KUALA LUMPUR, May 9 — Now tagged “Islamic”, Malaysia has always been a secular nation as prescribed in its constitution and rightfully remains so, former minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim said.
Its Islamic branding is a recent phenomenon, Zaid added, attributing it to Muslim leaders — including prime ministers — who chose to ignore the country’s founding document to score political brownie points, bolstering the erroneous world view of Southeast Asia’s third-biggest economy.
“Not a single Muslim leader will want to say what should be said. That is to say Malaysia by its Constitution is secular,” the former Umno member told The Malay Mail Online in a recent email interview.
The debate over Malaysia’s status, whether as a secular nation or one that is Islamic, is rearing its head amid a backdrop of several controversies over PAS’ push to roll out hudud and increasing religious policing that has driven a wedge between the Malay-Muslim majority and the country’s minorities.
Zaid, a lawyer by training, observed that it was former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who first declared Malaysia to be an Islamic state while in office, which lasted 22 years, from 1981 to 2003.
He added that the current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has echoed Dr Mahathir’s pronouncement.
Academic Datuk Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi said Islamic religious authorities were growing more powerful, adding that it was partly because politicians allowed them to flex their muscles.
Like Zaid, he observed the creep of Islamisation over the last three decades, which has left the Malay community “deeply divided”.
He said there was an urgent need for “leaders of substance” to steer the country right again.
“I think the Majlis Raja-Raja, the Rulers can play a constructive role,” the emeritus professor of law at Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) said of the Conference of Rulers.
Article 38 of the Federal Constitution empowers the Conference of Rulers the right to deliberate and express their views on questions of “national policy” and provides them the avenue to demand corrective measures, the constitutional law expert said.
“Don’t forget the sultan is the sultan for everyone,” Shad said, adding that Islam calls for justice for all and not only for Muslims.
Shad was optimistic that international forces could help provide a counter-balance to the increasingly “powerful” Sharia courts and religious authorities in Malaysia.
Malaysia, he observed, was subject to foreign influence, which meant that censure from the international community could halt the push for hudud here.
“Don’t forget we are living in a global world,” he said.
Zaid, who was briefly minister in charge of law during the Abdullah administration, warned that Malaysia was edging closer to becoming a full-blown Islamic state, which he equated with authoritarian rule.
“Those who want a new system of authoritarian rule where they can impose their beliefs will always use God as the basis of their legitimacy.
“When God is invoked, all arguments end, and democracy is dead. With those who claim to represent God’s wishes, we can never argue our points of view,” he said.
Malaysia must remain secular to ensure the rights of all Malaysians are protected, Zaid stressed.