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Protecting Malaysia’s Federal Constitution

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Download Recently the High Court in Malaysia dismissed a challenge by four Muslim men to a law which bars men from dressing up as women.

Cross dressing is forbidden for Muslims under Shariah law.

But according to the Federal Constitution, Malaysia is not an Islamic state and Islamic law should not override civil law.

Malaysia is a fusion of different people, religions and territories. Following independence from Britain, the Constitution was designed to reflect the social contract between the different races that make up the country.

But does the recent rise of radical Islam threaten the secular nature of the Federal Constitution?

Clarence Chua has more from Kuala Lumpur


Malaysia’s Federal Constitution came into being in 1957, after independence from British rule.

According to Andrew Harding, a law professor from the National University of Singapore, the constitution reflects the social contract between the different religions and races in the country.

“Muslims and non-Muslims have lived side by side in this country for at least 500 years. So there is a long tradition of accommodation and understanding. The Federal Constitution is in all sorts of ways designed to accomplish that accommodation. For example, you look at the way in which the constitution set out the powers of the state which include very detailed provisions on Islam and what Islamic subjects can be dealt with at the state level and that reflect what has been done in the past and people expect it to be in the future.”

Since independence, Malaysia has been ruled by the Barisan Nasional coalition, led by the ruling party of UMNO.

But after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, many Malay-Muslims, who account for over half of the country’s 28 million people, switched allegiance to the Islamist party, PAS.

To win back their support, the then Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad made an announcement in 2001, stating that Malaysia is an Islamic country.

Malaysia practises a dual system of civil and Shariah law.

Shariah law is supposed to be limited only to Muslims and to religious and family matters, but many non-Muslims complain that Islamic law is now interfering with civil liberties.

Recently, the High Court dismissed a challenge by four Muslim men to a law barring them from dressing up as women; something which is forbidden by state-enacted Islamic law.

The Chairman of the Bar Council Constitutional Law Committee, Syahredzan Johan, explains the decision.

“In that case the High Court judge actually said that the sanctity of Islam cannot be challenged and this is not what the Constitution envisaged. This is unconstitutional. You cannot use Islamic principles or justification to justify violations of fundamental liberties.”

Syahredzan says that the new threat to the Federal Constitution is radical Islam.

“Religious authorities can now dictate how non-Muslims go about professing their religion for example. These are things guaranteed by the constitution and these are the challenges we are facing right now. And I think if we go back to the constitution and look at what the constitution says, I think most of these problems can actually be solved.”

In a public lecture on the Malaysia Constitution, Professor Andrew Harding explains that according to the Federal Constitution, Malaysia is not an Islamic state.

So will religious extremism tear the country apart? Prof Harding says this is very unlikely.

“You can see a fundamental decency in the Malaysian people. Sometimes there is resentment. Sometimes there are disagreements but they are not carried into untoward actions. It comes back to the issue of accommodation. Just as people accept that there is a Muslim majority and Islamic laws apply in some areas, so those who want the law to be according to Islam have to recognise that that is not the position that is taken by almost half the population. And you need to meet somewhere in the middle on these issues. There is no other way of resolving it.”

Syahredzan, from the Bar Council Constitutional Law Committee says that the only way to protect the Federal Constitution is through education.

“Because of education we have come to this stage where people are aware. Once you have increased awareness, there is pressure. The reason why you have the abolishment of the Internal Security Act is because of pressure. But that is not an easy thing, because you are talking about public opinion that has formulated in the past 10-20 years at the start of Islamisation and all that, where people actually think that more Islam means better.”


Last Updated ( Saturday, 22 December 2012 17:03 )  

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