Declaration of Malaysia as Islamic Country

At the recent Parti Gerakan Conference, the Prime Minister made a declaration that Malaysia is now an Islamic country. In the wake of the declaration came confusion which easily erodes social consensus.

Declaration of Malaysia as Islamic Country

Ng Kam Weng

At the recent Parti Gerakan Conference, the Prime Minister made a declaration that Malaysia is now an Islamic country. In the wake of the declaration came confusion which easily erodes social consensus.

On the one hand, one may interpret the Prime Minister’s declaration in liberal terms, based on the Prime Minister’s statement that “non-Muslims have the right to consider Malaysia as a secular nation, but UMNO viewed Malaysia as having satisfied enough conditions to call itself an Islamic country” (STAR 1 Oct 2001). The Prime Minister, however, stressed that there was no need for the issue to be tabled in Parliament since there was no need for amendments to the Federal Constitution. The libertarian interpretation expressed by the Prime Minister was perhaps sufficient to persuade the other component parties in the government coalition to endorse the new concept from the Prime Minister.

On the other hand, Datuk Zainuddin Maidin, Information Ministry parliamentary secretary, asserted that Malaysia was never regarded as a secular state on grounds that no secular state would approve laws advancing the interests of a particular religion (STAR 8 Oct 2001).

It is vital that we distinguish between the terms ‘Islamic State’ and ‘Islamic country’. Failure to do so may give rise to confusion as officials unconsciously glide between these concepts as if they were one and the same. It should be clear that there is a big difference between the two terms if we follow the English language usage. The phrase ‘Islamic country’ is a descriptive term. It merely describes Malaysia as a country that has a Muslim majority exercising a leading role in the shaping of society and culture by virtue of its being the dominant community.

In contrast, the phrase ‘Islamic state’ is a prescriptive term. It presumes a State that is committed to an Islamic ideology and which ensures that its polity is based on Shariah law. Hence, Datuk Fadzil Noor, the president of PAS, rejected the Prime Minister’s declaration as inadequate and demanded that it be formalized in Parliament. Fadzil insisted that “one of the prerequisites is the placing of Syariah law as the supreme source of all laws in Malaysia.”

Some clarification may be found in the document “Malaysia Adalah Sebuah Negara Islam” released by the Jabatan Ehwal Khas, Kementerian Penerangan Malaysia. The document presumably provides the background materials which form the basis for the Prime Minister’s declaration. Unfortunately, the term Negara Islam may mean either an Islamic nation or an Islamic State. Both strands of meaning are found in the document. One definition offered by the document states, “Negara yang dikuasai oleh umat Islam, dalam mana orang-orang Islam beroleh keamanan didalamnya.” Elsewhere we read, “Negara Islam (Darul Islam) ialah negara yang berada di bawah kuasa pemerintahan Islam.” A further statement reinforces the second meaning, “ Negara Islam ialah negara yang hukum pemerintah Islam berkuatkuasa ke atasnya.”

The document further elaborates on the twelve duties of an Islamic government. Such duties include building of mosques, regulating society to ensure its Islamic culture and character, setting up a judicial system to resolve conflict and fight crime and administering finance and the army. On grounds that the present government has faithfully discharged these duties, the Prime Minister therefore feels justified in declaring that Malaysia is an Islamic country.

It is evident that UMNO came up with the declaration in response to PAS which has continually rejected the UMNO’s Islamic credentials. To be sure, non-Muslims can empathize with UMNO’s attempt to protect its Islamic credentials and appease the grassroots which has taken a turn towards more Islamic activism in recent years. Nevertheless, the non-Muslim community can only watch with anxiety lest UMNO falls into a trap of its own making if its initiative is but a hasty attempt to out-Islamicize PAS. Such a strategy amounts to fighting a political battle on terms set by PAS.

There is also a procedural problem involved in the recent declaration. Given the wide ramifications that follow the declaration, many non-Muslim citizens will protest that the non-Muslim parties should not have so quickly endorsed the declaration. Since its effect is to bring about such significant change to the status of the country, the parties should have secured the people’s mandate to accept the declaration by first allowing the issue to be debated at the grass roots in order to establish social consensus.

Some politicians may argue that the distinction between ‘Islamic country’ and ‘Islamic State’ is a matter of semantics and we should not quibble over them, especially if non-Muslim would want to support UMNO in its fight against PAS. Still, it must be remembered that words define and redefine reality and once the declaration has been accepted, the political machinery will be reconfigured so as to be in line with the new perception.

More importantly, even the broader term, ‘Islamic country’, would most likely be hijacked by the more extreme activists from within UMNO and PAS. The Prime Minister seems to have a liberal and inclusive view of an ‘Islamic country’ which does not necessarily discriminate against non-Muslims. But, unfortunately, we have no assurance that his political successors will necessarily share his moderate politics.

For instance, think of the Islamization policy which was launched to disseminate Islamic values that are universal in character. Over the years, however, some zealous officials interpreted the policy to be one that requires restrictions on the freedom of non-Muslims to practice their faith. For example, there are already indications that some civil court judges may be willing to restrict religious freedom despite the guarantee of Article 11 of the Federal Constitution by subsuming it to a narrow interpretation of Article 3 and interpreting the clause “Islam as the official religion of the Federation” to mean that Malaysia is an Islamic State. Such judgments are suggested despite the additional provision found in Article 3 (4), which states that nothing in Article 3 derogates from any other provision of the Constitution. That is to say, the rights guaranteed in Article 11 – which includes the right to profess, practice and propagate one’s religion – is inviolable. It is unfortunate that the Prime Minister’s declaration may encourage some judges – acting from Islamic sentiments – to pass judgments that will effectively erode the freedom of religion.

Apart from such practical consequences, the readiness with which some politicians voice the opinion that Malaysia was never a secular state indicates that they have deliberately ignored the spirit of social contract entered into by the founding fathers of the nation. Indeed, the secular foundation of the present Constitution is clear from the following documents:

– The Reid Commission deploys a double negative statement to stress that the Federation of Malaya will be a secular state: “. . . the religion of Malaya shall be Islam. The observation of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practicing other religions and shall not imply that the state is not a secular state.”

– The White Paper on the Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya reaffirms that “There has been included in the proposed Federal Constitution that Islam is the religion of the Federation. This will in no way affect the present position of the Federation as a secular State.”

– Finally, the Cobbold Commission takes note of the anxieties of the non-Muslims from Sabah and Sarawak. In response, the representatives from the Federation of Malaya, after referring to the provisions for fundamental liberties and freedom of religion in the Constitution, stressed that “we agree that Islam should be the national religion for the Federation. We are satisfied that the proposal in no way jeopardizes freedom of religion in the Federation, which in effect will be secular.”

It should be stressed that the secular foundation of the Constitution is qualified by additional provisions which stipulate that Islam is the official religion. As such, Islamic rites and rituals may be applied in the ceremonial functions of the government. Article 12 also authorizes the Federal Government “to establish or maintain Islamic institutions or provide or assist in providing instruction in the religion of Islam.” Furthermore, State governments may provide financial support to build and maintain Islamic institutions. State government may also intervene and legislate on matters pertaining to Islamic. Such provisions belie the common perception that a secular Constitution must necessarily be antagonistic towards religion.

It is granted that government evolves along with new social developments. But it is only reasonable that any new provision for the Constitution should respect the original spirit behind the Constitution. As the Malay saying goes, “Apa yang tersirat adalah lebih penting daripada apa yang tersurat.”

On the other hand, does the recognition of new social realities not require the need to go beyond restricting our public discourse to one religion alone? Why should we be forced into a false dilemma of either choosing a secular state or a theocratic Islamic state? To be sure, the current struggle between UMNO and PAS encourages debates framed primarily on Islamic terms. However, UMNO should widen the framework of the debate to include other religions. Restricting the debate to Islam alone unfortunately excludes a large section of our citizens.

It would be ideal if we could ground our fundamental liberties and social freedom on the concept of pluralistic democracy and the modern concept of citizenship that transcends race and religion. But even if the more traditional members of UMNO are not ready for such a progressive approach to democracy, they should recognize that it is vital that they rally allies from the non-Muslim communities to defend the present Constitution against PAS activists demanding a theocratic state. Reframing the debate in terms of establishing a multi-religious democracy goes a long way to win support for UMNO. The fight to defend the Constitution is too important to be left to UMNO alone.

To end on a more practical note, perhaps our Government should set up a Commission or Institute for the development of multi-religious democracy. The institution will ensure that such sensitive issues of religion and democracy will be addressed in an ongoing forum. Hopefully, a culture of public dialog and democratic deliberation will encourage moderation in our quest for an inclusive democracy adequate for a modern pluralistic society like Malaysia.

Ng Kam Weng