Malaysian News Review: Malaysia, Islamic or Secular?

The question as to whether Malaysia is secular or an Islamic state has been played up in recent  months as the 13th General Elections, which is anticipated to be the most tightly contested elections in Malaysia’s history, looms.

The 12th General Elections in 2008 saw a ‘political tsunami’ which almost tipped the balance of power in the country. The aftermath of this ‘tsunami’ saw the birth of the strongest federal opposition in the history of Malaysia. The opposition consists of three parties, one of which is the PAS, the Islamic Party of Malaysia. PAS has been, for years now, advocating the adoption of Hudud law and the formation of an Islamic state. However, in recent years the PAS has abandoned its aspirations for an Islamic state but instead advocates a welfare state. Nevertheless, the issue of Malaysia being an Islamic state is being politicised by politicians form both sides of the divide for their cheap political gain.

Politics aside, what exactly is Malaysia, Islamic or secular? Well, the founding document of this nation, the Federal Constitution, is a secular document. While it is declared in Article 3 that “Islam is the religion of the Federation”, it is not mentioned as to whether the State is Islamic. Furthermore, the first Prime Minister of the Federation, Tunku Abdul Rahman, mentioned in a speech during his 80th birthday celebrations that Malaysia is a secular state. He says:

“I would like to make it clear that this country is not an Islamic state as it is generally understood; we merely provided that Islam shall be the official religion of the State.” “The country has a multi-racial population with various beliefs. Malaysia must continue as a secular state with Islam as the official religion.”

Proponents of an Islamic state argue that Mahathir Mohammad in 2000 declared Malaysia as an Islamic state; however, no amendments were made to the federal constitution and his declaration was only verbal. In Tunku’s case, he was the very man involved in the drafting of the Constitution. Therefore, his interpretation holds predominance over others.

However, there are certain characteristics of the state which threaten the secular nature of it. First is the involvement of religion in every section of the government, religious considerations are taken into account in every decision made by the government. The non practice of the ‘separation of church and state’ makes the administration of the nation complicated as one religion is seen as superior over others and in a multiethnic multi-religious nation such as Malaysia, it could be a time bomb waiting to explode.

The bone of contention as to whether Malaysia is Islamic or secular is likely to remain for years to come unless the constitution is amended to explicitly state that Malaysia is the former or the latter. This is unlikely as it requires a two-thirds majority in parliamentary voting and the consent of the Malay Rulers who are described as ‘defenders of Islam’ in their respective states. Both the Parliamentarians and the Rulers lack the political will and clout to make this change.

Nevertheless, even without a constitutional declaration for a secular state, this state, by the very nature and basis of its formation is a secular entity and for the sake of maintaining the peace and protecting the basic human rights of individuals, Malaysia must remain a secular nation.

Dhirenn Nair

"Zeal without knowledge is fire without light." - Thomas Fuller, 17th century historian

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