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Abdullah should not pre-empt Cabinet discussion and study by Attorney-General’s Chambers on the existing laws and the Constitution to clarify and restore the “social contract” understanding on the jurisdiction of civil courts on issues of Islam where it involves non-Muslims
The statement to reporters by Abdullah yesterday evening after launching a book entitled Antologi Puisi Sasterawan Negara A. Samad Said that there is no need to amend Article 121 (1a) of the Federal Constitution governing the powers of the civil and syariah courts was not only unexpected but had come as a shock.
This was because it was only 10 days ago that the Cabinet decided to let the Attorney-General examine existing laws and the Constitution to see if any change or clarification is necessary – a day after the Prime Minister made his first comment on the M. Moorthy controversy in Kepala Batas that the issue of religious conversion needs to be spelt out clearly in the Constitution and other laws to prevent confusion among the people.
Abdullah’s comment was preceded two days earlier by that of the “de facto” Law Minister, Datuk Seri Radzi Sheikh Ahmad that the controversial Article 121(1A) of the Federal Constitution should be amended to make the civil court’s jurisdiction clearer.
The Prime Minister may be annoyed by the memorandum signed by nine of the ten non-Muslim Ministers submitted to him at the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday calling for a review of laws that affect the rights of non-Muslims, which the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak has publicly criticized as “improper”, “not nice”, “against the Cabinet system and unprecedented”.
Whatever the propriety or otherwise of the submission of the memorandum by nine of the ten non-Muslim Ministers to the Prime Minister, it should not becloud the issue of the merit and demerit for amendment of Article 121(1A) to clarify and restore the “social contract” understanding on the jurisdiction of civil courts on issues of Islam where it involves non-Muslims – as the two issues must be kept completely distinct.
It would indeed be most “improper’, “not nice” as well as “against the Cabinet system and unprecedented” if the Prime Minister is seen as punishing the non-Muslim Ministers for submitting the memorandum to him by pre-empting Cabinet discussion and study by Attorney-General’s Chambers and taking the stand that there would be no amendment to the Federal Constitution.
This impression would be unavoidable as Abdullah had admitted that he had not read the memorandum by the non-Muslim Ministers as “I’ve been busy these last few days with preparations involving the 9th Malaysia Plan”.
Abdullah said he did not know why the ministers acted in that manner but maybe they probably wanted to convey their proposals jointly. He said the ministers would be allowed to speak on the issue in the next cabinet meeting.
The Prime Minister is right that the issue should be discussed objectively, not emotionally and by not raising matters that could arouse people's racial and religious sensitivities, but what is the purpose of the cabinet discussion next week if the decision has already been taken that there would be no amendment to the Constitution?
Has the Attorney-General completed his study and made his recommendation how to resolve the controversy by clarifying and restoring the “social contract” understanding that the rights and interests of non-Muslims would not be adversely affected by Syariah law and courts? If so, the Attorney-General’s study and recommendations should be made public as befitting an administration which prized openness, accountability and transparency.
I had reservations about the Cabinet decision to give the Attorney-General, Tan Sri Gani Patail the sole task of examining existing laws and the Constitution to see if any change or clarification is necessary, as the Attorney-General’s Chambers through its Senior Crown Counsel Mohd Nasir Isa had already taken the stand in the M. Moorthy case in the High Court that Moorthy’s widow, S. Kaliammal has no remedy whether in civil or Syariah courts under Article 121(1A).
This was clearly in conflict with the position of Tan Sri Abu Talib, the Attorney-General responsible for Article 121(1A) in the 1988 Constitution Amendment, who had told the Parliamentary Roundtable on January 5 that Article 121(1A) was only meant to resolve the conflict between civil and Syariah courts affecting both parties who are Muslims, and not to adversely take away the constitutional rights of non-Muslims not to be adversely affected by Syariah courts – one of the cardinal principles of the “social contract” when the nation achieved dependence in 1957
This is why there is the earlier proposal for a Parliamentary Select Committee on the restoration of the sovereign power of the civil courts to rule in cases involving non-Muslims in Islamic matters – which should be given serious consideration by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
There should be no attempt to shut out cool, calm and collected debate and discussion of what is the best way to resolve the controversy, which is fair to both Muslims and non-Muslims and true to the “social contract” principle that non-Muslim Malaysians will not be adversely affected by Syariah law and courts.
Most important of all, the Prime Minister should not “jump the gun” to take a decision that there would be no amendment to Article 121(1A) before there is the fullest discussion of the issues concerned by the Cabinet itself.
Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP
Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission
Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman