KUCHING: Mara is to withdraw or rewrite all rules and regulations that restrict non-Muslim students from practising their religious faith in educational institutions under its purview in Sabah and Sarawak, the minister overseeing the federal government agency said yesterday.
These include the Mara junior science colleges (MRSMs) and Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) in both states, said Minister of Rural and Regional Development Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal.
Shafie in a hastily called press conference yesterday morning said there was no government policy on religious restrictions on Mara students, and if there were, “they were not right”.
“If there is a rule, we will withdraw it,” he said.
Mara, the abbreviation for Majlis Amanah Rakyat or Indigenous People’s Trust Council, is under the purview of his ministry.
Shafie said a “misinterpretation” of the rules on non-Islamic religions might have cropped up because they were first drawn up in 1972 when MRSMs were first established in the peninsula. Then, in the context of the peninsula, there was no ambiguity to the students’ religion as all bumiputera students were Malays and Muslims.
The press conference was called after Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem met Shafie on Saturday night.
Adenan was said to have voiced his concern about religious restrictions in MRSMs in Sarawak, as reported by The Malaysian Insider recently following complaints by Christian Dayak parents.
Adenan had reportedly said to Shafie that such rules went against the Sarawak government’s policy on the freedom of religion.
Some non-Muslim Dayak parents had earlier questioned and demanded an end to a ban on all non-Islamic religious activities at MRSMs in the state.
They said the curbs on other religions at Mara’s three junior colleges in Kota Samarahan, Betong and Mukah, had amounted to religious discrimination and only served to breed intolerance and lack of respect for non-Muslims among students.
One parent’s refusal to send his daughter to MRSM Kota Samarahan reignited allegations of religious discrimination in the colleges when he posted online a copy of additional rules for non-Muslim students.
The rules state that all religious activities, with the exception of Islamic religious activities, are totally prohibited within the college campus.
Religious symbols, other than that of Islam, are also prohibited from being displayed in the college and students’ attendance of non-Islamic religious activities outside the college campus on weekends required permission.
Shafie said there was no such policy by Mara to curb students from practising their respective faiths.
“There has been no prohibition on non-Muslim students to practise their faith. On weekends, we provide transport for Christians to attend church very much like we do for Muslims students to attend Friday prayers.
“They can take their Bible to campus and if there is anyone who tries to stop them, report them to us and we’ll act,” Shafie said.
Also at the press conference yesterday was Sarawak’s Second Minister of Resource Planning and Environment Datuk Awang Tengah Ali Hassan, who said the rules for all Mara educational institutions in Sarawak should be rewritten “to avoid misinterpretation”.
The religious restriction brought strong reactions from Sarawak politicians on both sides of the divide.
State Land Development Minister Tan Sri Dr James Masing said the curb was constitutionally and morally wrong as it violated the freedom of religion under the Federal Constitution.
State DAP chairman Chong Chieng Jen appealed to the Sarawak government to intervene “for the sake of preserving religious and racial harmony in Sarawak for our future generations”.
Baru Bian, Sarawak PKR chief, said the religious restrictions would only “teach our young that religious discrimination and intolerance are acceptable”.
“Attitudes are formed at a young age and discrimination such as this teaches and reinforces the ugly mindset of racial superiority in some and a damaging second-class inferiority in others,” Baru said in a statement.
Baru also said that since MRSMs had violated laws on religious freedom, PKR Sarawak and himself were “prepared to commence legal action against MRSMs if after this statement, we find that these rules are still enforced in Sarawak”. — The Malaysian Insider
This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on February 9, 2015.