PUCHONG: Malaysia’s Islamic status dominated a public forum on freedom of religion here on Tuesday, with two lawyers disputing common political claims that it is an Islamic state.
Nizam Bashir pointed out that although Article 3 of the Federal Constitution states that Islam is the religion of the country, “the Reid Commission (that drafted the constitution in 1957) also added in its report that Article 3 does not imply Malaysia is not a secular state.”
Bashir considers Malaysia a quasi-secular state as the constitution allows for a dual system of law and the implementation of Syariah laws.
However, another lawyer, Aston Paiva, argued that Malaysia is a secular state.
“Everything in the constitution promotes secularism, our laws [in Parliament] are made based on evidence, not religious texts,” Paiva told a crowd of around 150 people at the forum titled Conversations on the Constitution: Keeping the Faith under the Constitution.
Paiva added that the term “secularism” has gained a bad name as some associate it with being anti-God.
“But it simply means that government is separate from religion,” he said.
Paiva noted that the right to freedom of religion is enshrined in Article 11 of the constitution.
“Article 11 guarantees everyone’s right to profess and practice their religion,” he said.
Both lawyers acknowledged there are limitations to freedom of religion based on our constitution.
Paiva said other religious followers are prohibited from propagating their religious beliefs to Muslims, according to Article 11(4).
Nizam added that even Muslims need a license to preach to other Muslims, citing the arrest of former Perlis mufti Dr Asri Zainul Abidin by the Selangor Islamic Religious Department in November 2009 for giving a religious talk without the department’s approval.
Both disagreed with the restriction on propagation of religious beliefs to Muslims.
Paiva highlighted that international human rights laws allow for the propagation of religion to anyone as long as it is done without coercion.
Nizam said there should be safe spaces for people to debate and discuss different schools of thought and diverse views in religions.
The public forum was organised by the Bar Council’s Constitutional Law Committee as part of its MyConstitution campaign to educate the public about their constitutional rights.
The two-year-old campaign has published nine simple rakyat guides and rakyat service announcements on the constitution, which is available for free at www.perlembagaanku.com.my.
This report was originally published in the Selangor Times.