Originally published in French by Missions Estrangeres de Paris. First published in English on stratsea.com.
The last four decades have seen an unprecedented change in the outlook of Malaysian society. While Malaysia rose in economic stature with up to 9% annual growth in gross domestic product (GDP) in the 1980s and 1990s, there have been an ideological shift on what Malaysia is and supposed to be. Article 3(1) of the Constitution states that “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.”
The exact meaning and intent of the Article has been a subject of debate. Until recently, the opinions of two former Chief Justices, Tun Mohamed Suffian Hashim (1973-1974) and Tun Salleh Abbas (1982-1984) were considered definitive: it refers to the ceremonial and rituals aspects. The latter, in a landmark judgment in 1988 (Che Omar bin Che Soh vs Public Prosecutor), noted that “the law in this country is still what it is today, secular law, where morality not accepted by the law is not enjoying the status of law.” Even the prominent legal scholar Tan Sri Ahmad Ibrahim affirmed that the Constitution does not declare that the State shall be an Islamic state.
Since the 1980s, however, the rise of Islamism – understood as an ideological movement that seeks to implement Islamic rule, shari’a laws and the imposition of Islamic values in the public sphere – has led to a shift in socio-political thinking. The pivotal moment was when Anwar Ibrahim, a former charismatic leader of the influential Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM) and now the country’s 10th Prime Minister, was courted by then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed to join the ruling party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Mahathir’s intention was clear: he wanted to ride the wave of Islamic revivalism that was hitting the shores of Malaysia.
That wave came crashing down when Anwar Ibrahim engaged in a state-driven Islamization policy upon his entry into Malaysian politics in 1982. His joining of UMNO was seen as a win for the ruling party who was trying to out-Islamize the rival Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) who had begun calling for an Islamic state. Since then, Malaysian politics have been shaped by the intense rivalry between UMNO and PAS over the question of “who is more Islamic”. This rivalry peaked in 2001 when Mahathir eventually said: “UMNO would like to state outright that Malaysia is an Islamic state.”
It is within this backdrop that Article 3(1) has become both a subject of debate and a tool to assert the supremacy of Islam in Malaysia. Since the 1980s, the expansion of Islamic institutions – ranging from education to social and financial sectors – have concentrated in the hands of religious bureaucrats and Islamic actors.
The Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM), under the Prime Minister’s Office, have seen a steady increase in its national budget over the years. In 2022, it accounted for RM957 million in federal budget. As a comparison, the Ministry of National Unity that was tasked to strengthen the Rukun Negara (the National Principles) and promote interfaith work among others, received slightly half (RM448 million) of JAKIM’s.
It is clear therefore that Malaysia, over the last four decades, has moved towards an ethno-religious majoritarian state. In the aftermath of the racial riots of 13 May 1969, there was a shift towards affirmative action for the Malays through the New Economic Policy (NEP). This gave rise to the notion of ketuanan Melayu or Malay supremacy. A decade later, Islamic revivalism dictated that Malayness equates to adhering to what is “Islamic”. While what is Islamic has always been variegated and contested, Islamists took the opportunity to capture state powers and impose its version of Islam.
Malaysia has never been the same since then. The impact is most felt by minority groups.
Impact on the Christian Minority
The state-led Islamization policy has affected minorities in multiple ways.
Firstly, there has been a steady erosion of rights and liberty within the public sphere. For example, non-Muslims who enter government offices are required to dress “modestly”, such as women having to wear skirts below the knees. There were also protests by conservative Muslims on the annual Oktoberfest attended by non-Muslims as Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol.
Islamization has become a driver for the rising conservatism, religious populism and encroachment of Islamist politics. It has been about expanding Islamism’s reach while eroding fundamental rights seen as in opposition to their narrow understanding of Islam. For example, while Muslims are encouraged to proselytize and convert non-Muslims, apostasy (from Islam) is prohibited.
The landmark judgment on Lina Joy in 2007 that rejected her appeal to apostatize and convert to Christianity, is a case in point. More recently last August, the Appeal Court had affirmed the Malaysian High Court’s decision that denied a Muslim woman’s leave for judicial review of the Shariah Court’s decision over her bid to embrace Confucianism and Buddhism.
The Christian minority, comprising of just 9.1% of the total population according to the 2020 census, has been most impacted. This could be observed by the rise of antagonistic attitudes and state intrusions into their religious spheres. On 7 May 2011, the state-owned daily, Utusan Malaysia, published a provocative front-page headline: “Kristian Agama Rasmi?” (Christianity as Official Religion?). This was promptly used by right-wing Malay groups and Islamists to highlight that there were attempts by non-Muslims to challenge the status of Islam as the official religion of the Federation.
Six years earlier, a similar sentiment was played out when a coalition of Muslim non-governmental organizations called Allied Coordinating Committee of Islamic NGOs (ACCIN) was formed to protest the formation of the Interfaith Commission of Malaysia (IFCM) under the Bar Council to protect the civil rights of minority religions and to promote religious harmony. IFCM was again seen as an attempt to challenge the status and supremacy of Islam in Malaysia. Since then, interfaith work was viewed with suspicion and specifically equated with “pluralism”, a notion that right-wing Muslims defined as making all religions the same or having an equal status.
In 2014, the Malaysian state of Selangor issued a fatwa declaring pluralism, alongside liberalism, as heretical and a deviation from Islamic teachings. The fatwa specifically targeted Sisters in Islam (SIS), a women’s right organisation, who is still in a legal challenge with the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) nine years on.
Perhaps, the most high-profile case involving Christians is the ban of the word “Allah” for Christians in their worship and publications, including the Bible. The banning was issued in 1986. In 2007, the Catholic weekly Herald challenged the constitutionality of the ban, given that there was a longstanding usage of the word, particularly in Sabah and Sarawak, and for the fact that Malay is the national language. The long-drawn process led to the Federal Court’s decision in 2014 that ruled in favour of the government. The decision came at a time of rising tensions that affected Christians, including church arsons, grave desecrations and seizures of over 300 Bibles (that contained the word “Allah”) by the religious authorities in that same year.
The constitutional challenge represented the Christian leadership’s willingness to push back the encroachment of Islamization policy into their religious sphere. Notably, the Catholic Church was not the only denomination that launched a court suit against the government. A few other Protestant denominations did the same as well but was dismissed quickly. However, an indigenous Christian, Jill Ireland, sued the government for seizing a consignment of religious materials containing the banned word in 2008. In this case, the Federal Court in 2021 ruled in her favour and the government decided not to appeal against the ruling. In place of an appeal, the government had stated it will await the decision of the Council of Rulers in October 2023 on this issue, which will then become the government’s policy on the matter.
It should be remembered that a sizeable number of Christians are from East Malaysia, where Bahasa (Malay-Indonesian language) is the language of choice in church service as well as personal devotion. Hence, a ban would involve the dispossession of the Bible (in Bahasa) and other religious materials that contain the prohibited word.
Although the impact has been on Christians, there is also a huge question mark on whether a similar fate will happen to other religious minorities such as the Sikhs and Baha’is whose scriptures also use the word “Allah” for God.
The Return of the “Green Wave”
Since the 1980s, Christian-Muslims relationship have been on a downward spiral with the increasing reach of the government on behalf of Islam that intruded in, not only the religious, but also social spheres of non-Muslims. This is due to the increasing demands by Muslims for a more visible Islam in the country’s affairs. It has led to increasing anxiety among non-Muslims in general and Christians in particular that their civil rights and religious freedom are being trampled on through government policies.
Malaysia just had its 15th General Elections (GE15) last year. Since the long-ruling coalition Barisan Nasional’s loss of two-third majority in parliament in 2008 and a change of government to Pakatan Harapan (PH) in 2018, inter-ethnic and inter-religious situation has been volatile and precarious. Race and religion continue to be a major factor in politics as the elites vie for influence, power and guarding of their social, political and economic interests. Religious and sexual minorities are the most affected, alongside reform-minded Muslims.
When Anwar Ibrahim became the Prime Minister in 2022 after forging a pact with the flailing and almost decimated UMNO, it was hoped that he will moderate policies that affect the minorities. However, in the recently concluded state elections in Selangor, Negri Sembilan, Kelantan and Terengganu, PAS emerged as a formidable force as it made significant gains in many Malay constituencies. The situation does not give Anwar Ibrahim much leeway to make compromises that might be construed to favour Christians.
Some observers have called the present expansion of PAS’ support as the new “green wave”. Like the religious revivalism’s “green wave” of the 1980s, youths constitute a significant base.
A survey from last year found that there is a high support for Islam’s involvement in politics (75%) and public life (83%). In terms of religious freedom, only 44% agreed that all citizens should be allowed to choose their religion while a mere 6% would agree to allow a Muslim to change religion.
More significant is the overwhelming support for hudud law (Islamic criminal punishment) which amounts to 94%, although they disagreed on when an appropriate time will be to implement it in Malaysia. There is also a strong support for empowered and expanded shari’a law (43%) while another 25% wanted shari’a law to fully replace the Constitution and common law.
Apart from these, there is a low acceptance and respect for sexual and religious minorities as well as the nonreligious (37%). Meanwhile, 83% supports gender segregation in public areas to protect public morality.
These point to a growing conservatism as well as the expansion of support for Islamism. PAS’ quest to take over the government relies on this shift towards conservative and Islamist form of Islam. While various factors can account for this shift, one factor is PAS’ own winning strategies in courting and grooming the young.
When PAS joined the Opposition bloc – together with Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) and multi-racial People’s Justice Party (PKR) after the Reformasi period in the early 2000s – PAS’ image as a reformist party attracted a broad segment of the population, including resources and support being channelled to the party. This allowed them to expand their grassroots’ presence and involvement beyond the state of Kelantan, where they had ruled since 1990. An important move in PAS’ strategy was to set up of childcare centres, kindergartens and religious schools across Malaysia.
Dominik Müller’s Islam, Politics and Youth in Malaysia (2014), a study of PAS’ Youth’s garnering of support through social media platforms and using pop culture, accounts for why a decade later, a new generation of young voters are fully attuned to PAS’ version of Islam. The proliferation of conservative content in platforms like TikTok that is accessed by the younger generation is not the reason for the new green wave. It is the culmination of two decades of socialization and indoctrination. In a way, PAS is now reaping what it sows as the age of voting was reduced to 18 years in 2021.
What lies ahead? The mood in Malaysia is grim or hopeful, depending on which side of the divide one stands. As it is, religious minorities who have been at the brunt of Islamization have little choice. There is the view that the “green wave” will come crashing soon. Therefore, two strategies could be seen.
First is appeasement. It is hoped that opening lines of communications and dialogue with the conservative faction may mitigate further antagonisms and protect some interests of the minorities when the waves come crashing down. The meeting of the Catholic delegation, led by Cardinal-elect Datuk Seri Sebastian Francis, with PAS leaders in August could be seen in this light. It can, however, strengthen the conservative bloc and ends up giving further legitimacy to PAS’ quest to rule Malaysia and implement their version of the shari’a law.
Second is to give utmost support to the current Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s PH government. This, however, is precarious, given the instability of the current coalition where UMNO’s withdrawal will trigger the collapse of the present government. It will also add fodder to Islamists’ rhetoric on the inching influence of Christians and Chinese within the government’s leadership. Anwar himself might find it politically expedient to distance himself from platitudes for minorities in order to portray his firm commitment to Malay and Muslim interests.
Given the Prime Minister’s weakened position since the last state elections in August this year, he might pander more to the conservative segments of society and dish out concessions to Malays and for Islam. Within the recent months, he was seen parrying up with popular conservative overseas preachers with a huge following in Malaysia: Zimbabwean Ismail Menk and Indonesian Abdul Somad Batubara – both being Salafi-leaning preachers banned in neighbouring country, Singapore. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s recent presiding over a conversion to Islam has cause further uneasiness that he will try to now out-Islamise PAS as did Mahathir’s UMNO in the 1980s.
Observably, Christians in Sabah and Sarawak have been awakened to this religious identity politics that thus far has been affecting Christians mostly in the peninsular states. The current government’s hanging on to power by a sliver is not only due to UMNO’s support but also the 23 seats by the Coalition of Sarawakian Parties (GPS). There has been calls that Sarawak Christians who comprised of the majority in the state (50.1% according to the 2020 census) to engage more with the politics of the peninsular states in order to mitigate the zeal for Islamisation of Malaysia.
There has been signs that Islamists are now expanding their operations in the two Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak. This signals a new front in the ideological contestations between the conservative forces bent on making Malaysia into a full-fledged Islamic state versus those who believe in the earlier multi-racial/religious Malaysia that, as the 1970 Rukun Negara states, “Guaranteeing a liberal approach towards our traditional heritage that is rich and diverse.” The future of Malaysia is uncertain. Its genesis can be traced to the adoption of state-led Islamization in 1982 – to out-Islamise PAS – by no less than Mahathir himself, through his then-protégé and now rival, Anwar Ibrahim. That Islamic contestation is playing out till today, which, in Oppenheimerian sense, has set in motion a chain reaction that might destroy the entire multi-racial and multi-religious fabric of Malaysia, if the present trajectory is led to its logical conclusion.