Sarawak keeps ‘Allah’ issue awkward for Putrajaya

khairie hisyam

Khairie Hisyam Aliman, The Malay Mail

As far as the “Allah” issue is concerned, the change in Sarawak’s chief minister had not brought any changes to the state’s stance. The awkwardness for Putrajaya remains.

Last weekend. newly-minted Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem promised that Christians in the state would be free to use the word “Allah” for as long as he remains in office.

“There is no law in Sarawak that says you (Sarawakian Christians) cannot use the word ‘Allah’, and I will not permit such a law in Sarawak as long as I am the chief minister,” Adenan was quoted as saying.

To recap, Adenan’s predecessor Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud said last October that the use of the word “Allah” is a non-issue in the state.

On the other side of the fence, Home Minister Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi and the Attorney-General went on record in the same month to say that the “Allah” ban extends to Sabah and Sarawak too. Prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak also weighed in saying that the court ban on the word’s use by non-Muslims does not apply to Sabah and Sarawak.

While most national leaders had been quiet on the issue, news reports suggest that the ban had also been enforced beyond its scope and has led to two different religious laws for the country.

So how? As long as this issue remains unresolved, it will continue to stir the embers of religious tension. Not to mention continuing to embarrass West Malaysian figures playing up the issue, when it is actually not an issue at all in the East.

As an aside, the Sarawakian in me appreciates the not-quite-subtle reminder from Kuching that Sarawak is an equal partner in Malaysia, with certain rights guaranteed by the 18-point agreement presenting the terms of it joining the federation.

But I digress. It is worth noting what exactly the ban specified.

In essence, the Catholic Church is banned from using the word to refer to God in the Malay language section of its weekly newspaper, the Herald. That’s it.

In other words, the ban is not pervasive despite the impression of it being so among various parties, including some foreign media.

However, the implications are serious — if the use can be banned in one context then presumably a future ban on other types of usage can and may follow. Better to clarify and end the dispute now than wait for further complications to arise.

On March 5, 2014, the Federal Court (FC) reserved decision on the Herald’s application for leave to appeal against the Court of Appeal ruling that it cannot use the word in its Malay language publications.

But the ball has been in the politicians’ court for far longer. We should hope that by the time the FC’s decision is announced, a clear path for permanent resolution to this issue is in sight.

Maybe it’s not too late for the prime minister to take the lead and adopt a strong position over the politicisation of the matter. For it to have dragged on for so long clearly indicates that ignoring it won’t make the problem go away.