It looks fairly certain that the decision of the Court of Appeal on the use of the word “Allah” in the Malay version of the newsletter of the Catholic Church, Herald, will be appealed to the Federal Court. It is improbable that the apex court will deny permission to appeal, considering the obvious constitutional implications of the matter.
It is obvious that the Federal Court will have much to consider. Amongst the criticism leveled against the Court of Appeal is the suggestion that the Court had made a policy decision, as opposed to a legal one. Considering the reasons advanced by the judges concerned for their decision, there is substance to this complaint.
The Court of Appeal was required merely to determine whether the High Court judge had arrived at a decision that was consistent with the relevant legal principles. That decision related to only one question; whether the Home Affairs Minister had exercised his powers in a manner that was justified in law in imposing the condition that the word “Allah” was not to be used in the publication. And while the Court of Appeal would have been right to interpret such law as it was required to for the purpose of deciding whether the High Court judge had erred, it ought not have gone so far as to effectively develop a legal framework for the protection of Islam.
Settled principles of law dictate that the courts are not to substitute the decisions of administrators with those of the courts. All that the courts can do in affording judicial review is to consider whether the administrator concerned, in this instance the Minister, had adopted the correct decision making process, and whether the administrative decision challenged was reasonable having regard to the circumstances as they stood at the time the administrative decision was made. These legal constraints were in fact recognised by the judges of the Court of Appeal who discussed them in their respective judgments.
In this context, all that the Court of Appeal ought have done was to enquire into the reasons advanced by the High Court to quash the decision of the Minister. These reasons ultimately centered on one primary conclusion; that the Minister had no reasonable basis on which he could objectively conclude that the use of the word “Allah” in the Herald would be a threat to public order.
A review of this conclusion by the Court of Appeal would have entailed an objective consideration of the basis of the Minister’s decision, that is the factual considerations that the Minister took into account at the time he made the decision, with a view to determining whether his decision was one that any reasonable person in the Minister’s shoes would have made. For this purpose, negative reactions on the part of the public to the decision of the High Court were not relevant, it being a matter of established principle that the popularity of a decision of the courts is not the yardstick by which the correctness of that decision is to be measured. Were it otherwise, many a litigant would arrange for public controversy in order to gain a foothold in the appellate courts.
It must be appreciated that at the most fundamental level, the complaint of the Catholic Church was that the condition impacted on the right of the Church, and the members of its congregation, to express themselves fully. And while it is tempting to characterise disputes of such a nature as concerning the freedom of religion, this was really a case about the freedom of expression. From a constitutional standpoint, it is established principle that all Malaysians have the right to say what it is they want save where their right to do so has been limited by law on grounds of national security and public order. Such law must however be reasonable, and the restraint on expression limited to only what is essential to achieve the aim of the law. These constraints apply equally to any administrative action sanctioned by law.
It is telling that the current Deputy Home Minister has sought to justify the decision of the Court of Appeal by limiting it to publications by the Herald. And while the Deputy Home Minister may have a point, the case concerns only the permit to publish the Herald and nothing else, the assertion that the word “Allah” can still be used in Malay language bibles in East Malaysia wholly undermines the position taken by the then Home Minister that the use of the word by the Herald would result in public disorder. The Church has after all accepted that the Herald can only be circulated to the Church’s congregation.
Seen in this light, there was no necessity for the Court of Appeal to enquire into, and conclude on, what was integral to the Christian faith. It is not for the courts to define what is and what is not essential in any faith and I can see no reason for any superior court in this country to ever take such an extraordinary step. Not only is such a course wholly inconsistent with the various dimensions of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion, it is unnececessary.
Any concerns about the intersection of the free practice of religion and public order are addressed by the constitution itself. The freedom of religion is expressed in a manner that permits the legislature, and consequently the State, to encroach where required to by the dictates of public order. It is unnecessary for the courts to determine whether a particular practice is essential to a particular faith, or not, in such cases as the constitution focuses attention on solely the maintenance of public order. The courts are as such only required to consider whether a particular course of conduct on the part of the administration is justified by reference to the public order concerns asserted.
Even in those limited cases where a court is called upon to determine a question of fact that relates to the practice of religion, and in my experience this occurs exclusively in the Islamic sphere as, unlike the other religions of this country, the Islamic faith is regulated by law, the Courts only go so far as interpreting codified law, often with the assistance of experts. For instance, in two matters that came before the Federal Court several years ago, it was contended that the legislature of the states of Terengganu and Selangor had acted without power in creating certain offences. The Federal Court availed itself of the views of experts in order to determine what the phrase “precepts of Islam” in the constitution meant. Similarly, in the early 1990s the Penang High Court took into consideration a fatwa in determining whether a person had died a Muslim.
It is unfortunate that the Court of Appeal felt it necessary to go as far as it did. Respectfully, the court appears to have substituted its own decision for that of the Minister, albeit to the same end. This was unfortunate, not least because the decision has fueled fears concerning efforts to establish the primacy of Islam in the public sphere and the implications this has. It has also overshadowed the emphatic declaration by the Supreme Court in 1988 that the public law of this country is secular.
Stripped of political implications, the case is one that is easily determined. It was made controversial by certain quarters for their own purposes. Regrettably, in failing to recognise the controversy for what it was, the Court of Appeal may have inadvertently laid the ground for the further machinations of those who would divide this nation.
It is my sincere hope that the Federal Court will appreciate that the case was only ever about whether the “Allah” condition was warranted, reasonable and accorded with the constitutional guarantee of free expression. Whatever the decision the court ultimately arrives on this narrow issue, it is imperative for the court to deal with the highly divisive policy dictates of the decision of the Court of Appeal. It can do so by underscoring that religion is a personal matter and theological debates cannot, and must never, be brought into the courts.
(First published in The Edge on 19.10.2013)