• UM Law Society

SECULARISM: ITS PLACE IN MALAYSIA

Secularism, also seen as the exclusion of religion and religious considerations in matters, has been an arguable topic floating in the Malaysian political scene. Some have raised concern over the disregard of secularism and how such behaviour overlooks the 1957 Merdeka Constitution, the 1963 Malaysia Agreement, and the 1970 Rukun Negara which address secularism and freedom of religion in the country. MP for Iskandar Puteri stated that the status of Islam as the official religion of Malaysia has never been in dispute but Malaysia is a secular state. Article 3 of the Federal Constitution says that “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation”, indicating the Constitution’s accommodation of religious diversity, supporting the values of secularism. This debate was settled by the Supreme Court judgement in Che Omar Che Soh v Public Prosecutor that affirmed Malaysia's status as a secular state.

Secularism is often associated with the idea of unbiased politics, particularly in a religiously diverse country such as Malaysia. Rajeev Bhargava’s (2010) idea of political secularism maintains a “principled distance” from religious presupposes and proposes the idea that political secularism must restrain all forms of domination. The split in the branches of government (judicial, executive, and legislative) that Malaysia practices is aimed at avoiding giving dominating power to one body. The notion to dismiss secularism therefore seems counterintuitive.

On the other hand, Maznah Mohamad in ‘the Ascendance of Bureaucratic Islam and Secularisation of the Shariah in Malaysia’ raised the concept of secularism going hand-in-hand with religion. The tendency to conflate the idea of laïcité (separation of State from religion) with the generic notions of secularism can be applied to the internal transformation of religion itself, seeing as no state is purely secular anyway. By using the definition of secularisation as comprising the elements of differentiation, rationalisation, and temporality, Shariah law seems to fit into this modality. In other words, religious politics in Malaysia may tend to evolve with the community, much like secularism.

It is difficult to reject the idea of secularism entirely in today's modern and increasingly progressive society, but its evolution in its coexistence with religious affairs and in our political landscape will be an interesting insight as to where Malaysia’s values lie.