Is it an Islamic state or secular state? - Fierce debates over Malaysia’s state identity

Updated On: Jul 24, 2007

DPM Najib Razak’s declaration that Malaysia is an ‘Islamic’ state has raised temperatures between Muslims and non-Muslims, and gotten multi-ethnic Malaysiain a frenzy over its identity.

In reality, its complex identity sits uneasily between ‘secular’ and ‘Islamic’, two diametric terms that do not properly characterise Malaysia’s governing system.

Last Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said that in Malaysia “Islam is the official religion and we are an Islamic state. We have always been driven by our adherence to the fundamentals of Islam”.  According to Associated Press (AP), he described Malaysia as an Islamic state that protects the religious rights of minority groups.  Even with that liberal extension of tolerance, however, his comments have sparked a loud decry from within the ranks of non-Muslims

Religious leaders, politicians and lawyers joined in the chorus of opposition. Bishop Paul Tan, Chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, said that categorising Malaysia as an ‘Islamic state’ is unacceptable to non-Muslims in Malaysia, reported the Straits Times. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), decided to publicly refute Najib’s statement, its unusual public stance highlighting political fractures in Malaysia’s ruling coalition along religious lines.

Its Secretary General Ong Ka Chuan invoked historical documents used in the process of drafting the federal Constitution to prove Malaysia’s secularity. He said the 1957 Reid Report, a report by the 1963 Cobbold Commission and a 1988 Supreme Court decision “showed that a secular state is the foundation of the formation of Malaya and this consensus was made by our forefathers”, quoted New Straits Times. He also noted that former prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman said in 1957 that “the whole Constitution was framed on the basis that the federation would be a secular state”. His other MCA members concurred. Member of Parliament Wong Nai Chee, also a central committee member of MCA told The Star that “The constitutional position of Malaysiabeing a secular state has also been confirmed in the 1988 Supreme Court decision in the case of the Public Prosecutor versus Che Omar. Therefore ... we cannot see how it can be interpreted differently.” MCA’s opposition to Malaysia’s Islamic character cannot be ignored, since it is the second largest organisation in Barisan Nasional following UMNO.  A warning by UMNO Youth chief Hishammuddin to MCA to stop declaring the country as a secular state had further raised temperature. The youth wing of MCA did not take kindly to the “warning” and reminded Hishammuddin that MCA relationship with its other Barisan Nasional (BN) component parties “was not one of master and slave”

Dismayed by the strong outcry, the government ordered all mainstream media to halt further reporting on the secular/religious debate. Internal Security Ministry Publications Control and Al-Quran Texts Unit senior officer Che Din Yusof told Malaysiakini that “We want to stop this issue being aggravated into becoming a public debate as this will create tension… This is a very sensitive issue... As far as possible, we want to prevent (any racial) tension”. For that reason, only the comments by Najib and PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi are allowed to be published while the rest should be ignored, reported AP.

This recent fray does not help Malaysia’s oft-cited intention to lead the global Islamic world in moderate Islam. “We want outsiders to know about the tolerant Islam being practised in this country,” said Information Minister Datuk Seri Zainuddin Maidin. “We want to ensure the open nature of Islam Hadhari,” quoted Bernama. PM Badawi himself has repeatedly articulated Islam Hadhari, a concept that prides itself with the claim of being a moderate Muslim state where a ‘civilised Islam’ is being promoted under the vague banner of ‘Islam Hadari’, reported the Daily Times.

The reality is that Malaysia occupies an ambiguous space between the terms ‘secular’ and ‘Islamic’. The New Straits Times reported Bar Council Malaysia president Ambiga Sreenevasan saying that the Articles in the Federal Constitution, the system of government and administration of justice show that Malaysia was not an Islamic state. Lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar argued that having an Islamic country was vastly different from an Islamic state, for the former merely meant that a country in which Muslims were in the majority, while the latter implied that Malaysia’s legal structure was based on the syariah law rather than the Constitution being the Supreme law it currently is. Malaysiais not fully secular state, but it does not qualify as an Islamic state either. According to Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, the Noordin Sopiee Professor of Global Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Malaysia’s constitution does not base governance on the Sunnah (the way of the Prophet Muhammad) or the Hudud (the Islamic criminal code), which are legal and political attributes found in almost all countries  acknowledged as ‘Islamic’. The real issue underlying this furor, he continues, is that “the term ‘secular’ connotes antipathy towards, or worse, rejection of, religion in the life of the nation.”

Similarly, non-Muslims react to ‘Islamic state’ with great anxiety since for them it would mean Islamic dominance in a country where 40% of the population is non-Muslim. Dr. Muzaffar said “These perceptions – even if they are misconceived – carry tremendous weight and impact directly upon inter-ethnic ties.” Thus if Badawi Administration does not wish to marginalise its sizeable non-Muslim citizens, and if it is serious about promoting Islam Hadhari, it should pay attention to such controversies that may impede its vision of a progressive, moderate Islam. (24 July 2007)


Barisan allies have no right to order us around: MCA (Straits Times, 24 July 2007)

Stop secular state debate, Hishammuddin tells MCA (Brunei Times, 22 July 2007)The Other Malaysia: Malaysia’s shame (Daily Times, 22 July 2007)

50 YEARS AGO TODAY: ‘Islam does not need changing’ (NST, 22 July 2007)

Malaysiabans reporting on Islamic state debate (AP, 20 July 2007)

Furore over Najib's 'Islamic state' remark (Straits Times, 21 July 2007)

Historical documents show Malaysiais secular, says MCA (Straits Times, 21 July 2007)

Islam Hadhari The Best WayTo Tackle Extremism In Society? Zainuddin (Bernama, 21 July 2007)Stop making statements on secular state, Hishammuddin tells MCA (NST, 20 July 2007)

Malaysia- a secular or an Islamic state? (Muslim News, 20 July 2007))Is Malaysiaan Islamic state? Opposition, non-Muslim groups challenge statement (Today Paper, 20 July 2007)