The good news is that the Home Ministry has approved the Herald’s permit a couple of days before it expired – just in the nick of time.
The other bit of good news, according to the NST, is that the paper apparently has been allowed to expand its scope beyond coverage of “religion” in the narrowest sense. The new permit allows it to also cover “current affairs” and “international affairs”. Previously, the Home Ministry had issued warning letters for articles that allegedly went beyond the scope of “religion” (according to the government’s narrow definition).
The bad news on New Year’s Day is that the approval comes with strings attached:
- the Herald has to stop its Malay-language supplement. A typical edition of the weekly paper has 32 pages, including an eight-page Malay-language pull-out, three pages in Chinese and two pages in Tamil, with the rest in English.
- the paper can only be sold in churches (I don’t think it’s being sold anywhere else at present);
- The Herald must print clearly on the cover that the paper is only meant for Christians.
It is worth bearing in mind that 65 per cent of all Christians in Malaysia (as at the year 2000) are ‘bumiputeras’ from Sabah and Sarawak and this figure is rising. (It was 63 per cent in 1991.) Most of these are Kadazans, Dayaks and Dusuns, many of whom mainly use the Malay language.
In that sense, the Malaysian church has a bumiputera majority. So by denying the majority of its church members the right to read in Malay, the national language, isn’t the government violating a fundamental right?
This reminds me of the time when Aliran was denied the right to publish a magazine in Malay in addition to its English edition. We took the case to court and won at the High Court. But the law was then amended to make the Minister’s decision final and we lost in the Supreme Court and Aliran ended up having to pay costs!
Meanwhile, the Church has taken the government to court over its ban on the use of the term “Allah”. It may resort to similar action over the ban on publishing in Malay.