Outspoken Malaysian professor could resign over controversy

An outspoken Malaysian professor of constitutional law, is considering resigning from his post in the university in the midst of on-going police investigation on his comments about the purview of the constitutional monarchy. He has also received a death threat and claimed that one of his friends was also being harassed by “certain quarters” for his comments.

“I will decide in a week whether to remain as a professor in (International Islamic University) or quit the job immediately,” Professor Abdul Aziz Bari told online news Free Malaysia Today on 30 November. “…people surrounding me, especially my friends, are suffering because of me,” he added.

In early October, the law lecturer said that it was “unusual and inconsistent” for the Selangor state’s Sultan, Sharafuddin Idris Shah to defend the state’s religious department (Selangor Islamic Affairs Department- JAIS), which has came under fire for raiding a church allegedly converting the Muslims. Under Malaysia’s law, proselytizing Muslims is prohibited. The Sultan said the department had evidence of proselytizing activity at the raided church event but it did not warrant legal prosecution.

His comment was deemed insulting to the monarchy by Malay ethno-religious pressure groups and he was attacked by a ruling party-owned daily, Utusan Malaysia. A senator from the same party, lodged a police report against him. Following the flak, the university suspended Aziz, but the move provoked a 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 university students, reported to be in hundreds, staged a protest demonstration.

But far from signifying a closure, Aziz said that the lifting of suspension meant little as the university and police investigation continued to investigate him.

“They (the university) expect me to work and do things as usual, but I remain a suspect as the police continue to harass me,” he told another online media, Malaysiakini on 25 October.

On 29 October, he received a bullet in his mail and a warning. In early November, the Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin said the Professor should resign. By late November Aziz found himself in deeper controversy, after the Sultan disputed his comments and said that he was saddened by the professor’s thoughts on another matter – an amendment to the state enactment. Aziz said that the amendment 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 the professor 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.

Discussion about the roles of the monarchy remains one of the sensitive topics in Malaysia, a country which has a Sultan in nine states and a Yang Dipertua (Head of State) for the other four. The Federal Constitution and the Sedition Act 1948 outlaw questioning the position of the monarchy, and have been used rather broadly by politicians of the ruling party and right-wing segments in the society to condemn any discussion about the royalty.

Aziz, who has written extensively on monarchy and politics, argued in Malaysiakini on 12 October that criticism of the monarchy is permitted under the laws, but calling for its abolishment is not. Following the publication, both Malaysiakini and Aziz were questioned by the Communications and Multimedia Commission on 17 October.