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Is Malaysia a secular or Islamic state? It depends

Publication Date : 01-11-2012


One fundamental question gripping Malaysians today is whether Malaysia is a secular or Islamic state.

The issue came to the fore when de facto Law Minister Nazri Aziz remarked in Parliament last month that "Malaysia has never been determined or declared as a secular state", and that the word "secular" was not even present in the Federal Constitution.

The minister stopped short of saying Malaysia is an Islamic state, in his reply to a question by a Member of Parliament from the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP).

His remarks were made in the context of ongoing polemic between the DAP and its rival, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), on the question of hudud - the Islamic penal code - and the goal of the DAP's coalition partner, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), to establish an Islamic state.

This has emerged because the Chinese party is warning voters that a vote for the DAP equals a vote for the PAS, which means a vote for an Islamic state and hudud. This is to scare non-Muslims away from voting for the DAP, because of the implication that the PAS would turn Malaysia into an Islamic state and introduce hudud if the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition - which includes the PAS and the DAP - forms the government after the general election due by April next year.

The MCA is capitalising on the fear of hudud's harsh punishments. It is also reminding voters of the danger that non-Muslims, who form 40 per cent of the population of 28 million, would be relegated to being second-class citizens if Malaysia becomes an Islamic state.

But the reality is quite different. There is only a remote chance that hudud will ever be implemented by the PAS if the PR were to take over the government, as the Islamic penal code and the concept of the Islamic state are not in the agenda of the coalition.

It is also unlikely to happen in a country where only 60 per cent of the population are Muslim. This is because hudud law can take place only if a constitutional amendment is made to provide for the strict Islamic penal code. That would need an endorsement by a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

While this secular-Islamic state debate may be purely a smokescreen in the tussle for votes between the opposition and the ruling party, the issue has rekindled interest in the identity of the country some half a century after its independence.

Did Malaysia's founding fathers envisage the country to be what it is today?

There is no consensus as to what kind of state Malaysia has become since its independence in August 1957 - whether secular or Islamic.

One definition of a secular state is that it upholds the concept of secularism whereby a state or country is neutral in matters of religion, supporting neither religion nor irreligion. It treats all its citizens equally regardless of religion, and avoids preferential treatment for a citizen from a particular religion over another. More importantly, a secular state does not have a state religion or equivalent.

An Islamic state can be defined as a type of government in which the primary basis for government is the Syariah, or Islamic law. Here, the Islamic law reigns supreme, as it is derived from the Quran, the Muslim holy scripture, and the Hadith, a record of the Prophet's deeds and words. At the centre of the Islamic state concept is the implementation of the hudud.

Both Malaysia's first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and third prime minister Tun Hussein Onn had said Malaysia is a secular state, contradicting Datuk Seri Nazri's remarks in Parliament that the country had no secularist roots.

Tunku Abdul Rahman had referred to Malaysia as a secular state, and not an Islamic one, on a number of occasions, including one when he told the Parliament on May 1, 1958: "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."

But after 55 years of independence, Malaysia does not quite fit the standard definition of a secular state because Islam is declared the religion of the federation.

At the same time, the Constitution guarantees non-Muslims the freedom to practise the religions of their choice - but they cannot preach these to Muslims.

The state is therefore not neutral to religion as it gives preference to Islam. Malaysia's secular Constitution, as the supreme law of the land, allows certain aspects of Islamic laws to be implemented in the country, hence blurring its status as a secular state.

Is Malaysia then an Islamic state as declared by the country's fourth prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in September 2001?

Dr Mahathir, who had previously described Malaysia as an Islamic country, declared Malaysia to be an Islamic state to ward off attacks from the PAS, which had accused Umno (which has a Muslim membership base) of not fulfilling its religious obligation to set up an Islamic state.

Dr Mahathir argued that Malaysia could be an Islamic state even without the implementation of Islamic law. But this goes against most theories of the Islamic state which hold that the Syariah, in which the hudud is a significant component, lies at its heart.

But the former prime minister, who was against hudud as propounded by the PAS, maintained that Malaysia was an Islamic state as shown by its acceptance as a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The grouping includes countries which do not implement the hudud.

Dr Mahathir's concept of an Islamic Malaysia is the result of his Islamisation programme during his two decades of premiership. The expansion of religious bureaucracy is abundantly evident; so are the controls exerted on citizens' rights in the name of Islam, such as a prohibition against the use of the word "Allah" for God by Christians, a restriction on Malay bibles and a ban on proselytisation of Muslims.

Indeed, Malaysia has become so Islamic that even civil courts have ceded their jurisdiction to the Syariah courts in disputes involving Muslims under the country's dual legal system.

The secular-or-Islamic debate will emerge from time to time as the issue will be raised by the ruling party or opposition to score political points with voters.

And this is not a matter only between the Malay parties Umno and PAS. Increasingly, non-Malay parties are also caught up with the issue as their constituents remain wary of the Islamic-state concept and the implications of the country becoming more Islamic.


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