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The Constitution must be supreme in Malaysia's religious debate
Publication Date : 24-06-2014
A few weeks ago, I wrote about my opposition to the implementation of hudud in Malaysia.
Since then, it appears that the on-going debate about the role of religion in our country has become even more complicated, whether over child custody, raids on weddings and funerals as well as the issue of Malay-language Bibles.
To me, the challenge for Malaysians is simple enough.
We must decide what kind of country we’re living in.
Is it secular or religious? A constitutional monarchy which practises Westminster democracy or something else altogether?
Our leaders have shied away from answering these questions for far too long, allowing opportunists and extremists to dominate the discourse.
This has left Malaysia in a permanent state of flux.
We cannot become a developed nation when one group of citizens thinks the only way they can be protected is to relegate another into an inferior state.
That is at the heart of the various disputes: Malay versus non-Malay, Muslim versus non-Muslim and so on.
At the same time, this dichotomy fails to acknowledge the many Malay-Muslims who feel uncomfortable with the idea of living under a theocracy.
Still, the fundamental question remains this: should people be treated equally in Malaysia?
If not, why?
If it is because this will somehow denigrate the position of Islam and the Malays – why is that so?
The solution, I think, is to go back to Malaysia’s founding document – our Constitution.
Unlike Britain, Malaysia’s Constitution is written.
This makes us a nation of laws, which gives us a framework for how we deal with each other.
And what does the Constitution say?
It is true Article 3(1) states that Islam is the religion of the federation but also provides that other faiths may be practised in peace and harmony.
Every mainstream voice in Malaysia has accepted this.
But does this article mean that the rights and values of non-Muslim Malaysians are completely irrelevant the moment Islam comes into any matter?
Let us also not forget that Article 3(4) also states: “Nothing in this Article derogates from any other provision of this Constitution.”
I might be wrong here, but I think this also means that Islam’s special position does not abrogate the force of other provisions, like Article 8(1): “All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law.”
Malaysians – it seems – are being forced to choose between two very unpleasant extremes.
One is that we must remove religion from our public lives altogether.
The other is that a certain understanding of Islam must take priority over everything else.
But if people truly took the time to read the Constitution – they would realise that neither of these paths meet the spirit in which our nation was founded.
We are a polyglot nation. We cannot suddenly rid ourselves of our diversity and complexity. Yes, it is messy but it is also a fact of life and embedded in our national DNA.
Until and unless we amend our Constitution – the fact remains that Malaysia is not completely secular, but neither does it allow one faith to run roughshod over the other.
Anyone who says that provisions of the Constitution or other laws can be ignored simply because they think Islam is under threat is going against the law of the land.
Does believing this make someone a bad Muslim?
I humbly submit that faith is better served through doing justice rather than by causing fear and ill-will.
Our leaders must show collective wisdom and courage in these difficult times.
The Selangor sultan is to be commended for stating that his state’s religious authorities should seek redress for their grievances only through legal means.
However, we live in a democracy. As such, our elected officials should lead the way.
They must draw on the collective wisdom of our nation to find the path forward.
Leadership is not about being silent in times of crisis. It is about decisiveness and courage.
I am no fan of former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad but at least he always understood the need to lead.
The prime minister and his cabinet must step forward. They must lead from the front.
If they don’t have the guts to do so – Malaysians will turn elsewhere.