The human faces behind Borders vs JAWI

The JAWI officers seized Canadian author Irshad Manji's book 'Allah, Liberty and Love' and its Bahasa Malaysia translation even though it had not been banned at the time. – Pictures by Saw Siow Feng
The JAWI officers seized Canadian author Irshad Manji's book 'Allah, Liberty and Love' and its Bahasa Malaysia translation even though it had not been banned at the time. – Pictures by Saw Siow Feng

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KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 13 — Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz, 34, was ready for the stress that comes with becoming a bride... the invitations, catering, what to wear, et cetera.

What she was not prepared for was a group of 30 officers from the Federal Territories Islamic Affairs Department (JAWI) descending on the Borders bookstore at The Gardens, Mid Valley where Nik Raina worked, about six weeks before her wedding. 

The JAWI officers seized Canadian author Irshad Manji’s book Allah, Liberty and Love and its Bahasa Malaysia translation even though it had not been banned at the time.

A week later, Nik Raina was arrested and subsequently charged in the Federal Territory Syariah Court here on June 19, 2012 for allegedly distributing and selling a book that was against Islamic laws, an offence that would have made her liable to a RM3,000 fine, two years’ jail or both.

And just like that, a girl’s happiest moment—her wedding day—became shrouded in uncertainty. Nik Raina had to keep delaying her wedding because she was not sure about what would happen next.

“I didn’t distribute the invitation cards... only a week before my wedding, I posted the invite on my FB (Facebook) because I was so afraid at that time anything might happen. I just gave some cards to my parents,” she told The Malay Mail Online recently, later adding that her parents had to field questions from relatives over whether her wedding was still on.

After the interrogation by JAWI on May 30, Nik Raina said she broke down in front of her lawyer, adding that she seldom cried in public.

“Seriously never think that this kind of thing will happen,” she said of the raid and arrest.

She spoke about her frustration over the rough and aggressive treatment by JAWI officers.

“Because this is done by JAWI people who are supposed to show to people that you are a body to protect Muslims, to show the world that ‘we are Muslim, we treat people like this.’

“But at the end, turn out the other way. That really made me frustrated about JAWI,” the Kuala Lumpur-born Muslim said.

Despite her employers offering her the option to either take a break or even quit, Nik Raina insisted on working.

After three postponements, Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz is still waiting for JAWI to withdraw the charge against her in the Syariah court, with no new date given yet.
After three postponements, Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz is still waiting for JAWI to withdraw the charge against her in the Syariah court, with no new date given yet.

“I told them I could not stay at home, I need to work so that I don’t think so much about what happened. So that’s why I still proceed with working as normal,” she said.

Throughout the interview, Nik Raina appeared to be very protective of her small but close-knit family and her colleagues.

She was worried for her younger sister’s career as a civil servant, saying that many had called up after mistaking her sister for her. Both sisters share similar features and the calls came after Nik Raina was featured in news reports.

While she said the raid and arrest was “embarrassing” for her family, Nik Raina was glad that they showed their support as they understood that it was not her fault.

Nik Raina said her policeman father had raised her and her two siblings to never be involved in illegal activities, saying they had always tried to protect the family’s honour.

She also remembers being worried that her staff, who are mostly Muslims, would suffer the same fate.

“On the first day when this thing happened, the first thing that came to my mind is my staff.

“If this kind of thing can happen to me, it can happen to any of my staff working in the bookstore,” she said, fearing a repeat of the raid.

Yau Su Peng, chief operating officer of Berjaya Books—which owns the Borders bookstore chain here—who was also present at the interview, recounted:”It would not be an overstatement to say that we all put our lives on hold for those six weeks until Nik was charged in court. We just didn’t know what the status was.”

When it became clear that Nik Raina and her reputation were at risk, Yau said the Borders management decided to take pre-emptive action by challenging JAWI’s actions in the civil court.

Berjaya Books COO Yau Su Peng said Borders will continue to hire Muslims despite the exposure to risk of action by religious authorities here.
Berjaya Books COO Yau Su Peng said Borders will continue to hire Muslims despite the exposure to risk of action by religious authorities here.

“So the judicial review proceeding in the High Court was, for us, pre-emptive action to ensure that Nik didn’t get convicted for something which was not yet wrong,” she said, saying that it was done to prevent Nik Raina’s record from being blemished for merely carrying out her job.

“It’s always been about an employer wanting to stand up for its employee. We’ve been very clear. There’s been no other agenda,” she said, pointing out that Nik Raina did not even have influence or control over the selection of books.

Despite the lawsuits that followed exacting a “high personal, emotional and financial cost”, Yau said the company has not sought compensation from JAWI as the intention was only to “right a wrong.”

Yau further said that over 85 per cent of the 150-strong workforce of Borders are Malays and Muslims, but said the company would not stop hiring them despite the exposure to risks, given that JAWI only has jurisdiction over Muslims.

Stephen Fung Wye Keong, 43, the Borders’ assistant general manager in charge of merchandising, recalls being slightly afraid when he was surrounded by the 30-strong JAWI team on the night of the raid.

“I think the biggest fear was you don’t know what’s happening and you are involved. The thing was it was not affecting only myself, you could look at all my colleagues’ faces and they were afraid,” he said, with Nik Raina saying that virtually all of the staff on duty except for one during the raid were Muslims.

When speaking of the raid and time spent alternating between the civil and Syariah courts, Fung expressed his disbelief that the incident happened at all in what he thought was a mature Malaysia.

“I think my general feel was just confusion and I couldn’t believe that this was happening. It didn’t make sense,” he said, having then just returned to Malaysia after working in Singapore for seven years.

“I just felt the country had matured enough that’s why I wanted to be part of the growth, then come and kena (be affected) like this.

Fung voiced his hope that there would not be a repeat of this case in other bookstores.

When explaning how they got through the low points during the 15-month ordeal, Fung said that the belief that they were doing the right thing kept their spirits up.

Borders' Stephen Fung expressed his disbelief that the incident happened in what he thought was an already mature Malaysia and hoped it would not happen to other bookstores.
Borders' Stephen Fung expressed his disbelief that the incident happened in what he thought was an already mature Malaysia and hoped it would not happen to other bookstores.

Fung said they gained a lot of friends along the way, saying: “When this is all over and done with, we realised we gained something out of it... but still ideally we shouldn’t have gone through it.”

Yau agreed, saying that many Borders customers called and came to see Nik Raina to encourage her, adding that the ordeal brought the company’s team closer.

Finally, on March 22 this year the KL High Court ruled that JAWI had acted illegally in raiding Borders and seizing the books, as well as charging Nik Raina. 

Since the raid over a year ago, Nik Raina has married and recently marked her sixth year with Borders on August 14 with the Syariah court charge still hanging over her head.

“We’ve been hanging on since March because we are still waiting for that last bit for JAWI to go back to the Syariah court and officially withdraw charges against Nik,” Yau said, referring to the bold judgment by Kuala Lumpur High Court judge Datuk Zaleha Yusof.

Despite the ruling that JAWI had acted illegally in prosecuting Nik Raina, a final hurdle lies between her and freedom from worry over her fate in the Syariah court.

They, however, have yet to get their day in court. Three postponements later, Nik Raina is still waiting. 

“The judicial review was allowed on March 22 this year. We have been writing since then for the charge to be withdrawn.

“Finally, they fixed the date for August 28 saying they could not give any earlier date because the judge had been transferred to Penang.

“They changed it to September 3 then said that was a mistake and then said the actual date would be September 13. But now they say the judge cannot come because of a meeting in Penang.

“Isn’t dispensing justice more important than a meeting? Whereas we already sent letters that if this judge can’t come to KL, the matter should be heard by other judges who are in KL. 

Despite the civil court victory in March this year, Berjaya Books COO Yau Su Peng (right) said Borders is still waiting for JAWI to officially drop the charge against Nik Raina (centre) in the Syariah court. With them is Borders' Stephen Fung.
Despite the civil court victory in March this year, Berjaya Books COO Yau Su Peng (right) said Borders is still waiting for JAWI to officially drop the charge against Nik Raina (centre) in the Syariah court. With them is Borders' Stephen Fung.

“It’s just to withdraw the charge, not anything big. JAWI must show more diligence and sincerity to resolve this. I hope there is no sinister motive in delaying this matter perpetually,” said Nik Raina’s lawyer Rosli Dahlan.

In the civil court where Borders’ licensed operator Berjaya Books, Nik Raina and Fung—being the three applicants—won, an appeal has been filed by JAWI, the home minister and the minister in charge of Islamic Affairs.

“We will take it one at a time,” Yau said of the case that has now gone up to the Court of Appeal.

So, the nightmare of Nik Raina continues.

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