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Happy 60th Merdeka as secular federation! — Joshua Woo Sze Zeng

by August 31, 2017 General

AUGUST 31 — Today, we celebrate the 60th independence anniversary of the Federation of Malaya. There are many achievements over the past six decades, and one of them is the uniqueness of our secular polity.

The federation’s secularity was created to address the two most important issues for Malaya to gain independence: to preserve the Sultanate that symbolises Malays’ interest, and maintain inter-racial harmony and equal citizenship rights within a new nation. The British called them the “two fundamental political problems.”[1]

Many religious Malaysians today think that the secular framework is the enemy of religion. But that was not the case in the 1950s.

The federation of Malaya under the British Empire was officially formed in 1948, replacing the controversial Malayan Union. After that, the local fervency for independence grew.

Datuk Onn bin Jaafar, the founder-leader of Umno who later resigned from the party, presented his blueprint for the independent federation in May 1952:

“The constitution should seek to vest sovereignty in the people and establish constitutional government. It should oppose communal policy and should contemplate a secular state with a single common citizenship assured to all, irrespective of religion, colour, creed or sex.”[2]

The head of the British Information Services in Malaya (1952-1954), Alec Peterson agreed with Onn. Given the complexity of Malaya’s situation, Peterson reckoned that the only possible governing framework required for the independent nation is “ a new form of secular State… in which racially distinct communities, whose cultural and social life is still separate, develop a common political loyalty.”[3]

The Alliance coalition, comprised of Umno, MCA, and MIC, that had won the first federal election under the campaign theme “Independence In Four Years”, submitted their ‘Political Testament’ in September 1956 to the Reid Commission, the committee responsible to draft the constitution of independent Malaya, detailing their proposal. The Alliance wrote:

“[The] religion of Malaysia shall be Islam. The observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practicing their own religions, and shall not imply that the State is not a secular State.”[4]

The Alliance’s memorandum was not only a private letter to the Commission, but was published in the newspapers, made clear to the whole of Malaya, that the federation should be secular.

The Sultans, having read the memorandum, got nervous, not because of the proposed secularity, but (probably surprising to many today) due to the establishing of Islam as the official religion of the federation.

The royalties were anxious that their power over their Islamic subjects, the Muslims, would be eroded. Queen’s Counsel Neil Lawson, hired by the Sultans, conveyed the collective royal objection to the Reid Commission in September 1956:

“It is Their Highnesses’ considered view that it would not be desirable to insert some declaration such as has been suggested that the Muslim Faith or Islamic Faith be the established religion of the Federation.”[5]

After much consultation with the Constitution’s drafting committee and repeated assurance given by the Alliance leaders, the Sultans agreed. A newspapers, dated 13 March 1957, carried the following news:

“[There] is a desire that Islam should be the established religion of the Federation. The Commission made no recommendation on the religious question, in deference to the opinion of the Rulers. The Rulers have now had second thoughts. They have approved the suggestion of the Alliance memorandum for the inclusion in the constitution of a declaration establishing Islam as the State religion, provided this does not prejudice the present position of the Rulers as heads of the Muslim religion in their separate States. The Federation would still be a secular State, and non-Muslim nationals would suffer no disability.”[6]

The Sultans, head of Islam affairs in the respective state, understood and agreed that the independent Malaya, according to the Alliance’s proposal, will be secular, with Islam as the official religion.

Everyone involved in the drafting of the Constitution — Alliance leaders, Sultans, British administrators, and Reid Commission members — was clear about this.

Therefore, the Colonial Office in June 1957 proceeded to prepare the parliamentary document White Paper, for British parliament to debate the “Federation of Malaya Independence Bill” on July 12, 1957, with paragraph 57 stating:

“There has been included in the Federal Constitution a declaration that Islam is the religion of the Federation. This will in no way affect the present position of the Federation as a secular State…”[7]

When the Constitution was made public on 3 July 1957, the local newspapers commented, “[T]here has been inserted in the Constitution a declaration that Islam is the religion of the Federation. But the Federation remains a secular State, as now, its citizens equal before the law, enjoying all the fundamental rights of a democratic State, including freedom of religion.”[8]

Five days later, the editor of The Straits Times, Allington Kennard wrote, “Article 3 of the Constitution declares that Islam is the religion of the Federation, but the Federation nevertheless is a secular State. Every person has the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion. Every religious group has the right to manage its own affairs, and to maintain religious and charitable institutions, including its own schools.”[9]

On August 31, 1957, the federation gained independence, a new form of secular state materialised in world politics, one with an official or ceremonial religion.

The secular Constitution was lauded as “the Best of All Possible Constitutions,” given the complex political juggling it was designed to do – to preserve the Sultanate that symbolises Malays’ interest, and to maintain inter-racial harmony within a nation.[10]

This was not only a common knowledge among those in Malaya and Great Britain, but also those across the world as well.

Less than two months after Merdeka, the October 1957 issue of the Far Eastern Survey, the eminent American historian of Malaya, J. Norman Parmer — who conducted doctoral fieldwork in Malaya from 1952 to 1955, and returned in 1961 as the first US Peace Corps Country Director — recognised that the new nation had Islam “declared the official religion,” yet the federation remained “a secular state.”[11]

Islam was given the official or ceremonial role not in spite of the secular framework but because of it. This unique secularity instituted Islam, not other religions, to perform the ritualistic function at official events, while the Sultans remain the head over Islamic matters in their respective state.

Therefore in the Malaya parliamentary debate on May 1, 1958, over whether is the independent federation an Islamic state, our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman said, ”I would like to make it clear that this country is not an Islamic State as it is generally understood, we merely provided that Islam shall be the official religion of the State.”[12]

On 24 March 1959, Tunku made another statement, reported in the newspapers, that it was “impossible to apply the Islam religion in every way to the administration of the country.”[13]

Tun Mohamed Suffian, who had advocated for Malaya’s independence earlier, and later known as “Malaysia’s most distinguished judge,” in 1962 clarified that Islam in the federation “is primarily for ceremonial purposes, for instance, to enable prayers to be offered in the Islamic way on official public occasions such as the installation or the birthday of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Independence Day and similar occasions.”[14]

Virtually everyone — from the time when Dato Onn presented his blueprint in 1952 until Tun Suffian published his article in 1962 — was aware that the federation was to be secular after independence.

This awareness became paramount at the formation of Malaysia in 1963, with the merger of Singapore, Bornean States and Malaya. The Malayan members within the Cobbold Commission, the committee established to prepare the proposal for the creation of the new nation, gave assurance that the new federation “would be secular.”[15]

Subsequent events for the next five decades have unfortunately gave rise to the distorted view that the federation did not gain independence as a unique secular state.

Nonetheless, as shown above, the Alliance leaders, Sultans, the British, the Americans, the Malayan judges, newspapers journalists and editors, regular Malayans, and Sabahans and Sarawakians knew the federation as a unique secular state, with Islam given the official or ceremonial role.

This is our Malaysian achievement, an unprecedented contribution to world politics and political theory and practice. One that created a nation for Ali, Ah Kao dan Muthu bersama.

Happy 60th Merdaka!


[1] “Gammans Speaks of ‘Second Palestine’,” The Straits Times, 11 June 1946, p.3.

[2] “Onn Gives Malaya His Blueprint,” The Straits Times, 12 May 1952, p.7.

[3] Alec DC Peterson, “The Birth of the Malayan Nation,” International Affairs, vol.31, no.3, (July 1955):314.

[4] “Political Testament of the Alliance,” The Straits Times, 28 September 1956, p.8.

[5] Quoted in Kristen Stilt, “Contextualizing constitutional Islam: The Malayan experience,” International Journal of Constitutional Law, vol.13, no.2 (2015):415.

[6] “Second Look At Reid,” The Straits Times, 13 March 1957, p.8.

[7] Cited in Nurjaanah Chew Li Hua, “Legal Pluralism and Conflicts in Malaysia: The Challenge of Embracing Diversity,” in Religious Rules, State Law, and Normative Pluralism: A Comparative Overview, eds. Rossella Bottoni, Rinaldo Cristofori, Silvio Ferrari (Switzerland: Springer, 2016), 255.

[8] “The Merdeka Charter,” The Straits Times, 3 July 1957, p.6.

[9] “It’s the Best of All Possible Constitutions,” The Straits Times, 8 July 1957, p.6.

[10] “It’s the Best of All Possible Constitutions,” The Straits Times, 8 July 1957, p.6.

[11] J. Norman Parmer, “Constitutional Change in Malaya’s Plural Society,” Far Eastern Survey, vol.26, no.10 (October 1957):149, “US peace corps terms agreed,” The Straits Times, 6 September 1961, p.6, “Peace Corps men in today,” The Straits Times, 10 January 1962, p.9.

[12] The editor, “Sarawak signed with secular state,” The Edge, 19 June 2014,  (accessed 31 August 2017).

[13] “[T]he Government has pointed out that as a major tin and rubber dealer on the international market it is necessary to maintain Friday as a business day. In a refreshingly frank statement [Prime Minister Tunku Abdul] Rahman once noted that by making Friday a holiday “the country would lose $1,000,000 a day” and thus it was “impossible to apply the Islam religion in every way to the administration of the country.” (Fred R. von der Mehden, “Religion and Politics,” Asian Survey, vol.3, no.12 [1963]:613.)

[14] Joseph M. Fernando, “The Position of Islam in the Constitution of Malaysia,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol.37, no.2 (2006):250. “Tun Mohamed Suffian,” The Telegraph, 28 September 2000,  (accessed 31 August 2017).

[15] Cited in “Country was never an Islamic state,” Malaysiakini, 10 May 2006,  (accessed 31 August 2017).

* Joshua Woo Sze Zeng is a municipal councillor with the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP)

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.