Malaysia is not a secular state in the conventional sense. Article 3(1) of the Malaysian Constitution stipulates that Islam is the religion of the Federation. Right from the early years of Merdeka , the State built mosques and madrasahs; organized Zakat collection and disbursement; took charge of the Hajj; and was actively involved in the administration of Islamic affairs. Its role went beyond “ceremonial purposes.”
If Islam had such a prominent place in State and society, it was mainly because of its intimate link to Malay identity. The religion is in fact the principal identity marker of the Malays. It is because of this that Islam is projected in the Constitution as part of the nation’s identity.
But then Malaysia is not an “Islamic State” the way in which the term is commonly understood. The Constitution does not state that government and administration are based upon the Quran and Sunnah or that syariah is the law of the land. Our system of governance does not accord a special role to the ulama in determining the colour and content of public policies.
Because Malaysia is neither a secular state nor an Islamic state, it is in a unique position. It is wrong to believe that a Muslim majority state should be either one or the other. There are other countries that do not fulfill the conventional criteria of these two types of state. The most notable of them would be Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world.
It is significant that both Indonesia and Malaysia have national ideologies that uphold “Belief in God” as the first principle. Their wordings differ slightly reflecting their respective demographic realities. In the case of Indonesia the Pancasila is integral to the Constitution and is part of its preamble.
In our case, what ‘Belief in God’ in the Rukunegara implies is spelt out clearly in the commentary on this principle which unfortunately is often ignored. The commentary observes that, “This nation has been founded upon a firm belief in God. It was in the name of God that this nation was established as a sovereign State. Islam is the official religion of the Federation. Other religions and beliefs may be practiced in peace and harmony. There shall be no discrimination against any citizen on the ground of religion.”
Using the 1970 commentary as a basis, those of us who have initiated the move to make the Rukunegara the preamble to the Constitution have further elaborated on the belief in God by linking it to “the interconnectedness of creation at the core of which is the unity of the entire human family. This unity demands that we treat each and every human being with dignity and respect. It is by protecting and enhancing human dignity, regardless of ethnicity or religion, class or gender, region or locality, that we ensure justice and peace in Malaysia.”
In our 2017 elaboration of the first principle of the Rukunegara we make it clear that we are totally opposed to the manipulation of religion “for narrow political ends. It should not be a conduit for the propagation of hatred or bigotry. It is wrong to resort to violence or aggression in the name of religion.”
Of course, noble sentiments of this sort do not guarantee the justice and peace we yearn for. Ideals have to be translated into realities. This is why we have argued all along that since the proclamation of the Rukunegara in 1970 there should have been a concerted, systematic effort on a massive scale to give meaning and substance to its five aspirations and its five principles. We failed to that — which is why we are now proposing that the national ideology be anchored in our Constitution.
Those who are against this proposal because of the ‘belief in God’ principle would do well to reflect upon the realities that prevail in those secular societies that have preambles where there is no mention of God. Look at secular India where religious bigotry within a small segment of the Hindu population is on a rampage, and has assumed such viciousness that it is creating a great deal of fear among Muslim and Christian minorities. Or, look at the United States whose preamble is also secular and yet the Christian Right through its blatant abuse of religion has today emerged as a malignant force in both domestic and international politics spawning and spewing hatred of the other that threatens the nation’s social fabric and jeopardizes global peace. Both the Indian and American experiences prove that a secular constitution by itself will not be able to stem the tide of religious bigotry and hatred.
No one is suggesting that belief in God as part of a preamble will be able to curb or eliminate religious chauvinism and other social ills. But because it is a belief that resonates with the majority of Malaysians and embodies such sublime values and ideals, it at least has the potential to check excesses and keep us within limits.