Call for emergency Barisan Nasional supreme council meeting to retract endorsement for declaration that Malaysia is an Islamic state and to revert to fundamental constitutional principle and cornerstone of Malaysia as secular nation specifically intended in Merdeka Constitution 1957

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Petaling Jaya, Monday): The Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Dr. Rais Yatim cannot be more  wrong or misguided  when he said that Malaysia has “gone a long way” from  Bapa Malaysia and the nation’s first Prime Minister,  Tunku Abdul Rahman’s guarantee that Malaysia is not an Islamic state as there can be no surreptitious change to the fundamental constitutional principle and nation-building  cornerstone of Malaysia as a secular state  without Parliamentary consent.

This is a most elementary principle of constitutional law and parliamentary democracy in Malaysia and it is most surprising that Rais, with his most controversial  doctoral thesis and book , Freedom under the Executive Power in Malaysia, seems unaware.

Rais can be very flippant about his doctoral thesis  and book on the rule of law and executive powers in Malaysia, claiming that it was “merely an academic exercise” which should not be held  against him for the rest of his life, but he should realise that a solemn guarantee of  a Prime Minister in the highest legislature in the land cannot be treated as “an academic exercise” which could be jettisoned in a most frivolous manner if public trust and confidence in the government is not to suffer irreparable damage.

Rais cannot just explain away Tunku’s categorical and unequivocal declaration  in Parliament four decades ago that Malaysia is not an Islamic state by claiming that what the Tunku stated decades ago “must be understood contextually” and that “Malaysia has gone a long way from the Tunku days”.

Rais should realise that times can change but fundamental principles and commitments cannot alter like the change of dress or fashion.

In the past 44 years, there had been no amendment to the Malaysian Constitution to undo Tunku’s guarantee that Malaysia is not an Islamic state, and unless Rais could prove otherwise, the Barisan Nasional government is honour-bound to remain loyal to the spirit and letter of the intention of the framers of the 1957 Merdeka Constitution as declared by Tunku in the Legislative Council in 1958:

“I would like to make it clear that this country is not an Islamic State as it is generally understood; we merely provide that Islam shall be the official religion of the State.”

The position of the constitutional cornerstone that  Malaysia is a secular and not an Islamic state was further reinforced in the negotiations for  the formation of Malaysia in 1963, as Sabahans and Sarawakians were assured that Article 3 of the Constitution  "does not imply that Malaysia is not a secular state."

Information Ministry Parliamentary Secretary Datuk Zainuddin Maidin is out of his depths and shows his ignorance  when he claimed that Malaysia was never regarded as a secular State.

He should go back to history and read up the founding principles for the formulation of the Federation Constitution before Independence. For instance, the  Reid Constitution Commission Report 1957,  which recommended the form of constitution we should have, stated that there was “universal agreement” that “any statement in the Constitution to the effect that Islam should be the State religion… would not  in any way affect the civil rights of non-Muslims”.

The Reid Constitution Commission report said:

“In the memorandum submitted by the Alliance it was stated the religion of Malaya shall be Islam. The observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practising their own religions and shall not imply that the State is not a secular state.”

That the independent nation formed on August 31, 1957 was established as a secular nation was specifically stated in the White Paper  on the Reid Constitution Commission Report presented by the Alliance Government headed by Tunku, which stated:

“57.  There has been included in the proposed Federal Constitution a declaration that Islam is the religion of the Federation. This will in no way affect the present position of the Federation as a secular State, and every person will have the right to profess and practise his own religion and the right to propagate his religion, though this last right is subject to restrictions imposed by State law relating to the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the Muslim religion.”

Zainuddin should also refer to case law, as  the fundamental constitutional principle that Malaysia is a secular nation has been upheld by the highest court in  the land in  Che Omar bin Che Soh vs Public Prosecutor (1988).

Delivering the  judgment of a five-man  Federal Court panel, the then Lord President Tun Salleh Abas held that the Constitution and the legal system are “secular” and held that the meaning of the expression “Islam” or “Islamic religion” in Article 3 “means only such acts as relate to rituals and ceremonies”.

He said  that “There can be no doubt that Islam is not just a mere collection of dogmas and rituals but it is a complete way of life covering all fields of human activities, may they be private or public, legal, political, economic, social, cultural, moral or judicial” but rejected  the contention that  the  terms “Islam” or “Islamic religion” in Article 3 is “an all-embracing concept, as is normally understood, which consists not only the ritualistic aspect but also a comprehensive system of life, including its jurisprudence and moral standard” as  this was not the meaning intended by the framers of the Constitution.

Salleh Abas’ judgment that Malaysia was a secular nation was in keeping with the interpretation of his predecessor, the late Tun Mohamed Suffian Hashim who  in 1962 defined  the scope of Islam in the constitution as being primarily for ceremonial purposes, such as the permission for prayers to be offered in the Islamic way on official public occasions such as the installation of the Yang di Pertuan Agong, his birthday, Merdeka Day and other occasions.

Nobody says that  the Barisan Nasional cannot change its mind to jettison the fundamental constitutional principle and nation-building cornerstone of Malaysia as a secular state upheld by the Alliance since the early decades of nationhood, but this cannot be done surreptitiously or by the mere declaration of one person.

If the Barisan Nasional today wants to deviate from the original Alliance position since  before the nation’s independence that a secular Malaysia is a fundamental bedrock of the Malaysian nation-building process, this can only be done by an open amendment to the Malaysian Constitution in Parliament and not by a mere declaration by the Prime Minister of the day and endorsement by the Barisan Nasional Supreme Council, without any popular consultation, public  feedback or even consent and mandate from their respective party central committees and congresses!

Zainuddin showed further ignorance when he  said no secular state will approve laws advancing the interests of a particular religion.  He said: “In this country, provisions for the development of other religions cannot be made by parliament and the propagation of other religions through official government organs such as television and radio is not allowed.  This has already been accepted as a convention.”

Is Zainuddin suggesting that the grants which the government had made, whether through Ministers or Barisan Nasional MPs to churches and temples especially during election times are unlawful and that they should all be paid back to  the government coffers?

There is nothing in the Constitution to prohibit the use of public funds for the development of other religions or through  official government organs such as television and radio.  The current ban on  the use of television and radio for the other religions is not sanctioned by the Constitution  but reflects a narrow and un-Malaysian outlook of the Barisan Nasional government and must be lifted immediately if  the first  Rukunegara principle of “Belief in God”  to create a god-fearing society is to have any meaning.

DAP calls on the Barisan Nasional Supreme Council to convene an emergency meeting to retract its endorsement that Malaysia is an Islamic state and to revert to the fundamental constitutional principle and cornerstone of Malaysia as secular nation specifically intended in Merdeka Constitution 1957.


*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman