Saturday, July 12, 2014

Malaysia's State

* First published on The Malaysian Insider on 19 June 2014.
To those still wondering, Malaysia is not a secular state.
Does that mean Malaysia is an Islamic state then? I’m not sure, because there has never been a clear definition of an Islamic state, be it in the Quran, classical Islamic writings, or modern political science publication.
Malaysia is definitely not a theocracy as are Iran or Saudi Arabia, because in those countries, Islam prevails over all state institutions. Here in Malaysia, however, the constitution is the supreme law of the land.
Having Islam as the official religion of the state does not make Malaysia an Islamic state, similar to England, a country which is considered to be secular even though Anglicanism is the official state religion.
Even though Malaysia is not technically an Islamic state, neither is it a secular state.
Unlike the way secularism is commonly understood in Malaysia today, secularism does not mean Westernisation. Secularism actually means the separation between “church” and state as two distinct institutions that do not and are not influenced by the other. It does not mean that religion is entirely absent in politics, as that is impossible given a county’s demography.
For example, even if America is a famous secular nation, the nation’s official motto, “In God We Trust”, still mentions God. What secularism means is that religious organisations are independent from any other institution in the country such as the legislative, executive, and judiciary.
Is that the case in Malaysia? Is Islam, as an institution, free from any vertical or horizontal interference? The answer is of course a resounding no.
Where do mosques and suraus get the fund for maintenance? The government. Who appoints and pays the salary of our imams, muftis, and qadis? The government. Who dictates how Islamic studies should be taught to students? The government.
These are just some examples pointing to the fact that Malaysia is not a secular state as there is no separation of religion and state in this country.
In contrast, if we were to look back at Islamic history, religious institutions have always been separate from the government. The ulamas in the past are independent from the government, namely the caliphs. In fact, the ulamas were so powerful that they can indirectly influence the person who will take over as caliph. This is not surprising given that ulamas, and the institutions that produced them, were not bound by the government.
Sure, Shariah was the reference of these ulamas in their capacity as jurists, but not all laws can be found in the Quran or Hadith. There was a science to it whereby it requires an autonomous institution to produce these laws properly.
The take-away point is that these ulamas were independent in coming up with judgments, free from the influence of any caliph. Does this make the Islamic caliphate secular? I’m not sure, but the structure of the institutions do point a certain way.
Tunku Abdul Rahman may be right when he declared Malaysia a secular nation many years ago. But with the rise of Islamisation in the country’s institution in the past three decades, it seems ridiculous to continue calling Malaysia a secular nation.
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like Jakim, then Malaysia probably is not a secular country.
Should non-Muslims be worried then if Malaysia is indeed not a secular state? I would say, no. Muslims are the ones who should be worried, because their religion, however sacred a personal experience it is, is currently tainted by the dictation of those in Parliament and Putrajaya.

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