KUALA LUMPUR: Freedom of expression, one of the fundamental liberties enshrined in the Federal Constitution, can only be limited by laws passed in Parliament, says law academic Azmi Sharom.
He described the ban on the Bahasa Malaysia version of Allah, Liberty and Love by Irshad Manji, as frightening, arguing that the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) had used the Syariah Criminal Offences (Selangor) Enactment 1995 to ban the book.
He explained Article 10 of the Federal Constitution was extremely clear in that it guaranteed Malaysian citizens the right to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association.
This freedom, however, was not absolute, he said, as Parliament had the power to impose limits, if necessary, in the interests of national security, public order and morality.
“Here’s the clincher. This ban was done under state shariah law.
“Freedom of expression can only be limited by laws made by Parliament — not the Selangor state assembly. That is not Parliament.
“It cannot get clearer than this.
“A law restricting freedom of expression was made by a state legislature which had no authority to make such laws.”
Azmi was speaking at a panel discussion at the launch of Lim Teck Ghee’s book, Challenging Malaysia’s Status Quo, at the KL Regional Centre for Arbitration here today. Lim is Centre for Policy Initiatives chief executive.
Azmi said the Court of Appeal judge had however held that the Selangor shariah offences enactment was constitutional because the state Islamic religious authority had the power to term any activity that went against the precepts of Islam, as an offence.
Azmi however stressed that restrictions on freedom of expression can only be carried out through Parliament, the highest legislative body in the country.
He said one “cannot use the precepts of Islam element as an excuse to make laws which restrict this”.
He added, “If not, then you will have a weird situation where your human rights differ from state to state.
“For instance, when I go to Penang, I may have more freedom. In Selangor, I may have less freedom. It would become a situation where, depending on the state, fundamental liberties will be different.”
He also noted that it had become very difficult to intellectually challenge the status quo because of the way Islam was viewed in the country.
JAIS, on May 29, 2012, raided the premises of local publisher ZI Publication and seized 180 copies of the Malay version of the book.
Then Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein had reportedly said the book had breached the Islamic teachings contained in the Quran and Hadith.
However, following a judicial review application filed by the publisher, the High Court on Sept 5, 2013 overturned the ban, declaring it unlawful.
Meanwhile, Azmi cautioned that while Article 3 of the Federal Constitution states that Islam is the religion of the federation, it did not mean Malaysia was an Islamic state.
“The status of Islam cannot be denied in Article 3 of the Federal Constitution. I don’t deny and cannot argue that Islam is part of the character of the country.
“I am quite certain we were meant to be secular. Article 3 (of the Federal Constitution) is not meant to make Malaysia an Islamic state.
“Islam is part of the character and make-up of most of the people in the country, but it does not mean we are an Islamic state,” he said.
He said the existence of Article 3 in the Federal Constitution recognised Islam as the religion of the federation but the country was secular.