Is Malaysia an Islamic State?

Two important statements here, I have nothing much to say for now I’m resorting to prayer first:

 Malaysia is a Constitutional Democracy, and Not an Islamic State

 The Christian Federation of Malaysia wishes to express its concern at the following remarks of Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak on 17th July 2007 in response to questions from reporters:


“Islam is the official religion and Malaysia is an Islamic State, an Islamic

State that respects the rights of the non-Muslims and we protect them.”


As he is the Deputy Prime Minister of the country and for all Malaysians, he should not have made those remarks. The use of the term “Islamic State” is unacceptable to Malaysians of other faiths, on three grounds.


Firstly, the term “Islamic State” is not used in our Federal Constitution to describe the country. By citing Art. 3(1) of our Federal Constitution to infer that Malaysia was meant to be an Islamic State runs contrary to the original intention of the Constitution. The Constitution does not provide for a theocratic state.


Secondly, it was never the intention of the social contract entered into at the independence of Malaysia that Malaysia would be an Islamic State. The Constitution was structured to guarantee the right of all religious communities to co-exist and relate with each other on an equal basis as citizens of one and a united country.


Thirdly, to-date, the non-Muslim coalition parties that make up the Barisan National Government had never consented nor officially endorsed the use of the term “Islamic State” to describe the country. The Deputy Prime Minister’s statement must therefore be viewed as lacking official endorsement by the government of the day.


The Christian Federation of Malaysia appeals to the Deputy Prime Minister to retract his aforesaid remarks and to the government to refrain from the use of the term “Islamic State” in the description of Malaysia and instead to vigorously advocate the description of Malaysia as a secular constitutional democracy.


Bishop Dr. Paul Tan Chee Ing, SJ

Chairman, Christian Federation of Malaysia

Dated: 19th July 2007


The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism is very unsettled by the comments of the Deputy Prime Minister that Malaysia is an “Islamic State” and that “We have never been secular because being secular by Western definition means separation of the Islamic principles in the way we govern a country. We have never been affiliated to that position. We have always been driven by our adherence to the fundamentals of Islam.

Islam may be the “religion of the Federation” but Malaysia is not and ought not to be considered an “Islamic State”.

There have been numerous statements by our politicians and judges that Malaysia is, and was always meant to be, a secular nation. In this sense, secular undoubtedly means a country where religion, religious principles and religious dogma do not influence the business of governance.

The “innocuous” provision in Article 3 of the Federal Constitution was never meant to transform Malaysia into an Islamic State. This was affirmed by the Alliance (comprising UMNO, MCA and MIC) themselves in 1957 when our forefathers stated clearly and unequivocally that ‘The religion of Malaysia shall be Islam. The observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practicing their own religions and shall not imply the State is not a secular State.We recall that this assurance was given by Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak, Tun Tan Cheng Lock and Tun V T Sambanthan who were the signatories to the Independence of Malaya Agreement.

The MCCBCHST is firmly of the view that Malaysia remains a secular country as it was intended to be from Merdeka.

Relevant provisions of the Constitution, and statements from politicians and judges of yesteryear, which reiterate the secular nature of Malaysia’s constitution is enclosed as an appendix. It appears therefore that our decision to publish our Note of Protest recently is all the more timely. (The Note of Protest can be downloaded at )

We urge the Government, the Judiciary and all Malaysians to respect the social contract which was formulated in 1957 and reaffirmed in 1963 and object most strongly to attempts by the Government and the Judiciary to now change the status quo surreptitiously and thereby jeapordizing the democratic freedoms of all Malaysians.

Dated 17th July 2007


Datuk A Vaithilingam


Note: This Statement is issued on behalf of the MCCBCHST by its President. The MCCBCHST is a registered society dedicated to the promotion of goodwill, harmony and unity. It comprises the national organisations of the five religions, namely Malaysian Buddhist Association, Buddhist Missionary Society of Malaysia & Sasana Abhiwurdhi Wardhana Society; Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Council of Churches Malaysia & National Evangelical Christian Fellowship; Malaysian Gurdwara Council, Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia & Khalsa Diwan Malaysia; Malaysia Hindu Sangam and Federation of Taoist Associations, Malaysia. Together, it aims to be the de facto representative body for 45% of the Malaysian population who does not profess Islam as their religion.

Appendix: Historical affirmations that Malaysia is a secular nation

1. Article 3 of the Federal Constitution states that “Islam is the religion of the Federation, but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.” Similarly, Article 153(1) also directs the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong to “safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities”. (Emphases supplied). Article 4 of the Federal Constitution proclaims that the Federal Constitution is the supreme law of the Federation – not Islamic law.

2. In Susie Teoh’s case[i], the Supreme Court ascertained “what purpose the founding fathers of our Constitution had in mind when our constitutional laws were drafted”. This is what they said:

The Malaysian Constitution was not the product of overnight thought but the brainchild of constitutional and administrative experts from UK, Australia, India and West Pakistan, known commonly as the Reid Commission following the name of the Rt-Hon Lord Reid, LLD, FRSE, a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary. Prior to the finding of the Commission, there were negotiations, discussions and consensus between the British Government, the Malay Rulers and the Alliance Party representing various racial and religious groups. On religion, the Commission submitted:

169. We have considered the question of whether there should be any statement in the Constitution to the effect that Islam should be the State religion. There was universal agreement that if any such provision were inserted it must be made clear that it would not in any way affect the civil rights of non-Muslims. In the memorandum submitted by the Alliance it was stated: ‘The religion of Malaysia shall be Islam. The observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practicing their own religions and shall not imply the State is not a secular State. There is nothing in the draft Constitution to affect the continuance of the present position in the States with regard to the recognition of Islam or to prevent the recognition of Islam in the Federation by legislation or otherwise in any respect which does not prejudice the civil rights of individual non-Muslims. The majority of us think that it is best to leave the matter on this basis looking to the fact that counsel for the Rulers said to us ‘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. Their Highnesses are not in favour of such a declaration being inserted .’

It was on the above basis that our Constitution was drafted and promulgated.” [Emphasis supplied]

3. It should be noted that Mr Justice Abdul Hamid (a Judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and a member of the Reid Commission) dissented to the proposal by the majority[ii]. He advised that a provision as to Islam’s position in Malaysia be included, noting that such a provision would be “innocuous”. His note of dissent on this point shows that this was principally because he felt it only right to accede to the recommendations by the Alliance to the Reid Commission set out in the quote above. (The Alliance was the name for the coalition of the United Malays National Organisation, the Malayan Chinese Association and the Malayan Indian Congress who were at that time the undisputed voice of the Malayan people in their fight for independence, having won 51 out of 52 seats in the 1955 elections.)

4. Bapa Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al Haj, is reported to have said in the Dewan Rakyat (Hansard, 1.05.1958) that “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.” [Emphasis supplied]

5. The 2 Malayan members of the Cobbold Commission, which were tasked to gather the views of the people of Sabah and Sarawak prior to the formation of Malaysia, also stated in their report “… we are agreed that Islam should be the national religion of the Federation. We are satisfied that the proposal in no way jeopardizes freedom of religion in the Federation, which in effect would be secular.” [Emphasis supplied]

6. In the early 1970s, when the Rukunegara was formulated, no mention of any ‘Islamic State’ was mentioned. The Rukunegara does not refer at all to Islam but specifies a general Belief in God as a shared aspiration of all Malaysians. The Rukunegara, in full, reads as follows:-

Our nation, Malaysia is dedicated to:

* Achieving a greater unity for all her peoples;

* Maintaining a democratic way of life;

* Creating a just society in which the wealth of the nation shall be equitably


* Ensuring a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions; and

* Building a progressive society which shall be orientated to modern science

and technology.

We, her peoples, pledge our united efforts to attain these ends guided by these principles:

1. Kepercayaan kepada Tuhan (Belief in God)

2. Kesetiaan kepada Raja dan Negara (Loyalty to King and Country)

3. Keluhuran Perlembagaan (Supremacy of the Constitution)

4. Kedaulatan Undang-undang (Rule of Law)

5. Kesopanan dan Kesusilaan (Mutual Respect and Good Behaviour)

7. Our country’s most respected jurist, the late Tun Mohamed Suffian Hashim who was the Lord President of Malaysia in his article “The Relationship between Islam and the State in Malaysia” in 1962 was of the view that Islam in Malaysia “is primarily for ceremonial purposes, for instance, to enable prayers to be offered in the Islamic way on official public occasions such as the installation of the birthday of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Independence Day and similar occasions.”

8. Another well respected and eminent jurist, Tan Sri Hashim Yeop Sani, former Chief Justice (Malaya), wrote in his book “Our Constitution” in 1980: ‘The words “Islam is the religion of the Federation” appearing in Clause 1 of that Article has no legal effect and that the intention was probably to impose conditions on federal ceremonies to be conducted according to Muslim rites.’

9. Finally, another eminent jurist Lord President Tun Salleh Abbas delivering the judgment of the Supreme Court in Che Omar’s case[iii] has explained the sense in which the phrase ‘Islam’ as the religion of the Federation in Article 3 of the Federal Constitution is meant to be understood:

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. …. The question here is this: Was this the meaning intended by the framers of the Constitution? …. it can be seen that during the British colonial period, through their system of indirect rule and establishment of secular institutions, Islamic law was rendered isolated in a narrow confinement of the law of marriage, divorce, and inheritance only. … In our view, it is in this sense of dichotomy that the framers of the Constitution understood the meaning of the word “Islam” in the context of Article 3. If it had been otherwise, there would have been another provision in the Constitution which would have the effect that any law contrary to the injunction of Islam will be void. Far from making such provision, Article 162, on the other hand, purposely preserves the continuity of secular law prior to the Constitution, unless such law is contrary to the latter.”

[Emphasis supplied]

[i] Teoh Eng Huat v Kadhi Pasir Mas [1990] 2 MLJ 301, SC

[ii] Reid Commission Report, Para. 12-13 of the Note of Dissent by Mr Justice Abdul Hamid

[iii] Che Omar bin Che Soh v Public Prosecutor & Anor Case [1988] 2 MLJ 55, at p.56


About Sivin Kit

man of one wife, father of four kids
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