Religion as News in Malaysia




By Dorothy Teoh


“Debating these [racial and religious] issues in the media will not
bring about any solution but can cause conflicts and tension in society,
because there is no easy solution, what more the media also have their
own stand on these issues.”


Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak in his speech at
the Malaysian Press Institute Awards, July 24, 2007


To understand the reporting of religion in Malaysia, one has to understand the link between religion and the state, and the pluralistic nature of Malaysian society.



Malaysia is made up of Peninsular Malaysia which has 11 states and the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, plus the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Labuan.

About 60% of the population of 27 million are Malay, around 26% are Chinese, about 8% are Indians, and some 7% are non-Malay indigenous people, with other groups making up the rest. Islam, professed by some 60% of the population (the majority of them Malay) is the official religion of the country but other major religions of the world are practiced here: Buddhism (about 19%), Christianity (about 9% including Catholics), Hinduism (about 6%) and Confucianism/Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions (under 3%). Adherents of animism, Sikhism, and the Bahá’í faith make up the rest.

Malaysia is a federal parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch. The legislative arm is a bicameral Parliament: the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives) whose members are elected in general elections that must be held every 5 years and the Dewan Negara (Senate), most of whose members are appointed by the King on the advice of the prime minister, with the remaining members elected by the 13 state assemblies. The King, the head of state whose duties are largely ceremonial, is elected every 5 years in a rotational system by and from among the Conference of Rulers which is made up of the hereditary Sultans of 9 states.

The judicial system is a dual system of civil courts (Federal Court, Court of Appeals, high courts and lower courts) and syariah courts which have jurisdiction over Muslims in areas of family, inheritance and personal laws. Where the latter are concerned, for example, syariah courts can impose fines or a jail sentence for unmarried couples who are Muslim and are caught in khalwat (close proximity) or caught drinking alcohol in public places or eating during the fasting month of Ramadan.

Politics in Malaysia are divided along racial lines. Of the 4 major parties in the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, three are race-based: Umno (United Malays National Organisation), the dominant party; MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) and MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress). Each champions the interests of the ethnic group it represents. Of the 3 major opposition parties, PAS (Parti Islam Se Malaysia) is an Islamist party and overwhelmingly Malay; DAP (Democratic Action Party) is predominantly Chinese while Parti Keadilan Rakyat, whose de facto head is former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, draws members from all 3 major ethnic groups.


Media consolidation and monopolistic trends
The largest integrated media group, Media Prima, which has close links to Umno (the dominant party in the governing coalition), owns the No 3 English-language daily (The New Straits Times), the two leading Malay-language newspapers (Berita Harian and Harian Metro), English afternoon tabloid Malay Mail, and Chinese paper Shin Min Daily News. It also owns four terrestrial TV stations (the remaining 2 are government-owned) and 2 radio networks.

The consolidation of Chinese dailies which began in the 1990s has picked up steam in recent years with moves to merge the two largest groups – Sin Chew Media Corporation and Nanyang Press Holdings. Between them, these two groups publish the country’s biggest-circulation Chinese dailies and a slew of magazine titles. The merger which would involve Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Enterprise Corporation Ltd would create the largest Chinese-language publisher outside China and Taiwan, under the control of Malaysian timber tycoon Tiong Hiew King.

The Star is majority-owned by the MCA, the Chinese-based party in the ruling coalition. Of the 3 major English dailies (The Star, circulation about 310,000; theSun, circulation 265,000 and New Straits Times, circulation about 140,000), only theSun is independently owned, that is, it has no links to any political party.

The concentration of the media in the hands of pro-establishment businessmen and politically-linked owners has fostered self-censorship – something that Reporters Without Borders alluded to last October in explaining Malaysia’s low position (92nd) in their world press freedom ranking for 2006.

Strict media laws also serve to keep the press in line. The most onerous is the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 that requires every mass circulation publication in Malaysia to obtain a permit from the Home Ministry. The permit, popularly referred to as KDN (the acronym for Kementerian Dalam Negeri, the Bahasa Malaysia name for the ministry) has to be renewed yearly and can be suspended or revoked if the ministry thinks a publication has flouted rules under the PPPA. The minister’s decision cannot be challenged in a court of law.


On the whole, the coverage of religion in the Malaysian media is on an ad hoc basis, as evident in the fact that there are no religious correspondents or reporters who are assigned to the religion beat. One difficulty in covering religion in Malaysia is the multiethnic, multireligious nature of the country and its people. One would need to be an expert or at least knowledgeable in the major religions to be able to cover them well or accurately. The reality is that those of us who profess a particular religion are not experts in our own religion, what more other religions. Journalists who write on religion on a regular basis do so because they have a personal interest in it, and there are few of them. The usual practice is for the Newsdesk to assign reporters to cover a religious event or news item, and the reporter may have only a cursory knowledge of the religion.

Where the print media is concerned, the main types of coverage are:
1. Religious news on an ad hoc basis
2. Features on a particular religion linked to celebrations for that religion. For example, the Muslim religious holidays (Hari Raya Puasa, Hari Raya Qurban, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday), Christmas or Easter, the Feast of St Anne (a Catholic feast), Wesak Day (a Buddhist religious holiday), Thaipusam, Deepavali or Ponggal (Hindu religious holidays) or Sikh religious holidays.
3. Coverage, usually feature articles, of the good works being done by a religion, such as soup kitchens or drug rehabilitation work Regular columns in certain newspapers

The coverage is rarely theological in nature or aimed at helping readers understand theological issues. As noted by a journalist who writes on religion, “The news/feature content [in the coverage of religious festivals] is limited to their cultural/novelty aspects, not their theological dimensions”.[1]

The cultural aspect is dominant in the coverage of religion by the Chinese press. In fact, Buddhism and Taoism are widely seen as part of Chinese culture. Interestingly, because of this, there are no restrictions in the Chinese print and broadcast media on covering events related to these two religions or seasonal ancestral worship ceremonies.[2] Conversely, Christianity is seen as a religion and the Chinese print media is not keen to cover events organised by churches or Christian organisations.

But one thing the major Chinese newspapers have and none of the other newspapers – English, Malay or Tamil – can boast of is a regular page dedicated to Christianity, Catholicism and Buddhism.[3]

Coverage of the religious dimensions of everyday news tends to follow ethnic divisions in the Chinese and Malay press. The key word is the impact on that particular ethnic group. The Chinese press will slam any actions or attempts by the government or other authorities or bodies to impose Islamic culture or norms on the Chinese, such as requiring non-Muslim Chinese to wear Malay costume, in particular the songkok (a rimless hat made of velvet worn by Muslim Malay men) and the tudung (headscarf worn by Muslim Malay women). In 2006, controversy erupted when it was reported that non-Muslim women police personnel were required to wear the tudung when taking part in official parades. And in July 2007, a Malaysian university came under scrutiny when both the Chinese and English-language press reported that the university had introduced a dress code requiring all women students to wear either the baju kurung (a Malay costume) or long skirts and jackets, and men to don shirts and ties.

Although some argue that the songkok and baju kurung are not religious but traditional wear for Malay men and women, the association of Malay with Muslim, one that is made even in the Federal Constitution, makes it hard for non-Muslims to accept this view.

Where English-language newspapers like theSun are concerned, the reporting is less along racial lines; “impact” is important but there is an attempt to take the issue beyond the narrow confines of impact to the wider context of constitutional rights and liberties. The main reason is that English-language newspapers draw readers from all the different communities, whereas the readership of Chinese newspapers is almost exclusively Chinese, and Malay newspapers are read predominantly by Malays.

Coverage of Christianity and Islam
Based on observation, compared to 8 to 10 years ago, today, more space is being given to non-Islamic religious stories in the print media, excluding the Malay dailies. Joseph Masilamany recalls that when he joined theSun in 2000, the news editor spiked his story featuring the ordination of a former Malaysian businessman in Perth. The story was not so much about the ordination ceremony but a personality profile of a colourful character.

The editor (who has since left) also cautioned him about working on such stories which he said “would not go down well with the Information and Home Ministries” (the Home Ministry is the ministry that monitors the press and issues the annual KDN or printing permit; it also has the authority to revoke the permit). Masilamany recalls that only Christianity was singled out but not other religions such as Hinduism, Taoism or Buddhism.

It would appear that there is certainly more space now for non-Islamic religious stories. But it is important to look at what stories are being run. Stories with outright evangelical elements, unless they are about Islam, are still a “no-no”.

Islam receives a lot more coverage, especially during the month of Ramadan when both government and private TV stations will screen religious docudramas, for example, about the Prophet, talk shows, and programmes where a religious teacher will talk about selected verses from the Quran. Newspapers will print the times for breaking fast for each state and their districts during the month of Ramadan.

With coverage of Islam, you can be more forthright but with Christianity, often, it’s more subtle and the message tends to be low-key or buried somewhere in the story, unless it’s a piece about doing good like a church running a soup kitchen in a part of town or drug rehabilitation work. Christian journalists and those sympathetic to Christianity often slip in references to Christianity in personality profiles and other stories about individuals instead of making their faith the central theme. Sometimes, it is wiser not to highlight the Christian angle for fear of attracting unwanted attention.


The coverage of straightforward religious news pertaining to the various religions presents no problems. Examples would include the opening of new temples, churches (with some caveats) or mosques, religious events like Christmas caroling in shopping malls or cantatas, or a day of prayer or blood donation drive being held by a religious body.

It is when it comes to issue-based religious reporting that journalists face problems and challenges. These include [4]:

1. Who speaks for a particular religion? Who decides who’s qualified? For example, non-Muslim Islamic scholars are deemed “not qualified” and are vilified when they take a progressive position.[5]

The same argument is used for non-Muslim journalists who write about Islam. Basically, the question implied or stated is “What would you know about it since you’re not a believer?” Surin’s counter argument is, “I’m not an environmentalist but I was an environmental journo for the best part of my career, so why the different standards?” She adds that because she is not a believer, she actually fact-checks what she’s writing “very thoroughly”.

2. How do we put across the views of different groups if, for example, the views are bigoted and seditious[6]? How do we balance between the need for people to know what these groups are about and how they use religion for their own hateful purpose AND [emphasis hers] the need to not inflame public debate further?

3. Which groups represent legitimate voices? For example, does BADAI[7] represent a valid voice for Muslims? How do we decide? Because they can garner hundreds of protesters to take to the streets? Who are the people behind them? It’s hard to know unless we’re really immersed on the ground.

4. Which groups have enough legitimacy and clout with the government/political parties so that we can fully understand what kinds of advocacy are happening behind the scenes that lead to certain policy decisions being made on the national level? Can we question and hold accountable these relationships?[8]

Journalists who are believers and who write about either their own faith or another faith face a different set of problems. According to Masilamany, he experiences some discomfort and becomes overly conscious when he writes a story about Christianity/Catholicism, the religion he professes. The discomfort stems mainly from a concern that his editors or readers may think that he is “trying to subtly evangelise/proselytise through his writings”.

On the other hand, when he writes about other religions or religious figures from other faiths, he receives flak from Christian/Catholic readers because they think that as a Catholic, he should not be writing about these!


I see three main trends where reporting religion is concerned:

1. The more liberal environment for the press that we have enjoyed since Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over as Prime Minister 3 years ago is beginning to show signs of a clampdown, especially with regards to reporting on freedom of religion and the status

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