Tolerance, open letters and political change management

03 January, 2015
As appeared in

Not just the oil price and economic matters to worry about

THE past year had seen a number of tragedies.

Two airline tragedies involving Malaysia Airlines and a recent one involving AirAsia. The most devastating floods in decades. Strong undercurrents of great political disquiet. The economy performed well, but this too is threatened in the new year by – not exhaustively – effect on national revenue of the fall in the price of oil, a likely rise in interest rates, possible inflationary pressures, a weaker currency – countered no doubt by large accumulated reserves, a growing American economy and a good record of economic management.

The government tends to concentrate and talk of the economy. This is not surprising as this is where Malaysia’s performance has been best. However, there are clear developments in the past year which indicate or portend this is not enough. There are many things not just economic which could upset the applecart.

There are fundamental issues which have to be addressed by strong leadership. A committed and thoroughly planned and preemptive maintenance culture is sorely needed. We cannot continue to work on the basis of having all hands on deck AFTER tragedies and devastation. We need standards and enforcement of best practice BEFORE calamities.

This applies equally in the political management of the country. It is not the ephemeral alone that must be attended to, but also more importantly the existential.

Today we celebrate the birthday of Prophet Mohamed (s.a.w.). We call it Maulidur-Rasul in Malaysia and usually mark the day with processions and speeches recalling the great Prophet’s achievements and good deeds.


It is called by different names in different Muslim countries but the date for Sunnis is the 12th day of Rabi’ul-awwal, although Shias recognise it on the 17th day.

There are however Muslims who do not celebrate it. Their view is the celebration of birthdays is forbidden. They may fast or spend the day reading the Quran, not participating in any get-together or communitarian activity.

It is perfectly all right for them to have that view and nobody drags them to join the processions. Such differences among Muslims elsewhere, however, not infrequently lead to violence and bloodshed, but not in Malaysia.

But we must guard against such intolerance and bloody violence becoming part of the Malaysian DNA between Muslims or against non-Muslims.

Ten days ago Christians celebrated Christmas. There was someone from ISMA who said Muslims must not extend to Christians their best wishes, let alone join them in the celebration. To be fair, the ISMA person claimed this was the classical position and conceded there was also a more engaging and friendly contemporary view.

While I know of no classical text that disallows friendly greeting, except in time of war, the ISMA chap is entitled to his view, if only he would go sit in the corner and not bother anybody else (the overwhelming number of Malaysian Muslims top down from what I can see) who takes the different view. But that is not what ISMA has been doing. It has been eating into the centre in sharp wholesome bites.

The great – and main – contribution of the 25 prominent Malays who wrote that open letter calling for rational dialogue on the application of Islamic laws in the country, is to highlight there is a serious existential problem over the political system to which Malaysia subscribes – which is being loudly and evidentially challenged. It cannot any longer be avoided or swept under the carpet. It could lead to violence and violent change. It needs management through strong political leadership.


There is really no need to describe as heroes those prominent Malays who wrote that open letter, as it then would be as if there is a battleground already which makes rationality and dialogue not possible. Over-excitement often sheds more heat than light. There is time but it is moving on and could be running out.

What the group should be acknowledged for is having the courage of their conviction to put their names to that letter, but knowing most of them I do not think they particularly want to be heroes – or martyrs. Indeed it is clear from the open letter by the 25 that they are not picking a fight. A call for rational dialogue on a matter of great moment cannot by any stretch of the imagination be categorised as a call to arms.

Those who have been bellicose, and sometimes abusive, in their response only expose their trenchant – and disturbing – irrationality. They seem to have transposed themselves to a place where they think their views are edicts beyond challenge. They must be brought down to earth. Only Allah can pass judgment on the faith of fellow Muslims. Those who wrest Allah’s remit commit a sin in His eyes, for Him to judge and decide.

Thankfully, there has been a measured response to the open letter by the 25 prominent Malays by another group of Malays, 32 in number, well-tutored in argument. Polite but clear.

This should be the character of any rational dialogue. A different view, but not an abusive or bullying tone, which is typified by extremist groups. These latter groups should never be allowed to hold the centre ground of Malaysian and Umno politics. This should be, first and foremost, what the Prime Minister and Umno leader should lead to never let happen however difficult the process.

Back to the letter by the 32 cultured and well-tutored Malays. Their eloquent view is that there has been “marginalisation of Islamic law and administration in the Federal Constitution.” They call for a review of the constitution. They claim, from a Pew Survey, that the majority of Muslims in many countries want Islamic law (syariah) to be the law of the land, in Malaysia as high as 86%.

Thus, for the first time with any clarity, there is an expression to review the constitution to incorporate amendments to meet the needs of Muslims “while entrenching the rights of minorities.” As against this, what the group of 25 states is this: “As Muslims, we want Islamic law, even more than civil law, to meet the highest standards of justice precisely because it claims to reflect divine justice.” It is suggested there has been excess in the human administration of Islamic law and violation of constitutional rights not necessarily in conflict with it.

While these are opposing views, there is also common ground in that both groups focus on the place of Islamic law in our country under the Federal Constitution, even if the group of 32 wants amendments to it and the group of 25 wants administration of the law with justice and better definition of Syariah Criminal Offences (SCO) – as the Attorney-General was directed by the Cabinet to do in 1999.

It would be a good start if the Prime Minister could use his good offices to get the groups to meet to talk this through and then to get back to him. It can be done without the intervention of noisy irrational voices.


In any such discussion, the two groups should be mindful of the sensitivity of re-opening issues in the constitution which touch upon inherent rights, especially of the non-Muslims. It has to be borne in mind the minorities in multi-racial Malaysia are not insubstantial and that there is an intermingling among the races which can raise issues – and the are numerous cases of this – which affect fundamental civil rights guaranteed in the Federal Constitution.

It is not a simple matter of Muslims wanting Islamic law to be the law of the land without affecting the rights of the minorities. There are complications in situations of legal pluralism which need to be handled with care and justice. Even in the case for example of Thrace in northern Greece, where the Muslim minority have had the option to be governed by syariah in line with the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), there have been tricky situations – not just because of Greek civil law but also of EU laws.

At the end of the day, we have to settle whether we are governed by the Federal Constitution or not. The constitution can be amended of course, but we must be careful the amendments do not open up further situations of complication, violation and dissatisfaction. We must be mindful the amendments do not eat into individual rights, and not just of the minorities.

It must also be recognised we are dealing with weighty issues here which can result in Malaysia becoming a nation-state different from how we are presently conceived – the Westphalian territorial state with full sovereignty within its borders run in accordance with a written constitution. If we wish to change that construct from a political to a religious, ethnic or linguistic definition, we should be clear about it and of its consequences.

The Serbs, for instance, sought and achieved after unconscionable massacre, the construction of their ethnic state on the ashes of the previous Yugoslavia. Many African states have all too often sought to change with machetes boundaries imposed upon them by their previous colonial masters, but with no clear idea or agreement of where the new boundaries should be. There is a moment in time when we have to cease blaming past colonial masters and find our own solutions.

Bloody outcomes

Change has also been sought in the Middle East with mostly tragic and bloody outcomes. We know only too well what the ISIL perpetrates and wants, and how many Muslims have been drawn to that cause of an Islamic State. While there are no iron laws of history, there is a lot we – particularly politicians – can learn from it.

We in Malaysia should know what and where our boundaries are, more so in the deep metaphoric than physical sense. It must be the stuff of strong political leadership to bring the sense to people in the country what the implications are of what they want and to intermediate in bringing about what is best for the country.

This is my wish for our country in 2015 and beyond. I believe this is what most Malaysians want, whether non-Malay, Muslim Malay Group of 25 or 32, or whosoever.

Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.

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