A Chinese law that came into force in September states that the Chinese government has “exclusive rights to the selection of all future reincarnations of Tibetan lamas and have ordained that the Dalai Lama must be a citizen of China.” Eager to cement its control over Tibet, the Chinese government ventures into the business of religion. If it were not for its underlying motive, the law would be too silly to imagine; satirists would have a field day at the Chinese government. Government interference in religion however is not hard to imagine in many parts of the world throughout various times and the idea is not foreign at all in Malaysia. We have an Islamic authority at various levels to regulate the Islam and its willing and unwilling adherents. As some liberals fights to contain expansion or even existence of the religious authority, a horror strikes in the most horrid manner: there are non-governmental organizations in response to issues surrounding Hindraf that seek the formation of a non-Muslim affairs department. If it is ever formed, it would enlarge the state’s influence over religion, further providing it with opportunity to make individual liberty irrelevant.
Already the state has considerable apparatus to disrespect religious freedom. The fact that the Sharia court will prevail over the civil court on any overlap — by virtue that the civil court refuses to rule in case of overlaps — is enough to direly demonstrate on much influence religion has over us. Needless to say, the Sharia court places religious laws above individual liberty. While non-Muslims complain how Islamic laws play a role in their lives, there are many Muslims themselves that are uncomfortable with the influence of religious authority over public and private spheres. Muslims do not enjoy religious freedom unlike other Malaysians, on top of other liberty equally deprived from all Malaysians by the state.
Apart from the Sharia court, restrictions over religious freedom and liberty in general through, for instance, moral policing, are made possible through various agencies that make Islam their business. By claiming authority over Islam in Malaysia through official sanction of the state, these agencies regulate Islam; they define Islam as they see fit. For proof, seek no further than the creation of Islam Hadhari. They even have the power to declare who is a Muslim and who is not, regardless of the opinion or decision of the individual. Almost by fiat, to some extent, it rules the Muslim community, as if the community itself is monolithic in nature.
The definition used to describe the Malays in the Constitution of Malaysia further enlarges the power of these religious authorities over Malays in Malaysia.
In short, in one way or another, the BN-led, UMNO-dominated government secures it power over Malaysia by cowing the Malays into relative obedience. The BN-led government through abuse of state devices censors those that disagree with them while promoting its own opinion unfairly through unfree widely distributed mainstream media. Criticisms by outsiders are deemed as threats to national harmony, strengthening siege mentality. Hindraf through sheer stupidity played into BN’s tactics. This further solidifies the BN-led government control over the Malays.
With a non-Muslim department, the state and really the BN-government would have an avenue to control the others as it is controlling the Malays. Suddenly, instead of just Islamic jurists working to subdue individual liberty of the Malays, now we would have clergymen from various religions, issuing religious laws. Instead of a set of secular civil laws, we would have countless religious contradicting laws governing the society. I could not imagine what would the ramification be when conflicts of authority occur between these laws.
There is no reason to believe these non-Muslim affairs would respect liberty. Already we know that there are Christians that moan when their liberty suffered transgression but are undisturbed by their own action to disrespect others’ liberty.
For those that seek to create a more egalitarian society, the formation of non-Muslim affair department only could only strengthen the polarization of Malaysian society. Through this polarization, it would hard to see each other as Malaysians.
To be fair, it is unclear what this non-Muslim affairs department would specifically do, if it would ever to be established. From a libertarian point of view, assuming the department would hold the same authority as its Islamic counterpart, its establishment would be an ominous development to liberty. It would only give the state a monopoly to religion, like what the Chinese government seeks over Tibetan Buddhism. Or, closer to home, how the state has the power to define Islam.
This however is not to ignore the grouse brought forward by the non-Muslims. Their complaints must be fairly looked into but the answer is not the establishment of a non-Muslim affairs department. The better solution is secularism, coupled with liberalism, where religious freedom for all, where liberty for all, is upheld without fear or favor. Let religion be your personal affair.
When the Prime Minister dismisses the idea of setting up such department, I gave out a sigh of relief. His reasoning maybe different to mine — he has no respect for liberty — but that is okay for now.
 — THE Chinese government’s web portal has an odd-looking entry on its page listing laws that came into force in September. Buried among new regulations on issues ranging from registering sailors to monitoring pollution is one on how to manage the reincarnations of living Buddhas. Violators are threatened with prosecution. China’s Communist Party—though avowedly atheist—does not hesitate to pontificate on religious matters that it sees as having a political dimension. Living Buddhas make up the senior clergy of Tibet’s religion. They are traditionally selected from among boys considered to be reincarnations of deceased office-holders. Controlling the selection process, in the party’s view, is crucial to controlling Tibet. [Heresy! The Economist. November 29 2007]
 — It explains why over the past few months, the two sides have fought a public row over the selection of the next Dalai Lama. In August, the Chinese claimed exclusive rights to the selection of all future reincarnations of Tibetan lamas and have ordained that the Dalai Lama must be a citizen of China. [Reincarnation Rift. Phillip Delves Broughton. Wall Street Journal. December 4 2007]
 — SEPANG, Dec 18 (Bernama) — Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said today it was not necessary to set up a Non-Muslim Affairs Department now because an existing special committee was playing an effective role in the matter. [Not Necessary For Non-Muslim Affairs Dept Now, Says PM. Bernama. December 18 2007]
 — PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia: Malaysia’s leader said Monday he is willing to sacrifice public freedoms for the sake of national stability, a day after police arrested 21 opposition members and lawyers who took part in street protests. [Malaysia’s leader says public freedoms can be sacrificed for stability’s sake. AP via IHT. December 10 2007]