

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Exactly one year ago today, Selangor’s Islamic enforcement department (Jabatan Agama Islam Selangor or JAIS) raided the office of the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) and seized over 321 copies of the Alkitab, the Malay-language Bible, and the Bup Kudus, the Iban-language Bible.

A few days later, the head of Majlis Agama Islam Selangor (MAIS) said that BSM had contravened Section 9 of the Selangor Non-Islamic Religions (Control of Propagation Among Muslims) Enactment 1988 because copies of the Bible distributed by the BSM contained the word “Allah”. The word “Allah” is among 34 words and phrases that non-Muslims cannot use in any circumstance, according to Section 9.

In June, the Attorney-General announced that BSM’s Alkitab had not violated the Selangor law and that no further action will be taken against BSM. As for the detained bibles, he advised that JAIS should act according to law. JAIS and MAIS refused to return the bibles.

A Secret Deal

In July, an old friend invited me for lunch. He said that he had been asked by parties representing the Sultan to inform us that the Sultan wanted to return of the Bibles. However, he did not wish to return the bibles in Selangor (where BSM’s office was) but asked if the bibles could be returned to BSM out of state, say, to East Malaysia. I informed my friend that I was no longer President of BSM but I would be happy convey this request to the BSM exco.

On 17 July, I wrote this e-mail to the BSM exco:

“I have received a communication from someone … informing me that the Sultan wants to return the bibles but he prefer to have the bibles sent to us in Sabah or Sarawak. He asked if we can agree to this and if so whether we can appoint a party there to receive on our behalf. He also asked that this be kept confidential.”

BSM’s exco decided to accept the Sultan’s proposal. They saw this as an appropriate closure to this unhappy episode. BSM’s new president, Bishop Ng Moon Hing then met with the people representing the palace. Thereafter, BSM appointed East Malaysian Anglican Bishop, Bolly Lapok, to work out the logistics with the Sultan’s emissaries.

By 6 August, this was accomplished in time before the meeting of the Conference of Rulers. The only thing left was for BSM to formally issue a letter appointing Sarawak’s Association of Churches (ACS) to accept the bibles on behalf of BSM.  This was done on 9 August. The agreement between the Sultan and BSM was thus concluded.

At this stage, it should be noted that other than the palace and BSM, no other party knew about or was involved in the negotiations to return the bibles. In particular, neither the State Government nor even the Federal Government were aware or involved.

Delayed by a Crisis

The quick return of the bibles was put on hold due to a crisis in the state. On 26 August, Menteri Besar (or the Chief Minister) Khalid Ibrahim resigned. His party, PKR, had been trying to unseat him for some time and eventually sacked him from the party. Anwar Ibrahim, the de facto head of PKR, wanted Wan Azizah, his wife and president of PKR, to be the new Menteri Besar. The Sultan did not agree but wanted a slate of names to be submitted for him to consider. Soon after that the Sultan went abroad. The squabble over the Menteri Besar’s post continued until the Sultan’s return. On 23 September, the Sultan appointed Azmin Ali as Selangor’s new Menteri Besar.

A Royal Ceremony

The date for the handing over ceremony was chosen, 14 November. At the palace’s insistence only representatives from ACS would be invited. No West Malaysian, in particular, BSM, would be allowed to attend. However, last minute appeals resulted in Hermen Sheshtri, general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, being the only West Malaysian allowed to attend.

Evidently, the new Menteri Besar had to be a participant in the ceremony. The week before the ceremony, Azmin Ali issued a number of press statements that he will be seeing the Sultan and will advise him to return the bibles and that the bibles will be returned by the following week. I was worried about the possible fallout of Azmin’s statements, particularly, that it will invite a backlash from Muslim extremist groups and scuttle the handing over ceremony. The effort over the past few months to keep this matter secret (including not posting on this blog) was at risk.

Happily, news broke in the late morning of 14 November that the ceremony had taken place. Bolly Lapok led the delegation from ACS. At the ceremony which took place in the palace, the head of MAIS handed over 2 copies of the bibles to Bolly Lapok under the gaze of the Sultan. Pictures were taken and released to the public and gentle warnings were issued that the Alkitab is not to be printed or distributed in Selangor.

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The head of MAIS (second from right) handing over 2 copies of the Alkitab to Bishop Bolly Lapok (third from left) in the presence of the Sultan of Selangor (third from right).

A Surprise: Bibles stamped again

The rest of the bibles were then sent to East Malaysia care of ACS. On 2 December, BSM received news that when ACS checked the bibles on its arrival, they discovered that all the bibles had been stamped with a notice in Malay and English stating as follows:

“Strictly for non-Muslims usage only and shall not be published or used in any part of the state of Selangor pursuant to section 9 (1) Non-Islamic Religions (Control of Propagation Amongst Muslims) Enactment 1988”.

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Compliments of JAIS and MAIS

BSM’s exco was naturally infuriated. On 7 December, they issued a statement of protest and regarded the stamping of the bibles as a desecration of the Christian scriptures.

Three years earlier, the Federal Government released a shipment of 5,000 copies of Alkitabs imported by BSM which had been detained for 2 years. On the eve of the Sarawak state elections, the government decided not to risk a backlash from the Christian voters of Sarawak. They announced the release of the bibles. The department responsible for seizing the bibles in the first place, obviously unhappy at bring forced to release the bibles, stamped the bibles as a parting shot. History repeated itself.

On 11 December, an interview of the Sultan was published (link) indicating that he knew of and approved of the stamping of the bibles. The issue abruptly came to an end as no one wanted to involve the Sultan in this controversy. With this, the saga of the seized Alkitabs came to an uneasy closure.

How Federal Court Knocked Out Herald

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I have now seen a Press Summary of the majority decision of the Federal Court in the case of Titular Roman Catholic Bishop of Kuala Lumpur v. Menteri Dalam Negeri & Others (aka the Allah Case). With this, we can perform a better analysis of the judgment and understand its far-reaching effects.

It is not normal practice for the Federal Court to issue Press Summaries of the judges’ decision. Probably, the public importance of the case necessitated this interesting practice. The Press Summary for the majority decision ended with this rider: “This summary is merely to assist in understanding the Court’s judgment. The full judgment of the Court is the only authoritative document.” Presumably, the full judgment when released will not differ from the Press Summary but will expand on it.

I am only analysing the majority decision as it is the one that applies. The majority decision was announced or written by Chief Justice Arifin Zakaria (‘’CJ”). His judgment was concurred with by President of the Court of Appeal Raus Sharif, Chief Judge of Malaya Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin and Federal Judge Suriyadi Halim Othman.

I have explained previously that an appeal to the Federal Court is not automatic. There are 2 stages: first, the losing party must get leave (or permission to appeal). Certain criteria must exist. Among them, the appeal involves new questions of law of public importance or involves interpretation of the Constitution. Secondly, once leave is granted, the Federal Court then hears the substantive appeal and decides whether the Court of Appeal had made a correct decision.

The lawyers for the Roman Catholic Church (“RC”) submitted 28 questions that should be answered by the Federal Court. The CJ grouped them into 3 groups: administrative law questions, constitutional law questions and general questions. The ruling of the Court of Appeal that the use of the word Allah was not an integral part of the Christian faith fell under the 3rd group.

Let’s see how the CJ dealt with the constitutional law questions first. The RC lawyers had argued that the state laws that banned the use of the word Allah had contravened Article 11 of the Constitution and consequently were null and void. Thus, the reliance by the Home Minister on these provisions to deny the Herald the use of this word was likewise unconstitutional. The High Court accepted this argument and ruled the relevant provision in the state law as unconstitutional. The Court of Appeal disagreed and ruled that the ban in the state laws were constitutional.

The CJ chose to sidestep this issue and declared this as a non-issue. As a non-issue, it could not be decided by the Federal Court and thus the entire group of constitutional law questions were thrown out. How did the CJ do this?

The CJ ruled that the prescribed procedure had not been followed. He said that Articles  4(3) and 4(4) of the Constitution provides that in order to challenge the validity of a state law, the RC must ask for a declaration and before doing so, must get leave from a Judge of the Federal Court. The state whose law is being challenged must be made a party to the lawsuit and be given the opprtunity to defend its law. He further said that under Article 128 only the Federal Court can hear such a case.

The RC had not done that. Instead, the RC applied for judicial review in the High Court.  The state was not made a party, only the Home Minister. The CJ said that this “collateral attack” on the state law could not permitted. Thus, the CJ said that the RC’s challenge of the state laws ought not even to have been heard by the High Court Judge for 2 reasons: “procedural  non-compliance and for want of jurisdiction.”

In other words, the CJ’s reasoning is that the constitutionality of the state laws that banned the use of the word Allah was never in issue in the High Court and Court of Appeal. Both courts had entertained an issue which should not have been brought before them or be considered by them. As, the constitutional law issues were non-issues (in the sense that by reason of procedural  non-compliance and for want of jurisdiction these issues were not properly brought before the courts and thus did not exist), they could not be issues or questions for the Federal Court to decide. Thus, the Federal Court cannot grant leave to hear these issues.

I will come back to the effect of such a decision. The CJ was then only left with the administrative law questions. Everything about this centred around the test used by the Court of Appeal. The RC lawyers argued that decided cases made it clear that a judge must apply an “objective” test to determine whether the Minister had made a correct decision. They argued that the Court of Appeal judges used the subjective test. Let’s not confuse ourselves with what objective or subjective means. The CJ said that, in spite of what the Judges actually said, he was of the view that the appeal judges had used the correct test, that is, the objective test. He also went on to say that even if he did not agree with the findings of the Court of Appeal, it was not open to him to grant leave. In other words, it was not a question whether Court of Appeal had made a right or wrong decision but whether the issue they had to decide involve questions of law that had never been decided before.

With the demolition of the constitutional questions, the only question left was whether the Minister was justified in making the decision that he did. If the ban in the state law went unassaulted, it was open to the Minister to rely on it as the basis of his decision.

Coming to the general questions, these were the ones that irked the Christian community as they felt that the Court of Appeal judges had no business making a ruling of a theological nature on the Christian faith. The CJ said that these remarks by Apandi Ali JCA were obiter dictum.

Now what is obiter dictum? It is another Latin expression cherished by lawyers. In a court case, there are certain issues which have to be decided by the court in order to decide a case. The decision of a court relating to issues of a case are the ratio decidendi ( literally, the reason for a decision) of the case. Findings or remarks on other issues which are not germane or crucial to the deciding of a case are obiter dictum (literally, peripheral views). For example, Mr A sues an employment agency for sending them an incompetent typist. The judge’s finding that the typist could not type is the ratio decidendi. His remarks that she was pretty and made the rest of the staff feel happy is obiter dictum.

The CJ said that Apandi Ali’s remarks were obiter dictum because “the Minister’s decision was never premised on theological considerations.” Thus, it was a matter which Apandi Ali need not comment on but if he did, it did not matter.

Although, it was left unsaid, the CJ could have gone further to say that Apandi Ali’s remarks related to issues that were not properly brought before the court (that is, the constitutional law questions). The only issue left was the correctness of the Minister’s decision.  Any of the appeal judges’ comments outside of that would not germane to the case and would be only obiter dictum.

Now, let’s consider the effect of the majority decision of the Federal Court. By side-stepping the issue, the Federal Court basically said that they were not making any ruling or expressing any view on the question whether the ban on the use of the word Allah in the state laws are constitutional or not. By saying that procedure had not been followed and therefore the state laws were not under challenge at all, the CJ is in effect nullifying both the High Court and Court of Appeal’s rulings that relate to the issue of the constitutionality of the ban of the use of the word Allah in the state laws. Therefore, the issue is still up in the air awaiting a definitive decision.

It is open to the RC to file a case in the Federal Court, first to apply for leave, and, if obtained, to go on to ask for a declaration that the state laws are unconstitutional when it banned the use of certain words. In such a case, the RC has to cite as defendants all the states whose laws are being challenged. Thus, the Federal Court decision has not shut the door on the rights of Christians. Instead, it has re-opened the doors.

How does the Federal Court decision affect 2 pending cases, the SIB case dismissed by the High Court and on appeal to the Court of Appeal; and, the Jill Ireland case, presently awaiting decision by the High Court?

The answer is that these 2 cases will suffer the same fate as they are exactly the same in terms of procedure as the Allah Case. These are cases of judicial review and brought against the Home Minister only. It means that these cases have also followed the wrong procedure by failing to comply with Articles 4(3), 4(4) and 128 of the Constitution. If the High Court Judge follows the Federal Court majority decision, she cannot consider the question of the validity of the ban on the use of the word Allah in the state laws. She can only consider the question whether the Minister made his decision properly and in accordance with law.