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Islam and rule of law under Najib

(al-Quran image by Crystalina @ Flickr; gavel image by mrbill @ Flickr; Najib image source:

NEW Malaysian prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak begins his administration with significant negative perception, as compared with previous power transitions. He realises this, and seems to be taking steps to counteract it, making symbolic gestures and speaking the language of reform. Yet the questions remain: how will all this translate into action beyond his first  announcement on 3 April 2009? Will we see concrete change in the next year?

Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s administration was fairly level-headed when it came to religious issues. Islam Hadhari was an attempt at an inclusive, moderate form of Islam, even though it bears remembering that the concept was called a “political gimmick” and styled as a threat to Islam by political detractors.

With characters like newly elected Umno vice-president Datuk Seri Abdul Zahid Hamidi, who is taking a hardline stance against non-Muslim publications using the word “Allah”, likely to take position in Najib’s cabinet, the outlook for religious tolerance is dreary.

A just Islam

“The government must have the courage to adopt an inclusive and progressive approach. It is clear that a hardline stance on religious matters would not help in winning the hearts of Malaysians,” says Sisters in Islam (SIS) programme manager Norhayati Kaprawi, via e-mail.

“SIS hopes that the new leadership promotes progressive Islam, not only in rhetoric, but ensures that it is translated into real policies and actions,” she adds.

According to Norhayati, the women’s human rights group would like several things implemented: a standardised syariah law and court system throughout Malaysia; the appointment of women syariah judges expedited; and a child support agency set up at the federal level.

“SIS in particular hopes that the amendments to the Islamic Family Law 2006 will be tabled at the next parliamentary sitting in June,” she adds, saying that the law should be based on the principles of justice and equality.

Rules violated

The rise of Najib’s influence has coincided with a slew of violations to the rule of law. Opposition party newspapers Harakah and Suara Keadilan were suspended on the cusp of the 59th Umno general assembly and three significant by-elections. The use of the Sedition Act on bloggers and politicians. And more recently, the banning of discussions on Altantuya Shaariibuu and the Barisan Nasional takeover of Perak in political ceramah for the 7 April by-elections.

“The last is shocking, given that these are real public interest issues,” lawyer Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan tells The Nut Graph  via phone. “It gives rise to the impression that those who issued the directive have something to hide.”

According to Ambiga, such actions do not bode well for the rule of law. Its rejuvenation under a Najib administration will depend on whether our premier is sincere about reforms and insists on upholding the separation of powers, she adds.

“If he truly believes in the rule of law, he can ensure that these orders are immediately revoked,” Ambiga says. That would overturn the perception that Malaysians’ basic democratic rights are being eroded.

“He has done so in the case of Suara Keadilan and Harakah. So there should be no problem addressing the other issues,” Ambiga adds.

“A policy that Najib’s administration should carry on is the consultation with various civil society groups, and implementing their recommended changes.”

Implementation, so far, has been slow in coming. To date, the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC), which was recommended by the Royal Commission on Police in its 2005 report, has not materialised. Instead, the government has been adamant in pushing forth the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC), a relatively toothless version.

Deaths in police custody is a serious issue. The government is charging (DAP national chairperson) Karpal (Singh), instead of dealing with this,” Ambiga points out. This makes it obvious to the public that the government prioritised its own interests above that of citizens, she says.

“There must be respect for the independence of our public institutions. Our institutions should not be tools of the government,” Ambiga stresses. She says individuals who are independent of the government, and who are courageous enough to only act in the public interest, should be appointed to head bodies such as enforcement agencies and other important institutions.

Ambiga says she is happy for the 13 Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees who were released on 5 April, and is hopeful that the remaining detainees will also be released.

“I feel regret and sadness that these people had to spend 15 months of their lives in detention, without being charged in court,” Ambiga adds, saying that the legal community feels that the ISA should be abolished.

V Ganabatirau of Hindraf being brought out of the Kamunting detention centre by police on 5 April
(Pic by Raj Kumar, courtesy of theSun)

Various quarters, including the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), echo this opinion. Suhakam recommends instead a specific Anti-Terrorism Act, which would place detentions under the courts’ supervision.

“Such measures would be a strong message from the government and the prime minister,” Ambiga says. “It would show a commitment to change for the better. They must, as a government, learn to value liberty and life much more than they do now.”

Ambiga says the court cases involving the ruling BN coalition — such as those that arose during the Perak political crisis — are a litmus test on the independence of the Malaysian judiciary under Najib.

“We will be able to immediately tell whether the judiciary is above politics, depending on the outcome of these cases, and the manner in which they are handled,” she explains.

Of course, all the good Najib can do will smack of hypocrisy if he does not set affairs right in his own house. Everyone knows who Altantuya is; the opposition, in their by-election campaign, need not even mention her name. Alleged dealings from Najib’s time as defence minister continue to cloud his character with shades of corruption and criminality. The longer such questions go unanswered, the more they will undermine his effectiveness as prime minister in the coming months.

“He must address the issues, in relation to himself, that are of concern to the public,” Ambiga asserts. “Ignoring them will be like ignoring the elephant in the room.”

(Pic by Jean Scheijen /

See also:
Politics and economics under Najib

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6 Responses to “Islam and rule of law under Najib”

  1. Karcy says:

    It is a myth that non-Muslims will forever reject Islamic rule. In the end, people want fairness, justice, equality, and a humane government. A reasonable, logical and rational hardliner decision is better than an inconsistent, double-speaking and insincere commitment to “tolerance” and secularism.

    This is why a growing number of non-Muslims support PAS. Under PAS, what you see is what you get. On the other hand, people who supported Umno on the promise that it would be more tolerant or secularist than PAS found during the Islam Hadhari movement that while the party president promised a more progressive form of Islam, temples were being desecrated and demolished.

  2. Mz says:

    I personally agree with you because a lot has to be done by our newly-appointed prime minister. Today, we might probably witness another potential issue related to our government’s performance within this term of administration. What would the cabinet line-up be….we wait and see.

  3. Gopal Raj Kumar says:

    My response is directed at each paragraph of your artilce as follows:

    Negative perceptions, presumably of the man Najib is simply that. It is not an issue to contend with or there would have been an outcry from the majority rather than a cacophonic chorus from a vocal minority.

    My response to this is, be patient and wait and see what transpires whilst also being vigilant like good citizens not expecting too much and not reading too quickly between the lines for hidden messages that your imagination compels you to believe exists.

    Government at the end of the day is a reflection of the society it governs. There are many spectators amongst the grroups you name none of whom however commited enough to do what is required apart from feathering their own nests in the private sector or simply being incapable or without courage to demonstrate what good governance is by your standards.

    Abdullah Badawi’s ‘level headedness in religious situations’ as you refer to it, was no different to Stalin’s idea of benevolence or Adolph Hitler’s ideas of racial purity. In both cases, purity was the operative word in their thinking.

    Body snatching and conversions were not isolated incidents. Somehow your analysis is either deliberately skewed or a by-product of ignorance. Either ways it is not helpful.

    On the word Allah and the controversy surrounding it — again this bias is astonishing and alarming. Why is an edict on the word “Allah” (quite rightly so in my view for the sinister reason that the Catholics are evangelising and proslesytising) so wrong?

    The veneer of respectability and liberalism peels off in [Sisters in Islam’s] argumeent on syariah law. Syariah law is inconsistent with the civil law of a common law country. It is also inconsistent when applied to say the other schools of Islam mainly the Hanafi and the Sufi schools, and the many sects within Islam.

    Above that you have differing interpretations based on culture in each of the different sects and differing schools of Islam in many cases which are irreconcilable as in Shia and Sunni.

    What has the rule of law got to do with not allowing a mischevous and highly provocative media from publishing their inflammatory, one-sided and often unsubstantiated [reports]?

    As to the independence of the judiciary, that’s a pipe dream.

    It is unrealistic to expect or to aspire to a judiciary above politics. They, too, are humans with individual perspectives on life including perspectives on politics.

    Your final paragraph in a thinly veiled attack on Najib. Thus far, the man has not been charged with any offence which makes your reference to him in this light defamatory and unnecessarily so. The second thing is that after so much rumour and speculation, not one single lawyer has been able to put together a cogent brief sufficient to have Najib charged or those on trial convicted other than in the court of a narrow but vocal opinion.

    Gopal Raj Kumar (in a hurry)

  4. Gopal raj Kumar says:

    Thanks. But in editing (or censoring) parts (critical parts) of my response, you appear to demonstrate a queer form off preferential treatment to the most important part of my criticism and that is that which I directed at the Malaysian Bar and its former president. It is relevant that constructive criticism not be censored because of an ill-founded fear of persecution or prosecution.

  5. Hi Gopal Raj Kumar,

    Comments are edited according to our comments and columns policy which is publicly announced here:

    Jacqueline Ann Surin
    The Nut Graph

  6. Karcy says:

    “Why is an edict on the word “Allah” (quite rightly so in my view for the sinister reason that the Catholics are evangelising and proslesytising) so wrong?”

    Dear Gopal,

    I’d hate to start the debate again, but basically, it boils down to this: East Malaysian Christians have been using the word “Allah” in their services for centuries, and if you stop it, you’re banning an entire group of people from practising their religion. Other religions have been using “Allah” in their services, too. The word “Allah” is found in generic religious contexts in official state songs.

    As for the comments on Islam, many people would not consider Sufism to be a “school” of Islam. Sufism is a practice of ascetism, and by itself it neither says yes nor no to syariah. The Shiite and Sunni difference is pretty insignificant in Malaysia since it is mostly Sunni here anyway, and I’m not sure why Hanafi would be incompatible with syariah — this is the first time I’ve heard such a claim.

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