CHALLENGER Malaysia

-Do you support the effort of lowering the voting age to 18?-

Currently, no. Even if you lower the voting age, in what way would it create awareness? In what way will it create awareness about all of these issues? It is only a 3 years difference and within the same time, the youths would still be students and the issues that are promoted to them would still be the same thing. But it all goes down to general maturity. Even if the voting age is lowered but the mentality remains unchanged, then there is not going to be much of a difference. In my opinion, a lot of the youths still lack the maturity in thought processing. They are not able to grasp the ideas that are being sold to them yet because of the way the youths are being educated right now does not emphasize on critical thinking. That is something that we are recently aware of and that is why we introduce KBAT (Kemahiran Berfikir Aras Tinggi) to encourage more critical thinking. But if you want to do it now, I don’t think there would be much difference but in the long run, it might.

It is a trial and error issue. People are allowed to drive at 18 where they are risking their lives and other people’s on the road, we trust them enough to do that, so why not with voting? But if they manage to come up with a proper action plan for it and it is a sensible one, I would really support it.

-What do think of the RUU 355 amendment?-

RUU 355 is Rang Undang-Undang on amending the Shariah enactments. So, it is the pushing for the higher sentences for people. Actually, this has been proposed since the early 2000’s and the last time Act 355 was ever amended was 33 years ago according to Dato Jamil Khir in his speech. When you have so many laws, you constantly have to change them in accordance with time to keep them up-to-date and relevant.

One of the issues that they brought forward was to increase the sentences especially with the monetary penalty. In cases where there are husbands who neglect their family but come from a wealthy family background, what is RM 5000 to them? That does not affect them and that is the maximum sentence for that offense right now. For an example, it is only RM 5 000 which is very little compared to RM 30 000 that is earned and as long as he is abiding the law by paying whatever fine is given and it actually does not affect him, he does not really care about making a change. But I do not think increased punishments for whipping and jailing is necessary. I would only agree with the amendment when it comes to monitory sentences because it involves family issues especially divorce cases. There are lots of cases of negligence of kids or also the wife. This would also be a safeguard for the women and the children by increasing the penalty ceiling. You are actually allowing the courts to give a heavier sentence to the irresponsible man in that family who are supposed to be responsible. I think a lot of people are unaware that RUU 355 even if it is tabled in parliament, it is still up to each state’s Islamic authorities with their own implementation, which is however they seem fit because in the constitution the jurisdiction is separated between civil and Islamic law, and also each state has its own interpretation based on the Islamic law. So, people think it would affect the nation as a whole, but actually, it affects individuals depending on whoever is governing them and what they think about it.

-What do you think of the 2 court system in Malaysia?-

The court cannot do more than what is there, they cannot go beyond the law. With their power being upgraded, I hope people will not look down on them anymore as before because when they weren’t given much power because I think that is a shame. But I still disagree on sentences, the whipping and all of that because those involve personal choices and they do not necessarily harm others.

-What do you think of unilateral conversion?-

Unilateral conversion is also one of the issues that were really hot in the parliament. I would say that from my observations, the government is trying hard to find a middle ground without discriminating any religion. 60% of citizens in Malaysia are Muslims and Islam is being pushed as a political tool right now. People had been doing that and you could see that the people are getting more religiously concern, so whatever policies are done by the government, they also want to relate it to Islam. It is an issue where the government is trying not to make the people get outraged by it because as Muslims, it is our duty to uphold Islam and promote its values and virtues.

That is why even the Quran itself says that a Muslim man has a role as a leader, thus when a non-Muslim converts to Islam, his marriage with his non-Muslim wife would not be automatically cancelled and there is a buffer period where the wife is allowed to decide whether she wants to convert to Islam, but if she does not want to convert, then the marriage is cancelled. But for women, when they convert to Islam, their marriage with a non-Muslim man will automatically be canceled. A Muslim man could also marry a non-Muslim woman categorized under “people of the books” whereas for Muslim women it is illegal to marry a non-Muslim. The man has to convert to Islam or else the marriage is illegal. It goes back to fundamental principals in Islam where the men are seen as the community leaders and are supposed to lead the family, so they put a heavier responsibility on men to promote Islam.

Basically, we try to give more freedom to people, but I found unilateral conversions unfair and if you read the arguments from the defending side about the issue, is that the marriage was entered into as a civil contract. So, why are we imposing the civil citizens to go into the Shariah courts when they did not agree to that in the first place? It should be settled in the civil courts and that is what was decided earlier but It has been challenged by religious bodies saying that you are denying one of our rights as a Shariah court to deal with a Muslim citizen since the other parent are Muslim right now. I would say, let the child choose on their own once they have reached that age of 16 and not impose it on them. Malaysia has a lot of rather vague laws because of the clashes between religious laws and civil laws and at the same time, those are also in the constitution itself and it’s a right for people to have that kind of law.

-Do you think our youths are more ideologically radical?-

It was not so but lately, I have noticed that whenever someone is trying to present moderation, for example, G25, they get labeled as being ‘songsang’ which is what is annoying. For people like my friends who actually do Islamic Studies at al-Azhar itself, they know that whatever they present is actually backed by facts. Just because it does not subscribe to what the majority of the people believe in and it is not as conservative as people would like it to be, it does not make it ‘songsang’. It is just a different view and Islam itself is likely to be based on interpretation. You have the primary sources of the Quran and the Sunnah and all else is just interpretation. But people do not get that even when a mufti gives a Fatwa, people think it is a divine law where when the Fatwah in Islam are only opinions and it is not binding. It is still something to be debated. But Malaysia has treated as if it is binding and it’s certain. Islamic education is a problem in Malaysia.

-Can you tell us more about Islamic education in Malaysia?-

What I have noticed from the textbooks that were taught in school, there are so many things that they teach us about what you should do as a Muslim, but does not really teach you about what Islam really is. It is more about the laws and what is going to happen if you do not obey. But Islam is way beyond that, I only learned a lot of these things when I sat through Islamic Jurisprudence in university and it was a whole different view and I was like why have we not taught our students this? Because that is really where people learn why the law is as it is. Right now, people only take the law on the surface but they do not go deeper on why it is as it is and they do not understand that. What they know is, since it’s presented to us and we were told that if you do not do it, we will be sent to hell. It does not teach people on how to be a Muslim, they teach you what to do but not why. That is why you could see a lot of religious people who are not judgmental and is open to different ideas because they know what they have learned. But for laymen outside of the field, they are not exposed to it, they only know if you do not do it, you are a bad Muslim which is not true.

Even the school of thought that we have subscribed to in Malaysia, the ‘Syafiee’, is considered as the most strict but what’s interesting is that I sat down with my friend from UIA (who is learning Shariah law). She was telling me that ‘Syafiee’ actually told his followers not to compile his teachings because it might be wrong and he did not want the people to follow something which is wrong. Even he himself is uncertain about whatever he is telling the people is 100% correct and at the same time, we close all doors to the possibilities of disputing whatever is going on right now. Islam in Malaysia does not have much of that intellectual freedom to it.

-Do you think this problem is unique to Islam?-

I wouldn’t say it is unique to Islam because there are a lot of radical groups of all religion, even in India itself the issue is very prevalent where people who are not Hindus are getting killed. It is just that the media has been focusing on Islam for God knows why. There are radical Christians, there are radical Hindus, there are radicals in every single group and every belief.

People look at PAS as an Islamic party but what they have been doing is that, if you do not agree with PAS, then you do not agree with heaven and who are they to say that and they do not hold the book of who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. Surprisingly, you’ll find that when you talk to certain people who label themselves as a religious man, they do not know what they are talking about in depth other than what is given on the surface.

About Zakir Naik, my first issue with him is that he does not have a formal Islamic education qualification. He is supposed to be a medical doctor and not a doctor in Islamic studies. What he does is that, he has a think-tank that does his research for him, that is fine, people rely on their think-tanks as well, but my concern is when you do not sit through all these schools that teach you how to articulate your thoughts about the laws in Islam, then how are you going to be rational about whatever that is being presented to you. Because, you cannot form your own opinions if you do not have a formal teaching, telling you how things work. So, if you do not go through Islamic philosophy, then my opinion is that you do not really know why things are as it is as you miss out on the process of its formation.

-Are politicians perpetuating this narrative?-

It has started in the 1990’s by a famous politician. Before that, Malaysia was very much secular and in the 90’s people were starting to wear hijab and all that. If you actually promote the right ideas, it is fine but if you use that as a tool to get more popularity, it sells. Especially for people in the rural areas, they do not really think much about current issues like the economy or anything else. What they are primarily concerned about is the wellbeing of their family and morality and religion plays an important role in their daily life. So, when someone comes and sell this idea about religion, telling them that it is good for them, of course, they would sit and listen to it especially when it is from someone who has credibility as a leader. Religion has been a political tool since the 90’s and is still being used right now and you could see how it works to the point that PAS could change sides and people support whoever is uplifting Islam. An interesting quote by Dr Sheikh Salim Faruki, one of the fathers of constitution in Malaysia, he said “people will always think that to have Hudud, you need a law which is called Hudud, when Hudud itself is actually Islamic law and we already have that in the constitution itself, the essence and principles of Islamic values”.

-Do you think the opposition has a chance of winning?-

They have a chance to win! I think there is a 50-50 chance for them to win. You could see right now that people have trust issues with the government and when they do not trust a person, they would always choose the second option for it which is Pakatan Harapan. Political maturity is still an issue and the deciding factor is that people do not trust or have trust issues with the government. When you ask them why would they vote for the opposition, the only answer they give is that they are not like the incumbent government. So what they want to see is a change in the government in the sense that they want to see what would happen if you actually had someone else to take over, will it still be the same? It is not really because they buy into the things that were sold by PH, it is more to see what happens if someone else was given the chance, would they be better or would they be worst?

-What do you think of the Bumiputera status protected under Art.153 in our Constitution?-

This was actually my final year project. My group researched the Bumiputera policy, we focused on education because it is a big subject. We have to start with history, how it happened. The statistics showed that post-independence, the most marginalized community was the Bumiputeras. It also has to do with history, how the British divide and conquer. The economy was not balanced and it was race-based. You could see that the Chinese who came here were mostly in urban areas because they focused on township planning, they got the higher income. As for the Malays, they were kept in rural areas to work as fishermen or on agriculture. At the same time, these are not the same things that generate income unless they are business owners. So a lot of these people are labor workers and the government wanted to have a balanced economic status because there were many poor people and the objective was to eradicate poverty but the end product was not racial. Nowhere did they mentioned poverty with any race, it was just at that time they saw that the Bumiputeras were most marginalized. Art. 153 is a provision that enables policies to be drafted specifically for Bumiputeras, without challenging the provision for the non-discrimination of people in Malaysia.

-What is the change you want to see in Malaysia?-

I want everyone to be treated equally and be given equal opportunity. Next, I want less political feudalism, I think too much of that is going on. Political feudalism occurs in both parties, it makes sense that in politics, you really want to pick people that you trust. Finally, more accountability and to have that, you have to have transparency, it goes to everyone in all institutions, just make these things available to people and make sure that we have an independent judiciary, total independence from the government. We should have it right now. It is hard for you to do things properly, it is really hard to uphold laws when people who are in control of the law, control you.

-What does Merdeka mean to you?-

Look at 60 years ago, we depend on foreign nations to help us to grow and right now each one of us are independent enough to think about our countries direction and work for it without foreign help. That is Merdeka, our own will, our own voice, our own fight.

Iman Sofea, 22, Law Student