Ensure Malaysians have complete religious freedom, federal govt told

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KUCHING, March 28: The Association of Churches in Sarawak (ACS) has called on the government to honour and restore complete freedom of religion to the people of Sarawak and the country in accordance with Article VIII of the Malaysia Agreement 1963.

ACS cautioned that racism and religious bigotry that blighted and tainted national life had begun to threaten the Sarawak way of life, too.

It observed that over the years, there had been a serious erosion of religious freedom as guaranteed under Article 3(1), Article 8, Article 11 and Article 12 of the Federal Constitution.

“This has occurred in the course of a worrying departure from the fundamental non-religious secular basis of the new Malaysian federation formed by Sarawak together with Sabah and the states of Malaya in 1963.”

“Sarawak must make every effort to maintain the essence of a non-religious secular policy that assures religious freedom and regains its Sarawak way of life of mutual and reciprocal respect of all faith communities, which was also the Malayan way of life assured in 1963,” said ACS in a statement yesterday.


ACS welcomed the forthcoming move to amend the Constitution of Malaysia to reinstate the original expression of the establishment of Malaysia as a new enlarged federation consisting of the States of Malaya and the Borneo States of Sabah and Sarawak.

This is the first step that is being taken arising from the establishment of the Malaysia Agreement (MA63) Steering Committee, it noted. Hence, every effort must be directed to ensure that the original intentions of the formation of Malaysia are honoured.

Foremost, stressed ACS, is that Sarawak should be restored its rights with regard to important matters like revenue, education and mineral resources.

“These rights will, however, only be meaningfully enjoyed by all of us Sarawakians if we can continue to live, strive and thrive as people living out the Sarawakian way of life, where all races and religions co-exist in peace and harmony, mutually respecting and celebrating each other’s beliefs and practices.

“This is and must be an absolute imperative. The ACS calls on our Sarawak government and our Sarawak representatives appointed to the Steering Committee to ensure that this fundamental pillar of nationhood and nation building be given the fullest attention that it deserves,” it emphasised.

ACS stated for the record that religion and religious freedom was one of the key matters that had to be resolved by the Borneo state entities and Malaya. And the constitutional settlement arrived at are fully recorded in the legislative history of the Malaysian Constitution of 1963.

The full statement by ACS is reproduced below:

The Association of Churches in Sarawak (ACS) welcomes the forthcoming move to amend the Constitution of Malaysia to reinstate the original expression of the establishment of Malaysia as a new enlarged federation consisting of the States of Malaya and the Borneo States of Sabah and Sarawak. This is the first step that is being taken arising from the establishment of Malaysia Agreement (MA63) Steering Committee.

Every effort must certainly be directed to ensuring that the intentions of the formation of Malaysia as reflected in the constitutional documents leading to the creation of Malaysia are honoured. Sarawak should be restored its rights with regard to important matters like revenue, education and mineral resources.

These rights will however only be meaningfully enjoyed by all of us Sarawakians, if we can continue to live, strive and thrive as people living out the Sarawakian way of life where all races and religions co-exist in peace and harmony mutually respecting and celebrating each other’s beliefs and practices. This is and must be an absolute imperative. The ACS calls on our Sarawak Government and our Sarawak representatives appointed to the Steering Committee to ensure that this fundamental pillar of nationhood and nation building be given the fullest attention that it deserves.

The ACS states for the record that religion and religious freedom was one of the key matters, which had to be resolved by the Borneo state entities and Malaya. The constitutional settlement arrived at are fully recorded in the legislative history of the Malaysian Constitution of 1963. These consist among others of (a) the “Malaysia and Sarawak” dated 4.1.1962 (Government Paper) by the authority of the Government of Sarawak; (b) the “North Borneo and Malaysia” dated 31.1.1962 (Government Paper) by the authority of the Government of North Borneo; (c) the “Memorandum on Malaysia” by the Malaysia Solidarity Consultative Committee dated 3.2.1962; (d), the “Report of the Commission of Enquiry, North Borneo and Sarawak, 1962”; and (e) the “Report of IGC”.

From the legislative history which is painstakingly recorded in our constitutional documents, the intent to be ascribed to the provision in Article 3(1) pertaining to the provision that Islam is the religion of the Federation and the guarantee for all other religions to be practiced in peace and harmony throughout Malaysia is plain and unambiguous. This was retained for the new Malaysian nation with every intent and assurance that (a) existing religious freedoms at the formation of Malaysia will continue to be enjoyed and will not be impaired (b) there would be no hindrance placed on the practice of other religions; (c) the civil rights and liberties of non-Muslims will not be violated; d) the Malaysian nation will remain a non-religious secular state although Islam is the religion of Federation and (e) there will be no change to the exercise of religious rights in the way it was then practiced at the formation of Malaysia.

In early 1962, the Colonial Government of Sarawak issued a Government Paper to announce the setting up and work of the Cobbold Commission. The papers explained why the creation of a greater Malaysian nation was desirable and outlined the framework of the new federation. The Government Paper “Malaysia and Sarawak” states unequivocally as follows:

“People have wondered whether the fact that Islam is the official religion of the Federation of Malaya would affect religious freedom in Sarawak as part of Malaysia. This has been clarified at the recent Consultative Committee Meeting. Although Malaysia would have Islam as the official religion of the enlarged Federation there would be no hindrance placed on the practice of other religions. Complete freedom of religion would be guaranteed in the Federal Constitution. Sarawak has at the present has no established religion and it would not be required to accept Islam as its State religion”.

The reference to the Malaysia Solidarity Consultative Committee in both Government Papers is significant. It provides the context to the assurance on religious freedom. Such freedom will be freely exercisable in a nation which is secular and not a religious State. The “Memorandum on Malaysia” states as follows:

“The Committee directed a great deal of attention to the question of Islam as the religion of the Federation. It is satisfied that the acceptance of Islam would not endanger religious freedom within Malaysia nor will it make Malaysia any less secular. The present Constitution of the Federation of Malaya, which would serve as the basis for the new Federation has adequately guaranteed that other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.”

Upon the Governments of the United Kingdom (UK) and Federation of Malaya forming the view that the inclusion of Sabah and Sarawak in the proposed Federation of Malaysia was desirable and in the best interest of the peoples of these State entities, a Commission of Enquiry was established under the Chairmanship of Lord Cobbold.

The Cobbold Commission Report records deep anxieties over the position of Article 3 of the Federal Constitution which provides that Islam is to be the religion of the Federation. The Chairman and members appointed to represent the Bornean entities noted the reservations, and even outright opposition, of the non-Muslim communities of the two territories to the provision making Islam the religion of the Federation. These anxieties stemmed from the concern over the prospect of Malay/Muslim domination which will be to put them in a position inferior to that of the Malays and Muslims.”

The two Malayan members noted that among non-Muslims there was a range from outright rejection to non-objection by a “substantial number who would not object to the present practice in the Federation of Malaya, as they are satisfied with the provisions for fundamental liberties and freedom of religion in the Malayan Constitution”.

The Cobbold Commission Report was followed up by the Inter-Governmental Committee (“IGC”) to work out the constitutional arrangements for the new Malaysian Federation including safeguards for the special interests of Sabah and Sarawak. Top of the items for deliberation was on the matter of religion and religious freedom. The IGC recommended that the retention of the existing provisions on religion and religious freedom in Article 3(1).

The plain reason for retaining the said Article 3 without any modifications or further qualifications are based on the guarantee of religious freedom premised on the essentially secular nature of the nation. On religious freedom, there was a significant reference to the “present practice in the Federation of Malaya”. Sarawak was prepared to accept the present practice which existed in the Malaya prior to Malaysia Day. As practised then in 1963, there were no unwarranted intrusions into the religious freedoms and rights of non-Muslims to profess and to practice their religions as guaranteed by Articles 3, 11 and 12. The rights of religious groups as accorded under these articles were honoured. There was no discrimination on the grounds of religion as assured by Article 8. There were no hardships imposed upon non-Muslims and their religious institutions in this respect.

The ACS is therefore deeply concerned that the then Malayan practice of the constitutional provision guaranteeing religious freedom with Islam as the religion of the Federation which Sarawakians had no concerns about is no longer normative in the Malaysia of today. Racisim and religious bigotry blight and taint our national life and has begun to also threaten the Sarawak way of life.

Over the years there has been serious erosion of religious freedom as guaranteed in Article 3(1), Article 8, Article 11 and Article 12 of the Federal Constitution. This has occurred in the course of a worrying departure from the fundamental non-religious secular basis of the new Malaysian federation formed by Sarawak together with Sabah and the states of Malaya in 1963.

Sarawak must make every effort to maintain the essence of a non-religious secular polity which assures religious freedom and regain its Sarawak way of life of mutual and reciprocal respect of all faith communities which was also the Malayan way of life assured in 1963.

ACS calls on the government to honour and restore complete freedom of religion to the people of Sarawak and the country in accordance with Article VIII of the Malaysia Agreement 1963.

— DayakDaily