Will Malay architects be allowed to design churches, temples and hotels serving alcohol?

IT seems that Malaysia is headed into the tempurung (coconut shell) world of extreme conservatism, and I wonder how far it will get.

I can understand the unity government and Pakatan Harapan (PH)-led states taking a strict stand on religion-related issues like alcohol, visiting churches, Bon Odori and the Mentega Terbang film because the opposition comprising PAS and Bersatu have gone on a populist and narrow-minded campaign of racialising religion as a vote winner.

With a Malay population being the product of public schools and public universities, this kind of narrative will suit well the simple minds of the graduates as well as those who are T20 retirees.

So, as a professor of architecture, I need to pose several questions so that I can get my lecture notes right.

Can Muslim architects design churches?

First, will Malay architects be allowed to design houses of worship other than mosques? For this, I called up a famous Malay architect and asked him whether there is a rule about this in the professional practice or ethic of Malaysian architects.

The Al-Bukhary mosque in Kedah named after corporate tycoon Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary

He said there was no such thing and in fact he had also designed a church while working in Australia. I told him I would not mention his name in my article because that might invite stupid comments from the Malays in the social media and even a reprimand from a religious office.

Then I called up another architect who was definitely NOT a Malay or Muslim and asked the same question. He, too, answered in the same way and in fact, he had designed one of the mosques in Pahang. I also said I would not put his name in my article.

I then remembered another Malay architect who designed one of the most important mosques in Malaysia that had a unique never-before-seen “dome” or roof. At that time, he said there was no local engineers who could design the new structural system, hence he got a German engineer to do it. I forgot to ask if the engineer was a Muslim.

It should be noted that in my research on traditional timber Malay houses and traditional three-tiered roof mosques in Melaka, Negri Sembilan and Penang, Chinese craftsmen were hired to build some of these buildings.

My students never found out if these Chinese were Muslims or not. The Blue Mosque in Turkey was once Hagia Sophia Church, pride of the Christian empire.

Will there come a time when these ultra conservative Malay lawmakers and religious officials proclaim that Malays must not design other houses of worship and that a Malay contractor must also not build other houses of worship as they can be deemed as perhaps “not halal”?

Special permission

On the educational and research front, will students and academics doing research and study on religious buildings need to apply for a special permit that says “Permit Kebenaran Mengkaji Rumah Ibadat Selain Islam” (Permit to Research Non-Muslim Houses of Worship) or “Permit Kebenaran Bukan-Melayu Mengkaji Masjid” (Permit for Non-Muslims to Research Mosques)?

Or will there be permits for Malay contractors doing renovations and construction works for other houses of worship? For the same reason, will there be permits for non-Malay contractors doing wiring or construction works at mosques in the country?

Penang’s Kek Lok Si Temple

Will these contractors need to have a dress code in the Muslim way also? Will there also be a time when construction workers of one faith be disallowed to do work at other houses of worship and vice versa, will non-Malay workers be welcome in Islam-related buildings?

When I wanted to publish my book “The Mosque as a Community Development Centre” with UTM Publisher, two religious scholars were asked to evaluate the book. As my book was based on my PhD dissertation and was well-researched, it was allowed to be published.

The Foreword was written by Professor Dr Kamal Hassan who was then the Rector of International Islamic University. Dr Kamal passed away recently after the publication of his controversial book on corruption by Muslim-Malays.

My question is will the religious department’s permission be needed if a PhD thesis or any form of research involving Islam and Muslims were to be undertaken? Is this where we are heading to?

Will the religious department take over our entire life and be the nanny for our religious faith? Aiyaa …welcome to Malaysia! – March 20, 2023


Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at a local university and his writing reflects his own personal opinion entirely. This opinion editorial first appeared in Sin Chew Daily under the same title.


Main pic credit: Rocco Design Architects

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