After High Court quashes 1986 ‘Allah’ ban in Sarawakian’s case, Sabah church SIB to discontinue bid to discover reason

Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill's lawyer Lim Heng Seng is pictured at the Kuala Lumpur High Court March 10, 2021. ― Picture by Hari Anggara
Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill's lawyer Lim Heng Seng is pictured at the Kuala Lumpur High Court March 10, 2021. ― Picture by Hari Anggara

KUALA LUMPUR, March 11 — A Sabah church has decided not to pursue its bid at the Federal Court to find out why the Malaysian government had in 1986 banned the word “Allah” in Christian publications.

The decision by the Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB) church not to continue its discovery bid at the Federal Court comes after the High Court yesterday decided to quash the very same 1986 written government directive in a separate case involving a Sarawakian Bumiputera Christian.

Yesterday, the High Court in Kuala Lumpur ruled that the government directive via a December 5, 1986 circular issued by the Home Ministry’s publications control division was unlawful and unconstitutional.

The High Court had made this ruling in Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill’s case, who had previously challenged the government’s seizure of her eight educational compact discs (CDs) containing the word “Allah” in their titles and which were meant for her personal use. The CDs were seized in 2008 based on the 1986 directive, but were previously returned in 2015 to Jill Ireland following court orders.

The word “Allah” is Arabic for God and had been adopted into the Malay language, and had been used for generations by Malay-speaking Christians in the country, especially those living in Sabah and Sarawak.

Separately, SIB and its president Rev Datuk Jerry Dusing had on December 10, 2007 filed for judicial review to challenge the Home Ministry’s decision on August 15, 2007 to seize three boxes of Malay-language Christian educational books that were meant for Christian children.

The Home Ministry had seized the three boxes of books ---- that contained the word “Allah” and that were imported from Indonesia by SIB ----- at the international budget airport terminal in Sepang while in transit, but later returned them to Sabah church on January 25, 2008 with the condition that the front page would be stamped with a “cross” sign and the words “Christian publication”.

As part of the court case, SIB had previously filed a discovery application to ask for two sets of documents, including documents such as letters and meetings minutes containing the reasons for the government’s 1986 ban of the word “Allah” in Christian publications; documents showing confusion among Malaysians or misunderstanding between Muslims and Christians over the use of the word “Allah” in Bahasa Malaysia Christian publications; or showing threats to public order due to non-Muslims’ use of the term.

The second set of documents sought was for those where the government had granted approval to import, publish, produce, distribute or own any Christian publications with the word “Allah”.

The High Court had in October 2017 dismissed the Sabah church’s bid for the documents as such documents were classified under the Official Secrets Act and as the court felt it was not necessary for such documents to be disclosed for the judicial review, while the Court of Appeal had in October 2020 reportedly dismissed the Sabah church’s appeal on the bid to have the documents disclosed.

SIB reportedly filed for leave to appeal to the Federal Court to continue seeking for documents that would explain the Malaysian government’s decision in 1986 to ban the word “Allah” in Christian publications.

Yesterday, SIB’s lawyer Lim Heng Seng said he had informed the High Court that his clients would not pursue its appeal at the Federal Court to seek the discovery of the documents, in light of the High Court’s decision in Jill Ireland’s case.

“One is the appeal to the Federal Court on discovery, which we have informed the court we are not going to proceed further with the appeal.

“Because as it turns out from the facts in this case, the facts that we wanted the court for a discovery may not be necessary, because the court was able to decide without them,” he told reporters, referring to the Jill Ireland case.

“So we are withdrawing the application for leave of appeal to the Federal Court,” he said.

Lim was speaking to reporters after a case management for the SIB case before Justice Datuk Nor Bee Ariffin, who was the High Court judge handling this case but who is now a Court of Appeal judge.

As for the actual hearing of the judicial review at the High Court in SIB’s case, Lim said it has yet to start and was put on hold pending the court matters relating to the discovery application to seek documents that would explain the government’s 1986 ban on the word “Allah”.

“And on the actual judicial review application, our clients will instruct us after we have a chance to discuss the judgment,” he said, referring to the Jill Ireland decision.

The High Court’s full written judgment for the Jill Ireland case is expected to be available in two weeks’ time.

In the SIB judicial review, the church and Dusing are seeking a recognition of their rights — including a declaration that it is their constitutional right to use the word “Allah” in Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Indonesia translations of the bible and in religious materials to instruct their children in their religion, in line with the right to freedom of religion and right to education under the Federal Constitution’s Article 11 and Article 12.

The High Court had in May 2014 dismissed SIB’s application for leave to have its judicial review heard, while the Court of Appeal had in October 2014 granted SIB leave for judicial review and sent the case back to the High Court to be heard.

The judicial review at the High Court has yet to be heard on its merits, as the discovery bid for the documents had yet to be resolved.

Related Articles ‘Allah’ ruling affirms true meaning of word for Sarawakian Bumis, says Yayasan Perpaduan Sarawak Let landmark court decision on ‘Allah’ stand, Putrajaya told Case management of Sabah church’s appeal on ‘Allah’ ban set for April 30