Uphold the rulers’ vision

Article VI of the Engagement Entered into by the Chiefs of Perak at Pulau Pangkor with the Governor of the Straits Settlements on 20 January 1874 created the post of British Resident “whose advice must be asked and acted upon on all questions other than those touching Malay Religion [sic] and Custom” – the Malay text reads “menyentuh agama Islam dan adat istiadat orang Melayu.”

Subsequent treaties signed between the British Crown and the Malay Rulers contained similar provisions, and today our Federal and State Constitutions continue to refer to the mechanism of ‘advice’ (although its force is sometimes contested), as well as the powers of the Rulers on matters pertaining to Islam and Malay Customs.

Interestingly the State Constitutions also include a proviso that is not often mentioned: that the “Religion of the State shall be Islam as heretofore professed and practised in the State” (in Malay “Agama Islam sebagaimana yang dipeluk dan diamalkan di dalam Negeri ini”), which places great value in the historical context unique to each state.

The Rulers’ role in religious matters has been in the spotlight after a chain of events beginning with launderettes in Johor and Perlis initially advertised as for ‘Muslims only’ being opened to all as a result of interventions from the states’ Sultan and Raja Muda respectively.

In conjunction with the 247th meeting of the Conference of Rulers last week, the Rulers issued a statement stating that “the actions of certain individuals have gone beyond all acceptable standards of decency, putting at risk the harmony that currently exists within our multi-religious and multi-ethnic society.”

While the statement referred to the Sultan of Johor and Raja Muda of Perlis, many readers also understood the ‘actions”’ mentioned as including a beer-smashing incident outside the Selangor state secretariat building, and a long-term perception of increasing discrimination in society.

At the same time, an officer of the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) delivered a lecture at the Masjid Diraja Tengku Ampuan Jemaah in Shah Alam that disparaged the alleged lack of hygiene of the [Malaysian] Chinese community and criticised the Sultan of Johor (by description) over the launderette case.

This then caused the Sultan of Johor to rebuke him together with an order for the state Islamic Religious Department to ‘stop dealing with’ JAKIM, and the removal of the preacher’s credentials by the Sultan of Selangor.

Many Malaysians have thanked the Rulers for taking leadership on the issue of racial and religious relations.

Comparatively, politicians have been seen to do nothing – or worse, deliberately fostered division for supposed political benefit.

There was however some criticism of the Rulers’ statement. One was that there are other issues that the Rulers could raise, like corruption and abuse of institutions.  However, there was indeed a statement issued in October 2015 that specifically referred to 1MDB and a call for action to be taken against wrongdoers by the institutions responsible.

While many applauded that statement, the constitutional role of the Rulers over government policy or hypothetically independent national institutions is not as clear cut compared to that in the area of religious matters.

Another comment was that the Rulers should have spoken sooner.

Actually, the Rulers did make similar collective statements in October 2008 and October 2010: and like those, the latest one explicitly referred to the Federal Constitution – a document that came into effect with their predecessors’ signatures – underlining their understanding of the primacy of the law that they and citizens (including of course the politicians) are supposed to uphold.  The mention of the Rukun Negara (promulgated by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong in 1970 after race-based conflict the year before) emphasises the Rulers’ belief in common values across the rakyat, too.

And in individual states, many Rulers have long taken and supported actions in promotion of these agreed declarations of the national ethos.  It is just that much of this does not end up on social media, and as a result many just assume that nothing has been done.

For example, not many realise that mosques in Negeri Sembilan stopped using JAKIM’s sermons in 2010 following a decree from the Yang di-Pertuan Besar – and it is Negeri Sembilan that has taken the lead on resolving issues of child custody in divorce cases of converts, by requiring non-Muslims to dissolve their civil marriages before registering as Muslim converts.  I am sure many similar initiatives have occurred elsewhere.

Now, it is clear that the public concern of the Rulers has amplified much discussion about the future of the country, with the previously-mooted National Harmony Act being resurrected in public debates.

It is time for the government to take the Rulers’ advice.

Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is Founding President of IDEAS.

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