Bill on racial and religious hatred 'soon' in Malaysia: Minister in PM's Department

KUALA LUMPUR - The Malaysian government is moving to curb racial and religious hatred in the country amid the growing number of such cases, particularly on social media.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Department (Religion) Mujahid Yusof Rawa told parliament on Tuesday (July 24) a Bill would be tabled "soon."

He was replying to a question from an opposition Umno MP, Ismail Mohamed Said, who asked about the measures the authorities planned to take against those who insult Islam on social media.

"The Pakatan Harapan (PH) government intends to table a Bill in Parliament towards enacting the Religious and Racial Hatred Act... not just to deal with incidences when Islam is insulted but also when non-Muslim faiths are insulted," Datuk Mujahid said.

"This is to ensure that our multi-religious and multiracial society is protected from being insulted and belittled," he added.

Datuk Mujahid, who is in charge of Islamic Affairs, also said he would meet religious scholars this month on the matter.

The previous long-serving Barisan Nasional (BN) government, which was ousted in the last general election in May, had drafted a National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill for similar purposes. Former prime minister Najib Razak introduced it in July 2012 but the bill never took off and to all intents and purposes appeared shelved.

Datuk Mujahid, who later attended a seminar  on extremism in the Muslim world at the University of Malaya, proposed the formation of a national harmony and reconciliation commission to address extremism and bigotry, saying that this was among the measures the ruling PH coalition was considering as part of efforts to safeguard religious and communal ties in the country.

He said both the proposed commission and law would incorporate elements of the defunct National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), of which he used to be chairman.

"The first discussion on this matter is expected to be held on July 31, which will be attended by more than 40 scholars," he told reporters at the seminar.

In recent years, concern has grown in Malaysia about rising intolerance and exclusivist views on religious issues, especially by the majority Muslims.

Last year (2017), a human rights organisation, Pusat Komas, released the Malaysia Racial Discrimination report which highlighted this issue.

"The rise of religious extremism in Malaysia with the notion of protecting one's religious purity has led to discriminatory actions that have impeded the rights of Malaysians from different ethnic groups," the report said.

"Though the discriminatory actions may stem from a religious perspective, the intersectionality between religious and racial discrimination is apparent in these cases. This new trend is not only worrying but it highlights the inherent danger of the overreach of bureaucratic Islamic institutions," it added.

The report also highlighted Mr Najib's written reply in Parliament last year when he said that "there has not been any discussion to table or introduce laws against racism and discrimination yet".  The Malay Mail Online also quoted him as saying that the government felt that there was no need for an Anti-Racist and Anti-Discrimination Bill as the country's unity was in a "good and controlled state." He added that his government would give more emphasis to promote greater inclusiveness through the education system.

In the latest case of what is being regarded as racially insensitive, Malaysia's Unity Minister P. Waytha Moorthy was taken aback by netizen comments about a close friend, a Hindu scholar named Arunachalanandaji. The disparaging remarks related to the scholar's appearance, with many comments about his "ghostly" appearance, long braided hair and thick beard.

"I was shocked to see and hear so many assumptions about his presence at Parliament yesterday," Mr Waytha Moorthy was quoted as saying last Wednesday (July 18).

"It's not right for us judge anybody by his looks. He has dedicated 30 years of his life to nature. He has lived in seclusion in the mountains in India," he added.

"In the spirit of a new Malaysia, people must change their perceptions," he said.