Stanley Koh | October 20, 2011
Free Malaysia Today
In 2001, when Dr Mahathir declared Malaysia an Islamic state, MCA president Dr Ling Liong Sik said he and other non-Muslim leaders supported the prime minister’s position
What is the role of religions in politics? Is Islam compatible with democracy? How do we deal with the conflicts between the constitutional provisions for fundamental liberties and equality with religious laws and policies that may violate them?
Should the state legislate on morality? Is it the duty of the state to bring about a more moral society?
Can there be one truth and one final interpretation of Islam that must be legislated and govern the lives of every Muslim citizen of the country?
These were some of the questions raised in 2001 at a MCA-organised forum attended by Dr Hamid Othman of the Prime Minister’s Department, Shad Saleem Faruqi of Universiti Teknologi Mara, Zainah Anwar of Sisters in Islam and representatives of the Inter-Religious Council of Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism.
The forum came in the midst of public disquiet over then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s declaration, in September 2001, that Malaysia was an Islamic state. Many Malaysians were confused and quite a number were in fear that the country would eventually be run like a Taliban state.
Hamid, whose job was to advise the PM’s Department on religious matters, said he did not have answers to the questions raised.
“I would like a dialogue to begin on these very important issues,” he said. “This dialogue and debate have begun, particularly in Muslim countries like Iran and Indonesia. And the search for answers and solutions cannot be the exclusive preserve of the ulamas.
“All citizens have the right to engage in this dialogue and in this debate because nothing less than the future of this nation is at stake. The peace, political stability and prosperity, the celebration of our rich, multiracial and multireligious heritage that we have enjoyed, must be the heritage that we leave to our children.”
Why did Mahathir make the surprising declaration? Veteran political observers interpreted it as purely and simply a move to outdo PAS in the competition for Malay voting support. They said Mahathir had no other considerations apart from the political. Some interpreted it as a desperate political manoeuvre occasioned by increasing support for PAS as that party pushed its own brand of Islamic Malaysia, one that would include hudud punishments under Islamic law.
BN’s major component parties, particularly MCA, were caught in a bind. To its credit, MCA organised the forum on short notice to seek clarification and answers to end the confusion and fears.
What was the MCA president’s own response to Mahathir’s declaration? Dr Ling Liong Sik claimed that many non-Muslim leaders supported the prime minister’s position. The following were the exact words he used at the forum, as recorded on tape:
“Can I say my personal point of view? Now throughout the world, there’s conflict, struggle, war between the moderates and the extremists. In any society, sometimes even within the religious society—you name them—fundamentalists, some moderates, some of them reasonables.
“Now in Malaysia, we, in BN, are taking the moderate-centre stand. We try to discuss everything between races. That is why we have invited religious councils to give your views. Now we know, we know, the erosion of Malay support is serious.
“It is serious. And in Selangor, previous election, let us say in Shah Alam, won by 41,000 votes. Last election (1999), dropped to 2,400 votes. In Gombak, previous election won by 30,000-over votes, but last election, kalah 800 votes.
“This is the erosion of Malay support. And it is going the other way to the extremist call. The hudud laws, Islamic state, this and that, now non-Malay taking the middle road.
“Are you going to support the moderates? Because even if withdrawing support, being silent, is supporting the extremist line.”
Ling elaborated that supporting Mahathir’s declaration was merely a demonstration of support for moderates.
“Now, if Dr Mahathir said we are going to change the constitution and make this a theocratic state, I think it will be completely different.
“This is the constitution drawn up by our forefathers and everybody agreed to it. And it is the supreme law of the land. And it should not be changed. And that is what he said.
“By definition, we can now call ourselves an Islamic state. I am not saying Dr Mahathir’s saying is right but he has good reason in trying to stem the erosion.”
Only a duty
Hamid gave his interpretation of what Islam expects of Muslims who hold political power.
“Islam recognizes any values not contradicting to Islamic teachings,” he said.
“The implementation of hudud laws is only a duty, and not a pillar of Islam.
“If PAS refers to books on Islamic jurisprudence, PAS will say the same things as Umno. If PAS says that hudud is a pillar of Islam, they cannot hoodwink Islamic scholars.
“The governance and administration of Malaysia is run in accordance to Islamic teachings, particularly, in the eradication of poverty, or more correctly, hunger. Secondly, eradication of disturbances, meaning efforts to maintain peace and harmony for the country. From the very beginning, the Alliance, and later Barisan Nasional (BN), was run to achieve these objectives. It has been the objective of the government.
“You can call it an Islamic objective or secular. Islam accepts (what is) secular, but not secularism.
“Secular in … Islam means in this life, striving for betterment, providing services for the wellbeing and welfare of fellow men while carrying out your duties and responsibilities.
“Islam cannot accept secularism, which means that there is no life after death. Secularism means there is no punishment after death and this runs contrary to Islamic teachings.”
Neither Islamic nor secular
Shad agreed that there is no one model of an Islamic state, just as there is no such thing as a single model for communism, socialism, capitalism or secularism. “It is a matter of semantics,” he said.
He said the Reid Commission did “a good job” of drafting a “detailed constitutional document” for Malaysia, but he noted a “significant omission” in that the constitution does not have a preamble.
“Maybe it was a deliberate move,” he said. “Most constitutional documents have a preamble stating the nation supports either secularism, socialism or social economic justice. Our constitution lacks a preamble. Neither the word ‘secular’ nor ‘Islamic’ appears anywhere.
“Article 4(1) states that the written constitution is the supreme law of the federation. Though Islam is the religion of the federation, it is not the basic law of the land. And Article 3 (on Islam) imposes no limits on the power of Parliament to legislate.
“Islamic law is not and never was the general law of the land, either at the federal or state level. In such fields as criminal law, Islamic law has very little relevance. Thus, the hudud offence of zina (fornication) cannot be punishable in Malaysia under syariah law. Article 160(2) of the constitution, which defines law, does not include syariah as part of the definition of law.
“All in all, it can be said that Malaysia is neither a full-fledged Islamic state nor wholly secular. On the one hand, it maintains Islam as a state religion and is deeply committed to the promotion of religion in the life of Muslims. On the other, it places the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the state sultans as heads of the religious hierarchy and adopts the supremacy of the constitution as the basic rule of the legal system.”
According to the professor, the legal system is “mixed”. “It avoids the extremes of American style secularism or Saudi, Iranian and Taliban type of religious control of all aspects of life. It mirrors the rich diversity and pluralism of its population. It prefers pragmatism over ideological purity, moderation over extremism. It walks the middle path.
“Islam provides the basic norms for Malay society and culture. In view of the fact that Muslims constitute the majority of the population, and Islamisation is being vigorously enforced, Malaysia can indeed be described as an Islamic or Muslim country.”
To be continued in Part 3