Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

I Can't Believe It's Not Democracy!

Written by johnleemk on 1:01:02 pm Jul 21, 2007.

There has been more than enough furore as of late about a certain politician who by all rights I should ignore, except that the stench of idiocy is too strong to avoid. This wouldn't be out of the ordinary if not for the fact that he is the Deputy Prime Minister and that he proclaimed Malaysia to be an Islamic state.

I won't bother rebutting the ridiculous contention that our country is an Islamic theocracy, which is something to be truly reviled. Others, including one or two small fry from the MCA, have done that well enough.

Instead, allow me to make the case for calm and moderation about the problem of Islamism, and turn our attention to the problem of democracy.

One of my friends once remarked that the disagreement between different political elements may be simply pointless because they are both arguing from completely different premises. An "Islamic state" may be different things to different people.

To some, it may mean an Islamic theocracy. To others, it may just mean a state with Islam as its official religion. The oft-quoted statement of Tunku Abdul Rahman about the secular-religious divide has an overlooked portion where he states that Malaysia is not an Islamic state in the traditional sense — it is not a theocracy, but a country with Islam as its official religion.

It is for this reason that I prefer the view of constitutional scholar Shad Saleem Faruqi that we are a country with Islam as its official religion, but not an Islamic theocracy. Whether this is desirable is a different question altogether, but I don't have too many problems with this situation.

I do think, however, that we are dreadfully moving towards a theocratic state, but not through overt means such as that controversial statement. The scope of government in religion is increasing stealthily, and this must be stopped so we can restore the appropriate relationship that the Tunku and our other founding fathers had in mind between religion and the state.

(I hope I don't have to reproduce the original quotation in full; I'm sure most of us are familiar with his statement that the reason Islam is the official religion is to permit the inclusion and recognition of Islam in certain public affairs, along the lines of the Church of England in the United Kingdom. This seems to me to be one of the few occasions where our founding fathers got their broad principles correct.)

Anyone who wants to argue that Malaysia is a totally secular state like the United States of America probably ought to reread the Federal Constitution, and not skip over the part where Islam is declared to be the official religion of the federation. If this is the only implication of the statement that Malaysia is an Islamic state, then I don't see any problems.

After all, Mahathir Mohamad himself proclaimed us to be an Islamic state not half a decade ago, and we all know that it was nothing more than bluster — reading between the lines, all Mahathir was doing was recasting "Islam is the official religion" in more politically-loaded terms to appeal to his Muslim base, which seems to be what the present government is doing as well.

What I would be far more concerned about is the suppression of debate about this issue. The government has told all media outlets to refrain from carrying any statements at all on the issue except those issued by the Prime Minister and his deputy.

I see this as the far greater affront to the Constitution, to our founding fathers, and to our founding principles. The founding premise of our country was that we would be a Parliamentary democracy. Our Proclamation of Independence states that we "shall be for ever a sovereign democratic and independent State founded upon the principles of liberty and justice".

Reiterating that Islam is the official religion of the state does not threaten our founding principles or the rights of our people. Suppressing debate on this question is what poses the true insult. As one politician sardonically remarked, there is no greater example of the fact that freedom of speech in this "democracy" belongs to only two people.

Of course, there's a not-too-minor problem in that our Constitution pays lip service to "fundamental liberties" such as the freedom of speech, and proceeds to undermine said liberties by adding that Parliament can restrict these freedoms as much as it likes. (It should be obvious why I think our founding fathers didn't do too great a job with nation-building.)

But all this incident shows is that the lack of respect for the rule of law has deteriorated to the point that our government does not even concern itself with going to Parliament to restrict freedom of speech, but unilaterally issues its own directives.

Of course, Parliament could have delegated the ability to restrict freedom of speech to the executive — that wouldn't surprise me — but as far as I know, if it exists, the government has not exercised this delegated ability to legislate, since it has not made an actual regulation on the issue.

It wasn't too long ago when the government told media outlets not to carry statements by opposition members of Parliament. This order was angrily revoked by a minister, who stated that as a democratic state, our people can expect the right to debate and discuss the issues of the day and reach an informed conclusion about them.

Looks like that minister spoke too soon. I would love to see what he has to say about the state of democracy now that this ridiculous directive to quell discussion on the issue has emerged from the Internal Security Ministry.

The fact is, stop bothering with all the equivocal denials. Just face the facts, folks. We don't live in a democracy. Malaysia is no longer, by any definition of the word, a democratic state, and it's even debatable whether it was a democracy in the first place.

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