Perikatan’s appeal of ‘Allah’ ruling could cost Sabah, Sarawak partners, say analysts

Julia Chan
·6-min read
Analysts believe Putrajaya's appeal may alienate Sabah and Sarawak voters ahead of an expected early general election. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Analysts believe Putrajaya's appeal may alienate Sabah and Sarawak voters ahead of an expected early general election. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

KOTA KINABALU, March 18 — The Perikatan Nasional government’s move to appeal a High Court ruling that effectively allows Christians to use the word “Allah” may have lasting repercussions despite the obvious benefits of shoring up its Malay-based support.

While political analysts believe the appeal was predictable in order to get more majority Malay-Muslim support, it may alienate Sabah and Sarawak voters ahead of an expected early general election.

“Such a move will only affect the non-Muslims Kadazandusun and Dayak support for the Sabah and Sarawak state government,” said University Malaysia Sabah political analyst Romzi Ationg.

“Rumours are spreading which suggests that the Bumiputera non-Muslim are increasingly interested in supporting other parties if GRS and GPS are unable to ensure such decision does not further hurt them... this certainly makes them uneasy, thus may make the necessary effort to systematically dealt with the issue,” he said.

GRS is an abbreviation for Gabungan Rakyat Sabah while GPS is Gabungan Parti Sarawak. Both are the ruling coalitions in their respective states and aligned with PN.

Romzi said that aside from trying to get the federal government to withdraw the appeal, the state governments have also sought to distract from it by putting the focus on the issue of undocumented migrants and to continue on-going discussion with federal leaders to deal with the issue “systematically.”

Despite the possible consequences to PN’s allies in Sabah and Sarawak, Singapore Institute of International Affairs Senior Fellow Oh Ei Sun said it was not surprising given how it was received among the country’s Muslim majority.

“All three Malay parties in the coalition are calling for the appeal. In East Malaysia, the decision to appeal would likely further alienate the non-Muslims. But the Muslim in East Malaysia appear to be at least tacitly approving of the decision to appeal.

“This could be gleaned from the fact that a recent open letter applauding the High Court decision was signed only by the non-Muslim MPs,” Oh said

He said that in Sabah at least, most of the seats and constituencies were becoming Muslim majority, or at least hold significant number of Muslim voters, and this made appealing the decision a “safe” move for PN.

“The Malayan non-Malay component parties are in any case multiculturally decorative with minuscule non-Malay anyway, so it doesn’t quite matter how they feel, as long as their senatorial appointments are on the pipeline,” said Oh, adding that such issues tended not to deter the rural voters that make up the majority in Sabah and Sarawak.

It is also very likely that whatever the outcome of the appeal, Christians in Sarawak and Sabah will be able to continue their worship with the use of the word “Allah” without issue as it is only in the peninsula that the use will be restricted.

For this reason, Universiti Malaysia socioeconomic analyst Awang Azman Awang Pawi said that the PN government’s appeal was just to signal its commitment to upholding Islam and for political mileage when there was no practical significance to the outcome.

“In the end, Sabah and Sarawak are the kingmakers and they need to be appeased. So totally banning the use among non Muslims is unlikely. It is just unrealistic to expect it to change. They made the move to be seen like they are defending Islam to get political mileage,” he said.

For Senior Fellow at the Malaysian Council of Professors Jeniri Amir, the cost of getting more Malay Muslim support will ultimately be to the detriment of nation building and national race and religious relations.

“The new ruling and subsequent appeal has put Malaysia in limbo again in terms of racial relations. It has far reaching implications for the non Muslims in Sabah and Sarawak especially with the coming General Election.

He said that the appeal has been perceived in bad light by non-Muslims in the Borneon states and the government needs to make a stand once and for all that can foster national reconciliation.

“Of course, they are facing pressure from the Malay base who form the majority. So the Sabah and Sarawak government of the day have to be careful and mindful.

“After all, in the formation of Malaysia, freedom of religion is guaranteed and the two states Borneon states were allowed to not have an official religion, that was the original tenet. You cannot tell them now that they cannot do what they have been doing for more than a hundred years,” he said.

“They have to find an amicable solution to the long-standing issue without causing more tension,” but said that restricting the use of “Allah” to just Muslims or to Christians in Sabah and Sarawak only was not a realistic solution.

“But as long as they don’t use it to confuse people for their own religious agenda, there should be no need for worry. Non-Muslims in Malaysia are not allowed to convert Muslims, so this is not even a possibility,” he said, adding that there was unnecessary fears among the Muslim Malays of Semenanjung which should be cleared by leaders and religious experts.

Jeniri said that Sarawakians were at first relieved and happy at the High Court ruling last week, but this turned sombre with the appeal filed by the federal government a few days later.

“The Sarawakian government has been clear on its multi religious policies and has consistently made assurances that the state will maintain its high tolerance policies. Now Sabah has to be clear also and come out and say it. They cannot keep quiet and sweep the issue under the carpet or this will give rise to more issues in the future,” he said.

Awang Azman said that whatever future government is formed after the next general election will likely have to have more multiethnic dynamic cooperation.

“The current PN are seen as Malay-centric despite several token Chinese and Indian representatives are inconsequential to their administration and won’t have long standing influence.

“Moving forward, there should not be seen to have a domination of one race. It's not apparent now how this can happen, but perhaps new coalitions are in the works, and a unity government can happen. It is necessary for political stability,” he said.

While some Muslims in Malaysia believe “Allah”, the Arabic word for God, to be exclusive to Islam, it was adopted into the national language generations ago and used throughout by Malay-speaking Christians in the country, especially those living in Sabah and Sarawak.

On March 10, 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.

This government directive was the one that banned the use of the word “Allah” in Christian publications.

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