Malaysiakini Letter

Islam not Malaysia's 'official religion

K Shanmuga  |  Published:  |  Modified:

I refer to various letters, news reports and articles referring to Islam as the 'official' religion of Malaysia. In fact, Malaysia has no 'official' religion. The exact words of Article 3 of the Federal Constitution are:

'Islam is the religion of the Federation, but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.'

In the Supreme Court decision of Che Omar Che Soh vs Public Prosecutor & Anor Case [1988] 2 MLJ 55, at p.56, the Lord President Tun Salleh Abas when giving the judgment of the Court stated as follows:

'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.'

Our Constitution was formulated after prolonged consultation with a wide variety of people. The Federation of Malaya Constitutional Commission (commonly called the 'Reid Commission' after Lord Reid, its chairman, a highly respected and distinguished English judge who sat in their highest court of appeal) went all over Malaya to get opinions from laypersons as well as institutions.

The democratic voice of the Malayan people at the time of independence was very clear as to the nature of the political and constitutional system they were putting in place to bequeath to their children.

The Alliance Party, made up of Umno, MCA and MIC, made submissions and recommendations to the commission. Its recommendations on a suitable provision on the role of Islam was very clear, and their version of what became Article 3 reads as follows:

'The religion of Malaysia shall be Islam. The observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practising their own religions and shall not imply that the state is not a secular state.'

The majority of the Reid Commission felt that this clause was not necessary, and this was the position taken by the Sultans. However, Justice Abdul Hamid of Pakistan disagreed and suggested a revised form of this clause, terming it an 'innocuous' provision.

Eventually, the underlying principle behind the Alliance Party and Justice Abdul Hamid's formulations became what is now Article 3 of the social contract that is our Federal Constitution.

Thus, Article 3 clearly does not confer on Islam the status of an 'official' religion nor was it ever intended to deprive the civil and political rights of anyone, be they Muslim or non-Muslim.

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