The Palace of Justice in Putrajaya, Malaysia. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
The Palace of Justice in Putrajaya, Malaysia. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

A Catholic has been appointed as the new chief justice in majority-Muslim Malaysia, reports the Catholic news agency UCAN.

The appointment of Richard Malanjum, 65, from Sabah state on the predominantly Christian island of Borneo, follows elections in May in which the Barisan Nasional coalition government was ousted. It “signifies that Malaysia’s new rulers … are on a reformist course,” according to UCAN.

Until now the highest court in the land was seen as pro-Islamic and some of its rulings were seen as controversial by non-Muslims. Around 60% of Malaysia’s 32 million people are Muslim. There are also significant Buddhist and Hindu minorities, while Christians comprise almost 10% of the population, according to the international charity Open Doors. Two-thirds of the  Christians live in East Malaysia, where only 30% of the total population lives.

Although Malanjum reaches retirement age of 66 in October, his tenure can be extended with six months, until April next year.

“He has done a lot of work on trying to bring justice to the poor. … The native courts that are based in the rural areas of Borneo are his brainchild. He once explained to me that justice was hard to come by for the poor and it had been occupying his mind for a long time,” a friend who wished to remain anonymous, told UCAN.

Lack of police and government urgency

Under Malaysia’s previous government, hard-line Islamic institutions appeared to receive backing, targeting the country’s minority faiths, including its Christians.

Abductions of Christian leaders, disappearances and forced conversions are rarely out of the headlines.

The lack of police and government urgency to investigate these incidents adds to the gloom that pervades non-Islamic faith communities.

Susanna Liew, wife of the missing pastor Raymond Koh, and Norhayati Mohd Afriffin, wife of the abducted social activist Amri Che Mat, wrote an open letter to Malaysia’s Prime Minister in June, asking for an immediate and independent investigation into the disappearance of their husbands.