Isn’t Malaysia a secular state?

Isn’t Malaysia a secular state?
By Zan Azlee

FREEDOM of religion is a right of every Malaysian, as enshrined in Article 11 of the Federal Constitution.

With that in mind, you’d expect those living in Malaysia to be completely free to practice whatever form of faith or religious belief system they feel compelled to subscribe to.

But the sad truth is this: One religion is more often than not made out to be better than the others and that religion is Islam.

I accept there may be some who might disagree with me on this but how are we to assume otherwise when so many of our leaders constantly harp about it as though Malaysia isn’t a secular state.

State-sanctioned political Islam dominates the public sphere here… so much so that what happened recently in Indonesia (the jailing of Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama for blasphemy) is seen as something we’ll one day witness in Malaysia too.

Hannah Yeoh, the Speaker and member of the Selangor state assembly in Malaysia, recently made headlines when her book, an autobiography titled ‘Becoming Hannah’, was criticised by a university lecturer for apparently proselytising Christianity.

University Utara Malaysia lecturer Kamarul Zaman Yusof made a police report after he read the book and claimed that Hannah’s words made him admire Yeoh’s God. He added this could also lead to other non-Christians being influenced by the religion.

Explaining his reasons, Kamarul said the book contained too many quotes and stories from the Bible, which he said could lead to non-adherents feeling awe towards Yeoh’s God. As such, he suggested that the book not be sold in all the bookstores in Malaysia, but only at selected stores that sell Christian religious materials.

Now, to put things into perspective: Yeoh is a member of the DAP (Democratic Action Party), which is a key component of the Pakatan Harapan coalition that rules the state of Selangor. In the larger scheme of things, Pakatan Harapan is the federal opposition party.

She, obviously, is a Christian. In Muslim majority Malaysia (about 60 percent of the population are Muslims), the religious card plays a very important role in politics, something we’ve witnessed in elections past and in the recent debate over hudud.

This is, however, in spite of the fact that Malaysia, technically, is a secular nation.

Yeoh has since lodged a police report of her own. She says she should not have to hide her faith and that it is her full right to be proud of what she believes in. The book, she points out, is about her personal journey and her religion played a big part in making her what she is today.

Yeoh is right. She shouldn’t have to hide her faith. If she’s Christian, she should be allowed to be proud it. The book is a biography on life and personal growth, if she doesn’t acknowledge that fact, she’d be wrongfully editing out a large chunk of her journey.

Yeoh’s experience should influence people to look deeply into their own religious beliefs and see how that can inspire them to succeed in life and to do what they think is right. It shouldn’t matter whether the reader is Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or of any other faith.

The issue, it seems, shouldn’t be about how eloquently Yeoh articulated her understanding and love of her faith in a book about her life.

In fact, if there was any issue at all here, it could be that Kamarul has insecurities about the strength of his own faith in Islam. After all, if he is a strong and good Muslim, why would he be so easily influenced into thinking that Yeoh’s book would test his faith and that of others?

My thoughts? It is healthy to learn about other religions and the perspectives of other faith followers… so we can better grasp our own.

A comparative study of religions should be wielded as a tool of advantage, while a good, open discourse should be used to foster understanding among the faiths and turn us into better global citizens.

[This article was originally written for and published at]

Get Zan Azlee’s latest book ‘JOURNO-DAD: The chronicles of a journalist who just happens to be a dad!‘ today!


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