COMMENT The Registry of Societies (ROS) beat a hasty retreat and called off its “routine inspection” of the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) yesterday, after the society asked ROS for reasons for its unprecedented visit.

However, the ROS Selangor branch went ahead with its inspection of the Menopause Society of Malaysia nearby, with its officers present giving a different reason for their visit, which was warmly received.

BSM secretary Rev Matthew K Punnoose issued a statement to the media gathered at his office in Petaling Jaya yesterday afternoon.

Punnoose said the BSM office received a call from the ROS in the morning informing it that the “inspection” has been postponed indefinitely. No reason was given for the postponement.

The Bible Society challenged the grounds for the inspection and said there is no such thing as a “routine inspection” under Clause 63 of the Societies Act 1966, which ROS cited for its intended visit.

According to Punnoose (photo), BSM received an email notice last Tuesday from the ROS Selangor branch (issued by one Norashuhada Mohd Razali, an administrative assistant in charge of clerical duties and operations).

The notice was also issued to Pertubuhan Penganut Dewa Xian Lian Gong, just down the road from the Bible Society and the Subang Rotary Club, which shares the same address as the Menopause Society.

BSM read the notice as targeting it, since three hours were allotted for the ROS visit to its premises, while the other three visit were to take just an hour each.

The other three societies were not told to prepare any documents for inspection whereas the BSM was told to get ready its accounts, minutes, membership register and “other documents” for inspection.

However, ROS brushed its email to BSM aside, saying there was nothing sinister as its call on the society was meant to be a “routine” inspection.

Society aided on online ROS reporting system

Meanwhile, an official of the Menopause Society said the ROS officials were very helpful and the purpose of the inspection was to assist them to use the new online reporting system that ROS has introduced.

If this was the case, then the ROS need not have relied on Clause 63 of the Societies Act. It could not possibly pay individual visits to the hundreds of thousands of registered societies just to teach them how to use their new online system, BSM said.

The purpose could be better served by having a series of training sessions for numerous societies at one go.

There are provisions under the Act for record updates and report submissions. For instance.  Clause 14 requires every registered society to file its returns within 60 days of holding its annual general meeting and to submit further records as the registrar may require.

However, there is no need for “routine inspection” as these are merely housekeeping rules that the registrar can easily manage, through email or letters. There is also no provision for a “routine inspection” on a registered society.

It is therefore curious why the ROS is relying on Clause 63 to enter the Bible Society premises, since this clause does not provide for “routine inspection”, Punnoose pointed out.

This clause is to allow ROS enter the premises of societies suspected of unlawful activities, he said.

The construction of Clause 63 is clear: if the ROS has “reason to believe that any society is carrying on activities in contravention of any provision of this Act”, it can, after giving notice to any office-bearer, enter into any place...

ROS empowered to use force in entry

Clause 64 further gives ROS the power to enter, search and make seizures if the registrar reason to believe that any registered society is being used for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare, good order or morality in Malaysia. If need be, ROS may use force for such entry.

“BSM knows that it is not carrying on any activity in contravention of the Societies Act or any regulation or rules as the object of the Bible Society has always been to provide and make available the Bible in various languages,” Punnoose said.

There are two plausible reasons why the ROS is acting so strangely, he said. One is that the junior officer who issued the email may have made a mistake between Clauses 14 and 63. If so, then this can be easily resolved.

However, if no mistake was made, then the ROS action against BSM smacks of sinister motives, even mischief. If so BSM did the right thing by calling the ROS bluff and standing its ground.

Be that as it may, whatever the ROS wants to do it must make sure it acts within the framework of the law. More so now that the Bible Society of Malaysia is helmed by none other than the straight-talking Anglican Bishop Rev Ng Moon Hing, who broods no nonsense and is known to have taken on the establishment without fear or favour.

Ng is abroad now, has told the BSM council go ahead and take make any appropriate decision.

Those familiar with the matter have said that one of the options advised by the BSM lawyers is not to allow the ROS officers to enter its premises unless they have valid reasons.

Mere suspicions would not do, especially if the ROS was not going to rely on Cause 64 of the Act, under which it can use force to gain entry. In the month of Ramadan, BSM hopes that cool heads will prevail.

BOB TEOH is a faith-based writer, an associate in theology with a diploma in Christian Ministry from Perth Bible College, Western Australia. He is a regular contributor to Malaysiakini.