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Religion and Language: Reiterating Malaysia’s Unique Nationhood


Barely into the first half of the first month of 2017, already we are witnessing more than just an inkling of the challenges that lie the year ahead, particularly with the ever-continued bickering over issues involving the narratives and direction of the country that we surely all love and care for.

The past week, for instance, had been particularly exhausting. Malaysians were stormed by issues after issues that were supposed to be non-issue, really. The decision of McDonald’s Malaysia to ban outside cakes without halal-certification from its outlets were met with strenuous objection by the very people who brand themselves as liberal-minded, but were really just against anything that is Islamic and would be the first to bark in the loudest objection at the slightest trace of the religion within the public sphere.

Then we have Faiz Subri, the footballer, who really made us proud for having been nominated for the FIFA Puskas award 2016, but since Malaysians love to bicker, instead of congratulating him, some chose instead to question and demean Faiz’s plan to don the Malay national attire, the baju Melayu, for the occasion.

It seems that donning one’s own national attire at an international arena is backwards-minded according to these people, who seem to be completely ignorant of the fact that in 1957, the late Tun Dr. Ismail proudly wore the Malay national attire complete with the tanjak on his head and the keris tucked in his samping around his waist, at the United Nation’s assembly.

The more sophisticated-minded Malaysian seem to have a different style at creating issues (or rather non-issue), and that is by plucking news from outside of Malaysia to be applied to Malaysia, never mind the contextual differences. The Malay Mail Online’s columnist, Boo Su-Lyn for instance, highlighted the Indian Supreme Court’s recent decision, dated 3rd January 2017, banning religious, language and nationalist-community campaign during election, alluding that Malaysia should perhaps do the same, that we should ban campaigns based on race and religion too.

While such suggestion would seem at first glance to be patriotic, and for the good and in the interest of unity, a closer and more careful scrutiny upon such suggestion in the light of the Malaysian context would reveal that it reeks of total ignorance of the basic structure that makes up the nation, based upon the provisions of the Federal Constitution as the highest law of the

Federation. Indeed, the root-cause of the many problems plaguing the nation, and the constant bickering of non-issues among Malaysians following thereto, lies in the failure to appreciate the bedrock principle of the very identity of our nation. We witness today a severe threat to the very narrative of our nationhood when there are segments within the society that odiously militate against local customs, traditions and conventions, preferring instead foreign and alien concepts of perverse ideologies that are clearly ill-suited for the local framework.

With regards to Boo Su-Lyn’s suggestion, let us be clear, that on matters of religion and language, the Indian Constitution is very much different from the Malaysian Federal Constitution, despite the latter being modeled based on the former. And in this regard, let us be reminded by what our Federal Court had taken the pains to stress in 1982, in the case of Merdeka University v The Government of Malaysia: that since “our constitution is modeled on the Indian constitution,”whenever there is a parting of way in the wordings of our Constitution from that of the Indian, it is reasonable to suppose there are good reasons for it.

For starters, there is no provision with regards to the state’s religion in the Indian constitution, while there is a clear declaration in ours stating that Islam is the religion of the Federation. The preamble to the Indian constitution also, following amendment, provides for a clear and unequivocal declaration that India is a “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic,” while there is none such declaration asserting secularism in ours.

So clearly, when the Supreme Court of India ruled to ban political campaigns based on religion, the justices who sat on the bench hearing the case must have had the secular nature of their country in mind. The same cannot be said of Malaysia, because surely, political parties or anyone else for that matter, must be allowed to campaign for the preservation of whatever provisions that are already there in the Federal Constitution (which certainly would include Article 3 declaring that Islam is the religion of the Federation), because that is the patriotic and constitutional thing to do in the Malaysian context.

As regards to language, again, what the Federal Court reminded us in the Merdeka University case would be relevant, when the bench highlighted the difference in the use of the term “official language” in the Indian Constitution, with the term “National language” used in the Malaysian Federal Constitution.

“[T]he framers of [the Malaysian] Constitution deliberately chose to use the expression ‘national language’”, held the former Lord President Tun Suffian, “because they intended that bahasa should be used not only for official purposes but also as an instrument for bringing together the diverse and polyglot races that live here and thus promote national unity … [T]he use of bahasa could and should be used as an instrument for unifying the whole nation.”

Now, while I would agree that campaigns in the name of other tongues may or may not be banned (whatever the decision is, it would certainly include and affect the vernacular schools), and such a move may be good for the unity of the nation in the long run, campaigns promoting the emphasis and the use of the national language on the other hand, that is bahasa Melayu as provided in Article 152 of the Federal Constitution, must be allowed.

It must also be wholeheartedly embraced and celebrated, because that is the constitutional thing to do. It is because Malaysians are so culturally and religiously diverse that at the end of the day, it is in the one language that we should all look up to — regardless of our race or religion — to be the common unifying force, which our forefathers had accepted Bahasa Melayu as our National language.

And perhaps if we all celebrate this common unifying force, we could concentrate more of our energy into building bridges as opposed to creating issues over non-issue just to bicker among ourselves.

On this note, it would be most apt to conclude by reminding ourselves of the spirit and soul of the nation, which find expression in the five immutable provisions of the Federal Constitution — Article 3, which states that Islam is the religion of the Federation; Article 152 providing that bahasa Melayu is the national language; Article 153, safeguarding the special position of the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak; Article 181, enshrining the sovereignty of the Malay Rulers; and Article 14, spelling out the citizenship granted to all Malaysian, as part and parcel of the social contract between the non-Malays and non-natives with the Malays and the natives.

The year ahead lies very challenging indeed, but if we embrace ourselves with the true spirit of the nation, perhaps we could all come out of it in the next year becoming stronger and more unified as a nation-state.

* Aidil Khalid is a lawyer practising in Kota Damansara, Selangor, and an activist member of Concerned Lawyers for Justice (CLJ).