Malaysia: Government bans the Iban-language Bible.

Date: Monday 21 April 2003
Subj: Malaysia: Government bans the Iban-language Bible.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator

The government of Malaysia has banned the Bible in the Iban language. Iban is the mother-tongue of Malaysia's largest indigenous tribes. The Iban have been using their Iban-language Bible since 1988. Could this be a political pay-off to cover for a separate politically sensitive move? Whatever it is, one thing is certain - it is unconstitutional as the Constitution of Malaysia specifically safeguards languages and religious freedom.



The Malaysian government has taken the extraordinary step of banning the Bub Kudus - the Bible in the Iban language. Iban is the language used by the indigenous Iban tribe of Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the north of the island of Borneo. Iban is the largest of all the indigenous tribes in Malaysia, accounting for almost one third of the population of Sarawak. The Iban have had the complete Bible available in their mother-tongue since 1988. It is now in its eighth edition with five thousand being printed every five years by the Bible Society of Malaysia.

A South China Morning Post (SCMP) article entitled, "Bible ban alarms Sarawak tribes" (Friday 18 April) by Baradan Kuppusamy in Kuala Lumpur, estimates the Iban population at around 550,000 noting that they are "descendants of natives who converted to Christianity under the rule of the Brooke family - also called the White Rajahs - in the 19th century. Many are not literate in English."

The SCMP article continues, "Teacher Benedict Jalong, 48, said anxiety and confusion had gripped the congregations. 'Rural Iban depend solely on the Iban-language Bible for their religious needs,' he said. If the ban was strictly enforced, it could disrupt their church services, many feared. The Sarawak Association of Churches said the ban was unwarranted and had created 'confusion, fear, anxiety and alarm' among Sarawak's Christians. 'We have not received any explanation for the ban,' said Peter Chung, the archbishop of Kuching, the capital of Sarawak."

According to the SCMP, Sarawak government officials are also confounded by the ban. "They (government officials) say there is no need to rush to surrender the Bub Kudus nor to cease using it in services. 'We will clarify the matter with federal authorities,' an official said. 'We are not going on a hunt to confiscate the Bible or prosecute people for having it unless specifically instructed by the authorities,' the official said. 'For the moment, it can still be used, but not openly.'"


According to a report by CNS News, Malaysian government's Home Ministry has named the Iban-language Bible as one of 35 publications it is banning because they are considered "detrimental to public peace." (Link 1).

Among the other books listed in the ban are Christian books in Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia, including translations of books in English by well-known Western evangelical authors J.I. Packer and John Stott, as well as some Christian books about Islam.

The CNS article, entitled, "Malaysia bans Christian Bible" by Patrick Goodenough, goes on to say, "A local paper quoted a senior official in the ministry's 'publications control' division, Elias Mat Rabi, as saying the banned books breached guidelines for religious books. They used several terms that were also used in Islam, which could confuse people, he said.

"Reached by phone in the Sarawak capital, Kuching, on Thursday (17 April), Elias declined to comment, or to explain how the Bible and other books were considered dangerous."

The secretary-general of the Malaysia National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, the Rev. Wong Kim Kong, spoke to CNS News from Kuala Lumpur and explained that there had for some time been difficulties over the fact that some words used in Islam were also used in Christian publications. Some Muslim leaders claim this could perplex Muslims who picked up such books. Among the words that cause concern is 'Allah', the word Muslims use for God. However the Arabic word pre-dates Islam and is also used by Christian Arabs when referring to God, notes CNS.

According to CNS, "Kong said it was wrong for a specific religion to claim monopoly over certain words. 'Terminology or language doesn't belong to any particular religion. It is universal property.'"


The Straits Times reports, "In a statement on Thursday (17 April), Malaysian Bar Council president Kuthubul Zaman Bukhari said that the ban should be withdrawn immediately as 'it infringes on the right to freedom of religion'. He said that the ban would impede nation-building efforts.

"'The purported basis of the ban, as reported in the press, is that the Bup Kudus has allegedly breached the guidelines for non-Islamic religious books. This suggestion is not only vague but also ominous,' he said in the statement.

"He said that this was particularly perplexing as the Bup Kudus had been used by the Ibans for 15 years. 'The bar council calls for the immediate withdrawal of the ban,' he said." (Link 2)

Christian leaders have appealed for meetings with government officials to discuss the ban. (Also link 2)


Regarding the banning of the Iban-language Bible the SCMP says, "There is speculation the ban on the Bub Kudus was announced to placate Muslims, since it uses terminology that could confuse followers of Islam."

It could be speculated that the ban probably was announced in order "to placate Muslims", but not necessarily out of any government desire to prevent "confusion."

Malaysia gained independence in 1957 and immediately set about creating a national identity. The national religion would be Islam and national language would be Bahasa Melayu (literally: "language of the Malays"). The national language was not enforced however, until 1969, after Singapore had gained independence from Malaysia and the Chinese where no longer the majority on the Malaysian Peninsular. The 1969 decree that Bahasa Melayu would be the official national language outraged non-Malays and led to racial riots, in which hundreds died.

The exclusive use of Malay in education has actually been disadvantageous for Malaysian graduates, especially in the fields of science, mathematics and Information technology. Malaysian graduates simply cannot compete with those who are competent in English (such as the Singaporeans). Malaysia's top university, the University of Malaya, was ranked 47th in the region by Asiaweek in 2000. Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad is keen to reverse this backward trend before he retires after general elections in October.

Dr. Mahathir acknowledges the need to restore English proficiency in education if Malaysia is to compete on the world stage, and has proposed that English be restored as the language of science, mathematics and IT studies from 2003 onwards.

Dr. Mahathir however, is faced with rising Islamist sentiment on the Malaysian Peninsular, expressed through the rising popularity of his opposition, Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS). PAS is opposed to the restoration of English in education. As such, Dr. Mahathir's move risks a further alienation of PAS, giving PAS another political lever to use against Mahathir's United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Dr. Mahathir also risks alienating the ethnic Malays who have enjoyed his favours.

Is the banning of the Iban-language Bible a pay-off -- a politically safe move aimed to demonstrate respect for Islam and Bahasa Melayu, as well as obedience to Islamic clerics and promoters of Malay culture, at a time when political risks are being undertaken in regards to language?


Whatever the real reason for it, the banning of the Iban-language Bible is unconstitutional, as the Malaysian Constitution specifically safeguards other languages.

Constitution of Malaysia.

Article 152
1. The national language shall be the Malay language and shall be in such script as Parliament may by law provide, provided that:
(a) no person shall be prohibited or prevented from using, otherwise than for official purposes, or from teaching or learning any other language; and
(b) nothing in this clause shall prejudice the right of the Federal Government or of any State Government to preserve and sustain the use and study of the language of any other community in the Federation.

- Elizabeth Kendal


1) "Malaysia Bans Christian Bible" by Patrick Goodenough, Pacific Rim Bureau Chief, 17 April 2003

2) "Ministry to meet church leaders over Iban Bible ban"
The Straits Times, 19 April 2003,4386,184089,00.html

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