Malaysian professor resigns after threatened for criticising monarchy

An outspoken professor of constitutional law has resigned his post in the university after being investigated by police and received death threat for his comments about the Malaysian constitutional monarchy.

“I have decided to resign due to the pressure, which makes it impossible to fulfill the ideals of being an academic,” Professor Abdul-Aziz Bari said in an email interview. “The pressure on my [academic] friends is also part of the reason as I do not want to get them into trouble.”

He said his last day as the law lecturer of the International Islamic University Malaysia (Universiti Islam Antarabangsa- UIA) will be on 31 December.

In early October, he commented that it was “unusual and inconsistent” for the Selangor state’s Sultan, Sharafuddin Idris Shah to come out in defence of the state’s religious department (Selangor Islamic Affairs Department- JAIS), which has come under fire for raiding a church allegedly converting Muslims. Under Malaysia’s law, proselytising Muslims is prohibited. The Sultan had admitted that although the department had evidence of proselytising occurring at the raided church, it did not warrant legal prosecution.

The professor’s comment was deemed to insult the monarchy by Malay ethno-religious pressure groups and he was attacked by a daily newspaper, Utusan Malaysia, owned by the ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). A senator from UMNO lodged a police report against him. Following the controversy, the university suspended Bari, but the move provoked public outcry. Activists, opposition law makers and academics criticised the suspension as a violation of academic freedom. On 24 October, the university lifted the suspension after hundreds of university students reportedly staged a demonstration against the decision.

Discussion of the role of the monarchy remains a sensitive topic in Malaysia, nine of its thirteen states are ruled by Sultans, while the remaining four have a Yang Dipertua (Head of State). The Federal Constitution and the Sedition Act 1948 outlaw questioning the position of the monarchy, and both have been exploited by politicians and right-wing groups to condemn any discussion of the role of royalty. Bari, who has written extensively on monarchy and politics, argued in an 12 October article published on news website Malaysiakini that criticism of the monarchy is permitted under Malay law — the line is crossed when someone calls for its abolision. After the article was published, both Malaysiakini and Bari were questioned by the Communications and Multimedia Commission, the regulator of electronic and online sector

On 29 October, he received a bullet along with a warning in the post. In early November, the Higher Education Minister Mohamed Khaled Nordin said the Professor should resign. By late November Bari found himself in deeper controversy, after the Sultan expressed his disapproval of comments Bari made on another issue. Bari said that an earlier amendment to the state enactment exempted the accounts of the state religious council (Selangor Islamic Affairs Council-Mais) and the Selangor Zakat Board from audit by the national Audit-General. But he said that given the limited access to the documents of the amendment, he could have been mistaken in his comments and was willing meet the Sultan to clear the air.

Although the police have completed investigation of his case, Bari remains concerned about what will happen to him.

“I’m worried because I’m not informed of what the police will do, they could charge me” he said.