The decline of freedom in Malaysia
Famous for its culinary scene and breath-taking landscapes, Malaysia has become a major tourist destination for many bored with the Med. With buzzing cities, idyllic islands and swanky hotels, it’s not hard to see why this former British colony is so attractive. However, not all is as it appears in paradise. There is another side to what is presented in glossy travel magazines.
In recent years, Malaysia has been increasingly blighted by a rising tide of violence and discrimination against religious minorities. This has included a series of mysterious abductions — most infamously, the disappearance of Raymond Koh in February 2017. A convert from Islam, Koh was an evangelical pastor of a large church in Kuala Lumpur who ran a successful charity called Harapan Komuniti (Hope Community) which works with people with HIV/AIDS, recovering drug addicts, homeless and single parents.
Pastor Koh was abducted by a group of 15 masked assailants
While driving near his home, Pastor Koh was abducted by a group of 15 masked assailants who surrounded his car with seven blacked-out SUVs. He has not been seen since, and he is not the only religious leader to have disappeared. The whereabouts of Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth who went missing in 2016 are unknown, and people have also been abducted from the minority Hindu and Shia Muslim communities.
The clinical efficiency of the abductions drew accusations that the authorities were involved, and investigations by local and international legal advocacy groups began. Notably, in 2019, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia issued the findings of an investigation into Raymand Koh’s disappearance, concluding that it had been orchestrated by the Special Branch of Malaysia’s Police Department, which is responsible for intelligence gathering for the government. As you can imagine, the findings caused international uproar and brought considerable pressure on the authorities to come clean.
In response, the Malaysian government formed a task force to get to the bottom of things, promising to make its findings public in late 2019. Despite tireless campaigning from Pastor Koh’s wife Susannah, the findings have never been released.
Tomorrow, at the High Court in Kuala Lumpur, Sussanah Koh resumes a civil case against the country’s government and police. Despite the Koh family being subjected to years of harassment and intimidation, Susannah wants answers, and she wants justice. Whether Raymond is alive or not, as a deterrent to protect other faith leaders, she is also dedicated to exposing and challenging the impunity of an increasingly radicalised Malaysian establishment.
Although Malaysia has a diverse ethnic, cultural and religious population, the constitution requires all Malay to be Sunni Muslims. Those with the Malay-Muslim identity benefit from an “affirmative action policy” which at both a federal and state level, gives ethnic Malay huge advantages over any other religious groups in decisions concerning quotas, grants, loans and tax benefits. With government agencies such as the Selangor state Islamic Religious Council depicting Christians as “enemies of Islam who always have malicious intentions and are the bearers of lies” and the federal Sedition Act – which criminalises anything that “promotes feelings of ill will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Malaysia” – being used to suppress religious freedom or punish actions deemed to offend religious sensitivities, it is hardly surprising that life is increasingly hazardous for Christians. It also explains why Malaysia sits at 43 in Open Doors’ World Watch List, which ranks nations by the levels of persecution and discrimination experienced by its Christian population.
With religious freedom often seen as a measure of human rights more generally, and with conversion — the freedom to choose or change religion — often seen as the measure of religious freedom, Malayasia appears to be a distinctly unfree place right now. This is because the Constitution allows the federal and state governments to restrict proselytization to Muslims. With very few people being allowed to convert via the legally required Sharia Court route, it is extremely difficult to change religion (or reject it altogether) in Malaysia.
There have also been cases of enforced conversion to Islam of children with non-Muslim parents. More worryingly, there are also legal moves to greatly increase the scope of punishment within in Islamic Sharia Law for infractions or perceived infractions. Although Sharia and its punishments are notionally restricted to Muslims, this would have a dramatic chilling effect on the nation’s freedoms — religious or otherwise.
The prospects for political reform look slim. A marked increase in Islamist extremism in recent years is reflected in the success of the hard-line Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party — now the largest party in a coalition Government — and one of the very few government bodies worldwide to congratulate the Taliban for liberating and ruling Afghanistan.
The Malaysian police have a strong history of abuse, including excessive use of force, torture, and ill-treatment, which has clearly been facilitated by an absence of accountability. With the Malay authorities increasingly influenced by radical Islamism, the future for other faith groups and indeed any group which may appear to dissent to the prevailing orthodoxy, looks bleak.
Which is why Susannah Koh’s civil case is so important. Although it is highly unlikely that her husband is still alive, her unrelenting campaign for truth has maintained international focus on a country which many unwittingly regard as a multicultural Shangri-la. We should all be inspired by her courage and be thankful for her exposure of the brutal reality of life for Christians in Malaysia.
With civil society so unequal, much hinges on the civil case. As John Milton observed in Paradise Lost, “Never can true reconcilement grow where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep.”
So, until the serious human rights violations which Susannah Koh is fighting are properly addressed, I hope that we will all think twice about trade with and tourism in Malaysia.
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