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“Secular state” and “Islamic State” contention not just word-play or problem with labels but very grave issues with most far-reaching implications for the nation and the citizenry undermining Malaysia’s pluralist diversity and global competitiveness

Media Statement 
by Lim Kit Siang  

(Parliament, Thursday): As I said at the DAP public forum “An Islamic State after 50 years?” at the KL/Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall on 25th July 2007, there are diverse non-Muslim responses to the “717 Declaration” by the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak on July 17, 2007 that Malaysia is an Islamic state and not and had never been a secular state.

One is to deride the claim that Malaysia is an Islamic state, asking how anyone could entertain the notion that Malaysia is an Islamic state when gambling and alcohol are allowed in the country.

Another is to ask how Malaysia could be an Islamic state when there is no full implementation of the hudud and syariah laws.

I also quoted an Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer as representing another school questioning the validity of the “Islamic state” claim, arguing that an Islamic state should have the following characteristics: (1) it should be absolutely non-discriminatory on the basis of race, colour, language and nationality; (2) it should guarantee gender equality; (3) it should guarantee equal rights to all religious groups and accept plurality of religion as legitimate; and (4) lastly it should be democratic in nature whose basic premise will be human dignity. Asghar Ali Engineer concluded his contention: “Only those states which fulfill these criteria can be construed to be Islamic in nature. Thus an Islamic state is the very epitome of modern democratic pluralistic state. (The Concept of Islamic State – Asghar Ali Engineer)

There is certain validity in these three and other arguments challenging the claim that Malaysia is an Islamic state, but they failed to capture the whole dynamics and implications of the Islamic state contention.

On the part of Muslims in Malaysia, there are also those who reject the claim of top Umno leaders that Malaysia is an Islamic state.

But there are also those like ABIM who defended the Islamic state claim, declaring that Malaysia has been an Islamic state in practice ever since Independence.

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar argues Malaysia is not a secular state within the conventional use of the term and neither is it an Islamic state in the classical sense. He said it is unwise to insist that Malaysia is a secular state or an Islamic state which will only widen the chasm between the communities and exacerbate ethnic tensions.

Are the contentions between “Secular state” and “Islamic State” just word-play and a problem with labels?

There is very pertinent article in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 37(2), pp 249-266 June 2006 by Joseph M. Fernando from the Department of History, University of Malaya who delved into recently-available primary constitutional documents between 1956 and 1957 to trace the origin of Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution and to determine the intentions of the framers in inserting this provision in the constitution.

These primary constitutional documents include the minutes of the Working Party which reviewed the Reid Constitutional Commission report; the documents relating to the Constitutional talks in London in May 1957; the Constitutional papers of the Alliance Party; and Colonial Office documents relating to the Constitution-making process.

These are some of the excerpts from Joseph Fernando’s article:

“The Reid Constitutional Commission, which drafted the 1957 Malayan Federal Constitution between June 1956 and February 1957, did not provide for an article declaring Islam the religion of the Federation despite the Alliance Party’s request in its memorandum to the Commission that this be done. This was largely because the Commissioners felt that such a provision would contradict the secular nature of the state. Further, they took note of the strong objections of the Malay Rulers to the inclusion of such a provision. The Alliance memorandum urging the Commission to provide for Islam as the religion of the Federation had stated unequivocally that such a provision would not impose any disability on non-Muslims and did not imply that the state was not secular.” – (p. 253)

“While officially the Reid Commission cited the submissions of the Rulers in omitting a provision making Islam the religion of the state, in private the Commission expressed concern over the contradiction between the Alliance’s declaration that Malaya would be a secular state and its proposal for Islam to be the official religion of the Federation.” (p. 254)

“When the Working Party, comprising the Alliance and Rulers’ representatives and the High Commissioner, met for the first time on 22 February 1957 to review the Reid Commission’s draft, the Alliance and UMNO chief Tunku Abdul Rahman requested that an article declaring Islam the religion of the Federation be included in the new Constitution, as had been proposed in the Alliance memorandum. The Tunku assured the committee that the state would be secular… In the Working Party, UMNO leaders had argued that the provision for an official religion would have an important psychological impact on Malays…The MCA and MIC representatives in the Working Party did not raise any objection to the insertion of the new article, despite concerns expressed by many non-Muslim organizations, as they were assured by their UMNO colleagues that it was intended to have symbolic significance rather than practical effect, and that the civil and political rights of the non-Muslims would not be impaired.” (p.257-258)

“The possibility of Article 2A (later renumbered Article 3) on state religion being misinterpreted was also raised (in the 19th Working Party Meeting on 17th April 1957)…On the possibility of the provision on religion being misinterpreted, the Tunku assured the Working Party that ‘the whole Constitution was framed on the basis that the Federation would be a secular state’. The minutes of the 19th Meeting are perhaps the clearest indication of the real intentions of the Allinace leaders. The Tunku, in this instance, states unequivocally that the whole Constitution was framed on the basis that the Federation would be a secular state.” (p. 259-260).

“At the London Constitutional talks in May 1957, the Colonial Office, while apprehensive at first of Article 3 providing for an official religion, did not object after being assured by the Alliance leaders that they ‘had no intention of creating a Muslim theocracy and that Malaya would be a secular state’.” (p. 260)

“In Malaya, the Alliance government tabled a White Paper in Parliament in July 1957 to explain the changes made to the Reid Commission’s draft Constitution by the Working Party in Kuala Lumpur in March and the tripartite body at the constitutional talks in London in May. The White Paper (Legislative Council Paper No. 42 of 1957) explained that while a new provision, Article 3, declaring Islam the religion of the Federation was now included in the Constitution, this would not affect the position of the Federation as a secular state, or the powers and privileges of the Malay Rulers as Heads of Religion in their respective states.” (p. 262)

“In the ensuing debate in the Malaysian Parliament on 10 July 1957….The Tunku did not attempt to go beyond the White Paper to explain the meaning of this provision. But his colleague (later Tun) Tan Siew Sin’s remarks on the provision while speaking in the House in support of the Constitutional bill, reinforces the intention of the Alliance leaders in inserting Article 3 in the Constitution. Tan told the Federal legislature that although it had been provided that Islam would be the official religion, it had also been expressly laid down that ‘this does not in any way derogate from the principle, which has always been accepted, that Malaya will be a secular state and that there will be complete freedom to practice any other religion. Tan’s remarks indicate clearly the consensus reached by the Alliance parties.’ (p.263).

In his conclusion on the “intentions of the framers of the Constitution”, Joseph Fernando wrote:

“The passage of time has blurred the real intentions of the Malaysian framers of the Constitution and some recent scholarly works and discussions have questioned the secular basis of the state. An inadequate examination of the primary documents has largely contributed to these varied interpretations. The problem is not limited to scholars alone. Barely a year after independence, the Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman had to clarify the meaning of this provision during a debate in the Legislative Council. Said the Tunku: ‘I would like to make it clear that this country is not an Islamic State as it is generally understood, we merely provide that Islam shall be the official religion of the State.’ The historical evidence presented in this article, based on primary documents, clearly affirms
the secular basis of the state.”

I have no doubt that the first three Prime Ministers, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Razak and Tun Hussein would have had no hesitation in any period of their lives to reaffirm that Malaysia is a secular state with Islam as the official religion and not an Islamic state.

On the nation’s 50th Merdeka anniversary, are there any leaders in the ruling coalition who is prepared to reaffirm the Merdeka social contract and Malaysia Agreement that Malaysia is a secular state with Islam as the official religion but not an Islamic state?

It is clear from Joseph Fernando’s research and article, the contention over the terms “secular state” and “Islamic state” are not just word play or a problem of labeling, but are very grave issues with the most far-reaching implications for the nation and the citizenry as the abandonment of the 50-year-old secular basis of nation-building represents a tectonic shift in jettisoning the core and essence of nation-building agreed by the forefathers of the major communities on the attainment of Independence and establishment of Malaysia which could only undermine Malaysia’s pluralist diversity and global competitiveness.


* Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman

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