Can the Rukunegara stem the tide of Islamisation?

JANUARY 29 ― While Muslims cower in uncertainty in the United States, and maybe soon Europe, it is no secret that equally fascistic Islamists are gaining ground in countries where Muslims are the majority.

In Bangladesh, its Education Ministry was made to remove 17 poems and stories from the 2017 edition of textbooks after a group of conservative Islamic scholars demanded it. Their reason? That the texts were deemed “atheistic.”

In Indonesia, hardliners Islam Defenders Front called earlier this week for Indonesia's newly-issued rupiah banknotes to be pulled from circulation. Their excuse? That their anti-counterfeit discreet images purportedly show the “communist” symbol of the hammer and sickle.

In Malaysia, where things are going down a similar road, it is understandable that a group of activists is now pushing for the Rukunegara, or the “National Principles”, to be made the preamble of our Federal Constitution, similar to Indonesia's Pancasila.

In his column for The Sun earlier this month, leader of the group Chandra Muzaffar pitched the idea by relating how the Rukunegara has now been undermined by ideas that “reinforce exclusivity, unthinking adherence to dogma and prioritise form over substance” among Muslims.

This proposal earned the ire of the Islamist lobby, first with a piece titled “How Malaysian liberals use Rukunegara vehicle as their left-hand drive” in the portal Tanjak accusing the “liberal left” of piggybacking on the five principles in order to “dilute religious orthodoxy.”

The piece was spread by religio-nationalists Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma), with its deputy president Aminuddin Yahaya later on stoking fears of the status of Islam and the Malays if such a move succeeds.

Ironically enough, the Islamists may find kindred spirits among some civil liberty lawyers who similarly opposed the proposal, albeit from a much different standpoint.

Lawyers Eric Paulsen and Syahredzan Johan told Malay Mail Online that empowering the Rukunegara in such a way is not only redundant but is particularly dangerous in this climate as it opens doors to the clampdown on expression and problematic interpretations.

The initiative by the group called Rukunegara Muqaddimah Perlembagaan (RMP) is admirable, and it is easy to see why such a move may be needed. As mentioned by Chandra, a total of 180 countries out of the 190-odd ones have a preamble in their Constitutions ― but not Malaysia.

Furthermore, the Rukunegara that was formulated by the National Consultative Council in 1970, perhaps as a healing gesture after the bloody May 13 riots the year before, has now become mere lip service to be recited at school assemblies and no more.

This is despite the fact that It had inclusive authors who came from different backgrounds.

And yet the Rukunegara will still fail to answer the dilemma ― or the schizophrenia ― of Malaysia's secularity versus its Islamicity.

This is very much unlike other Commonwealth countries, such as India whose preamble states clearly its status as a “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic”, or Bangladesh that states its high ideals of “nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism.”

Much like the Pancasila that has been under fire for its monotheistic first principle, the Rukunegara also has the same problem by prescribing first a national ideal of “belief in God.” This fails to recognise not only the atheists, agnostics and non-religious, but also its Bumiputeras who subscribe to a more abstract concept of spirituality, and perhaps those who do not subscribe to rigid religious limitations such as Buddhists.

(Despite that, having a primary principle that does not prescribe which God exactly to be believed in must have left Islamists terribly shaken.)

The fifth principle is also problematic, with the Department of National Unity and Integration specifying it as not contravening morality, condemning offensive conducts, and being courteous.

Constitutional expert Shad Saleem Faruqi, another member of RMP, was right to worry in his The Star column earlier this month that the Constitution is under attack.

In the past few years, we have often seen during judicial reviews in our country's highest courts, that Article 3 ― on the religion of the federation ― has been exploited to justify many atrocities against personal freedoms and fundamental rights, in the name of Islam.

However in this racially- and religiously-charged political climate, it is all too possible that the inclusion of the Rukunegara will not restore the authority of the Constitution, but merely open itself to skewed interpretations by the powers-that-be and the Islamist lobby, to further restrict freedoms and rights. After all, “Supremacy of Constitution” is only third among the five principles.

Giving the Rukunegara a force of law may open a bigger can of worms. Just like the abuse of Pancasila, it would be only too easy for character assassination by claiming someone is anti-Rukunegara, and thus, guilty of treason.

Many would argue that the strength of the Rukunegara does not lie in the principles, but rather its own preamble, that spelled out the kind of country our predecessors wished for Malaysia to grow into, an ambition for a Malaysia to be proud of... yet still unfulfilled 46 years after it was written.

The Rukunegara envisioned a Malaysia that is united, with a democratic way of life, just society, liberal towards tradition, and last but not least progressive with an orientation towards modern science and technology.

These are lofty ideals, of course. Once, it might have inspired hope. Now it just brings disappointment and bitterness of a future that never was.

Our country is freshly divided by dogmatic obsession, democracy is a plaything, inequality is badly felt, and a progressive view on science and technology has yet to burrow itself.

And that liberal society they had dreamt of? A flickering flame barely kept alive by a quarter that is under constant attack and suffering from discrimination, enabled and endorsed by a status quo poisoned by purveyors of an archaic mindset.

Yet, I am far from antagonistic towards RMP and its goal. After all, they were not the first to propose it: there were two attempts by the late academic Syed Hussein Alatas, and former minister Athi Nahappan. But where the two failed, RMP must surpass them.

If executed right, the Rukunegara as a preamble will not only promise unity for a divided Malaysia, but will also pave the way towards that democratic, just, progressive, modern, and specifically liberal nation of our dreams. A misstep will leave us with a nightmare from which we may never wake.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.