Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Christians Win, But For How Long?


By Kee Thuan Chye
malaysiandigest.com
04 April 2011

IN their stand-off against the Government over the Bible issue, the Christians have won. Especially those in Sabah and Sarawak. Not only will the Bible in any language, including Bahasa Malaysia, be allowed to be imported; it can now be printed locally and in the indigenous languages of the Sabah and Sarawak natives. This shows that when you stick to your guns, you’ll get what is rightfully yours. In this case, the right to practise your religion freely, as is guaranteed by the Federal Constitution.

The Christians have to be admired for standing up and not giving in. But lest they think they had God, Najib Razak and Idris Jala on their side, they might do well to realize that what decided the issue in their favour and even beyond their wildest expectations was obviously the upcoming Sarawak state elections.

This is a politically expedient decision through and through. Otherwise, it would not have been made at such super speed. Prime Minister Najib desperately wants the Christian vote in order for his coalition to win big in Sarawak. The outcome of the state elections there could be a harbinger of the next general election. He needs a morale booster. He cannot afford a break in Barisan Nasional’s (BN) momentum after its recent spate of by-election victories. He wants to keep up the public perception – no doubt as advised by his well-paid public relations consultants – that Malaysian support for BN is returning. He also wants to ensure that Sarawak remains a safe deposit for BN. And Sabah, too, where the Christian populace, like that in Sarawak, is substantial.

The Christian uproar over the Bible issue must have scared him. The huge turnout at the Kuching prayer rally last week – to express Christian unhappiness with the Government and to send out a call for religious freedom – was unprecedented.

Given the dire situation, Najib must have realised that it would not have been enough to just agree to release the 30,000-plus copies of the Bible impounded by the Government, so he added a sweetener – the Bible can now be printed in Malay and indigenous languages locally. It took many people by surprise.

This means that the word “Allah” – which appears in the impounded Bible copies and has been a bone of contention between the Home Ministry and Christian publications – can now be used by Christians without restriction. The one thing that can crush it is if the Court of Appeal overturns the decision made by the High Court in December 2009 that granted Christians the right to use “Allah”.

However, no date has been fixed yet for the Court of Appeal to hear the appeal, even though it was filed by the Home Ministry more than a year ago, in January 2010. Why, indeed, is this so? What is it waiting for? Is the Government holding on to the case like it were a trump card it would unleash only when the time was right, for its own political purpose?

And since the case is pending appeal, the question needs to be asked: What will happen to the Bibles in Malay and indigenous languages if the Court of Appeal should eventually overturn the High Court decision and declare that Christians cannot use the word “Allah” after all?

As we know, this saga concerning the use of “Allah” and the prohibition of the AlKitab, the Malay name for the Bible, is not recent. It has been unfolding since 1981, when the AlKitab was banned under the Internal Security (Prohibition of Publications) Order. Is there any assurance that it will not start afresh when the Sarawak state elections and the next general election are over?

This is where Malaysians can derive a moral from the whole saga: That it is hazardous to give the Government too much power through a strong mandate. It is always safer to keep the Government on the back foot and under pressure so that it will listen to the people. Once they have too much power, they are bound to get arrogant and ride roughshod over everyone.

The people of Sarawak might want to consider this important point and vote accordingly.

As for the Christians in Peninsular Malaysia, they might well wonder why the new ruling discriminates against them. While there are no conditions imposed on the Sabahans and Sarawakians over the importation and local printing of the Bible in all languages, why must there be one for Peninsular Malaysia publications, which have to carry the words “Christian Publication” and the cross sign on the front covers?

Is this 1Malaysia? How can it be when it transgresses the principle of inclusiveness that is at the core of Najib’s concept?

The reason given for these double standards is that the Government has to consider the interest of the larger Muslim community in Peninsular Malaysia, but it only serves to expose the central flaw of the 1Malaysia concept and the questionable sincerity of its architect. It shows that 1Malaysia is half-hearted, and it lacks the will and the courage to overcome the status quo of divisive practices and prejudices. It is to be applied only when it is politically safe and convenient to be applied.

Having a different standard for Peninsular Malaysia over the Bible issue shows even more clearly that the Government’s new decision is merely to win the votes of the Sarawak Christians.

The way forward now is to test the Government’s sincerity. It has come out to pledge that it wishes “to work with the Christian groups and all the different religious groups in order to address inter-religious issues and work towards the fulfillment of all religious aspirations in accordance with the Constitution, taking into account the other relevant laws of the country”. That’s according to Idris Jala, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office who has had to handle the AlKitab issue by dint of his being a Christian even though the Home Minister should be the one doing the dirty job. (Poor man! There were occasions during the stand-off when he was viewed by his fellow Christians as a Judas Iscariot.)

To see if that pledge is true, the Christian groups should next press for easier Government approval to build churches instead of having to wait years for such approval to come, as has been the experience of some. They should ask for real churches to be built, like those in the old days with church-like design and the cross prominently featured on their facades, instead of like those that are not supposed to appear like churches and are housed in warehouses or shophouses, as has been the case in recent times. They should ask for churches to be located in appropriate vicinities instead of in industrial areas among factories, as has also been the case in recent times. After all, in the context of 1Malaysia, churches, mosques, Buddhist temples, Hindu temples and all manner of religious buildings should stand alongside one another to proclaim the religious freedom and tolerance of worship that our founding fathers envisioned.

That’s just for starters. There must be a litany of other grouses the Christians have been harbouring over the decades concerning the unfair treatment they have been receiving, most of it without regard for their rights as enshrined in the Federal Constitution. But now is the time to make Najib walk the talk. They have to strike while the iron is hot. Because when the time for political expediency is over, God knows whether the Government will be as amenable and anxious to please.

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