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Religion has become a major cause of national disunity and polarization after half-a-century of nationhood and should be brought into the open to be dialogued in a rational manner instead of being driven underground causing divisions to fester and become increasingly explosive

Speech at the “Malaysia after Lina Joy – a dialogue”      
by Lim Kit Siang  

(Petaling Jaya, Thursday): Let me start with two preliminary observations:

Firstly, this dialogue on “Malaysia after Lina Joy” has not been organized by the DAP to mock or ridicule Islam or any other religion. 

I am bold to say that Malaysians from all faiths and races who have produced this more-than-capacity turnout to this dialogue tonight  have come not to indulge in Islam-bashing or bashing of any other religion. 

We are gathered here as Malaysians who love our country and are concerned that on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of our nation, religious polarization has become a great threat to the unity, well-being and future of Malaysia and we want to find ways and means to surmount this challenge. 

Whatever our religious, political or personal differences, there must be one common and unifying bond, that as citizens of multi-racial and multi-religious nation, everyone of us respect all the religions which have made religious pluralism a distinctive characteristic of our country. 

We must all be conscious that this respect for all religions in Malaysia by every Malaysian is an essential prerequisite for the success and future well-being for the country. 

Secondly,  this inter-religious dialogue tonight is a history of sorts for Malaysia, some form of substitute for  the “Building Bridges Inter-faith Dialogue” which had to be aborted recently. 

It proves that it is possible to hold a public dialogue to address in a rational, cool and collected manner  the delicate and sensitive issues of religious differences and polarization in the country, as such public discourse had been virtually banned and driven underground in the past two years. 

Religion has become a major cause of national disunity and polarization after half-a-century of nationhood and these issues  should be brought into the open to be dialogued in a rational manner instead of being driven underground causing divisions to fester and become increasingly explosive. 

The overwhelming success of tonight’s dialogue is a signal to the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi that the time has come to do what he had avoided doing in the past two years – to provide leadership for inter-religious dialogues to be held in the country  to find a solution to close the national divide caused by religious polarization. 

The Prime Minister has said that “a happy prime minister can do a lot of great work” and let us hope that this is one “great work” Malaysians can look forward to from him. 

The case of Lina Joy has far-reaching constitutional implications affecting seven of the nine fundamental liberties entrenched in the Constitution, namely: 

Article 3 -  Religion of the Federation

Article 4 -  Supreme law of the Federation

Article 5 -  Liberty of the person

Article 8 -  Equality before the law

Article 10 – Freedom of speech, assembly and association

Article 11 – Freedom of religion

Article 12 – Rights in respect of education. 

The many constitutional questions that have been raised by the Lina Joy case, apart from her personal plight, are: 

  1. Has Malaysia progressively become an Islamic State against the 1957 “social contract” agreed by our forefathers from the major communities that Malaysia is a democratic, secular and multi-religious nation with Islam as the official religion but not an Islamic state, which is buttressed by constitutional, political and legal history of over four decades, starting from the Reid Constitution Commission Report 1956, the Government White Paper on the Constitutional Proposals, the Federal Constitution 1957, the Cobbold Commission Report 1963 and the highest political and judicial pronouncements in the land. I have here three newspaper clippings going back to 1983 showing:

(i)        On 8th February 1983,  when celebrating his 80th birthday, Tunku Abdul Rahman said Malaysia should not be turned into an Islamic state, that Malaysia was set up as a secular State with Islam as the official religion which was enshrined in the Constitution. Tunku said: 

“The Constitution must be respected and adhered to. There have been attempts by some people who tried to introduce religious laws and morality laws. This cannot be allowed. 

“The country has a  multi-racial population with various beliefs. Malaysia must continue as a secular State with Islam as the official religion.” 

(ii)          Utusan Malaysia editorial on 10th Feb. 1983 entitled Malaysia Negara Sekular” which said: 

“Nasihat Tunku ini sangat kena pada masanya kerana sejak akhir-akhir ini kita mendengar bermacam-macam keghairahan timbul di kalangan pemimpin dan rakyat yang mahu menukarkan undang-undang negara ini kepada undang-undang Islam dan menjadikan Malaysia sebagai ‘Islamic state’. 

“Kita sendiri menyaksikan betapa negara-negara yang mendakwa mengamalkan system pemerintahan Islam telah gagal membawa kebahagiaan kepada rakyatnya, malah negara-negara tersebut hanya dipenuhi dengan kacau bilau sahaja.”

(iii) Five days later, on his 61s birthday, Tun Hussein Onn told reporters that he supported Tunku Abdul Rahman’s view that Malaysia should not be turned into an Islamic state. (“HUSSEIN SAYS NO TO ISLAMIC STATE TOO” - Star 13/2/83). 

  1. Whether the Malaysian Judiciary has become more Islamist instead of being strictly Constitutionalist in the past decade, repudiating the Constitution and 30 years of precedents that Malaysia is a secular state and not an Islamic state, such as the landmark case of Che Omar bin Che Soh v PP [1988] where Salleh Abas LP said:

“…we have to set aside our personal feelings because the law in this country is still what it is today, secular law, where morality not accepted by the law is not enjoying the status of law.” 

  1. Whether the judiciary is being polarized along religious lines, with Muslim judges ranged against non-Muslim judges according to their religion on cases raising religious issues, as happened in recent cases, which was not evident in the first four decades of nationhood. Are the judges Malaysians first and their religion second, or have their religious identity taken first place with their Malaysian identity relegated to second place?


  1. Why has the fundamental right of freedom of religion in Article 11 suddenly been interpreted as belonging to only half the population – and whether it is conceivable that when the 1957 Merdeka Constitution was enacted, it was only meant for half the population, i.e. non-Muslims.

It is important that the process of dialogue among Malaysians of different religions must be allowed to take its rightful place in the public sphere if the religious pluralism Malaysia prides itself in international fora is to be unequalled assets instead of unfortunate  liabilities for the country.


* Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman

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