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Jakarta Post

Malaysia's sultans asserting their influence

  • Carolyn Hong

    The Jakarta Post

Kuala Lumpur   /   Tue, January 14, 2014   /  10:22 am

In the first week of this month, the Johor state weekend shifted to Friday and Saturday, in accordance with the sultan's wish to make it easier for Muslims to perform Friday prayers.

The same week, Selangor's religious authorities seized Bibles containing the word "Allah", after its sultan decreed that non-Muslims cannot use "Allah", in line with a state law that prohibited it.

These incidents highlighted several facets of Malaysia's power structure - federal versus state powers, as well as the role of the nine sultans, several of whom are starting to assert themselves as Malaysia becomes more politically unstable.

As a federation of 13 states, Malaysia's political and legislative power is divided between the federal and state governments. In general, the Federal Constitution gives the federal government power over areas such as defence, education, health and public order, while the states look after land, water and religion. The Malay rulers also have specific roles - sultans are the heads of Islam in their respective states.

This division of power did not matter so much during former premier Mahathir Mohamad's tenure as he had iron control over nearly all power levers.

But since the 2008 general election, which saw the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition losing its political dominance, the sultans and religious authorities have become more politically prominent.

"During Mahathir's time, he had set up a parallel bureaucracy of religious authorities that took charge of Islamic affairs," said Professor James Chin, a political scientist with Monash University Malaysia. "But he was a very strong leader."

Mahathir kept in check not just the religious bureaucracy but also the monarchy through his powerful personality, as well as by removing the rulers' right to veto laws and limiting their absolute immunity to legal prosecution.

Without a dominant figure like Mahathir around, the situation has changed. The "Allah" controversy, in particular, illuminates just how complicated the system is, and why it is so difficult to resolve.

Unknown to many, the ban on the use of "Allah" by Christians had been in place since 1988 in Selangor state laws, as a way to prevent conversion of Muslims to Christianity.

It only came to light when the customs impounded several hundred imported Bibles at two ports in 2011 as they contained the word "Allah".

With the Sarawak elections looming that year, the federal government was worried about the political fallout and quickly forged a deal with churches, by allowing the import of Bibles on condition that they are stamped with the words "Christian Publication".

That appeared to solve the problem - until this month.

On January 2, Selangor religious authorities raided the Bible Society of Malaysia and seized 350 Iban and Malay-language Bibles. It did so under powers bestowed by the Selan-gor Non-Islamic Religions (Control of Propagation among Muslims)

Enactment in 1988 which banned the word "Allah" for non-Muslims.

In other words, the federal and state authorities were on opposite sides, with one permitting the use of "Allah" by Christians and the other prohibiting it.

Lawyer Syahredzan Johan, who specialises in constitutional law, said the federal government's decision to allow the imported Bibles cannot be binding in Selangor.

But at the same time, Selangor cannot issue a blanket ban on "Allah", he said. This is because it is empowered by the Federal Constitution only to enact laws specifically to prevent proselytisation among Muslims.

Thus, he said, the prohibition on the use of "Allah" has to be read in that context, he said.

"The enactment's provisions are so wide that it looks like a blanket ban but many lawyers would argue - and I agree - that this must be read as a ban with a view to prevent proselytisation," he said.

But the law is one thing, politics is another.

The Selangor government can now help to clarify matters by amending the state law so it applies only to proselytisation attempts. But it's unlikely to rush to do this.

For one thing, it will have to convince the many Muslims who do sincerely feel that "Allah" is exclusive to Islam.

Then there is the sultan. His decree, backing the ban, while not legally binding, cannot be ignored.

"The problem for the Selangor government is not really a legal one; it's a political one," Syahredzan noted.

In this day and age, the constitutional monarchs have a mostly ceremonial role. But Malay rulers can wield great power, especially in times of crisis, if they want to.

For example, the sultan must agree to the choice of a menteri besar for his state. A rejection may well end a politician's career, as was the case in Perlis and Terengganu after the 2008 elections.

In 2009, when the opposition Pakatan Rakyat government in Perak was toppled via defections, it was the sultan who made the final decision to recognise the new government formed by the BN.

This, noted Chin of Monash University, is a major reason the Selangor government has to tread carefully when it comes to the "Allah" controversy.

It is only the federal government which may mitigate these tugs of war for influence, but it shows no signs of doing so.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has said very little about the "Allah" controversy, except to call for calm and sensitive handling of the matter.

As a result, Chin said, the jostling will not end any time soon, and controversies like the "Allah" issue will continue to dominate headlines.

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