Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Religious freedoms in Malaysia

I did something really surprising yesterday. I went to listen to a law talk given by Justice Dato' Gopal Sri Ram of the Malaysian Appeals Court entitled, "Religion and the Malaysian Courts - Recent Developments". I thought that it would be an interesting talk, and therefor I went to listen to it.

Anyone who knows me knows that I generally don't like lawyers (although one of my best chums is one). In the limited dealings that I've had with them, I generally find them a bunch of arrogant idiots who have no sense of what reality is. The sad thing is that many of the law students here are already behaving like that even before they become real lawyers. Needless to say, I don't have many lawyer friends.

However, the speaker gave me a different impression of lawyers. He came across as someone who is fairly logical, and capable of intelligent thought. He was also very aware of how decisions that he makes will affect the lives of many people. No matter what has been said of him, I do like his in your face kind of attitude. He didn't come across as a nice guy because he was daring enough to disagree with his fellow judges in sensitive cases like these (and he made it plenty clear that he found their reasoning stupid).

The talk itself was very interesting. It wasn't filled with too much legal jargon as I could follow it quite closely. I could understand what was happening most of the time as I had been reading up on family law and syariah law recently. I've also always been curious about our country's unique constitution. I had fully expected this talk to be extremely boring, nice and politically correct. However, it turned out otherwise and I was very curious over many of the things that he had said.

He covered several major cases in Malaysia, both past and present, where Article 11 was brought into the case. The issue of religious freedom in Malaysia is a contentious one, especially in light of recent event. He explained in a very clear and logical manner, why the recent cases of Lina Joy and Subashini were not handled correctly by the judges. The most important lesson to take away is that the Syariah Courts in Malaysia only have power to adjudicate cases where both parties are muslim. Otherwise, it is under the premise of the civil courts. This is clearly stipulated in the relevant Islamic Law Act and constitution.

So, he did give us this feeling that the Malaysian legal framework is currently at a crossroads. He illustrated the fact that in all cases up to 1995, it was clear that the secular law was the law that governed Malaysia. However, with these cases currently in court, it wasn't clear how things will be in the future. He argues that these cases shouldn't even have their airtime in the syariah courts as they simply had no jurisdiction. So, any other arguments about subject matter jurisdiction was moot.

Personally, I do agree with that. In our government's fervour in attracting the muslim vote away from PAS, they have become more religious than before. The radicals, seeing the change, have exploited this situation greatly to their advantage. The non-muslim component parties of the BN aren't doing anything to help. I see this as part of a world wide trend towards religious conservatism. For some reason, everyone thinks that they're under threat. Religious paranoia can get very scary, as evidenced by history. I certainly hope we don't end up that way.

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