Putrajaya’s ‘Allah’ ban penalises BM-speaking Christians, lawyer claims

Lawyer Lim Heng Seng pointed out that the word ‘Allah’ had been used for hundreds of years by generations of BM-speaking Christians natives in Sabah and Sarawak, the Orang Asli in peninsular Malaysia and also the Baba and Nyonya community. ― Picture by Choo Choy May
Lawyer Lim Heng Seng pointed out that the word ‘Allah’ had been used for hundreds of years by generations of BM-speaking Christians natives in Sabah and Sarawak, the Orang Asli in peninsular Malaysia and also the Baba and Nyonya community. ― Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 19 ― The federal government's 1986 ban on the word “Allah” in non-Muslim publications punishes Malaysian Christians who complied with the education policy prioritising Bahasa Malaysia as the national language, the High Court heard today.

Lim Heng Seng, the lead counsel for his BM-speaking Sarawakian Bumiputera Christian client Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, argued that the national education policy was so “successful” that the younger generation of local Christians have been using Bahasa Malaysia in all areas of their lives, including religious worship.

“And yet they say no, you followed our policy but now we penalise you for faithfully and loyally following our policy.

“You are so well-versed in BM, you use it in your worship, but we say you can't by taking away the word 'Allah',” he said in court when describing the message that was being sent out with the government ban on “Allah” for non-Muslim publications.

He pointed out that the word “Allah” had been used for hundreds of years by generations of BM-speaking Christians among natives in Sabah and Sarawak, the Orang Asli in peninsular Malaysia and also the Baba and Nyonya community.

He argued further that the language which adopted the word “Allah” was the lingua franca of the land which has since become part of the national education policy, and referred to historical evidence offered by expert witness and academic Ng Kam Weng as documentary proof of Christian literature in the Malay language which contained the word “Allah” dating back to as early as 1629.

Lim also cited the court testimony by Pendita Jok Wan — a Bumiputera Christian who was born in 1935 and formerly the president of the SIB Sarawak church — on how his parents had used a 1949 Christian publication with the word “Allah”.

“The word ‘Allah’ has been used continuously throughout the generations of Sarawak and Sabah’s Bumiputera Christians until now in the Christian holy scriptures, which is the Alkitab, and in all publications including reading and audio visual materials like visual compact discs without disturbance and without affecting public order in multiracial and multireligious Malaysia,” Lim quoted him as saying in an affidavit.

The lawyer noted that the BM-speaking Christians ― which forms 60 per cent of local Christians according to a local church leader's court testimony ― were not even consulted before the government introduced the ban in 1986.

Lim argued that the government's blanket ban was unconstitutional and discriminatory against the Christian community.

“We say in this case, it is neither reasonable nor proportionate. Here the use of the word for generations is just taken away without giving them the right to be heard,” he said.

Highlighting that the people of Sabah and Sarawak were both assured “complete religious freedom” before the formation of Malaysia, Lim noted that it would not make sense for BM-speaking Christians from there to be geographically restricted within Malaysia in their use of the word “Allah”.

"We have certain strange quarters, ‘you can use the word ‘Allah’ in Sabah and Sarawak, but when you come here (peninsular Malaysia), don’t use it because it's against our culture’,” he said.

Lim noted that the 1986 ban contradicts the government’s 10-point solution on April 11, 2011, which allows the importing and printing of BM bibles with the word “Allah” in peninsular Malaysia if it was stamped with the words “Christian publication” and with the “cross” sign.

He also mooted the 10-point solution's condition of making clear to Muslims that such publications are Christian publications as the better and more proportionate measure to prevent purported confusion to the Muslim community, instead of the blanket ban in the 1986 on any Christian publications with the word "Allah".

The hearing before High Court judge Datuk Nor Bee Ariffin resumes this afternoon.

Today is the hearing of Jill Ireland's bid to have the courts uphold her constitutional rights, following the government's 2008 seizure of her eight compact discs containing the word “Allah” and its justification of the seizure using the 1986 ban.

Jill Ireland is seeking two court orders, including a declaration that it is her constitutional right to have access to Christian publications in the exercise of her rights to practise religion and right to education, as provided for by the Federal Constitution’s Article 11 on the freedom of religion.

She is also seeking a court declaration that the Constitution’s Article 8 guarantees her equality before the law and protection from discrimination on grounds of religion in the administration of law ― specifically the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and the Customs Act 1967.

Jill Ireland sued the Home Ministry after its officials seized eight CDs meant for her personal religious instruction at the Sepang airport upon her return from Indonesia on May 11, 2008.

The Melanau native filed a judicial review application in August 2008 against the Home Minister and the government of Malaysia.

The CDs were finally returned to Jill Ireland in September 2015, following the High Court's 2014 and the Court of Appeal's 2015 orders to the Home Ministry to release the CDs.

However, the constitutional issues were not addressed by the High Court then, and the Court of Appeal had ordered the constitutional points to be heard and decided on by another judge.

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