KOTA KINABALU: Hundreds, if not thousands, of “instant” Muslim converts in Sabah risk spending a lengthy stint at a rehabilitation centre about 20km from here reflecting on their faith in the coming year.
They belong to the group of mass Muslim converts who switched religions during the Usno era of Tun Mustapha Dato Harun in the late 1960s and early 1970s when many were discreetly told that their promotion prospects would be greatly enhanced if they became Muslims.
Shortly after independence in 1963, Sabah underwent a kind of non-ethnic religious cleansing, with promotion prospects in the public sector and career development in the uniformed services dangled as incentives. It started with Mustapha Harun’s chief ministership.
Many changed their names, became senior government officers, gained favours and shortly before retirement turned their backs on the faith and returned to their old Christian, Buddhist or other beliefs.
The present Chief Minister Musa Aman and many of today’s personalities in the corridors of power were Usno members and Mustapha’s protégés.
Mustapha was renowned for his mass conversion ceremonies where rural Sabahans were “incentivised” with cash and kind.
During his tenure, many civil servants received letters “educating” them of the choices before them for their security of tenure and promotion prospects.
It was a period when many Sino-Kadazans dropped their Chinese surnames and adopted indigenised native sounding names. During the 1980s they returned to their previous religions in droves.
Come the new year, their “reprieve” for religious practice will be over. It will be up to 36 months or three years in the slammer for “rehabilitation” if they don’t return to their chosen faith.
Sabah Islamic Affairs Department (Jheains) director Amri A Suratman on Christmas Eve last week said that his department will enforce Sabah’s apostasy law once its faith rehabilitation centre in Kinarut is ready in 2011.
FMT staff visited the Jabatan Kehakiman Syariah Negeri Sabah at the Wisma Muis here to ascertain what will happen to apostates at the Jheains’ faith rehabilitation centre in Kinarut.
According to a senior counsel who requested anonymity, suspected apostates will hauled to the syariah court and, if found guilty, will be detained at the faith rehabilitation centre up to 36 months for re-education.
This is provided for under the Kesalahan Jenayah Syariah Tahun 1995 No. 3 under Section 63, he said.
If after the period the apostates are still unrepentant “they can be re-arrested and then charged and detained again… it is all up to the syariah court to mete out the sentences”.
The Christmas Eve announcement has been met with foreboding. The people of Sabah have seen it all before.
Although the Federal Constitution and the 20-point agreement provide for freedom of religion, in reality, the interpretation and implementation differ.
Political observers say the latest religious moves in the state known for its relaxed way of life and acceptance of all, irrespective of race or religion, is an indication of a hardline stance creeping into the state with the entry of Umno and peninsular-based political parties into state politics.
“Umno’s entry into Sabah has reignited the religious zeal and excesses of Mustapha that slowly vanished during the Berjaya and PBS governments,” said a political observer.
There has always been a kind of wariness over all religious matters in Sabah after the almost decades-long misrule of the state by tainted politicians, many of whom are still in power today.
That one group can preach to the other but not vice-versa has always been an enigma for the natives who pointed out that even print advertisements and religious publications must carry the caveat “for non-Muslim only”.
It was a practice in Sabah to take out a sworn deed drawn up by a lawyer and then placed as an advertisement in a local newspaper to affirm that “converted” person no longer practised the faith.
Several prominent people, including relatives of top politicians, bought advertisement space in local newspapers to renounce their faith in this manner while others just reverted to their old religions.
One such case that came to prominence was when a women who was married to a Muslim divorced her husband after being battered. She subsequently also renounced her faith.
Islamic authorities decried such efforts to cut lifelong ties with the faith, saying that it was a gross insult and humiliation to the religion.
The new Jheains warning is causing some unease among non-Muslims and those who have Muslim relatives by way of marriage.
Even before the body-snatching cases in the peninsula became public issues, in Sabah there were such cases where converts who were buried by their non-Muslim family saw their corpses acrimoniously exhumed to be reburied in Muslim cemeteries.
Kinarut is a sleepy town that is slowly beginning to awake due to its strategic location half way between the Kota Kinabalu International Airport and the southern township and district of Papar.
Religious freedom under Pairin
It is the site where Muslim refugees from the southern Philippines were resettled in housing provided by the Resettlement Unit of the Chief Minister’s Department during Mustapha’s Usno administration in the 1970s.
During the Berjaya administration of chief minster Harris Mohd Salleh a similar religious zeal also partly caused the party’s popularity to drop among the non-Muslim natives.
It was under PBS chief minister Joseph Pairin Kitingan’s rule in the mid-1980s till the early 1990s that Sabah enjoyed the greatest religious freedom.
But today many Muslims are not happy with the status quo. A FMT survey of 100 Muslim respondents – 79 of them born Muslims – revealed that a majority agreed with the move to enforce punishment for apostates.
Musa in his Christmas message said: “Early this year, we went through some turbulent days over religious matters.
“However, peace-loving Malaysians remained level-headed and chose not to stoop to those who were out to instigate religious tensions.”
He was referring to the firebombing of churches in the peninsula although politically incited “religious” stand-offs occurred in Sabah after Usno came to power and after both it and Berjaya lost power.
The truth is that in Sabah, more people convert to Islam every day than those who convert out.
Most of those who convert out of Islam are people who were not originally Muslims. - FMT