Call on all Malaysians to check extremism by returning to the middle road of nation-building to  defend and uphold the  “social contract”, the 1957 Merdeka Constitution, the  1963 Malaysia Agreement,  the 1970 Rukunegara and Vision 2020 proclaimed in 1991  that Malaysia is a democratic, secular and multi-religious nation with Islam as the official religion but not an Islamic State

Speech (Part 11)
in the debate on the Motion of Thanks for  the Royal Address
by Lim Kit Siang

(Dewan Rakyat, Monday): In my 30 years in Parliament from 1969-1999, I had never heard the term “Islamic State” used in any parliamentary debate, but in the past four years, Parliament has been turned into a battleground between PAS and UMNO to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state.

For over four decades until four years ago, the defence of a secular Malaysia with Islam as the official religion was the mainstream nation-building agenda based on the “social contract” reached by the forefathers of the major communities and written into the 1957 Merdeka Constitution, the 1963 Malaysia Agreement,  the 1970 Rukunegara and Vision 2020 proclaimed in 1991  while calls for an Islamic State were rare and came from the periphery of the nation and society.

However, in the past four years, a secular Malaysia with Islam as the official religion as popularized by the first three Prime Ministers, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Razak and Tun Hussein, ran the risk of degenerating into a “dirty expression” and pushed to the periphery, replaced in the mainstream agenda by an Islamic State – whether ala-UMNO or ala-PAS.

The abandonment of the Merdeka “social contract” after the “929 Declaration” on Sept. 29, 2001 by the then Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad at the Gerakan National Delegates Conference gathered such momentum in the Barisan Nasional component parties, getting support from all the Barisan Nasional non-Malay parties, whether MCA, Gerakan, MIC, PPP, SUPP, SAPP and even PBS, that the Gerakan President and one of the most senior Cabinet Ministers,  Datuk Seri Dr. Lim Keng Yaik went to the extent of making  the astounding statement that Malaysia was already an Islamic State when she achieved independence in 1957.  Keng Yaik made this claim  in Ipoh on October 12, 2003.

I have no doubt that if the question had been asked  in the first 44 years of Malaysian nationhood from 1957 to 2001  whether Malaysia was an Islamic State on achieving Merdeka,  100 per cent of all Malaysians, whether Malays, Chinese, Indians, Ibans or Kadazans;  whether Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs; and regardless of whether members of  UMNO, MCA, Gerakan, MIC or any other Barisan Nasional party or in Opposition, whether DAP, PAS or Parti Rakyat, the answer would have been a  clear and unequivocal “No”! 

Malaysians should move away from the extremes and  return to the middle road of nation-building to defend and uphold the “social contract” as entrenched in the  1957 Merdeka Constitution,  the 1963 Malaysia Agreement,  the 1970 Rukunegara and Vision 2020 proclaimed in 1991  that Malaysia is a democratic, secular and multi-religious nation with Islam as the official religion but not an Islamic State, whether ala-PAS or ala-UMNO.

It is only by returning to such a middle road of nation-building that the polarization of race and religion could be checked. 

Let us all be reminded of the  historic event 21 years ago, the 80th birthday party for Bapa Malaysia and first Prime Minister of Malaysia Tunku Abdul Rahman hosted by Barisan Nasional at Wisma MCA on 8th February 1983. 

Three important events took place at the 80th birthday dinner for Tunku 21 years ago, viz: 

  • Public apology of the then Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mahamad to Tunku for “whatever blunt words and action I have done before because of my differences of opinion with the Tunku”; 
  • Mahathir’s public pledge to continue Tunku’s policy for national unity and co-operation among the races, declaring that it was everyone’s responsibility, particularly leaders of the Barisan Nasional component parties, to ensure that the foundation built by the Tunku was strengthened; and 
  • Tunku’s “advice” to UMNO and Barisan Nasional in his speech after Mahathir’s public apology to him  that “Malaysia should never be turned into an Islamic State”, reiterating that Malaysia was set up as a secular State with Islam as the official religion, which was enshrined in the Constitution.

The Tunku said:

“The Constitution must be respected and adhered to.  There have been attempts  by some people who tried to introduce religious laws and morality laws. This cannot be allowed. 

“’The country has a multi-racial population with various beliefs. Malaysia must continue as a secular State with Islam as the official religion” (all  press) 

Tunku’s call not to allow Malaysia to be turned into an Islamic State was publicly endorsed by the then Deputy Prime Minister, Musa Hitam, at a Foreign Correspondents’ luncheon speech in Singapore two days later, and openly supported by the third Prime Minister, Tun Hussein Onn four days later on 12th February 1983 on the occasion of his 61st birthday.

I have the 21-year-old  news cutting from The Star  dated 13th February 1983, with the headline “Hussein Says No to Islamic State Too”, which read:

“Kuala Lumpur, Sat – Former Prime Minister Tun Hussein Onn has supported Tunku Abdul Rahman’s view that Malaysia should not be turned into an Islamic State. 

“Tun Hussein said today that any move of this kind was neither wise nor practical.  

“’The nation can still be functional as a secular State with Islam as the official religion,’ he said.  

“The Tunku had said on Tuesday, when he celebrated his 80th birthday, that Malaysia should not be turned into an Islamic State because the country had a multi-racial population with various beliefs. 

“He had said that the nation was set up as a secular state with Islam as the official religion and that this was enshrined in the Constitution. 

“’The Government has shown that it can serve Islamic purposes well without it being an Islamic State,’ said Tun Hussein.

“’The setting up of the proposed Islamic Bank is one such example,’ he told reporters after receiving an MCA delegation, led by its president Datuk Lee San Choon, who called on him to wish him a happy 61st birthday.”  

Even Utusan Malaysia came out with an  editorial on 10th February 1983 under the heading “Malaysia Negara Sekular” expressing full endorsement for  Tunku’s statement that Malaysia must not be turned into an Islamic state and should continue as a secular state. 

Malaysians should return to the middle road of nation-building as represented by the public pronouncements of Tunku, Tun Razak  and Tun Hussein Onn on Islam as the official religion but Malaysia is not an  Islamic state and preserve, protect and promote the “social contract” on which this nation was conceived in the national compact reached by the forefathers of the major communities in the country.

Many Malaysians, both Muslims and non-Muslims,  seem to have resigned themselves to accept that Malaysia is an Islamic state, on the ground that they have no choice – and that the only thing to be worried  about is  the PAS version of an extremist Islamic state. 

This is a big mistake, for there is no reason why with less than 60 per cent of the Malaysian population who are  Muslims, Malaysia   should abandon the  Tunku’s nation-building formula of  a secular state with Islam as official religion to become an Islamic State when Indonesia, with the world’s  largest Muslim population of over 200 million Muslims, is a secular republic with five officially-recognised  religions. 

Indonesia has a population of 235 million people, with the following breakdown in their religions – Muslim 88%, Protestant 5%, Roman Catholic 3%, Hindu 2%, Buddhist 1%, others 1%.

If Indonesia, with the largest Muslim population in the world exceeding 200 million, or more than 14 times the Muslim population of 14 million in Malaysia, remains a secular republic with five officially-recognised  religions, why must Malaysia forsake  Tunku’s nation-building formula, the “social contract” entrenched in  the 1957 Merdeka Constitution, the 1963 Malaysia Agreement, the 1970 Rukunegara and Vision 2020 proclaimed in 1991 that Malaysia is a democratic, secular, multi-religious nation with Islam as the official religion but not an Islamic state, whether Islamic state ala-UMNO or ala-PAS? 

Another reason that has been used for claiming that Malaysia is an Islamic state is that Malaysia is current Chair of the  Organisation Islamic Conference  (OIC).

This is another error and fallacy.  There is no  pre-condition for a country  hosting an OIC Summit to be an Islamic state nor does  Malaysia’s hosting the 10th OIC Summit  make it   an Islamic State,  just as Senegal’s hosting of the 6th OIC Summit in Dakar in December 1991  had not affected its constitutional position as a “secular republic” despite having  94 per cent  Senegalese belonging to the Muslim faith. 

Many OIC countries, like Turkey, Mali, Indonesia, Guinea, Niger and Saddam’s Iraq, had  organized important OIC conferences but this had not affected their status as a secular state and not an Islamic state.

Any attempt to project Malaysia as an Islamic State will inevitably draw the government into an unending controversy over what an Islamic State is.  Can a State whose legal and administrative system is not formally based upon the Syariah call itself Islamic?  Wouldn’t an Islamic State have to prove its credentials by prohibiting all that conventional theology would regard as un-Islamic, such as liquor sales, gambling, the display of the aurat (those parts of the body which are supposed to be concealed from public view ).   

If a state does all the things that a progressive Islamic State is expected to do like eradicating poverty and eliminating corruption and yet fails to implement Hudud laws, would the people regard it as an Islamic state? 

Describing the government’s approach to Islam as ‘Islam Hadhari’ will not help matters either.  Not many people seem to know what Islam Hadhari is all about.  If it means ‘contemporary Islamic civilisation’ and if it denotes a particular approach to Islam, why is it that the term is hardly used anywhere else in the Muslim world?  Of course, terms such as masyarakat Hadhari (contemporary society), like masyarakat madani (civil society), derived from the writings of the illustrious philosopher, Ibn Khaldun (1336-1406) make sense but is there such a concept as Islam Hadhari? 

Rather than get embroiled in debates over terms that no one seems to understand, the government should stick to what the Malaysian peoples have agreed upon in the “social contract” since 1957 - the Merdeka Constitution, the Malaysia Agreement, the Rukunegara and Vision 2020.   

These documents define the Malaysian nation.  They spell out the content and character of the Malaysian State. Surely, many of the principles and values contained in these documents such as justice, accountability, unity, morality and progress are in line with Islam.  What is the need then to project Malaysia as an Islamic State, especially since it could raise all sorts of questions about the nature of citizenship, the rights of non-Muslim minorities, the rights of women and even the legitimate boundaries of dissent on matters pertaining to Islam within the Muslim community itself? 

After all, many Muslim political parties and movements elsewhere do not advocate an Islamic State even though they have much bigger Muslim populations.  In the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, none of the leading Islamic parties seeks to establish an Islamic State.  Not the Parti Kebangkitan Bangsa (PKB) of Abdur Rahman Wahid (Gus Dur), nor the Parti Pembangunan dan Perpaduan (PPP) of Hamzah Huz, nor the Parti Keadilan dan Kesejahteraan of Nur Hidayat Wahid nor the Parti Amanat Nasional of Amien Rais.  The two largest Islamic social movements in Indonesia which are incidentally the largest Islamic movements in the world -- the Nahdatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyyah—have openly argued for an Indonesia guided by universal moral values as against an Indonesia whose Constitution is based upon the Syariah. 

In Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party which has Islamic roots is committed to the country’s secular constitution and has made it explicitly clear that it will not enforce the Syariah.  In Iran, the reformers are struggling against dogmatic rules and conservative ideas imposed by the clerics in the name of an Islamic state.  They are arguing for a ‘religious democracy.’  

In a situation in which all these momentous changes are taking place all over the Muslim world, it does not make sense for the Malaysian government to put forward its own version of an Islamic State in opposition to Pas’s Islamic State.  

The 2004 general election result is worth serious reflection. Its  show that Islam is not the priority if issues of social justice and ethics are clearly addressed. PAS’ ‘Islamic state’ didn’t even resonate entirely with its own constituencies. As many  have analysed and pointed out since 1999: the turn to Islam was simply the recourse and hope for ethics and justice, not more Islamic law, ritual etc.  

The political Islam that must evolve in Malaysia has to be one which is comfortable with modernity, economic development and technological progress and compatible with pluralism, democracy, human rights, women’s rights,  cultural diversity and social tolerance. 

UMNO and its leaders  had  shifted the goal posts after the debacle of the 10th general elections of 1999 simply because they did not want to address the burning issues of injustice to Anwar Ibrahim, corruption and cronyism. UMNO decided to become more Islamic because it was the easier route, not because there was a crying need for it.  

Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of Hassan al-Banna (the founder of the Ikhwan ul-Muslimun –or Egyptian Brotherhood) who wrote about being a Muslim in Europe, basically argues that a Muslim does not need to live in an Islamic state or polity to be a good Muslim – that Muslims who insist they can only be good Muslims in an Islamic state are ultimately saying that those who don’t live in one cannot or are not.


* Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Member of Parliament for Ipoh Timor & DAP National Chairman