Malaysia: Absolutely a Secular State


Many remain confused today about the secular nature of the country.

Whether Malaysia is a secular state or not has become a contentious matter. Since the nation’s independence, there has been constant demand from certain groups to turn Malaysia into an “Islamic state”.

There are also those who claim that the country is founded as an “Islamic state” since Article 3 (1) in the Federal Constitution states that Islam is “the religion of the Federation”, while other religions are allowed to be practiced.

Datuk Onn bin Jaafar with Che' Azizah Jaafar, his sister, who is also a Johor state councillor.

The nation’s secularity was not created in a historical vacuum. Rather, it was meant to address very specific circumstances in Malaya, under the British Empire at that time.

The Federation of Malaya was officially formed in 1948, replacing the controversial Malayan Union, which was perceived as a threat to the sultans’ sovereignty in representing Malay interests.

Datuk Onn Jaafar, the founder-leader of Umno who resigned from the party, presented his blueprint for the independent Federation in May 1952:

“The constitution should seek to vest sovereignty in the people and establish constitutional government. It should oppose communal policy and should contemplate a secular state with a single common citizenship assured to all, irrespective of religion, colour, creed or sex.”1

The head of the British Information Services in Malaya (1952–1954), Alec Peterson, agreed with Onn. Given the complexity of Malaya’s situation, Peterson reckoned that the only possible governing framework required for the independent nation is “a new form of secular State… in which racially distinct communities, whose cultural and social life is still separate, develop a common political loyalty.”2

As seen in these early statements, there was a common understanding that the Federation needed a unique form of secular framework in order to gain independence. The secularity must be able to address the two most important issues: to preserve the sultanates that symbolise Malay interests, and to maintain interracial harmony and equal citizenship rights within a new nation. The British called them the “two fundamental political problems.”3

When the Alliance coalition, comprised of Umno, MCA and MIC, won the first federal election under the campaign theme “Independence In Four Years”, they submitted their memorandum, “Political Testament”, in September 1956 to the Reid Commission, the committee responsible for drafting the constitution of independent Malaya, detailing their proposal. The Alliance wrote:

“[The] religion of Malaysia shall be Islam. The observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practicing their own religions, and shall not imply that the State is not a secular State.”4

The Alliance’s memorandum was not only a private letter to the Commission, but was also published in the newspapers, made clear to the whole of Malaya, that the Federation should be secular.

The sultans, having read the memorandum, got nervous – not because of the proposed secularity, but (probably surprising to many today) due to the establishing of Islam as the official religion of the Federation. The royals were anxious that their power over their Islamic subjects, the Muslims, would be eroded. Queen’s Counsel Neil Lawson, hired by the sultans, conveyed the collective royal objection to the Reid Commission in September 1956:

“It is Their Highnesses’ considered view that it would not be desirable to insert some declaration such as has been suggested that the Muslim Faith or Islamic Faith be the established religion of the Federation.”5

Signing of the Federation of Malaya Agreement and the State Agreements on January 21, 1948. Pictured here is Sir Edward Gent, the first appointed governor of the Malayan Union.

After much consultation with the Constitution’s drafting committee and repeated assurance given by the Alliance leaders, the sultans agreed. A newspaper, dated March 13, 1957, carried the following news:

“[There] is a desire that Islam should be the established religion of the Federation. The Commission made no recommendation on the religious question, in deference to the opinion of the Rulers. The Rulers have now had second thoughts. They have approved the suggestion of the Alliance memorandum for the inclusion in the constitution of a declaration establishing Islam as the State religion, provided this does not prejudice the present position of the Rulers as heads of the Muslim religion in their separate States. The Federation would still be a secular State, and non-Muslim nationals would suffer no disability.”6

The sultans, head of Islamic affairs in their respective states, understood and agreed that independent Malaya, according to the Alliance’s proposal, will be secular, with Islam as the official religion. Everyone involved in the drafting of the Constitution – Alliance leaders, sultans, British administrators and Reid Commission members – were clear about this.

Therefore, the Colonial Office in June 1957 proceeded to prepare the parliamentary White Paper, “Federation of Malaya Independence Bill”, for the British parliament to debate on July 12, 1957, with paragraph 57 stating:

“There has been included in the Federal Constitution a declaration that Islam is the religion of the Federation. This will in no way affect the present position of the Federation as a secular State…”7

When the Constitution was made public on July 3, 1957, the local newspapers commented, “[T]here has been inserted in the Constitution a declaration that Islam is the religion of the Federation. But the Federation remains a secular State, as now, its citizens equal before the law, enjoying all the fundamental rights of a democratic State, including freedom of religion.”8

Five days later, the editor of The Straits Times, Allington Kennard, wrote, “Article 3 of the Constitution declares that Islam is the religion of the Federation, but the Federation nevertheless is a secular State. Every person has the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion. Every religious group has the right to manage its own affairs, and to maintain religious and charitable institutions, including its own schools.”9

On August 31, 1957, the Federation gained independence. A new form of secular state materialised in world politics – one with an official or ceremonial religion.

Tunku Abdul Rahman proclaiming Malayan Independence on August 31, 1957.

Less than two months after Merdeka, in the October 1957 issue of the Far Eastern Survey, the eminent American historian of Malaya, J. Norman Parmer, who conducted doctoral fieldwork in Malaya from 1952 to 1955 and returned in 1961 as the first U.S. Peace Corps Country Director, recognised that the new nation had Islam “declared the official religion”, yet the Federation remained “a secular state.”10

Therefore, in the Malaya parliamentary debate on May 1, 1958 over whether the independent Federation was an Islamic state, Malaya’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman said, “I would like to make it clear that this country is not an Islamic State as it is generally understood, we merely provided that Islam shall be the official religion of the State.”11

On March 24, 1959, Tunku made another statement reported in the newspapers that it was “impossible to apply the Islam religion in every way to the administration of the country.”12

Tun Mohamed Suffian, who had advocated for Malaya’s independence earlier and who was later known as “Malaysia’s most distinguished judge”, in 1962 clarified that Islam in the Federation “is primarily for ceremonial purposes, for instance, to enable prayers to be offered in the Islamic way on official public occasions such as the installation or the birthday of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Independence Day and similar occasions.”13

Virtually everyone – from the time when Onn presented his blueprint in 1952 until Suffian’s article in 1962 – was aware that the Federation was to be secular after independence.

This awareness became paramount at the formation of Malaysia in 1963, with the merger of Singapore, the Bornean States and Malaya. The Malayan members within the Cobbold Commission, the committee established to prepare the proposal for the creation of the new nation, gave assurance that the new federation “would be secular”.14

Unfortunately, subsequent events over the next five decades have given rise to the distorted view that the Federation did not gain independence as a unique secular state.

Joshua Woo Sze Zeng is a municipal councillor with the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP).

1 “Onn Gives Malaya His Blueprint.” The Straits Times, 12 May 1952, p 7.
2 Peterson, Alec D. C. “The Birth of the Malayan Nation". International Affairs, vol.31, no.3, July 1955, p 314.
3 "Gammans Speaks of 'Second Palestine'". The Straits Times, 11 June 1946, p 3.
4 “Political Testament of the Alliance.” The Straits Times, 28 September 1956, p 8.
5 Stilt, Kristen. "Contextualizing constitutional Islam: The Malayan experience." International Journal of Constitutional Law, vol. 13, no.2, 2015, p 415.
6 “Second Look At Reid.” The Straits Times, 13 March 1957, p 8.
7 “Cited in Nurjaanah Chew Li Hua, "Legal Pluralism and Conflicts in Malaysia: The Challenge of Embracing Diversity," in Religious Rules, State Law, and Normative Pluralism: A Comparative Overview, eds. Rossella Bottoni, Rinaldo Cristofori, Silvio Ferrari (Switzerland: Springer, 2016), 255.
8 “The Merdeka Charter,” The Straits Times, 3 July 1957, p.6.
9 “It's the Best of All Possible Constitutions,” The Straits Times, 8 July 1957, p.6.
10 J. Norman Parmer, "Constitutional Change in Malaya's Plural Society," Far Eastern Survey, vol.26, no.10 (October 1957): 149, "U.S. peace corps terms agreed," The Straits Times, 6 September 1961, p.6, "Peace Corps men in today," The Straits Times, 10 January 1962, p.9.
11 The editor, “Sarawak signed with secular state,” The Edge, 19 June 2014, http://www. state-0 (accessed 31 August 2017).
12 “[T]he Government has pointed out that as a major tin and rubber dealer on the international market it is necessary to maintain Friday as a business day. In a refreshingly frank statement [Prime Minister Tunku Abdul] Rahman once noted that by making Friday a holiday “the country would lose $1,000,000 a day” and thus it was “impossible to apply the Islam religion in every way to the administration of the country.” (Fred R. von der Mehden, "Religion and Politics," Asian Survey, vol.3, no.12 [1963]: 613.)
13 Joseph M. Fernando, "The Position of Islam in the Constitution of Malaysia," Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol.37, no.2 (2006):250. "Tun Mohamed Suffian," The Telegraph, 28 September 2000, obituaries/1357064/Tun-Mohamed-Suffian.html (accessed 31 August 2017).
14 Cited in "Country was never an Islamic state," Malaysiakini, 10 May 2006, https://www. (accessed 31 August 2017).

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