Why is secularism a ‘non-argument’?

By Wong Chin Huat
Mar 23, 2015

COMMENT Many human right lawyers, minority rights advocates, women right advocates and liberals have vigorously and rigorously defended the secular nature of the Malaysian state.

The most outstanding examples include the late parliamentarian Karpal Singh, Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) chairperson Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa and Noor Farida Arifin who leads the Group of 25 Eminent Malays (G25).

Their courageous defence of secularism, while cheered by many members of minorities and liberals, change little the debate amongst the Malay-Muslims.

As the ultimate defence on secularism lies with the judiciary, that increasingly Muslim judges are observing a trend of religious political correctness suggests this may be a losing battle.

Former top judges championing Malay-Muslim ultra-nationalism certainly leaves no room for optimism.

Is Malaysia a secular state?

Some commentators try to argue that Malaysia is not a secular state but rather a hybrid system based on two grounds, that Malaysia has Islam as the ‘religion of the federation’ and Syariah laws governing the personal and familial affairs of Muslims.

This ‘hybrid’ thesis ignores the fact that there are different strands of secularism.

By this narrow argument, the United Kingdom would not be secular because she has the Anglican Church as the established faith. Similarly, India and Singapore would not be secular because they, too, have Syariah laws for personal and familial affairs of Muslims.

However, not every secular country needs to be completely disassociated from religion like France is to be secular.

The fundamental defining feature of a secular system is whether the government’s decision-making power is subject to any religious authority.

One only needs to look at Tunisia post-Arab Spring to understand this nuance.

Under its Islamist ruling party Ennahda Movement, Tunisia passed a secular constitution in January 2014. Article 1 of the new constitution makes Islam her official religion but Article 2 immediately states that “is a civil state that is based on citizenship, the will of the people and the supremacy of law.”

For all intents and purposes, Tunisia is not a hybrid state. It is secular.

Likewise, Malaysia is secular notwithstanding the status of Islam as the official faith and the presence of Syariah personal laws.

Malaysia only becomes ‘desecularised’ when the decision-making power of political leaders is subject to the approval of religious authority. This is exactly what Kelantan MB did when he decided for all Muslims that they must support hudud and the critics are “immoral liars”.

The legitimacy deficit of secularism

The challenge faced by secularism is not those hair-splitting ‘exceptionalist’ attempts to reclassify Malaysia as a ‘hybrid system’, but the internal contradiction between secularism and the official narrative of nationhood.

At the core of secularism is state impartiality towards religion, which is in turn based on state impartiality towards and equality of citizens.

While the founding fathers of Malaya like Tunku Abdul Rahman (left) and Abdul Razak Hussein rejected completely a clerical elite supervising the political class, they did not accept state impartiality as the foundation of Malaya, and later Malaysia.

They only wanted secularism to mean non-clergy rule, not state impartiality on religion.

State impartiality and citizen equality were long ruled out when the Malayan Union that offered citizenship to all long-term residents ended in 1948 due to the vehement objection of Umno.

While the subsequent communist insurgency and Umno’s need to form a multi-ethnic coalition to win elections led the Malay nationalist party to water down its ethnocratic ideal, the nation-making discourse was essentially a Malay-centric one.

Dominant from school textbooks, mainstream media to official indoctrination programme a la Biro Tata Negara (BTN), this official discourse contains three main elements:

(1) The multi-ethnic population was purely the result of colonial rule;

(2) The enfranchisement of non-Malays was an act of generousity by the Malays; and

(3) In return for the extension of citizenship, the Malays deserve ‘special rights’ as a compensation.

The third element was vital in securing Umno’s dominance in securing Malay votes and both the extensiveness and intensiveness of ‘Malay special rights’ were enhanced after 1969.

To strengthen the moral ground of such nativist privileges, both the Malays’ ‘generousity’ and the ‘colonial’ origin of the minorities have to be stressed.

The inconvenient truth that some non-Malays were brought in by the Malay rulers before the British colonialisation – from the Chinese miners brought in by Malay chieftains and who later fought by their sides in civil wars in Perak and Selangor, to the Chinese peasants brought in by Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor – is conveniently ignored in the discourse.

That Sarawak and Sabah are/were not Malay or Muslim-majority states is also conveniently forgotten.

Now, if the presence of a multi-ethnic populace is a historical mistake “imposed” by the colonial power, why should secularism – which inevitably means state impartiality to Malay-Muslims and the minorities – be cherished?

If secularism is seen as accommodation of the minorities, then affirming secularism is conceding to the minorities, which cannot be right from the standpoint of Malay-Muslim nationalism.

Secularism needs to be ‘legitimised’ amongst Muslims

Secularism can only become ‘legitimate’ when it is deemed as advantaging the majority and not the minorities.

In fact, that was how secularism was born. Its foundation was laid by the Treaty of Westphalia to end the inter-Christian civil wars, not to accommodate the Muslims or the Jews.

From Indonesia to Tunisia, secularism is cherished by Muslims because the Muslims which make up some 90 percent of population. They see the the benefit of accommodating intra-Muslim differences.

This is however not the case for Malaysia – that the Muslims constitute some 60 percent of population leads to a fear of internal pluralism – that diversity will fragment the Malay-Muslims and render them vulnerable to the rivalry of the minorities.

Secularism hence becomes double-illegitimate from a Malay-centric position. And this cannot possibly be shifted until economic empowerment of the Malays can be secured without reliance to the special rights.

Remember Amanat Hadi?

The “legitimacy deficit” of secularism in fact has long been exploited by Umno’s Islamist rivals. The later smartly defines the Umno-PAS competition on the restoration of the imagined pre-colonial political order – ‘Islamic state’ in its full form and ‘Syariah criminal law’ as its basic version.

The clearest political statement was in fact made by Tuan Guru Hadi Awang, presently president of PAS, in his famous ‘Amanat Hadi’ in 1985 which stated amongst other,

“Kita menentang Umno bukan kerana nama dia Umno. Kita menentang Barisan Nasional bukan kerana dia lama memerintah kerajaan. Kita menentang dia ialah kerana dia mengekalkan perlembagaan penjajah, mengekalkan undang-undang kafir, mengekalkan peraturan jahiliyah.”

(We fight Umno not because its name is Umno. We fight Barisan Nasional not because it has ruled for long time. We fight it because it retains the colonial constitution, retains the infidel laws, and retains the rules of ignorance.)

By 2001, Umno basically gave up its secularist pretence altogether when Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad tried to dismiss PAS’ ideological challenge by claiming Malaysia is already an Islamic state and hence has no need for formal transformation.

Until such anti-secular narrative is effectively re-examined, secularism is basically a dirty word for both Umno and PAS constituencies which dominate the Malay mass. How can Syariah criminal law be successfully dismissed with secularism?

Part I: Impact of Kelantan’s hudud on all of us

Part II: Going beyond the obvious in hudud discourse

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Thursday, 26 March 2015 - 7:45 pm

    So basically Wong Chin Huat argument is that until the ideology of Malay hegemony is proven to be unwise, the batal to maintain secularism will always keep retreating. In other words, it will ultimately come to battle drawn on race-religion and those of us who believe in plurality – a matter of clash of civilization.

  2. #2 by good coolie on Thursday, 26 March 2015 - 8:18 pm

    The more the anti-secularistic fulminations, the easier it is for extremists to take control of Malaysia. UMNO can never be more “Islamic” than PAS no matter how many experts UMNO invites from the Middle-East. This is because PAS copies the life-style of the early days of Islam whereas UMNO tries to create a modern Islamic country of which UMNO itself does not have a clear idea.
    All the while, our leaders tell the Mat Sallehs that the Government is ‘moderate’, but in reality, it is trying to undermine Constitutional principles in the direction of extremism for short-term political gains. PAS and UMNO are running in the same direction, and guess who is running faster?

    Where are you going, Malaysian?

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