Malaysia’s most famous council of religious groups can thank the heavens they now have a lawyer in charge.
Why so? Well, if the tapestry of interfaith unity in Malaysia is a delicate weave, then the finger that is pulling at the thread is attached to the long arm of the law these days.
Case in point, it was the government lawyers that came up with a Bill for Parliament to allow just one parent to decide which religion the child should have, even if the other parent objects.
And that is where Jagir Singh (pic) comes in. This is familiar territory to him and it helped when the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism lobbied hard against the Bill. The Bill was finally withdrawn in the face of withering dissent even from the ruling coalition partners.
Until last week, Jagir was the deputy president of the influential council, also known as MCCBCHST. Now he is the president.
The council has found itself at odds with lawmakers in recent years. It has stood firm against a seemingly rising tide of legal challenges to the old Malaysian way of live and let live.
Given the direction ahead, it is probably very useful that the new chief of the council was a former prosecutor with the Anti-Corruption Agency and an officer there for nine years before he opted out of government service in 1992 to set up his law practice.
He even wrote a book about Malaysian law, taking two years to do it. So... he pretty much knows the law.
And this must come in handy when one of the large challenges ahead for the council is to push back against a tide of opinion that one religion presides above all, even in the law of the land.
Speaking to The Malaysian Insider yesterday, Jagir said, "I first need to say that non-Muslims have never questioned the Federation and its religion. But some people think that Article 3 can be interpreted to mean that Syariah Law can override this."
He was talking about a common misconception on Islam's position in Malaysia, arising from an interpretation of Article 3 of the Federal Constitution. It states that “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.”
Pointing out that the Constitution clearly says it is the supreme law of the Federation, Jagir adds, "This itself shows that Islamic law is not applicable here and cannot override the supremacy of the Constitution. But when we say this, they accuse us of questioning. But we are not doing that, these are facts."
He added that as the council stands for the five main non-Muslim religions in Malaysia, it is always praying for the wellbeing of Malaysia as well as championing the principles of the Rukun Negara.
"What the council, which represents 40 percent of the population, has been doing was to make statements in order to move the conscience of those in power, appealing to them to recognise the rights of all," he said.
But why not have Muslim leaders in the council to complete the circle? Jagir said, "The Muslims say they are superior in terms of religion, so they cannot sit at the same level with non-Muslims.
"And their religious heads won't want to sit with the non-Muslims. Furthermore, they have their own religious departments, muftis and ulama groups, but for non-Muslims there is only one."
Jagir said that when the council did discuss issues with Muslims, it was only through Muslim NGOs and not the leaders of the religion.
What about the Cabinet-commissioned interfaith committee that was set up two years ago to promote understanding and harmony among the religious?
Jagir, who is a member of that interfaith committee, said that discussions were not to be revealed in the open, but added that there was no consensus yet on the core issues of religious conversion of children and use of the word “Allah”.
So it is not an easy road ahead and there is an urgent need for strong leadership.
On this, Jagir added that non-Muslims want a colour-blind leadership and not those who go into the battle themselves and accuse others.
Commenting on the remarks by Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin that non-Muslims insulted Islam, Jagir added: "I am deeply concerned that the simple rural folk will believe his comments, and might think that non-Muslims are in fact insulting the religion.
"This will only create tension among the races, when in actual fact, the non-Muslims have been known to react peacefully when their rights are being trampled on, which seems to be happening on an almost daily basis of late."
He also took to task community leaders from Sabah and Sarawak for hardly showing any concern on important religious issues.
"They hardly say anything, perhaps they do not want to risk their positions, so the burden of being vigilant has fallen on NGOs like us," he complained.
In contrast, he commended Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, who was the only minister who spoke out against the proposed Bill to allow for one parent to convert the religion of a minor to Islam.
"This shows that within Umno, there are people with conscience,” he said.
Speaking of high profile activists, he said, “However people like Mariam Mokhtar and Marina Mahathir, whom we consider as the voices of conscience, are branded as being too liberal when in fact, these are the people showing the true version of Islam which promotes justice and fair play, and treats all as equals."
The father of four boys sought to put his council’s work in perspective as it celebrates its 30th year next month. Jagir pointed out that it had always shown restraint and championed issues based on the Federal Constitution, using proper channels.
"We are just a get-together of religious bodies without any legal or executive power," the new president said.
But a group, he could have added, with a firm hand over the past 30 years in helping weave the precious fabric of interfaith unity for the good of all Malaysians. – August 1, 2013.