Conversation Between Miroslav Volf & David Martin with a short reflection on “Modern Malaysia”


One key notion struck me in this conversation, that is the idea of “alternative modernities”. If we can say there is a “USA model”, and now since being in Norway I’m more alerted to a “Norwegian model”, I wonder what a “Malaysian model” looks like.  How do we imagine it to look like today and possibly in the future?

Take the relationship between Religion and State for example, institutionally we might say in USA it’s a clear separation even though one might argue the influence of Religion in Politics is not. In Norway, their constitution is similar to Malaysia in that religion is not separate from the state.

Compare what is in the Constitution of Norway,


Article 1
The Kingdom of Norway is a free, independent, indivisible and inalienable Realm. Its form of government is a limited and hereditary monarchy.

Article 2
All inhabitants of the Realm shall have the right to free exercise of their religion.
The Evangelical-Lutheran religion shall remain the official religion of the State. The inhabitants professing it are bound to bring up their children in the same.

with wordier the Constitution of Malaysia,

Article number: 1
• (1) The Federation shall be known, in Malay and in English, by the name Malaysia.
• (2) The States of the Federation shall be Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Malacca, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Penang, Perak, Perlis, Sabah, Sarawak, Selangor and Trengganu.
(3) Subject to Clause (4), the territories of each of the States mentioned in Clause (2) are the territories comprised therein immediately before Malaysia Day.
• (4) The territory of the State of Selangor shall exclude the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur established under the Constitution (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1973 and the territory of the State of Sabah shall exclude the Federal Territory of Labuan established under the Constitution (Amendment) (no. 2) Act 1984, and both the said Federal Territories shall be territories of the Federation.

Article number: 2
2. Parliament may by law –
• (a) admit other States to the Federation;
• (b) alter the boundaries of any State, but a law altering the boundaries of a State shall not be passed without the consent of that State (expressed by a law made by the Legislature of that State) and of the Conference of Rulers.

Article number: 3
• (1) Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.
• (2) In every State other than States not having a Ruler the position of the Ruler as the Head of the religion of Islam in his State in the manner and to the extent acknowledged and declared by the Constitution, all rights, privileges, prerogatives and powers enjoyed by him as Head of that religion, are unaffected and unimpaired; but in any acts, observance or ceremonies with respect to which the Conference of Rulers has agreed that they should extend to the Federation as a whole each of the other Rulers shall in his capacity of Head of the religion of Islam authorize the Yang di-pertuan Agong to represent him.
• (3). The Constitution of the States of Malacca, Penang, Sabah and Sarawak shall each make provision for conferring on the Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall be Head of the religion of Islam in that State.
• (4) Nothing in this Article derogates from any other provision of this Constitution.
• (5) Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution the Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall be the Head of the religion of Islam in the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Labuan; and for this purpose Parliament may by law make provisions for regulating Islamic religious affairs and for constituting a Council to advise the Yang di-Pertuan Agong in matters relating to the religion of Islam.

There’s more on the role of the Norwegian King in relation to the state Church, but my interest here is how does one treat their religious minorities in practice to show the kind of “modern” nation one aspires to be within the constitutional frameworks as our common starting point. Both have to find ways to negotiate the majority religion namely  Evangelical Lutheran Christianity for Norway, and Sunni Islam for Malaysia.

One TV advertisement kept popping up which had Norwegian Muslims speaking in Norwegian describing their life in Norway, and the ad ends with an invitation for neighbors to have tea with them. In fact, my new friends in Norway shared how they tried it out to be connect with the immigrant community. There are indeed challenges no doubt but it seems to me that the “Norwegian Model” gives us of an example of the state not interfering, but rather creating space for people to relate to each other better as citizens. In the recent horrific terrorist-like attack in Oslo and massacre in Utøya Island, one thing I noticed was how cautious the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in his public statement and the ministers interviewed was in a disciplined refusal to speculate on who was behind the attacks (unlike the so called “specialist analysts” who were quick to make possible links to so called “Islamic militants” on the news). It was hard not to think back on how politicians speak in my homeland Malaysia.

The recent events and especially statements by politicians and especially a government minister in Malaysia on making it a crime to convert muslims after a raid on event in a church is troubling. Less this is portrayed as THE Muslim position, a Statement by Muslim NGO on proposed Faith Crime Act strongly condemned this kind of thinking arguing from an Islamic perspective.

We, from the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) read the news regarding the proposed Faith Crime Act by the Deputy Education Minister yesterday with trepidation.
The proposal came about as a response to JAIS’s unwarranted raid of Damansara Utama Methodist Church last week.
The raid conducted by JAIS was purely based on suspicion that the Methodist Church was involved in an act of proselytisation. The Malaysian Aids Council however reiterated that the dinner was actually a fund-raiser for HIV/AIDS support programs.

The whole issue boils down to one main issue. The so-called defenders of the faith believed that their action was espoused by the religion of Islam in preventing the believers from apostasy.

This uncivilized act of storming into a sacred place accompanied by the Mafia-like Malaysian police was endorsed by none others than the insular and xenophobic NGOs like Perkasa and Pembela.

We believe that such an act of storming into a church without any warrant and based on mere suspicion was a travesty of justice and democratic principles. Freedom of assembly is enshrined in Article 10 of our constitution. Any act that violates this freedom is reprehensible.

We realize that this conflict stems from the static and stagnant approach to understanding Islamic law. The codified law in Islamic jurisprudence derived through the exercise of juristic reasoning of the latter years was considered sacred and beyond reproach. Hence the most rigid and literalist interpretations tend to prevail.

The defenders of faith failed to look at ample evidence in the Qur’an that gives the liberty to the people to freely follow their conviction.

Any individuals are given the right to accept or reject a particular faith based on his personal conviction.

So the story will continue to unfold, there are now more voices that must be heard but the broader question remains, What kind of “modern Malaysia” do we envision?

~ First posted in Friends In Conversation

About Sivin Kit

man of one wife, father of four kids
This entry was posted in Friends in Conversation, Malaysia, Norway, Religion, World. Bookmark the permalink.

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