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Azan issue: A missed opportunity for BN

(Pic by arte_ram/

(Pic by arte_ram/

THE recent azan controversy was a missed opportunity for the Barisan Nasional (BN) to show how it can be a government for all Malaysians. It could have been a chance for the BN to lead instead of react, by fostering dialogue, understanding and respect among different ethnic groups and religions.

But the government and some groups in recent years have had a peculiar way of handling inter-ethnic and inter-religious controversies. They’ve reinterpreted “compromise”, “tolerance” and “mutual respect” to mean “don’t question” and “don’t raise sensitive issues”; and “dialogue” or “open discussion” to mean “seditious”. The government, meanwhile, spends billions of taxpayers’ ringgit on development and transformation plans, but fails to exercise courageous leadership in building bridges among communities.

The azan issue was just yet another episode that proved that the BN has become incapable of exercising leadership when racial and religious matters are involved.

A confused apology

How was the azan controversy a missed opportunity for the BN? Let’s first look at MCA lawyer Ng Kian Nam‘s apology for the furore that followed his complaint over the azan volume in his neighbourhood.

Coming in the wake of a protest where his effigy was burnt, Ng’s explanation seems like a cop out. For one, it’s hard to imagine that a born-and-bred Malaysian would be unable to tell the difference between the Muslim call to prayer and other readings or sermons at the mosque.

In fact, Ng’s explanation confused things further, and raised more questions. If he had been living in Pantai Dalam for the past five years, why did the volume of the azan from the Al-Ikhlasiah mosque only recently become an issue for him? This has not been satisfactorily explained.

If he didn’t know the difference between the azan and a sermon, then which exactly did he initially complain about to the Prime Minister’s Office? Was it actually the azan, which would have been too sensitive for him to admit to? Or if it was the sermon, why didn’t he just say so?

(Pic by riesp/

(Pic by riesp/

And if his complaint was actually about the volume of the loudspeaker, and not the azan or the sermon, why didn’t he also just say so? What might have been a legitimate complaint about the level of noise in a shared public space was overlooked just because it involved a religious obligation. After all, there are permissible levels of noise in public spaces that are regulated by the Department of Environment for the safety and comfort of all citizens. And while the call for prayer or the broadcast of a sermon, whether from a mosque, church or temple, may not be covered by the law, clearly it can constitute noise pollution if the decibels are uncomfortably high.

Hence, wouldn’t mature Muslim and non-Muslim Malaysians be able to distinguish the nature of the complaint from the trumped-up charge of “insulting Islam”?

Ignoring reason

With Ng’s confusing apology, the matter is now deemed closed. But in being so quick to bury the episode, further discussion, too, is closed despite the offer of some reasonable ideas on how we could have addressed the issue. One was MCA vice-president Senator Gan Ping Sieu‘s suggestion that the government use the opportunity to set clear guidelines on the volume level for loudspeakers at all places of worship.

Notice the ensuing silence following his suggestion.

The second was the concurring views of two scholars, current Perak mufti Tan Sri Harussani Zakaria, and former Perlis mufti Assoc Prof Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin. Both agree that only the call to prayer, and not other readings, lectures, or sermons, need to be broadcast. Mohd Asri goes further to cite various hadiths to support this position.

Gan (Source:

Gan (Source:

The response from the Malaysia Department of Islamic Development (Jakim), however, has been to brush the views of these scholars aside. The Jakim director-general declared that restricting the use of loudspeakers to the azan only was overboard and malicious. In a subsequent public statement, the Jakim head said there was no need for guidelines because Islam was the country’s official religion. He also cited a 1982 fatwa which proclaimed that broadcasting the azan was not a disturbance to non-Muslims. And so the matter ends there.

If one were to follow Jakim’s logic, does this mean that other religious communities can also blare their call to prayer and sermons loudly and expect others not to find it inconsiderate? Is Jakim also suggesting that just because of Islam’s official position in Malaysia, this accords Muslims more rights than non-Muslims? If that were the case, what a far departure it is from what Malaysia’s founding leaders planned for this nation when the constitution first stipulated Islam as the nation’s official religion.

A government that leads

How would taking the statements by Gan, Harussani and Mohd Asri up for further discussion be helpful?

Firstly, it should be recognised that the volume of mosque loudspeakers is an issue for multiethnic and multireligious communities, even if complaints are rare. Whatever the findings that formed the basis of the 1982 fatwa, there are private complaints that volume levels seem to have grown louder over the years. From anecdotal accounts, the complaint is not so much what is being broadcast, but the volume at which it is broadcast. After all, Malaysians of all faiths have been living side by side long enough not to be bothered by hearing one another’s prayers, chants or hymns.

Still, it’s not hard to imagine why many prefer not to complain aloud. One could be targeted and threatened in the same way Ng was. In our hypersensitive society, it would be too easily misconstrued as an attack or insult on Islam. And we all know the ensuing threats of violence or charge of sedition that will follow once someone is labelled as insulting Islam.

But if the BN government were courageous and fair – and you would think that the non-Malay Malaysian component parties should be playing a more meaningful role in such matters – it would take the lead on finding ways to prevent the silent build-up of small grouses such as these.



In my imagination, the Jakim director-general could have acknowledged Harussani’s and Mohd Asri’s views for further discussion. Or minister in charge of unity Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon could have pursued Gan’s proposals. Or that invisible special cabinet committee to promote interfaith harmony would have said something.

Courageous leadership would bring all communities together in honest, rational dialogue, instead of pretending to be “tolerant” by telling everyone to shut up. Or having a complainant apologise publicly for what may have been a legitimate grouse. But racial politics, I suppose, instead of courageous leadership, won the day.

Deborah Loh thinks good leadership unites people through dialogue and acceptance, and not through slogans that merely pay lip-service to diversity.

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4 Responses to “Azan issue: A missed opportunity for BN”

  1. ben says:

    I personally think the government should [ensure that] the azan volume is under the volume limit regulated by the DOE. It’s for the safety of all. As a non-Muslim, I’m not really disturbed by the azan because I [am already] used to it. Any Malaysian would be used to it, too.

  2. :( says:

    Use racism to divide and conquer [and] rule forever. Good idea.

  3. orang lama says:

    I have the privilege of comparing this problem pre-’57 and post-’57. Twenty years ago while sending my child for tuition, I noticed that the locality of the tuition centre had a number of vacant houses so long abandoned that they were overgrown with bushes. The answer was obvious. There was a surau in the immediate vicinity. It was blaring out continuously every utterance of the imam, whether it was some instruction to a visitor or a lecture. This was going outside of the five times of prayer as stipulated by Islam. No wonder the occupants of these houses vacated them, and no one had come in to stay. Who could stand the noise? If this is the Islam that Dr M is aware of, then he need not look far for the question as to why Chinese don’t want to join Islam for the love of the religion. Chinese don’t want to become Muslims because of the way Islam is being propagated in this country. It is propagated by people obsessed with political “ketuanan”. This will never be accepted by the non-Malays.

  4. orang lama says:

    Drawing on my observations of the last 60 years, I have noted the following:

    1. PMIP (PAS) promoted the 6th pillar of Islam — “the Quran or the sword”. Of course it was rejected by the people (including Malays) and Umno. Thats why Umno became part of the Alliance.

    2. The call to prayer by the bilal was by mouth. No loudspeakers. Dr M was the one who started this loudspeaker thing. He preached “aggression” and now pretends to be beyond reproach.

    3. The Malays were not so money crazy. This only started with Dr M with his super-rich cronies. Now many Malays look forward to be picked up for enrichment. It is like a lottery. No wonder these Malays don’t want to give up the NEP. This is their passport to greatness and wealth. No need to study hard, work hard or even get rich. All this is bestowed upon them.

    4. The inherent intelligence and work culture that were present in many Malays have been evaporated by the NEP. This NEP caused the evolution of laziness and mediocrity which is now embedded in the psyche of many Malays. Those who realise it try to get overseas and stay there permanently. So, for the last 70 years, all I see is deterioration of the politics of this country, brought on by greedy Umno and their cronies, using religion and the education system to dumb down their fellow Malays. This has reached the point where most Malays don’t even realise this. They do not question anything, just follow unthinkingly. Sad for this country.

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