Freedom Of Religion In Malaysia ( Part II )

Conversion from Islam

Muslims who wish to convert from Islam face severe obstacles. For Muslims, particularly ethnic Malays, the right to leave the Islamic faith and adhere to another religion is a controversial question. The legal process of conversion is also unclear; in practice it is very difficult for Muslims to change their religion legally. In 1999 the High Court ruled that secular courts have no jurisdiction to hear applications by Muslims to change religions. According to the ruling, the religious conversion of Muslims lies solely within the jurisdiction of Islamic courts. The issue of Muslim apostasy is very sensitive. In 1998 after a controversial incident of attempted conversion, the Government stated that apostates (i.e., Muslims who wish to leave or have left Islam for another religion) would not face government punishment so long as they did not defame Islam after their conversion. However, whether the very act of conversion was an "insult to Islam" was not clarified at the time.

The Government opposes what it considers deviant interpretations of Islam, maintaining that the "deviant" groups’ extreme views endanger national security. In 2005 international media attention focused on the Sky Kingdom sect whose founder Ayah Pin claimed to be God, and whose members – mostly Malays – were accordingly charged with religious "deviancy" and "humiliating Islam."

In the past, the Government imposed restrictions on certain Islamic groups, primarily the small number of Shi'a. The Government continues to monitor the activities of the Shi'a minority. In April 2000, the state of Perlis passed a sharia law subjecting Islamic "deviants" and apostates to 1 year of "rehabilitation" (under the Constitution, religion, including sharia law, is a state matter). Leaders of the opposition Islamic party, PAS, have stated the penalty for apostasy — after the apostates are given a period of time to repent and they do not repent — is death.

Many Muslims who have converted to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and other religions lead "double lives", hiding their new faith from friends and family. General interpretation about the freedom of religion as described in the constitution in Malaysia is that a person has a right to practice his or her religion freely. This freedom does not grant a person a right to change his or her religion "at a whim and fancy". For example a Muslim who wants to convert to another religion must get an explicit permission from a syariah court. The syariah courts rarely grant such requests, except in cases where a person has actually lived his or her whole adult life as a person of different religion, and only wants to change the official documents to reflect this fact.

The Islamic interpretation of the situation is that only the syariah courts can decide who is a Muslim and who is not. A person does not have such freedom, and so cannot have a say in the judgement given in a syariah court. The Lina Joy case challenged this view of the situation by taking the problem of apostasy to the Federal Court in 2007. Lina Joy lost the case and was denied identification as a Christian on her identification card. This cleared the situation about the overlapping areas of jurisdiction between the Islamic and the secular courts in Malaysia.

Apostasy under state law

As Malaysia is a federation, certain matters, such as religion, are handled by state governments. There is subsequently some amount of divergence between different states in the treatment of converts from Islam. Statistics indicate that Negeri Sembilan has the largest number of converts, with 840 applications made to officially renounce Islam in 2005, 62 of which succeeded. An academic has suggested that this is because Negeri Sembilan is the only state which (officially) permits conversion. A convert must first apply to the Syariah Court for a declaration that he or she is no longer a Muslim; the convert will then be counseled for about a year by a Mufti.

If, after this period, the convert still wants to convert, the judge may permit the application. This process is unique to the state; no other state allows Muslims to officially convert. In 2006, the Negeri Sembilan Court also permitted Wong Ah Kiu, a convert from Islam to Buddhism legally known as Nyonya binti Tahir, to be buried in the Buddhist fashion, although her conversion had not been legally recognised while she was still alive. The case marked the first time non-Muslims had testified in a Syariah court in Malaysia.

Lina Joy
  • Lina Joy, who was born Azalina Jailani, converted from Islam to Christianity, arguing that it came under her right to freedom of religion under Article 11 of the Constitution of Malaysia. She first approached the National Registration Department (NRD) in February 1997, seeking permission to change her name to Lina Joy, and also her religious status. The application was rejected in August 1997 on the grounds that the Syariah Court had not granted permission for her to renounce Islam. In 1998, the NRD allowed the name change, but refused to change the religious status on her identity card.

  • Joy appealed against this decision in the High Court, arguing that she should not be subject to sharia law, having converted to Christianity.
  • In April 2001, Judge Datuk Faiza Tamby Chik ruled that she could not change her religious identity, because ethnic Malays are defined as Muslims under the Constitution. Joy then took her case to the Court of Appeal.
  • On 19 September 2005, the court ruled in a 2–1 majority decision against Joy. Justice Abdul Aziz and Justice Arifin Zakaria agreed that the NRD was correct in rejecting Joy's application and said it was up to the Syariah Court to settle the issue (Justice Gopal Sri Ram said it was null and void. ). Joy further appealed to the Federal Court of Malaysia, the highest court and the court of last resort in Malaysia. The Federal Court heard the appeal in July 2006, and it was presided by the Chief Justice of Malaysia Ahmad Fairuz Abdul Halim, Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak Richard Malanjum, and Federal Court Judge Alauddin Sheriff.

  • On May 30, 2007, the Federal Court, in a 2–1 decision, dismissed Joy's appeal. The Court's panel ruled that only the Syariah Court had the power to allow Joy to remove her religious designation of Islam from her national identity card. Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim and Federal Court judge Justice Alauddin Mohd Sheriff delivered the majority decision dismissing her appeal. Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak Justice Richard Malanjum dissented.
Nyonya Tahir

Revathi Massosai

Revathi Massosai is a Malaysian woman who was raised as a Hindu but her identity card designates her as a Muslim. She has declared her religion to be Hindu and has petitioned unsuccessfully to have the word "Islam" removed from her identity card. Massosai married a Hindu man, but her marriage is not recognized by the Malaysian government because of the religion issue. Massosai was incarcerated for six months in an Islamic re-education camp because of her attempts to renounce Islam in favor of the Hindu religion. Revathi was denied the guardianship of her new born baby and was not allowed to meet her Hindu husband.


There have been a few high profile incidences and accounts of persecution of people from Muslim backgrounds attempting to convert from the Islamic faith. Some notable cases include :
  • Hilmy Mohd Noor
  • Hilmy Mohd. Noor, in his book "Circumcised Heart", describes his experiences during his detention under the Internal Security Act of Malaysia in what he described as resulting from religious persecution by Malaysian authorities. In the book, he also mentioned incidences of lobbying by some Muslims in his place of employment—a multinational oil company—to get his job terminated.
  • Nur'aishah Bokhari
  • Nur'aishah Bokhari made a writ of habeas corpus by statutory declaration claiming that she was detained involuntarily by her own family members for wanting to convert out of Islam before marrying her Roman Catholic boyfriend. She subsequently escaped and has since left the country.
  • Abdullah or Jeffrey
  • Jeffrey also known as Abdullah and Or Boon Hua, 36, made the application on the grounds that he had not practised the Islamic teachings since converting to the religion 14 years ago.
Christian proselytization


Proselytizing of Muslims by members of other religions is not technically prohibited by federal law, even though Muslims may proselytize. It is however prohibited in 10 of the 13 states (i.e. excepting Penang, Sabah, Sarawak and the Federal Territories) and can lead to lengthy jail sentences and many strokes of the rotan (whipping). Most Christian and a few other religious groups in Malaysia put a standard disclaimer on literature and advertisements stating "For non-Muslims only".

Religious Materials

In 2002 the government banned the Bible in Malay (Alkitab) and in Iban (Bup Kudus). The Kudus uses the term "Allah Taala" for God. The ban has since been rescinded. Abdullah Badawi, when in office as Home Minister, claimed it was the work of an overzealous bureaucrat and he had the ban repealed personally. Some states have laws that prohibit the use of Malay-language religious terms such as usage of the term "Allah" for God by Christians, but the authorities do not enforce them actively.

Distribution of other materials such as books or tapes translated into Bahasa Melayu (local Malay) or Indonesian is also discouraged. However, Malay-language Christian materials are available. Prior to the banning of the Bup Kudus in 2002, the distribution of Malay-language Christian materials faced few restrictions in East Malaysia.

Visas and other restrictions

In recent years, visas for foreign clergy no longer are restricted, and most visas were approved during the period covered by this report. Beginning in March 2000, representative non-Muslims were invited to sit on the immigration committee that approves such visa requests.

Source : Wikipedia.