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Is it illegal to be an atheist in Malaysia?

5 months ago Mikaela Anthony

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This article is for general informational purposes only and is not meant to be used or construed as legal advice in any manner whatsoever. All articles have been scrutinized by a practicing lawyer to ensure accuracy.

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The Rukun Negara is something all of us had to say every Monday morning during our school assemblies. But how many of us actually understood what was being said, instead of just repeating a bunch of words after the Head Prefect?  In case it’s been too long since you saw it, we’ll just remind you that the very first of the five Rukun Negara is “kepercayaan kepada Tuhan”, which translates to “belief in God”.

Many of us do have religions and faithfully practice them, while many of us don’t believe in the existence of a higher power. But… what if we fall in the second category? Does the Rukun Negara have any legal bearing on us? Before we get to that, let’s just remember that…

 

Freedom of religion is guaranteed

Image from Ipoh Echo

This goes without saying, that while Malaysia is a country with a Muslim majority, people of other faiths can practice their religions freely. This is in the Federal Constitutions and it can be found it Sections 3 and 11 of the Federal Constitution.

Section 3:
(1) Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.
Section 11:
 (1) Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and, subject to Clause (4), to propagate it.

So, the freedom to practice one’s religion is guaranteed by the law, but the Federal Constitution is silent as to whether freedom to practice a religion also means freedom to NOT practice a religion. Since it’s not in the law, and the Rukun Negara tells us to have belief in God...

 

Does atheism go against the Federal Constitution & Rukun Negara?

Image from Rebuilding Malaysia

In November 2017, a Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Dr Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki had said that atheism was unconstitutional.  Unconstitutional means it is’t in line with the country’s constitution. He said that atheism was a threat to the religious beliefs of not only Muslims, but of other faiths as well.

“We need to understand, that in the Malaysian context, our Federal Constitution states that freedom of religion is not freedom from religion. - Datuk Dr Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki as quoted by The Star.
He went on to say that by not having any religion, an atheist was going against both the Rukun Negara and Federal Constitution.
 
A few days after the Deputy Minister had made this statement, a group of lawyers said that he was wrong in saying that atheism in Malaysia was unconstitutional. In short, their arguments were:
 
  • The Federal Constitution guarantees freedom of religion under Article 11, and this includes the freedom not to believe
  • The Federal Constitution also guarantees the right to life and personal liberty under Article 5. This would include the right not to believe in a religion
  • Freedom of religion does not mean it is compulsory for everyone to have one
  • Atheism does not mean no religion. It means not believing in a deity, a theos or God. Buddhism in its strictest sense does not involve a belief in a god
  • As for the promotion of atheism, it is part of freedom of expression, which is under the Federal Constitution’s Article 10(1)(a), which is the freedom of speech, assembly and association.

The lawyers also pointed out that the Rukun Negara is not a law in itself. It is known as a national philosophy and a guide for Malaysians to live by. But there is no penalty for “breaching” the Rukun Negara, so an atheist cannot be said to be breaking the law by not having a faith. The same goes for the Federal Constitution. There is no mention of atheism in it, and there certainly can’t be a punishment for something that doesn’t even exist. Also, something that is unconstitutional isn’t necessary illegal.

 

You must have some religion on paper

Image from GIPHY

When it comes to official matters, like obtaining a birth or death certificate, or getting a Malaysian IC, one HAS to indicate a religion on the registration or application form. If you leave it blank or write “tiada agama” (no religion), your application will be rejected. Or they might not even want to take a look at it.

We called up JPN just to verify this with them, and they also confirmed that all applications for certificates or identification cards MUST have a religion on it. It’s perfectly fine to change your religion, but that must be reflected in your official documents. 

There may be some very unique circumstances where JPN may allow you to leave the “agama” section blank, but these are very few in number. Most people still have to list some religion in that section.

So, other than compelling you to have a religion on paper, can bodies like JPN take any serious action against you? Once again, because there is no specific law against atheism, they can’t.

 

So isn’t illegal, it’s just not recognized

Image from me.me

So all in all, it isn’t a crime or something that warrants a penalty if someone doesn’t profess a religion. Yes, he or she might have a hard time when dealing with official matters, but that’s as far as it goes. So it’s fine if you don’t want to practice a particular religion, but you must legally belong to a particular faith. Professing atheism might be a moral wrong for some, but what is and isn't a moral wrong is for the courts to decide. And up to now, no court has decided that atheism is a moral wrong.

It must be remembered that all these laws only apply to non- Muslims in Malaysia. For Muslims who renounce their faiths and identify as atheists, the laws of apostasy under Syariah law will apply to them.

Tags:
federal constitution
jpn
perlembagaan
atheism
free thinker
rukun negara

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