KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 22 ― Historical accounts show that Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Hussein Onn had both said Malaysia is a secular state, contradicting de facto law minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz’s remarks in Parliament today that the country had no secularist roots.
Nazri told Parliament today that Malaysia has never been declared or endorsed as a secular state, arguing that the country was formed of the Malay Sultanate, an Islamic government and, unlike countries like the United States, India or Turkey, was never declared as secular.
His remarks today come amid debate over the status of the Federal Constitution. It was also made despite a previous Supreme Court ruling that said Malaysia is a secular state, as well as previous statements made by earlier leaders such as the Tunku, the country’s first prime minister.
Tunku Abdul Rahman had referred to Malaysia as a secular state, and not an Islamic one, on a number of separate occasions.
He was first recorded telling Parliament on May 1, 1958: “I would like to make it clear that this country is not an Islamic state as it is generally understood; we merely provided that Islam shall be the official religion of the State.”
The Star had also reported Tunku speaking on February 8, 1983 at a gathering to celebrate his 80th birthday, with the headline “Don’t make Malaysia an Islamic state ― Tunku”, where he said “the country has a multi-racial population with various beliefs. Malaysia must continue as a secular state with Islam as the official religion.”
In the same newspaper, Malaysia’s third PM, Tun Hussein Onn, was reported as supporting his predecessor in rejecting Malaysia being made an Islamic state.
“The nation can still be functional as a secular state with Islam as the official religion,” Hussein said.
National University of Singapore’s Hussin Mutalib had interviewed Tunku for his book, Islam in Malaysia: From Revivalism to Islamic State.
In the interview, Tunku said: “...There is no way we should have an Islamic state here ... The nature of our political parties, our coalition government, our democracy, and our multiracial life are sufficient foundations which can be used to build a prosperous and peaceful Malaysia. Why must we look to Iran and other Islamic states?”
An Islamic state is defined as a country where the primary basis for government is Islamic religious rule, the Syariah law. Article 3 of the Federal Constitution states that Islam is the religion of the Federation, and it is used to support the claim that Malaysia is an Islamic state rather than secular.
However, in drafting the Constitution of Malaysia, the Reid Commission had this to say about Islam as an official religion, in its report in February 1957: “The observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practising their own religion and shall not imply that the state is not a secular state.”
According to the same report, the Council of Rulers (Majlis Raja-Raja) were against the inclusion of such provision: “It is Their Highnesses’ considered view that it would not be desirable to insert some declaration such as has been suggested that the Muslim Faith or Islamic Faith be the established religion of the Federation.”
Justice Abdul Hamid, a member of the Reid Commission from Pakistan, was the main proponent for inserting the provision. “A provision like one suggested above is innocuous. Not less than fifteen countries of the world have a provision of this type entrenched in their Constitutions,” Hamid said in the report.
“(This) declaration has not been found to have caused hardships to anybody, no harm will ensue if such a declaration is included in the Constitution of Malaya.”
The 1988 Che Omar bin Che Soh v. P.P. case in Supreme Court (now Federal Court) is commonly quoted in support of secular Malaysia.
In his judgment, then Lord President Salleh Abbas summarised: “...We have to set aside our personal feelings because the law in this country is still what it is today, secular law, where morality not accepted by the law is not enjoying the status of law.”
The position of Malaysia as a secular state went unchallenged until it was declared otherwise by the nation’s fourth PM, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in September 29, 2001, while launching Gerakan’s National Delegates Conference.
“Umno wishes to state clearly that Malaysia is an Islamic nation,” the former premier announced, after PAS challenged Umno to declare Malaysia an Islamic state. “This is based on the opinions of many clerics (ulama) who have explained the concept of Islamic state in the past. For the public’s information, a cleric has even written a book titled Malaysia Is an Islamic state.”
Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s administration first declared the country as an Islamic country in July 17, 2007. Then-Deputy PM Datuk Seri Najib Razak told reporters after officiating the International Conference on the Role of Islamic States in a Globalised World: “Islam is the official religion and we are an Islamic nation. But as an Islamic nation, it does not mean that we don’t respect the non-Muslims. The Muslims and the non-Muslims have their own rights (in this country).”
This statement was echoed by Abdullah in a parliamentary written reply. “Malaysia is an Islamic country which is administered based on the principles of Islam and at the same time adheres to the principles of parliamentary democracy guided by the highest law of the land - the Federal Constitution.”