Ever since tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur in July demanding electoral reform, the government has moved to reassure its people that Malaysia is a rapidly modernizing country moving in the right direction.
Still, Malaysians wanting to sing Christmas carols now need a police permit,which would allow churches to send them into Christian homes. Permits were previously never a problem, although new conditions have been imposed that Bishop Paul Tan Chee Ing says has made the country “very nearly a police state.”
Prime Minister Najib Razak had raised the hopes of civil society that a new era was being ushered in with his decision to repeal a raft of widely loathed laws, including the Internal Security Act (ISA), which was introduced by Malaysia after it secured independence from Britain in 1957.
The law allowed for detention without trial. Also for the legal dustbin of history are laws governing the press and rights of assembly. All this was supposed to be replaced by the Peaceful Assembly Bill of 2011, designed to bring Malaysia into line with international norms.
However, provisions within the recently passed bill apparently require priests to supply the names and occupants of the homes where a choir intends to visit and sing Christmas carols. Christians have found the new rules vexing, and fear the vows to abandon the ISA and laws governing printing and rights of assembly are simply government lip service designed to appease a broad cross-section of disgruntled Malaysians.
Bishop Tan says there should be a buffer between church and state, and it isn’t the job of the church to snoop or play big brother or nanny to its congregation.
“If parish priests have to furnish the names of the main tenants, then we have become very nearly a police state,” said the Jesuit trained Bishop Tan. “This is a bureaucratic requirement that is so vexing.”
Others would like Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein to explain why churches need to tell police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur and the National Security Council such details. Teresa Mok, national organizing secretary for the Democratic Action Party, says the new rules were “simply unnecessary and an abuse of power by the authorities.” She cites two cases where churches in Klang had received a police memo requesting the details of people singing carols.
She adds this indicated an attempt to infringe on religious freedoms.
“The police must not use politically motivated maneuvers to hinder long-held customs, such as the tradition of caroling among Christians, which has been an exercise of goodwill and peace for decades in our country during the joyous season of Christmas,” Kok says.
Many hope the strict interpretation of a bill meant to enlighten as opposed to suppress is simply the work of a few short-sighted people, rather than a state in fear.