COMMENT The Registrar of Societies (ROS) has abruptly called off its inspection of a Christian denomination, Evangelical Free Church of Malaysia (EFCM), in Petaling Jaya after the church wanted to know the reasons for the visit scheduled for today.

In an email to EFCM yesterday, the Selangor ROS branch said the visit has been called off due to “unforeseen circumstances” and a new date would be fixed.

The visit was cancelled following a Malaysiakini report that the EFCM, which is the umbrella body for a small denomination of 14 churches, was seeking legal advice whether to entertain the visit which the ROS claimed as a ‘routine inspection’. It also wanted to know under which provision of the Societies Act 1966 the ROS is relying on to enter its premises for the inspection.

According to those familiar with the matter, the ROS, in the notice to the EFCM, did not cite any legal provision for its intended visit other than saying it wanted to inspect the EFCM. The ROS had earlier cited clause 63 of the Act as the basis for issuing its inspection notice to the Bible Society of Malaysia; Asian Beacon, the oldest existing Christian publisher in the country; and three other societies recently.

Meanwhile, the ROS has also emailed the Evangelical Free Church in Klang for a similar inspection today. However, an official of the church said the church did not receive any notice from the ROS so the church is in the dark over the matter. The church, being part of the EFCM denomination, is likely to take advice from its head office and act consistently with its parent body, according to church sources.

According to the ROS, three other registered societies were also scheduled to be inspected today. They are Persatuan Pembinaan Rumah Berhala (temple) Huat Heap Sungai Way Subang, Persatuan Anak-anak Kalumpang, Ulu Selangor and Pakatan Kebajikan Islam Kampung Tunku, Sungai Way.

Officials of the temple and the Islamic society said they have not received any email notices nor phone calls from the ROS and like the EFC church in Klang, they are similarly in the dark over the whole mater.

It is an irony that the ROS does not even have a correct list of email addresses of societies they want to inspect to ensure they keep proper records. What is strange is that in a recent inspection, the ROS asked for officials of a society it was inspecting to bring down the documents to a coffee shop instead of conducting its business in their registered office upstairs. This is surely not appropriate behaviour for a government agency as strange things can happen in coffee shops.

This is the second time the ROS has hastily beat a retreat after backing down from a visit to the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) a fortnight ago when BSM stood its ground and would not allow the ROS to enter its premises without proper notice, despite ROS’ claim that it was meant to be a routine inspection.

Clause 63 not meant for routine inspection

The intended inspection was unprecedented as it would be first time in its three decades of existence that the ROS is seeking to inspect them under Clause 63 of the Societies Act 1966 which is not meant for routine inspection but to allow the ROS to enter the premises of societies merely on suspicion of unlawful activities.

BSM secretary Rev Matthew K Punnoose had said the Bible Society “does not carry 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.”

According to those familiar with the matter, the ROS is trying to play down the issue and dismisses claims that it is targeting churches and Christian bodies by claiming such inspections are routine and in pursuit of its internal KPI or key performance index.

This is far from the truth as the Societies Act 1966 while requiring registered societies to submit and update their records such as audited accounts, annual general meeting minutes, list of office bearers and membership register does not have provisions for routine inspection.

However, Clauses  63 and 64 of the Act allows for inspections on suspicions that a society may be committing far more serious offences than just failing to keep housekeeping matters. Such unlawful activities may include suspicions that premises of a society may be used for purposes “prejudicial to public peace, welfare, good order or morality in Malaysia”. If need be, ROS may use force for such entry.

There is also no need for the ROS to waste its time, resources and manpower to monitor the thousands of societies registered under it as all mandatory submissions and record updates are now done digitally. All that needs to be done is to electronically access such records to see if they are up to date. Failing which, all that the ROS has to do to is remind those not complying to do so.

There is no need to go to coffee shops for such purposes. Both the Bible Society and the EFCM churches have confirmed that they have been dutifully submitting all records as required. So there is no need for ‘routine inspections’ unless the ROS has a hidden agenda against churches.

The ROS should be directing its resources and attention at recalcitrant societies such as Umno which may probably have dubious branches and membership registers especially those in Sabah Umno where illegal Bugis, Tausugs, Suluk, Indonesians and even Pakistanis and Bangladeshis may have found their way into becoming kingmakers in Umno.

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.