Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak enjoys “peacemaker par excellence” status here in the Philippines. Credit that to his evenhanded efforts to shepherd the Philippine government-Bangsamoro talks to end conflict and help rebuild rebellion-wrecked communities in Mindanao.
But in Kuala Lumpur, he acts the exact opposite. Razak “has gone back on a pledge to repeal a controversial sedition law.” It was supposed to anchor his reforms to develop Malaysia into a progressive democracy.
Under Malaysia’s Sedition Act of 1948, speech that would incite “religious or social tensions” versus “traditional rulers” could land one a three-year jail term. In 2012, Najib expressed support for the passage of a National Harmony Act to replace the Sedition Act.
Late November, he sang a different tune to the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The Sedition Act would be retained. It has a clause to protect the sanctity of Islam, “while other religions also cannot be insulted.”
But the second clause makes it illegal to call for the breakaway of Sabah and Sarawak on Malaysian Borneo. There, non-Muslims and indigenous tribes are a majority.
“Over the last year a string of sedition charges sparked fears that the prime minister would backtrack on his promise,” wrote Jennifer Pak of British Broadcasting Corporation.
His coalition squeaked through on a slimmer majority in the last vote. Some analysts within Razak’s Malay-Muslim based party told BBC that the prime minister was facing mounting opposition to his reforms from hardliners within his coalition. They “are pushing for more favorable policies over other races and religion.”
In Viewpoint’s “Relentless master” (Opinion, 9/15/14), we wrote: Next-door Malaysia dashed into the future this month by backpedaling into the past. Kuala Lumpur clamped back the 1948 anti sedition law.
This is “the broadest crackdown… since the era of strongman leader Mahathir Mohamad, now 89,” Reuters news agency reported. Yet, “two years ago the multi-ethnic former British colony appeared set on a path of greater openness.”
The Malays today make up 51 percent of Malaysia’s population. The Chinese constitute 24 percent and the Indians 7 percent.
Cops arrested Malaysiakini reporter Susan Loone, then released her on bail. Malay groups lodged a police report about Loone quoting an arrested opposition politician that he was being treated like “a criminal” while in custody.
They also detained University of Malaya law professor Azmi Sharom for a commentary on Kuala Lumpur’s 2009 political crisis. Eight opposition politicians were charged with sedition for statements some of which were uttered two years back.
“Seditious tendency” is the legal club. In 1987, the Mahathir regime’s Operation Lalang arrested over a hundred intellectuals, students, artists and scientists. The recycled Internal Security Act permits detention without trial.
The three-party opposition eroded the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition’s majority in the last two elections. Though it retained the majority seats in Parliament, for the first time since Malaysia’s independence in 1957, it lost the popular vote garnering just 46 percent against the opposition coalition surged to 54 percent, The New York Times reported. The sedition law clubs activists to undermine the alliance, they say.
UMNO seeks to silence the opposition, John Berthelsen wrote in Asia Sentinel. In 2012, Razak pledged to scrap the sedition law, “only to shepherd a bill through Parliament that retained many of its provisions.”
Significantly, UMNO’s latest crackdown bears down hard on the the states of Sarawak and Sabah where non-Muslims constitute a considerable fraction of the population.
“Sources told Asia Sentinel that party rebels will go after Najib’s allies with anonymous charges of corruption. UMNO’s annual general meeting, to be held later this year, is expected to focus on the squabble. Gagged by the licensing law, the press is silent,” Viewpoint noted last September.
Allah means God—unless you’re a Christian in Malaysia, wrote Time magazine. Or Sikh, Hindu or atheist for that matter. A new Kuala Lumpur court decision stipulates that only Muslims can invoke the name of “Allah.” And that triggered concern beyond Association of Southeast Asian countries.
Four years back, Kuala Lumpur courts ruled that the term “Allah” transcended different faiths. Why then the flip-flop? “Islam (is) vulnerable to conversion efforts by other faiths,” the latest ruling asserts. Anyway, Allah was “not an integral part… in Christianity.”
No? Herald editor, Fr. Lawrence Andrew said he’ll appeal. Non-Muslim Malaysians reacted with anger. “Appalling,” snapped Jagir Singh who heads the Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism. “Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Christians had been using ‘Allah’ even before the formation of Malaysia,” recalled Rev. Eu Hong Seng.
Churches in Sabah and Sarawak, where Christians are a majority, protested. As they have been doing for years, they would invoke “Allah” in worship and in the “Al-Kitab,” the Bahasa Malaysian version of the bible. Malaysia’s Parliament in 2011 allowed the circulation of “Al-Kitab.”
The ruling fractured Kuala Lumpur’s “10-point solution.”
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On the “flight back to Rome from Turkey—where Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew prayed together—the Pontiff was asked: Would he meet Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church which split from the Catholic Church in 1054?
The Pope said said that he’ll go wherever the Patriarch wants him to go, that the two of them do share the same desire to meet each other and to go forward. “But with the problems of the war [in Ukraine], the poor guy has so many problems, so a meeting with the Pope will have to wait.”
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