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Episode 10: Freedom of Religion in Malaysia: Theory vs. Reality

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

UM Consti Team is back with a new Law Series! In our tenth episode, we will review our Freedom of Religion in Malaysia, which is entrenched in Article 11 of the Federal Constitution.


As a nation that prides itself in plurality, it is of utmost importance for Malaysia to maintain a harmonious co-existence between its citizens. Our constitutional drafters have aptly incorporated the fundamental right to freedom of religion under Article 11(1) of the Federal Constitution, which reads, ‘every person has the right to profess and practice his religion and, subject to Clause (4), to propagate it’. Detailed scrutiny of the law will reveal the three key aspects of freedom of religion, namely: (i) the right to profess; (ii) the right to practice; and (iii) and the right to propagate. With respect to the former two aspects, the entitlements are absolute as there is no express provision indicative of any form of restrictions. However, it is a completely different case when it comes to the right to propagate (Wan Norhasniah & Haslina Ibrahim, 2016).

The right to freedom of religion in Malaysia is often fraught with controversy. One of the famous debates is regarding the question of whether Malaysia is a secular or theocratic state. This issue remains unresolved as our Federal Constitution merely provides that Islam is the religion of the Federation in Article 3 without clarifying the status of the nation in any of its provisions (Mohamed Azam, 2018). Things turned more complicated when the issue became politicised by our political leaders, most evidently by the then Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad in 2001 who publicly declared that Malaysia is an Islamic state. (Mohd Hishamudin, 2020). Regardless, in our humble opinion, the correct answer shall be that Malaysia is always meant to be a secular state since its inception and this will be further consolidated with some important points below.

Firstly, paragraph 57 of the White Paper (document prepared after the discussion on the first draft of the Constitution) in July 1957 unequivocally signifies that Malaysia is a secular state. This position is also reiterated by our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman in his speech before the Federal Legislative Council (Mohd Hishamudin, 2020). Secondly, the features of the Federal Constitution impliedly uphold Malaysia’s position as a secular state. To name a few, we have Article 4(1) that proclaims the Federal Constitution to be the supreme law of the federation instead of the holy book of any religion, and Article 160which excludes substantive Islamic law as the definition of ‘law’ in Malaysia (SUHAKAM, 2015). Thirdly, this stance is in line with the decision of the Supreme Court in Che Omar bin Che Poh v PP,whereby it was held that the constitutional declaration that Islam is the religion of the Federation did not mean that laws passed by Parliament must be imbued with Islamic principles. To hold that Malaysia is an Islamic state will be contrary to the constitutional and legal history of the Federation and also to the Civil Law Act which provides for the reception of English common law in the country (Mohd Hishamudin, 2020). To recapitulate, our history, provisions in the Federal Constitution, and case law point to none other than the status of Malaysia as a secular state.


2.1 Freedom of religion according to Article 11 of the Federal Constitution

Freedom of religion can be deciphered as a ‘principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community – in public or private – to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance’. It also encompasses ‘freedom to change one's religion, the right not to profess any religion or not to practise a religion’ (‘Freedom of Religion in Malaysia’, 2021, para. 1). Indisputably, freedom of religion is cardinal in every country, especially in a multi-racial country with miscellaneous religious beliefs like Malaysia. In Malaysia, freedom of religion is enshrined in Article 11 of the Federal Constitution. It provides that ‘every person has the right to profess and practice his religion’. This denotes that the freedom to profess and propagate religions cannot be limited on any grounds, as opposed to a rejected suggestion made by the Reid Commission’s proposal, which suggested that the Parliament can enact laws in regards to public order, health, and morality, which can restrict one’s right to profess his religion and a religious group’s right to manage its own affairs.

2.2 Limitations and restrictions to freedom of religion in Malaysia

There are two main restrictions pertaining to freedom of religion listed under Article 11. Firstly, Article 11(4) stipulates that each state may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam. Secondly, Article 11(5) prohibits any acts contrary to any general law relating to public order, public health, or morality. This is further supported by Section 298 of the Penal Code which prohibits ‘uttering words with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of any person’.

There are several other indirect limitations provided by our Constitution. Article 3(1) indicates that the practice of religions must not intrude peace and harmony. Article 11(2) also implies that we may be required to pay taxes to support our religion. Furthermore, Article 12(3) states that the religion of a person under 18 years of age is to be decided by his parents or guardian as in the case ofTeoh Eng Huat v Kadhi, Pasir Mas. Moreover, the case of Nappali Peter Williams v Institute of Technical Education held that freedom of religion does not confer a right to refuse to take part in patriotic activities and policies, such as requiring teachers to take the national pledge and singing the national anthem.

2.3 Freedom of religion according to other constitutional provisions

Freedom of religion in Malaysia is also mentioned in other constitutional provisions. For instance, Article 8 forbids discrimination on grounds of religion against public sector employees, in the acquisition or holding of property; and in any trade, business or profession. Article 149 which provides for laws to combat subversion, permits the enactment of laws which curtails several fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, assembly, and association. However, it prohibits any encroachments on freedom of religion. Besides, any laws enacted in times of emergency in accordance to Article 150, cannot violate the freedom of religion. For instance, in an appeal case of Jamaluddin Bin Othman v Menteri Hal Ehwal Dalam Negeri, Malaysia & Anor, the court held that freedom of religion is absolute and cannot be violated by virtue of Article 149 as laws against subversion can only violate Article 5, 9, 10, or 13 of the Federal Constitution.

2.4 Issues and cases on freedom of religion in Malaysia

There are several issues in regards to religious liberty in Malaysia. This includes the issue of atheism which is not mentioned in our Constitution. However, since our Rukun Negara upholds the principle of commitment to God, atheistic practices may not receive much sympathy in the courts (Shad Saleem Faruqi, 2019). The next question that may arise would be, is believing in God compulsory in Malaysia? This is because not all religions are centred around God, such as the belief in Buddhism.

The next issue is concerning non-mandatory practices which are not stipulated under Article 11 of the Federal Constitution. The case of Halimatussaadiah Kamaruddin v Public Service Commission Malaysia implies that a non-mandatory practice like wearing a purdah is not safeguarded by Article 11. Nevertheless, Meor Atiqulrahman Ishak v Fatimah Sihitriumphantly held that constitutional freedom extends to religious practices which, although not mandatory, are part of religious tradition.

In the case of Minister for Home Affairs v Jamaluddin Othman, Jamaluddin who was alleged to have propagated Christianity to several Muslims in an event was subjected to preventive detention under the now repealed Internal Security Act 1960. In the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Tan Sri Hashim Yeop Sani stated that mere participation in meetings and seminars cannot make a person a threat to the security of the country.

Another issue concerning the freedom of religion of Muslims is that, to what extent does a Muslim own such freedom? For instance, regarding the right to apostasy of a Muslim which is not explicitly provided by our Constitution. In Lina Joy v Majlis Agama Islam Wilayah Persekutuan, Lina Joy’s application to convert out of Islam was rejected. This depicts that once a person professes the religion of Islam, he or she is most likely to has no right to convert out of it for the whole of his or her lifetime. With regards to the facts and decision of this case, it will be further elucidated in the subsequent part of this article.


3.1 The Reality of Freedom of Religion

Even if Article 11(1) provides that everyone should be given the freedom to profess their religion, the reality is not the same for Muslims. According to Syariah law, it is clearly stated that the act of leaving Islam is a grave offence and is punishable with death if the accused refuses to repent even after conviction (The Quran, 2: 217).

In Malaysia, except Negeri Sembilan, sentences are imposed against those who renounce the religion of Islam. From 2000 to 2010, there were no records of any application for renouncing Islam, but there were 686 applications for a declaration that one is no longer a Muslim on the ground of mistaken identity. The success rate was around 20% where 135 cases out of 686 were approved by the Syariah courts. In Sabah, the penalty for apostasy will be a maximum of 36 months of detention in the Islamic Rehabilitation Center; Malacca imposes detention in the centre for up to six months; in Kelantan and Terengganu, the State Legislative Assembly passed Hudud enactments to prescribe the death penalty for apostates who fail to repent, but these attempts failed due to restrictions in the Federal laws.

The rationale of the imposition of such restrictions seems to be reasonable as it is the duty of the government to protect the religion of Islam as per the case of Che Omar Che Soh. However, such restrictions will go off-limits, especially when it concerns a class of people who have no right to choose their preferred religion as they are Muslims since birth, and those who were forcefully converted to Islam by their parents during childhood (SUHAKAM, 2015). With that being said, there are a few landmark cases to illustrate such scenarios.

Lina Joy v Majlis Agama Islam Wilayah Persekutuan & Ors

In this case, the appellant, Lina Joy was converted from Islam to Christianity and wanted to marry her non-Muslim boyfriend. She succeeded in changing her name on the identification card, but authorities refused to remove the word ‘Islam’ from it. Through an application, the High Court ruled that Article 11 (1), in the case of Muslims, does not give the appellant the freedom to choose which religion she would like to profess and practise. Besides, the application was rejected as it was the Syariah Court’s power to decide in the case of apostasy. The court also held that as a Malay, she must be a Muslim until the end of her life. The decision of the High Court was affirmed by the Court of Appeal. Finally, majority of Federal Court affirmed the direct connection to Islamic law and that practising the religion of Islam also means to practise the legal aspects of that religion. It was further held that if one followed his own desires and whims, it would result in chaos in the Islamic community (Novotny, 2011).

Indira Gandhi a/p Mutho v. Pengarah Jabatan Agama Islam Perak & Ors

In this case, the husband of Indira Gandhi converted to Islam, and at the same time converted their children to Islam as well. He had then obtained custody orders for the children from the Syariah court. Indira Gandhi petitioned from the civil courts to quash the unilateral conversion of her children and to obtain custody of them. Initially, the High Court held in favor of Indira Gandhi, quashing the conversion certificates and granting her custody. However, the decision was overruled by the Court of Appeal as religious conversion was a matter exclusively for the Sharia courts to decide. The Federal Court made a landmark ruling in the country as the judges by majority held that first, the unilateral conversion of the children was unconstitutional as it requires both parents’ consent to change the religion of minor children based on Article 12(4) of the Federal Constitution. Second, it was held that the civil courts have the authority to decide matters relating to Islamic law when constitutional issues are involved. Third, the basic structure doctrine of the Federal Constitution was recognised by the court after referring to the case ofSemenyih Jaya.

However, prior to the Federal Court decision, there were attempts from the State of Selangor to amend its Islamic Family Law Enactment by allowing unilateral conversion law. Hence, the decision ofIndira Gandhi’s case will continue to be a controversial one among the extremists of Islam and it is prone to be superseded by any new enacted Federal or State law (Pillai, 2019).

Rosliza Binti Ismail v Government of Selangor

This case concerns a woman who was born to a Muslim father and a Buddhist mother, seeking for a declaration that she is a Buddhist instead of Muslim as she was raised by her Buddhist mother since birth. It is very important to note that Rosliza’s parents were never married and she was born as an illegitimate child. Initially, the High Court rejected her claims by referring to the case of Lina Joy. The Court of Appeal affirmed the decision by stating that Rosliza has no evidence to show that her parents were never married, and held that she was a Muslim since birth. On appeal to the Federal Court, the panel of judges led by the Chief Justice Tengku Maimun, held that Rosliza was never a Muslim and declared that she is a Buddhist. Furthermore, it was further held that illegitimate children will not be attributed to the father, but instead will follow their mother, including her religion.

Based on the cases aforementioned, it was well established that any children who was born illegitimately as a Muslim will have the right to choose their religion under Article 11(1). The same applies to the children who were forcefully converted to Islam by their parents. For those who were born as a legitimate child and a Muslim, the principle of Lina Joy will continue to apply and hence, this brings us to the next point of restriction of propagation of non-Islamic religions to prevent apostasy among Muslims.

3.2 Propagation of non-Islamic religions to Muslims

To prevent apostasy among the Muslim community, the Constitution also permits States to ‘control and restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine’ among Muslims under Article 11(4).Pursuant to this clause, enactments were passed by some states to curtail the propagation of non-Islamic religions to Muslims, which include:

  1. Control & Restriction of the Propagation of Non-Islamic Religion (Johore) Enactment 1991 (Enactment 12/1991);

  2. Control and Restriction of the Propagation of Non-Islamic Religion (Kedah) Enactment 1988 (Enactment 11/1988);

  3. Control and Restriction of the Propagation of Non-Islamic Religion (Kelantan) Enactment 1981 (Enactment 11/1981);

  4. Control and Restriction of the Propagation of Non-Islamic Religion (Malacca) Enactment 1988 (Enactment 1/1988);

  5. Control and Restriction of the Propagation of Non-Islamic Religion (Negeri Sembilan) Enactment 1991 (Enactment 9/1991);

  6. Control and Restriction of the Propagation of Non-Islamic Religion (Pahang) Enactment 1989 (Enactment 5/1989); Zuliza Mohd Kusrin et al. 14

  7. Control and Restriction of the Propagation of Non-Islamic Religion (Perak) Enactment 1988 (Enactment 10/1988);

  8. Control and Restriction of the Propagation of Non-Islamic Religion (Selangor) Enactment 1988 (Enactment 1/1988);

  9. Control and Restriction of the Propagation of Non-Islamic Religion (Terengganu) Enactment 1980 (Enactment 1/1980); and

  10. Control and Restriction of the Propagation of Religious Doctrine which is Contrary to the Religion of Islam (Perlis Enactment No. 6 of 2002).

Recently, the Deputy Minister of the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) Datuk Ahmad Marzuk Shaary said the respective state governments will take steps to ensure that non-Islamic religions will be further limited in propagating their beliefs to Muslims. The Ministry is also in the process of tabling the enactment for the Federal Territories (Malay Mail, 2021).

3.3 Use of the word ‘Allah’

In 2009, Kuala Lumpur High Court allowed the Catholic newspaper, the Catholic Herald, to use the word Allah as a translation for God. However, the decision was overruled by the Court of Appeal. Although the publication before the court was the Catholic Herald, the ruling by the Court of Appeal affects all books and publications as it is impossible to draw a distinction between the use of the term ‘Allah’ between different publications, i.e. the herald and the Bible (Tommy Thomas, 2016), despite Putrajaya has reassured that the ruling only affects the herald (Malaysia Insider, 2014).

In 2014, Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (Jais) raided premises of the Bible Society Malaysia (BSM) and 331 copies of Malay and Iban Bibles were seized under Section 9(1) of the Selangor Enactment, which prohibits non–Muslims from using, in writing or speech, any of the 25 words or any of their derivatives and variations, as stated in Part 1 of the Schedule, pertaining to a non–Islamic religion. The constitutionality of Section 9 has been called into question as Article 11(4) and Paragraph 1, List II of Schedule 9 of the Federal Constitution ‘only allow states to pass laws to control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among Muslims’ (Malaysian Bar. 2014). Besides, the officers of the Bible Society who are non-Muslims should also not be subjected to criminal prosecution under the provision in the circumstances where the Bibles were used solely for worshipping among Christians (Tommy Thomas, 2016).

Chief Justice Raja Azlan Shah in the case of Pengarah Tanah dan Galian v Sri Lempah Enterprise Sdn Bhdpropounded that:

Unfettered discretion is a contradiction in terms... Every legal power must have legal limits, otherwise there is dictatorship. In particular, it is a stringent requirement that a discretion should be exercised for a proper purpose, and that it should not be exercised unreasonably... The courts are the only defence of the liberty of the subject against departmental aggression. In these days when government departments and public authorities have such great powers and influence, this is a most important safeguard for the ordinary citizen: so that the courts can see that these great powers and influence are exercised in accordance with law

Despite the Attorney General having decided not to pursue charges in the case, Selangor Islamic Religious Council (Mais) reiterated that Jais would not adhere to the directive issued by the Selangor Government because the state had ‘no power’ in the matter. The Bibles were only returned 11 months later on the order of the Sultan of Selangor, with the conditions that those Bibles are limited to the usage of Christians in Sarawak.

3.4 Jill Ireland's decision

The latest decision on the issue is the case of Jill Ireland decided in March 2021. Jill Ireland, who was schooled in the National Education System with the Malay language, has practised Christianity by using the Bible as well as other written and audio-visual materials in the Indonesian language. Eight compact discs (CDs) which consisted of the word ‘Allah’ in their titles were seized by the Customs Department under Section 9(1) of Printing Presses and Publications Act when she returned to Malaysia on the grounds (i) that the CDs include prohibited terms, (ii) to preserve public order, and (iii) the CDs breach the guidelines of the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia’s (JAKIM).

The High Court judge Datuk Nor Bee has affirmed Jill Ireland's constitutional rights to education and practice of religion while Jill Ireland shall also not be discriminated on religious grounds under Article 8of the Federal Constitution.

Most significantly, the Home Ministry's ban of ‘Allah’ in Christian publications was declared as unlawful and unconstitutional due to the home minister’s lack of statutory powers under the law to make a directive on December 12, 1986 which barred the word ‘Allah’ to be used in Christian publications.

Back in March 1982, a government order, Internal Security (Prohibition of Publication) (No. 4) Order 1982 or PU (A) 134/1982 was gazetted by the then Deputy Home Minister Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Tamby Chik. The order stated that the prohibition of the ‘printing, publication, sale, issue, circulation or possession of the Bibles in the Indonesian language which the government deemed as prejudicial to national interest and national security does not affect the possession or use of those Bibles in churches by Christians throughout Malaysia. In other words, since the March 1982 order was not repealed yet and the directive made by the Home Ministry in 1986 had no effect, the court held that if the Cabinet’s policy decision was to impose a total prohibition on the four words, it is reasonable to expect that PU (A) 134/1982 would be repealed or modified or varied to reflect the new policy.

A few days after the judgment, the government decided to appeal against the decision, notwithstanding the disagreement by the Members of Parliament and State Legislators from Sabah and Sarawak.

3.5 The Ten Point Solution

In 2011, the former Prime Minister Najib Razak issued the Ten Point Solution by contending that it was ‘a collective decision by the Cabinet’ with the intention to resolve the ‘Allah’ issue and to release the 35100 impounded Bibles in Kuching and Port Klang.

Points one and two are crucial as they permit the importation and printing of Bibles in the Malay or Indonesian languages. Point six extends to the protection of rights to carry Malay Bibles when travelling between West Malaysia and East Malaysia. In implementing the solution, comprehensive briefings by top officials, including the Attorney General (AG), will be given to all relevant civil servants. The Cabinet will also meet with Christian groups regularly to resolve any issue to achieve peace and harmony within the society.

The judge in Jill Irelandalso said that the long-standing ‘Allah’ controversy could have been put to an end if the ten point solution was given full effect to withdraw the conflicting impugned 1986 directive.

However, there have been criticisms as the seizure of Bibles in 2014 as discussed above has proven that the implementation since then has not been effective. Without strong political will, the Ten Point Solution will lose its significance (Tommy Thomas, 2016).


Religious belief is one’s emotional support coupled with a sense of belonging and peace that provides the inner strength and courage to do the right thing. It is a regulator for values in day-to-day life that promotes values like love, empathy, respect, and harmony, which is what the world needs regardless of how advanced and progressive we are in the future. We should have a sense of gratitude for being granted the right and freedom to choose and practice any belief which we think fit, in Malaysia. Regardless of which political system one is under, one should not be deprived of their right to freedom of religion. Observing the developments globally on this topic, it is pertinent to note that any act by a country’s leader that deprives the people’s right to practise their own religion and its development in order to make the people worship themselves is very much an act of dictatorship. This is exactly what has been happening in the dictatorship nation of North Korea, where the authorities intend to make up the image of their leader as a God, whom people fear to offend and violate his words. Also, his words are considered not only as law, but sacred advice from the Creator. This is to fool their people with extremely low and distorted education for the ultimate purpose of strengthening their position to rule the country.

Freedom of religion in Malaysia can still prosper without serious concerns because this fundamental right is protected by the Federal Constitution. Moreover, this status quo is part of the compromise which different races in the nation have agreed on during the formation of independence. However, a good and responsible citizen of the society should never fear to stand up for what is right and preserve the status quo if such development may lead to unfavourable consequences. For example, famous international media such as the BBC has leaked out documents which suspect the inhumane act of China government in brainwashing hundreds of thousands of Ughyurs Muslims in Xinjiang, China by setting up the network of high-security prison camps. The camps, where inmates are locked up, indoctrinated and punished, as proven by photographs taken from satellites and videos of disclosure by the victims, are part of the tools of the government used to wipe out the Muslim Ughyurs of Xinjiang by transforming their beliefs, behaviours and thoughts, as alleged by the BBC. If what has been reported is the truth, it is a gross violation of human rights to freedom of religion. Such a vicious act requires our solidarity with those affected so that one day we will stand united against it if similar incidents happen in our country.

All in all, it is supported that the freedom to practise any religious beliefs should not be definite. Reasonable restrictions should be imposed to limit religions that are deemed to be unusual and promoting immoral teachings, or in short, a cult. The distorted form of a religion, such as terrorism and ISIS, must be curbed and re-educated by all means. Be that as it may, as a loyal believer to our religion, we should continue to uphold the value of forgiving towards others, and strive to create a better place to live in, with the teachings of our religion that promotes good for mankind.



Federal Constitution

Internal Security Act 1960

Malaysian Penal Code


Halimatussaadiah Kamaruddin v Public Service Commission Malaysia[1994] 3 MLJ 61

Indira Gandhi a/p Mutho v Pengarah Jabatan Agama Islam Perak & Ors and Other Appeals [2018] 1 MLJ 545

Jamaluddin Bin Othman v Menteri Hal Ehwal Dalam Negeri, Malaysia & Anor[1989] 1 MLJ 368

Jill Ireland Bt Lawrence Bill v Menteri Bagi Kementerian Dalam Negeri Malaysia & Anor[2021] 8 MLJ 890

Lina Joy v Majlis Agama Islam Wilayah Persekutuan[2007] 4 MLJ 585

Meor Atiqulrahman Ishak v Fatimah Sihi[2006] 4 MLJ 605

Minister for Home Affairs v Jamaluddin Othman[1989] 1 MLJ 418

Nappali Peter Williams v Institute of Technical Education[1999] 2 SLR 569

Pengarah Tanah dan Galian v Sri Lempah Enterprise Sdn Bhd[1979] 1 MLJ 135

Rosliza bt Ibrahim v Kerajaan Negeri Selangor & Anor [2021] 2 MLJ 181

Teoh Eng Huat v Kadhi, Pasir Mas[1990] 2 MLJ 300


Shad Saleem Faruqi. (2008). Document of Destiny: The Constitution of the Federation of Malaysia. Star Publications (Malaysia) Berhad.

Shad Saleem Faruqi. (2019). Our Constitution. Sweet & Maxwell.

Thomas, T. (2016). Abuse of Power. SIRD.

Online Websites

Mohd Hishamudin Yunus. (2020, September 10). Is Malaysia a Secular or a Theocratic State? LHAG. Retrieved from

Novotný, F. (2011, February 10). Freedom of Religion Abuses in Malaysia. Global Politics. Retrieved from

Ochab, E. U. (2019, April 1). Religious freedom in Malaysia under scope. Forbes. Retrieved from

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM). Freedom of Religion in Malaysia. Retrieved from

Wan Norhasniah Wan Husin & Haslina Ibrahimb. (2016). Religious Freedom, The Malaysian Constitution and Islam: A Critical Analysis. ScienceDirect. Retrieved from

Online Newspaper Article

Karim, K.N. (2021, February 5). Woman succeeds in 6-year legal battle to be recognised as non-Muslim. New Straits Times. Retrieved from

Mohamed Azam Mohamed Adil. (2018, December 28). Is Malaysia a secular state? New Straits Time. Retrieved from

Nurhalida, M.K. (2014, December 11). Parameters of freedom of religion. New Straits Times. Retrieved from

Pillai, V. (2019, August 14). Selangor unilateral conversion law may supersede Indira ruling, say lawyers.Free Malaysia Today. Retrieved from

(2017, August 9). Malaysia can’t enforce, but penalty for leaving Islam is death, mufti reminds apostates. Malay Mail. Retrieved from

(2019, November 19). Data leak reveals how China 'brainwashes' Uighurs in prison camps. BBC. Retrieved from

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