Malaysia’s secular versus religious divide


The uneasy co-existence of civil and Sharia law in Malaysia and the polarising ethnic and religious divides within its population could be improved by establishing an independent mediation committee, Saleena Saleem writes.

Saleena Saleem, New Mandala

In late August Prime Minister Najib Razak announced a proposed amendment to Malaysia’s Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976.

The proposal is an attempt to resolve the recurring problem of highly-publicised custody battles over unilateral conversions of children by spouses who have converted to Islam. Several such court disputes, framed around religious freedom, have been pursued in Malaysia’s dual track legal system of civil and Sharia (Islamic law) courts in the past decade.

Amid the growing religiosity of the majority ethnic group, the Malays, who increasingly choose to identify themselves by religion and are calling for wider implementation of Islamic codes and laws, laws that negatively and disproportionately affect non-Muslims are ominous evidence of how secularity is being eroded within the Malaysian polity, especially for non-Muslims.

This dynamic not only leads to increased inter-ethnic tension between the Malay Muslim-majority and the non-Muslim minorities, it also creates tension between the religious and the areligious within the ethnic Malay majority populace. Increasingly, we see societal tensions in Malaysia being expressed in a polarising socio-political discourse that pits the secular against the religious.

However, Najib’s amendments, if enacted (a similar governmental proposal in 2009 was stymied by the Malaysian Conference of Rulers), will not resolve all the outstanding jurisdictional questions because existing Sharia enactments in various states allow for unilateral conversions by one Muslim parent.

Two factors, acting in concert to contribute to the secular-versus-religious divide in Malaysian society today, will make it exceedingly difficult for the problematic Sharia enactments to be modified anytime soon.

The first is the rise, since the late 1990s, of ‘new politics’ — an attempt to transcend the ethnic politics of the past, but one that has presented fresh electoral challenges for the ruling Barisan Nasional led by Najib’s UMNO party. This has been aggravated by an accompanying spread of pro-democracy ideals promoted by opposition political parties and secular-oriented civil society organisations.

The discernable shift of non-Malay voters to opposition parties in the 2008 and 2013 general elections feeds into the perception that the UMNO-led government’s political compact with minority ethnic-based political parties, of which ketuanan Melayu (Malay dominance) is a central component, is being threatened by the advance of ‘new politics’.