Welcome the new Malaysia

I have flown back in time to vote. My wife, Kim, returns on May 4 from Indonesia where we have been serving as missionaries for the past three years. The next day we drive up all the way to Taiping to cast our precious votes. The following day on May 6, I turn 65 and wake up to a new Malaysia. It’s the best birthday present I will ever get. My colleagues are less optimistic.

”How sure are you Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition coalition, will win?” one disagreed with me.

That’s the wrong question. It makes no difference whether Pakatan Rakyat opposition or the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition wins. The truth is that following May 5, the King will appoint a new Prime Minister. We may see a new face or re-branded one in Putrajaya.

Things have changed much since 2008. Yet things will never be the same again. Following the untiring efforts of Bersih, the electoral reform movement, Malaysian voter education has become an unprecedented phenomenon. Apart from putting tremendous pressure on the Elections Commission to conduct a free, fair and clean election, it has also persuaded overseas voters to fly home.

Meanwhile, Tindak Malaysia, an independent polls watch movement, has quietly and efficiently over the years trained and built up an army of independent polling and counting agents to help keep an eye on electoral fraud on polling day itself. Still the cheating will go on but now under scrutiny.

My friend, Kit, flew in from Sydney last week all geared up to cast his vote, the first time since emigrating to Australia. Yesterday, another friend from my NST days, William, flew back. His wife, Helen, joins him tomorrow. Several thousands more like them all over the world are also back or on the way back or have registered as overseas voters.

”I didn’t come back in 2008. It will be upon my conscience not to fly home and vote this time although it cost us a fair bit. This is my patriotic duty,” says William.

Some 2.6 million Malaysians have registered to vote for the first time, making up a fifth of the 13.3 million eligible voters. That is much higher than the 638,000 new voters five years ago. If we take all voters aged 40 and below, the number goes up to over five and a half million or every two out of five voters are in this age group. This is the unpredictable Starbucks and i-Pad crowd. They can swing the results either way.

There’s a lot of hype and anxiety over electoral fraud. Sure there will be cheating but I am optimistic this huge block of young voters can significantly offset whatever fraud there may be.

Department of Statistics figures show that 65,500 graduates were unemployed in 2010 and they were predominantly in the 20 to 29 age group. The bulk of them are Malays. Living on government handouts may not be a long term solution. Change may be a good option.

The young voters are also born after 1969 so it is not as easy to drive the fear of May 13 into their hearts in the same way that it frightens their parents. This is also the generation who knows of no other prime minister other than Dr Mahathir. They may have gotten tired of living under such a regime and change may be an attractive option.

Since 2008, the urban landscape has shifted decisively toward the opposition. The Malay heartland has shifted too. An indication is the revolt from within Umno, the dominant partner in the ruling coalition.

The party was forced to sack 61 of its members who broke ranks by fielding themselves as independent candidates against their own party’s preferred candidates. Among them is former deputy Wanita Umno and a former deputy minister.This is unprecedented. Half of these rebels are in Sabah, a “fixed deposit” state like Sarawak. Looks like someone has made an early withdrawal from the vote bank.

The opposition is also facing internal division between Pas, the Islamic partner, and the predominantly Chinese-based DAP, over the contentious hudud issue to the delight of the opposing coalition.

I have been following the polls since 1955 when I was just seven; first to see my late grandfather elected to the Federal Legislative on an MCA ticket in Nibong Tebal only to watch him lose the seat to the Labour Party in the first parliamentary elections after independence.

Win or lose I have learned to pick up the cues intuitively. This general elections is too close to call. My intuition tells me a hung parliament is unlikely. The winning side is likely to have a comfortable margin with help from the fixed deposit states with more compounded interest, of course.

“Allah” is more than just a word

With the Perkasa duo, Ibrahim Ali and Zul Noordin, entering the fray as Umno sponsored parliamentary candidates, racism and religious bigotry is set to rear its ugly head again especially over the ‘Allah’ controversy.

A manifestation of such extremism is the extent to which fringe Malay groups like Perkasa would go to advance their agenda. Cause for concern is their incendiary speeches over the controversy of the use of the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God by non-Muslims. Ibrahim even suggested recently an open season for burning Bibles (pesta membakar Alkitab). Nothing can be more seditious and incendiary. Yet this was tolerated by the authorities.

Perkasa president Ibrahim Ali is seeking re-election as Pasir Mas MP in Kelantan as an Umno-friendly candidate against Pas. The Umno candidate has withdrawn by not submitting his nomination papers to make way for Ibrahim. Former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad is not only patron of Perkasa but it was he who suggested that Ibrahim be fielded as an Umno/Barisan candidate in this general elections. Perkasa’s vice president, Zulkifli Noordin, has moved from his Kulim Bandar Baru MP seat in the north to challenge Khalid Samad of Pas in Shah Alam, Selangor, on the Umno/Barisan ticket. Like Ibrahim, he was previously elected on the opposition ticket but later crossed over to be Barisan friendly independent MPs.

On the surface, the controversy is deceptively simple. It boils down to one thing; can non-Muslims use the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God. Perkasa, Barisan and the Muslim establishment maintain that the word is exclusive to Muslims. Their opponents in the Pakatan Rakyat coalition say they have no problem with the issue as the word existed even before the arrival of Islam. But in the battle for the Malay heartland, Pas, the Islamic party within the opposition coalition was forced to back away under the onslaught by Umno and Perkasa.

But the truth is that the ‘Allah’ controversy is more than just a word. Indeed, all States and Federal Territories have not only passed fatwas covering more than three dozen words that non-Muslims are prohibited from using. These fatwas which are seemingly applicable only to Muslims have been gazetted by the respective state authorities. This in effect makes them applicable even to non-Muslims.

For instance, a fatwa was passed in Sabah under the Enakmen Pentadbiran Undang-Undang Islam 1992 and was gazetted on 1 June 2003 where 32 words are prohibited to non-Muslims. These included Allah (God), Ibadah (Worship), Iman (Faith) Rasul (Apostle or messenger), Injil (Gospel), Nabi (Prophet], Wahyu (Revelation) and much more.

The first of such fatwas was gazetted by the Terengganu state government under Umno in 1980. The following year, the Alkitab or the Malay language Bible on grounds that it is a threat to national security by Dr Mahathir. The ban has since been modified to a restricted ban but the Alkitab is still considered a threat to national security.

The ‘Allah’ controversy is more than just a word. It is about freedom of religion and about unreasonable government policies and laws that seek to place non-Muslims under the scope of Islamic enactments and jurisdiction.

Two thirds of the church in Malaysia is made up of Bumiputera Christians in Sabah and Sarawak who use the Alkitab which contains the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God. They view the prohibition on the use of the ‘Allah’ word and restricted use of the Alkitab as infringing on their freedom of religion.

Some of their leaders have pointed out that as Bumiputera Christians they are also accorded a special position by Article 153 the Federal Constitution in much the same manner as Malays and other Bumiputeras.

They also point to the Sabah 20-point and Sarawak 18-point Agreements signed with Malaya upon the formation of Malaysia. The first of these is freedom of religion.

The ‘Allah’ controversy attracted attention at the recent Association of Churches of Sarawak biennial general meeting in Kuching. In his address, ACS chairman the Anglican Bishop Rev Bolly Lapok, who is also the Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Southeast Asia, pointed out that, “ It is a grave mistake to cuddle extremism even for a minor political exigency because to do so is to expose Malaysians to something so base and so evil.”

He said the time has come for the church to speak up and the “way forward is no longer found in the status quo which expects the church to remain keeping her mouth shut. “

About time we exorcise the ghost of May 13

I am often asked whether May 13 will follow the outcome of the forthcoming general elections. Invariably my reply is NO! Not many share my optimism. Some even go to the extent of speculating that polling day will be May 12 so that we will vote in such a manner to ensure that the ghost of May 13 will not show up.

That’s not only foolish but more dangerously, that’s plain mischievous. The only reason we go to the polls is so that we can choose how our tomorrow may be for us, and our children, and their children.

But sometimes we find so much false security in living in the dark valley of the shadow of death that even if the light suddenly breaks forth, we may be blinded by its brilliance. So we rather scurry back to our little darkened corners of the May 13 of yesterday. We prefer helplessness over hope.

The previous general elections can be summed up with one word—shock. Even the opposition coalition was shocked by what they termed as an electoral tsunami. This GE13 can be also summed up in one word-fear. To be sure, there is no shortage of fear mongering.

Fear defeats hope. And hope is the basis of our faith. Another way of putting it is that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. But this is not blind faith.

We may not have the evidence but we still have our life experience to anchor our hope on. Each time I board a plane, I also check in my faith as extra baggage in the hope that the plane won’t crash. I have no evidence for this optimism as there is always the random chance of any plane crashing. My experience has proven me right thus far. Sure I may die in a plane crash but my fear should not stop me from flying to a destination of my hope, and my choice.

For me, to live a life that demands evidence all the time is one that shuts out the sheer joy and experience of living by faith. The truth is that life is transcendental. Life is much bigger than I. Much larger than my biggest fears. For most of us, May 13 is a fear that haunts us no end. Fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy. So we have a choice, to be self-anointed prophets of doom or of life.

If you still need evidence for optimism consider this. On the day Prime Minister Najib Razak announced the dissolution of Parliament for the country to go to the long awaited polls he promised this: “I also want to assure Malaysians and the parties involved that in the event of a transfer of power whether at federal or state level, it will and must take place in a peaceful manner.”

Leader of the opposition coalition, Anwar Ibrahim, was no less magnanimous. He said: “Pakatan Rakyat will act with Barisan Nasional against attempts by irresponsible parties to cause trouble during the campaign period. As such we welcome the statement in guaranteeing a peaceful transition of power should Pakatan win the elections.”

Please vote in hope and faith; in joy and in peace. The country requires nothing less of you.

Churches roll out campaign for GE13

Churches throughout the country have rolled out its campaign for the forthcoming general elections known as “Prayer United.” This initiative was mooted two years ago partly in response to various challenges facing the church particularly Islamisation and the erosion of religious liberty.

One in ten persons in the country is a Christian, thus making the church a significant block of votes. Thus it is no surprise that the rallying call is for the church to be “fully awakened, engaged and empowered during this critical season and to understand the urgency and importance of this elections …,” according to Prayer United.

The church is generally conservative and pro-establishment. However, as older church leaders begin to retire, they have been replaced by younger and more articulate pastors and lay leaders. Coupled with their unhappiness over curtailment of religious freedom, the church has been searching for the middle ground with many encouraging congregational members to go into the political arena.

Although the GE13 prayer campaign comes under the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), the umbrella Christian body in Malaysia that comprises the mainline Council of Churches of Malaysia, National Evangelical Christian Fellowship and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, the initiative is by a movement of nine prayer networks and pastors’ fellowship throughout the country.

Churches also see holding the general elections in 2013, the fiftieth year of the formation of Malaysia, as spiritually significant.

As pointed by Prayer United, “This election season is one of the most critical of our nation’s history as it will be held during the Jubilee Year. This is no coincidence.”

Bumiputera Christians make up about two thirds of the some two million Christians in the country mainly in Sabah and Sarawak. It is there that they have been reeling from the impact if Islamisation particularly covert conversion of their young. Another sore point is that they are still not allowed to use the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God even though the High Court has ruled otherwise. That judgement is still under appeal by the Attorney General for four years now.

Given this unhappiness, the Pastors’ Fellowship of Kota Kinabalu initiated a call to prayer in 2011 to prepare for the jubilee year of the church. That soon snowballed into a country-wide movement spearheaded by the NECF to usher in the jubilee in 2012 with a forty-day fast and pray known as the Hope of Jubilee in anticipation that the general elections would be held then.

According to NECF, “Having faced one contentions issue after another regarding the Christian faith over the last 12 months, we await a refreshing touch from God to lift us up beyond our human concerns. Equality and religious liberty are the missing factors that cause many citizens to examine the constitution to seek fairness against injustice and an oppressive system.”

Meanwhile, Christian Federation of Malaysia issued an advisory on 18 July 2012 to Christians for the GE13 entitled “Vote wisely, vote for a better Malaysia.”

It said, “CFM encourages all Christians to be conscious of their political rights—to vote, and to use the power of the vote to elect a government that will ensure justice with equity and the well-being of our nation.”

It took care to point out that CFM is not politically motivated nor is it endorsing any one political party.

With many constituencies won by a wafer thin majority in the last general elections, the Christian vote may just swing the final tally one way of another, especially in Sabah and Sarawak.

Muzzling the judiciary

Is our parliament muzzling the judiciary or the judiciary muzzling itself? This poser was highlighted by a recent High Court ruling where the court itself decided it has no power to review or provide remedy to bad laws made by the legislative.

We are taught in a parliamentary democracy there are three branches of government, the legislative, executive and the judiciary, all acting to keep each in check and balance so none encroach into the sanctity of the Federal Constitution as the supreme law in the country.

However, over the past half a century the lines of separation of powers between the three have been blurred by numerous amendments to the constitution affecting some 700 pieces of legislation.

Some of these seemed to go beyond the scope or ultra vires the constitution. These are mainly in the areas granting powers of absolute discretion to executive action. To make matters worse, these executive powers are not subject to judicial review. In other words, the judiciary is muzzled. This is no doubt a violation of the supremacy of the constitution.

But this did not stop the judiciary from playing its role in providing remedies to those seeking it. It is not uncommon then to see that the judiciary in some instances has refused to be muzzled. We have seen the courts intervening and providing remedies even in cases under the draconian (now defunct) Internal Security Act.

In the area of press licensing under the Publications and Printing Presses Act (PPPA), the minister has the absolute discretion to grant or to revoke such licenses. This executive action is not open to judicial review. However, in rare instances, the courts have intervened and provided remedies in the public interest.

A case in point is the high profile Catholic Herald case. The High Court in Kuala Lumpur decided in 2009 that the minister was wrong in imposing a condition that the Malay version of the publication is not allowed to use the word ‘Allah’ otherwise its publishing licence would not be renewed. The judgment is currently under appeal.

There have been some attempts at law reforms. For instance the ISA has been replaced by another law. The PPPA has also been amended, where among other things, the absolute discretion of the minister in press licencing has now been removed.

The decision of the High Court in Shah Alam recently is indeed a setback. Has the judiciary muzzled itself?

In an application brought by Klang MP Charles Santiago for a review of the principal and supplementary electoral rolls for his parliamentary constituency was dismissed by the court.

He said that he had raised sufficient grounds to show the existence of phantom voters in the electoral rolls.

The court said it was bound by the Section 9A of the Elections Act 1958, in that it cannot review a gazetted electoral roll. It said the Federal Court previously ruled that a gazetted electoral roll is final and cannot be questioned in court.

Responding to the decision, Santiago said the court had failed to address the key issue that Section 9A is ultra vires the Federal Constitution.

Section 9A, which was introduced into the Elections Act 1958 after the High Court in Kota Kinabalu declared the Likas by-election of 2001 null and void as there were discrepancies in the electoral roll. As a result, former Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Yong Teck Lee lost his seat but he regained it with a larger majority in a subsequent by-election. (MySinchew.com).

The writer was formerly a senior court reporter.

Who watches the watchdog?

The central notion in a democracy is the separation of powers among the three branches of government – legislative, executive, and the judiciary. The press is to act as the fourth branch or estate. The role of the press then is to serve as a watchdog on government.

But the question is who watches the watchdog?

While the other three branches of government have defined roles and rules to follow under our Constitution, the press has no defined roles at all. In fact, our Constitution is silent on the role of the press or press freedom. The nearest we can come to is the constitutional provision of freedom of speech and expression found in Article 10. On the other hand, there are plenty of laws, more than three dozen of them, that seek to do the opposite.

Thus in Malaysia, the press as watchdog is rendered toothless. But this is not to suggest that the press in Malaysia should adopt a fatalistic attitude that it cannot or should not play the role of watchdog.

Under the Marcos regime, the press in the Philippines was just as toothless as ours if not more. But this did not stop some newspapers and editors from speaking out even though they had to pay a high price.

I know of one who had to pay this price, my old friend, Tony Ma Nivea. He was incarcerated by the old regime under draconian security laws like our defunct Internal Security Act. But he survived the Marcos regime only to succumb to cancer some years the evil regime was over thrown. It was the sacrifice of the people like him that the Philippine press can play the role of watchdog today.

In Indonesia too, the press became free and vibrant following the overthrow of Soeharto. In fact, new press laws have been put in place to safeguard the institution of the press in the republic.
Indeed we do not have to wait for a change of government before we can begin to play the role of watchdog on good governance.

But we cannot watch others when the mess in our own backyard needs cleaning up. We cannot pint an accusing finger at corruption when three other fingers points back at the fraternity.

When I returned to mainstream journalism several years ago at an English newspaper, I was shocked when one of our reporters came back from an assignment with a big ‘ang pow.’ I instructed her to report this to the chief editor and to return the money to the company. The response from the boss himself shocked me further. There was no further action needed and the reporter could keep the money.

Another editor told me that bigger amounts were given at overseas assignment. He himself was given RM3, 000 cash by a director in Hong Kong. When he came back, he returned the money to the director through his secretary only to find out later she had pocketed the money without telling her boss.

We cannot hope to be watchdog against the corrupt in the other three branches of government until we ourselves are clean. Until we do that we are part of the problem, not the solution.

I want to end by saying that within the fraternity there are still those who remain incorruptible, not many but enough for me to be optimistic that there’s still hope.

The essence of journalism

The worst headline that can greet a journalist is this: Malaysia records worst-ever ranking on press freedom. Let’s face it, we have reached rock-bottom.

In the latest index compiled by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, Malaysia has dropped 23 spots to a new low by ranking of 145 out of 179 countries in the latest World Press Freedom Index.

Some are quite happy to live with this sorry state of affairs. After all we are three steps ahead of Singapore which is ranked lower than Malaysia at No 149.

But this is no consolation considering Bangladesh, Libya, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand, Indonesia and Brunei are better off than us. And if that’s not bad enough, Myanmar is fast catching up – it climbed 18 spots to No 151, just two steps behind us.

The moot point is that journalism as practised in Malaysia has fallen from grace.

Journalist, particularly senior editors, should start redeeming the profession. Sure there are many things we can’t influence or change but one thing we can do. We can change our attitude towards journalism and believe that press freedom is not only possible but essential.

That begs the question, what is journalism? The world over journalists who treasure press freedom subscribe to what is universally known as the Ten Commandments that define the essence of journalism.

They are:

Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.

We can’t serve two masters. We either pursue truth or pander to half-truth and languish in self-deceit.

Its first loyalty is to citizens.

Our first duty is not the ruling or opposition coalition or to advertisers and media owners but to citizens. It is they who give us the primary reason for our being.

Its essence is a discipline of verification.

A good journalist is a professional and responsible one. Nothing is fit to be published until and unless the information received is verified. This requires time and hard work but needs to be done.

Journalists must maintain an independence from those who cover.

This is easier said than done in our prevailing culture but it is no excuse for not trying to be independent. We cannot afford to succumb to bias reportage.

It must serve as an independent monitor of power.

Again this is easier said than done. So like it or not someone has to bell the cat. If we are afraid to do so, then don’t be journalists.

Journalists must have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.

If journalists do not exercise their conscience, they pose the first hindrance to press freedom.

Citizens too have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.

We can never under-state the right to citizen’s privacy and protection from defamatory speech.

It must keep the news comprehensive and in proportion.

Essentially news must have context and even-handedness. A case in point is the current ‘Allah’ controversy. The reportage thus far lacks both context and balance.

It must make the significant interesting and relevant.

The Malaysia experience, sadly, has been one that which is significant is often hidden between the lines.

It must serve as a forum for public criticism.

Such forums are often self-censored and I can find no reason for it. I can see merit in self-restraint or prior censorship but never self-censorship.

Break these Ten Commandments and we may end up burning in hell.

Bishops expose ploy to convert under-aged students to Islam (Part 2)

Part 2: What the bishops found out

In Part 1, the Catholic Church in Sabah has exposed a covert ploy to convert under-aged students to Islam in Labuan and complained that non-Muslim students at the Labuan Matriculation College between 17 and 18 years old, “are constantly subjected to various forms of harassment, ridicule and pressure to change their religion.”

What the bishops found out shocked them. Some teachers there were proselytising Christian students resulting in some converting to Islam. The called for full probe after which a strongly worded letter jointly signed by the four Catholic bishops of Sabah together with a report prepared by the Sabah Catholic Diocesan Centre was despatched to the highest levels with copies to Education Minister Muyhiddin Yasin, who is also the Deputy Prime Minister as well as two Sabahan Christian ministers, Bernard Dompok and Dr Maximus Ongkili, as well as to Murphy Pakiam, President of the Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia.

More poignantly, the newly established Vatican Embassy in Malaysia known Apostolic Nunciature was also notified through its Charge’ d’Affairs Monsignor Marek Zalewski.

In their joint letter dated 5 October 2012, the four Bishops claimed that some lecturers at the Federal funded Labuan Matriculation College “are abusing their position as teachers/mentors by imposing their beliefs on (non-Muslim) students during classes and through the activities of the college. Some lecturers have made offensive remarks about Christianity with intent to hurt the religious feelings of the students.”

“In the light of the above, we trust that the college will uphold our constitutional rights as Malaysians and ensure that any infringement of the students’ rights is stopped immediately,” they added.

According those close to the case, the college has transferred a teacher identified by the students as one of those involved in the covert ploy has been transferred back to Peninsular Malaysia to placate the Catholic Church of Sabah.

The matter came to light when on 16 July last year, the Catholic Church received information through Catholic students at the matriculation college that some of the Muslim lecturers there attempted to influence their faith and as a result several students have embraced Islam.

A full probe was conducted by the church and written evidence was gathered from the students. The college has 2,771 residential students from Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan of which half or some 1,232 are Christians, the rest being Muslims. There are also 77 Buddhist students there.

The probe report said some Muslim lecturers disparaged Christianity, make comparison of Christianity with Islam, ridiculed (memalukan) Christian students, infused Islamic teachings during lessons even those which had nothing to do with the subject matter, and holding classes, activities and forums in suraus.

When two Catholic teachers tried to intervene in the case of an Iban Catholic girl who had converted, she was advised by an ustaz to make a police report against them for harassment. She made two police reports and another was also made by another Muslim lecturer.

According to the probe report, the modus operandi of the covert ploy to convert Catholic students is to spot students who are weak in their faith and those from poor families. They also look out for students who do not attend church regularly as well as those from broken families.

The two case cites in the report fit this profile. One is an Iban girl from a longhouse in Kanowit, an old Chinese trading post on the Rejang River, Borneo’s second longest river. Her father is unemployed while her mother is a farmer. She has five other siblings. She converted to Islam when she reached 18 years of age and changed her name to a Muslim one.

I managed to speak to her mother through mobile phone. She said her daughter didn’t ask them for permission to convert. She just told them when she came back wearing a tudung or the Muslim head covering. She said her daughter seldom went to church. Asked why she didn’t intervene she replied, “Apa boleh buat.” (What can we do).

The other girl is a Melanau from Miri who converted she was just two months short of the legal age of 18. She asked both her parents to accompany her to the religious department to give their consent. Both didn’t agree but went nevertheless to the department. I asked the father why he did that. “Tak tahu lah.”(Don’t know). He gave the same reply to my other questions or “dia suka” (she likes).

According to current issue of Catholic Sabah, the fortnightly newsletter of the Sabah Catholic Church, following the expose by the four bishops and publication of their letter, the education authorities responded by sending a senior delegation last month led by Dr Sariah Abdul Jalil from the Ministry of Education which included Sawan@ Rizal bin Amil, the director of the college and its deputy, Kamarudin Mansur, and five other key personnel from the college for a discussion with the Sabah Catholic Church to “thrash out certain issues.”

Subsequent to the meeting, the bishops were invited to submit a letter to Dr Sariah, outlining their complaint which she would include in her report to “higher authorities”, the newsletter added.

From www.mysinchew.com

Bishops expose ploy to convert under-aged students to Islam (Part 1)

The Catholic Church in Sabah has exposed a covert ploy to convert under-aged students to Islam in Labuan.

In a strongly worded letter signed by the four Roman Catholic bishops of Sabah, they complained that non-Muslim students at the Labuan Matriculation College between 17 and 18 years old, “are constantly subjected to various forms of harassment, ridicule and pressure to change their religion.”

The residential college is under the matriculation division of the Ministry of Education and has an enrolment of 2,771 students from Sarawak, Sabah and Labuan. About half of them are Catholics and Protestants and the rest made up of Muslims other than 77 of them who are Buddhists.

According to the latest issue of “Catholic Sabah,” the fortnightly newsletter of the ecclesiastical province of Kota Kinabalu, the letter dated 5 October last year was published two weeks later in the Herald, the Kuala Lumpur-based Catholic weekly newsletter.

The letter was jointly signed by Rev Datuk John Lee, who recently retired as Archbishop of Kota Kinabalu, Rev John Wong, Coadjutor Archbishop of Kota Kinabalu, Rev Datuk Cornelius Piong, Bishop of Keningau, and Rev Julius Dusin Gitom, Bishop of Sandakan.

Following the expose by the four bishops and publication of their letter, the education authorities responded by sending a senior delegation last month led by Dr Sariah Abdul Jalil from the Ministry of Education which included Sawan@ Rizal bin Amil, the director of the college and its deputy, Kamarudin Mansur, and five other key personnel from the college for a discussion with the Sabah Catholic Church to “thrash out certain issues” according to Catholic Sabah.

The two-hour meeting was described by the newsletter as “frank and cordial while affirming that the (Catholic) Church is committed to ensuring that the religious rights of all non-Muslims are not being eroded.”

”The discussion on the protection of rights for the students also included the rights of the students to a safe and conducive learning environment, one that is free from harassment, intimidation and pressure,” the newsletter said.

”The right to attend religious services without students losing out in additional classes or activities conducted by the college on weekends was also highlighted,” it added.

The newsletter also said another highlight of the discussion was the right of the students to hold discussions, prayer meetings and services in the college and to form an association as provided for under the Educational Institutions (Discipline) Act 1976.

It also said the right to protection for non-Muslim lecturers and students who speak out against religious harassment was also raised during the discussions. Those familiar with such matters said in the past, any Christian teacher, especially those from Peninsular Malaysia would be given a 24-hour transfer notice from the Education Department if they raised such issues or complaints while serving in schools in Sabah or Sarawak.

When the issue first surfaced sometime in the middle of last year, the information was that an under-aged Catholic student and three more from the Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB) of Sabah were converted to Islam without the knowledge or consent of their parents. Subsequently, the number involved proved to be more.

The newly formed NECF-COSA or National Evangelical Christian Fellowship Commission of Sabah Affairs took up the case but did not proceed further due to lack of information. The matter was then referred to the Sabah Council of Churches. It was at this stage that the Catholic Church decided to conduct full scale probe into the matter that led to the four bishops issuing their joint letter together with a full report.

From www.mysinchew.com