No Room For A Secular Malaysia

UDHR Viewpoints

Change is necessary.

But changes which are abrupt and not thought through, may bring undesirable consequences; just as the inaccurate diagnosis of a disease will result in the wrong treatment.

More so if these changes are not made based on sound foundational knowledge.

The calls for a ‘secular Malaysia’ reverberate through the media, even whilst the dust has yet to settle, and whilst the nation is still awaiting the full cabinet line-up.

These calls are unfortunately made as a result of failing to understand that the majority of Muslims from the middle class and rural areas, and a rapidly growing number of professionals hold the religion of Islam as the foundation of their life. Those who made these calls for secularism, barely represent the majority of Muslims in this country. The majority of Muslims voted in the current government to improve their impoverished socioeconomic status, but have no problem with the foundations of Islam being part of governance. They did not vote in Pakatan Harapan to implement secularization but rather, one of the reasons why it is likely that change took so long was the fear that Malaysia would be secularized under a new government.

The structure of the society must be well understood before we implement policies that are made out of incorrect assumptions. Thus, for example, the call for JAKIM to be limited or abolished1, 2 in order to reflect a secular government is a short-sighted one and completely overlooks the bigger roles that religious institutions play. JAKIM provide allowances for more than 15,000 imams and 33,000 religious and Fardu Ain (KAFA) teachers nationwide. In Johor alone, there are about 1,800 teachers with 184,000 children in religious and Fardu Ain classes (KAFA) from the ages of 7 to 12 years, that complement the regular schools that children go to.

JAKIM also runs the Malaysian Islamic Training Institute (ILIM) that trains state and federal government officers on Islam, and the Darul Quran Institute that serves as a higher education centre for Muslim missionaries, and the hafiz and hafiza (those who have memorised the Quran). These cater mainly to students who cannot afford private Islamic schools.  Muslim parents have every right to ensure a balanced education for their children, and they should not be forced to accept the secular worldview which is being promoted by many in the media today.

In short, we cannot and should not deprive 61% of Malaysians, of their rights to religious education.

Recently, we have been appalled by the news of the church bombings inflicted by a family of 6 in Indonesia, where a husband and wife used their four children in a string of deadly suicide attacks on three churches in the city of Surabaya. This is an extremely tragic incident which illustrates a profound lack of understanding of the very basic tenets of Islam in the world’s most populous Muslim country. The Islamic tradition is a deeply scholarly one, with much importance placed on chains of evidence and consensus expert opinion, much like the field of medicine. Many are not aware of how rigorous Islamic scholarship is. With so many ‘Islamic groups’ coming out with their own misguided, haphazard interpretation of Islam due to the lack of structured, foundational knowledge, and unsupervised by a national Islamic institution to boot, it will be more common to see these rogue sects committing acts of violence which have no basis in Islam. The role of JAKIM as an institution to standardize the correct understanding of Islam and to give explanations to combat heresy and extremism, should be thus appreciated rather than condemned.

There were also calls to the new government to ensure our policies are on par with international human rights standards, especially in terms of respect and tolerance of sexual diversity3. In principle, no one should be subjected to abuse or mistreatment, and be robbed of their rights to live, in accordance to Article 1 of the United Nation Declarations of Human Rights (UDHR) that says “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. However, many agree that these should not be absolute rights, as it has to be balanced with duties and obligations. In fact, the cultural relativist approach to human rights; that is, an approach that views human rights as prima facie and universal, but recognizes culture as a limited source of exceptions and principles of interpretation, is more in accordance with Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia. In addition, this is also in line with Vision 2020 which says Malaysia should be a developed country in its own mould and should not be developed only in the economic sense. It must be a nation that is fully developed along all the dimensions: economically, politically, socially, spiritually, psychologically and culturally.

The case of gays, bisexuals and transgenders illustrates this point.

The accorded human rights to gays, bisexuals and transgenders to not be discriminated, abused and harmed should not be mixed with our duties and obligations to ensure the health of the population is taken care of. Oftentimes, these two issues are wrongly viewed as two sides of a coin and mutually exclusive, when they are not. This misunderstanding gives rise to much paranoia such that even discussing epidemiological data of HIV/AIDS from a medical perspective elicits accusations of persecution and discrimination where there is none.

It is of concern that there is a rising trend of HIV infection through sexual intercourse amongst key populations in Malaysia. In the recently published “Global AIDS response progress report Malaysia 2016 in ending AIDS by 2030” (Malaysia Global AIDS 2016) it has been revealed that apart from people who inject drugs and female sexual workers, two other groups that represent populations most affected by the AIDS epidemic (with HIV infection rates exceeding 5%) are men who have sex with men (MSM), and transgender people (TG). To be exact, it was 8.9% in MSM and 5.6% in TG (Malaysia Global AIDS 2016)4. A worldwide meta-analysis study showed that transgenders, carried 48.5 times more risk of getting HIV/AIDS as compared to the general population, which is a very high risk indeed5 . The 2017 data in Malaysia showed that despite being in a minority group, there were 1553 new cases of HIV among gays and bisexuals, as opposed to 1311 new cases among the majority heterosexuals6. These rates are alarming. In fact, the United States of America which has very robust and comprehensive medical approaches to gay, bisexual and transgender health is also showing similar trends where the majority of new cases of HIV infection come from minority groups rather than heterosexuals7.

Is the religious approach, including religious law, such an anathema to the betterment of health amongst gays, bisexuals and transgenders? Epidemiologically, UNAIDS Data 2017 showed that in the Middle East and North Africa, where most Muslim countries are located, and where the majority uphold criminal law with regards to homosexuality, there were an estimated 230,000 people living with HIV (PLHIV) which gives an adult HIV prevalence of 0.1%8. The United States of America as a single country has 1.2 million PLHIV with 0.4 to 0.9 % adult HIV prevalence in 20139. Closer to us, Thailand has 450,000 PLHIV with 1.1% prevalence10. In research, the role of religion has been shown to be beneficial. In a paper entitled The Influence of Religion in HIV Risk11, it was reported that 31 from 51 studies showed that affiliation with religion reduces sexual risk. Another study specifically on transgenders showed that belief in religion helped to facilitate risk-reduction in inculcating responsibility to not transmit the virus to others12.

An aggressive campaign to remove hypersexuality from the environment in the form of abstinence driven by religious, moral, legal and medical perspectives, should take precedence over human rights arguments as far as health is concerned. Wrongly utilising the human rights perspective whilst disregarding the consequences to health will preclude our youths (who constitute 40% of those newly diagnosed with HIV amongst gays and bisexuals13) from being well-informed and will not enable wise decision-making.

On the eve of 14th General Election, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said: “Pakatan Harapan (HARAPAN) percaya kepada hak asasi manusia tetapi tidaklah begitu liberal sehingga tidak ada had kepada kebebasan sama sekali. Segala tuntutan nafsu yang keterlaluan tidak dibenarkan.” (Pakatan Harapan believes in human rights but it is not so liberal as to give total, unlimited freedom. Unconventional forms of sexual appetites or desires will not be allowed14.)

In Western secular liberal societies, people are inculcated with a selfish conception of self-entitlement that puts the satisfaction of one’s own desires as their prime concern (individualism). Leaving individualism to automate people’s affairs is what has resulted in chaos, with human appetites being pursued in unacceptable, often perverse, ways. There is no room for a secular Malaysia. There is much room for improvement, but improvement should be made within the mould of the religious and cultural aspects of our society.

A  prescription is needed for our country, but a prescription that is not based on the correct diagnosis, can be as deadly as poison.



  4. Malaysian Global AIDS reference

Associate Professor Dr Rafidah Hanim Mokhtar
President of The International Women’s Alliance
for Family Institution and Quality Education (WAFIQ).


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