On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

An ‘identity crisis’ we can do without

Bureaucracy and undue obstructions from over-zealous middle-ranking civil servants have long been blamed for why Christians have difficulties in building churches although the Federal Constitution is clear on everyone's right to freedom of worship. The size of the Christian population is taken into account before approval can be given in line with religious sensitivity. Thus, if the numbers are wrong, it would have repercussions on followers of the faith.

The liberal policy of the Government and the open-mindedness of our leaders are clear in protecting the rights of all religions, especially the minorities. The Selangor Government, for example, recently allocated and approved land for the construction of churches.

It has not been an easy journey for Christians in Selangor, particularly the Roman Catholics. Unlike Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, the Christians have a lesser voice, in terms of representation in government. Still, it is encouraging to know that complaints from many Christians that their religion has been wrongly recorded have received the attention of the Government.

I understand that the Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili and Deputy Home Affairs Minister Datuk Tan Chai Ho are helping to rectify the problem, together with the ministry's secretary-general Tan Sri Aseh Che Mat.

Aseh, a dedicated and fair-minded civil servant, I honestly believe, would be able to resolve this concern.

NRD director-general Datuk Wan Ibrahim Wan Ahmad was recently quoted as saying that "changes on religion could not be made without proof as the department has to be accountable" while public relations officer Jainisah Mohd Noor reportedly said the procedure of signing a declaration form was necessary for the department's documentation.

I share the concern of these two officials in wanting to ensure accuracy for statistical reasons but their good intentions may not be well received by many. Some may find such requests unacceptable because it is unlikely that those from other religions would be asked to show such proof.

The National Evangelical Christian Fellowship Malaysia said it had received complaints that some NRD clerks insisted that those who wished to make amendments to their religion should produce baptism certificates or letters from their churches as proof of change in religion.

This problem has surfaced because of the NRD's assumption on religion that it is based on the birth certificate, past IC information or simply race. Pastors, for example, have found their religion listed as Buddhists or Hindus. When they sought amendments, they were asked to show proof that they are Christians.

In all fairness, new Christians should also not be too quick to accuse the NRD of wrongdoings if they themselves have not informed the clerks of their change in religion. But what the NRD can do is to ensure some uniformity at the front desk level. For example, a simple form should be sufficient. Unlike Muslims, those from other faiths do not have legal implications if they wish to change their faiths.

In short, non-Muslims have the right to change their religion as it is essentially a personal matter. There is thus no need for non-Muslims to prove their religion and the job of the NRD clerk is to record the information, that's all.The NRD has no legal basis or authority to ask MyKad applicants for baptism certificate or church letters.

Religion has always been treated as a sensitive matter in Malaysia and rightly so too. The NRD must understand and appreciate this concern.

***Comment: CORRECTION : ERROR – In Paragraph 8, the NAME of the NRD director general is INCORRECT. The director-general is Datuk Mohd Abdul Halim Muhammad and NOT Datuk Wan Ibrahim Wan Ahmad. Error pointed out by Royce Cheah Shiou Han and confirmed by Parkaran – 27/12/2005