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Moorthy, Art. 121(1A), Memo by 9 non-Muslim Ministers, etc
Speech (6) in Parliament on Royal Address Motion
4. Grave setbacks to nation-building and inter-religious harmony
The high hopes of greater national unity and inter-religious understanding suffered grave setbacks in the past year, particularly in the controversies over the late M. Moorthy case, Article 121(1A) and the memorandum by ten non-Muslim Ministers to the Prime Minister.
At first the Prime Minister took the correct position on the M. Moorthy controversy in early January that the Cabinet decided to let the Attorney-General examine existing laws and the Constitution to see if any change or clarification was necessary –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 then “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.
In the following week, the Prime Minister was presented with a memorandum signed by nine of the ten non-Muslim Ministers asking for a review of laws that affected the rights of non-Muslims, which the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak 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, a synthetic political crisis was created which clouded the issue of the merit or 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.
In the ensuing furore created by the synthetic political crisis, the nine non-Muslim Ministers suffered the embarrassment and humiliation of having to withdraw the memorandum, which the Prime Minister had earlier said he had not read and need not read anymore as it had been withdrawn!
Was the Prime Minister aware that his high stocks among the non-Muslim Malaysians suffered a nosedive as they felt that their fundamental citizenship and constitutional rights had not been given proper place and recognition in the Malaysian scheme of things.
The synthetic political crisis completely pre-empted a Cabinet discussion and study by the Attorney-General’s Chambers on the issue with the Prime Minister taking the arbitrary stand without discussion or consultation with his Cabinet colleagues, the various religious groups or the civil society that there would be no amendment to the Federal Constitution.
It was most unfortunate that such a synthetic political crisis was created, when there was no conflict or tension between Muslims and non-Muslims or Malays and non-Malays, as the issue at stake was about the question of justice – the restoration of the pre-1988 position of the constitutional rights of the non-Muslim Malaysians.
Before the 1988 constitutional amendment on Article 121(1A), if the question was asked whether the rights and interests of non-Muslims could be adversely affected by Syariah law and courts, the answer would be a definitive and indisputable “no” by all quarters, whether Muslims and non-Muslims. However, after the 1988 Constitutional amendment of Article 121(1A), such an answer cannot be given.
This is the nub of the issue - to restore to non-Muslim Malaysians their constitutional right not to be adversely affected by Syariah law and courts by maintaining their right to remedy in the civil courts - a cardinal principle of the “social contract” on which this nation was founded in 1957.
Suhakam Chairman Tan Sri Abu Talib, the Attorney-General responsible for Article 121(1A) in the 1988 Constitution Amendment, 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.
This is why there was 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.
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.
The unprecedented memorandum by the non-Muslim Ministers could be given two interpretations.
The worst interpretation was to regard the memorandum by the non-Muslim Ministers as a “threat” and challenge to the authority of Abdullah as Prime Minister. Was this credible? Was there any possibility that the memorandum by the non-Muslim ministers, whether MCA, Gerakan, MIC, SUPP or the Sabah Barisan Nasional parties, was conceived and intended as a challenge to the authority and premiership of Abdullah?
I think the political history and reality of Malaysia is such that such a notion is completely unthinkable. As a result, any attempt to read the memorandum as a “threat” and challenge to Abdullah’s authority when there was no basis whatsoever was the height of irresponsibility – especially if the result was to plunge the country into a synthetic political crisis.
This leaves the other interpretation – that the memorandum by the non-Muslim ministers was more an act of desperation or impotence, reflecting their lack of confidence that their views would be given proper weight and consideration in the Cabinet.
This was a test of the leadership and statesmanship of Abdullah as Prime Minister. However annoyed he may be with the memorandum by the non-Muslim ministers, he should know that it was never intended to be a “threat” or challenge to his authority and he should not have allowed the creation of a synthetic political crisis not only with serious ethnic and religious implications, but which completely distracted the focus and attention from a just solution to the Article 121(1A) and Moorthy controversies.
Abdullah failed to rise up to the occasion in this test, for he should have demonstrated that the country had moved away from the past era where a synthetic political crisis could be easily manufactured as a prelude to a massive crackdown on human rights like the Operation Lalang of 1987.
The call by the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism (MCCBCHS) for an amendment to Article 121(1A) to restore the supremacy of the Constitution and the powers of judicial review of the High Court should be given serious consideration, as it is not meant to take away any rights from any religion but to restore the constitutional position of the various religions in the country before 1988.
Malaysia will be celebrating our 50th year nationhood in 2007. Let us prove that Malaysians have room to discuss sensitive issues affecting their constitutional rights even those pertaining to religion in a mature and rational manner free from emotional outbursts.
Professor Khoo Kay Kim, described as one of the architects of the Rukun Negara, recently said that race relations between Malaysians are at their most fragile in nearly 40 years.
Among the things, he blames the education system “which has become more communal despite its supposed non-ethnic and non-religious status for the growing division between the races”.
There are many other causes. The Malaysian civil service, unfortunately, is one, for after nearly half a century of nationhood, it is increasingly regarded by many as a Malay civil service than a Malaysian civil service.
When did this process begin, why did it worsen, why were no efforts taken to turn back this Malay-isation of the Malaysian civil service?
Recently, the Chinese-language online media, Merdeka Review, reported feedback from Chinese teachers who had attended the Kursus Kenegaraan organized by Biro Tatanegara of the Prime Minister’s Department and who found that it sowed racial illwill and hatred, such as blaming the Chinese for causing the May 13 riots in 1969, and generally aggravating instead of diluting inter-racial mistrust.
Biro Tatanegara also blurs the important distinction between government and nation, equating loyalty to government as loyalty to the nation.
Is the government prepared to commission an independent inquiry into the many allegations about the propagandist indoctrination and racist courses in Biro Tatannegara which are a great disservice to the process of Malaysian nation-building.
In view of the 50th anniversary of Malaysian nationhood next August, a royal commission of inquiry to review and assess nation-building of the past half century and to recommend far-sighted and visionary nation-building policies for the next half century should be established.
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