Challenges to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Malaysia: A Briefing Paper


“The right to freedom of religion or belief is guaranteed in international human rights law, including in a number of core human rights instruments. It encompasses a wide range of rights, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice, and the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching, either individually or in community with others, in public or in private. The right to freedom of religion or belief also covers the right to freedom of thought and personal convictions, including theistic, non-theistic or atheistic beliefs, and the freedom not to disclose one’s religion or belief.

“The Federal Constitution of Malaysia enshrines a number of legal protections with respect to freedom of religion or belief in the country. It protects the right to freedom of religion under Article 11, including the right to ‘profess, practise and propagate’ one’s religious beliefs, with the possibility that federal law may impose certain limits on the right to propagate the Islamic faith among Muslims. Under Article 3, Islam is accorded a special and effectively privileged position within the country.

“To understand the operation in practice of the legal framework governing freedom of religion or belief in Malaysia, it is necessary to appreciate the role that religion and ethnicity have played in Malaysian politics and society. Ethnicity and religion have often been utilized by political parties to advance their agenda. Even after the 60-year governance of the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition led by the nationalist United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party came to an end in 2018, the propagation of identity-based politics has persisted.

“Religious intolerance is also a pressing concern in Malaysia, a concern raised by the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, following a visit to the country in September 2017. Harassment of persons from religious minorities, as well as the recent disappearances of religiously-affiliated social workers or clergy, illustrate the serious consequences of growing religious intolerance.

“In this context, jurisdictional disputes affecting the adjudication of matters relating to religion and belief – between civil courts, which apply federal and state laws, and Syariah courts, which apply Islamic laws – have become a main arena of contestation. Exacerbated by a lack of clarity in existing jurisprudence and law about this dual jurisdictional regime, the scope of matters heard by Syariah courts has expanded, resulting in diminished access to civil remedies. Despite the protections offered by the Constitution, legal safeguards to protect the rights of Muslims in respect of personal and family matters remain inadequate, and there is little protection for persons who wish to change their religion. This situation has had a particularly detrimental impact on already at-risk populations, such as religious minorities and children.”

For more information, read Challenges to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Malaysia: A Briefing Paper.

Mohammad Mujeeb