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Push for stronger Syariah law could ‘endanger Malaysians’ way of life’

SINGAPORE — The growing politicisation of Islam in Malaysia has emboldened the religious authorities to police the behaviour of Muslims and demand changes in Islamic law, said a former top-ranking civil servant, who expressed worries that this could have an adverse impact on the country.

Group of 25 (G25) member Sheriff Kassim said state religious departments have been making laws to criminalise “personal sins” of Muslims under the precepts of Islam as a catch-all provision. Photo: Reuters

Group of 25 (G25) member Sheriff Kassim said state religious departments have been making laws to criminalise “personal sins” of Muslims under the precepts of Islam as a catch-all provision. Photo: Reuters

SINGAPORE — The growing politicisation of Islam in Malaysia has emboldened the religious authorities to police the behaviour of Muslims and demand changes in Islamic law, said a former top-ranking civil servant, who expressed worries that this could have an adverse impact on the country.

Mr Sheriff Kassim, a member of the Group of 25 (G25), a Malaysian moderate group made up of Malay former high-ranking civil servants, said state religious departments have been making laws to criminalise “personal sins” of Muslims under the precepts of Islam as a catch-all provision.

These “personal sins” include close proximity between unmarried couples, drinking alcohol in public, not attending Friday prayers and failure to obey fatwas (religious decrees for Muslims).

“Although fatwas should be advisory, some states make them mandatory after they have been officially gazetted. These laws empower religious affairs departments to prosecute offenders in the Syariah courts,” said Mr Sheriff at a seminar on Malaysia in a Constitutional Democracy, organised by the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute yesterday.

“The Syariah system of justice is not new, but with growing politicisation of Islam in the country, the religious establishment has become bolder in demanding changes to raise the status of Islamic law.”

While this has yet to endanger Malaysians’ way of life, Mr Sheriff said, the public should continue to speak up against this trend “before it becomes too late”. He expressed concern that this could create the perception that Malaysia is on the road to becoming an Islamic state based on theocracy.

Mr Sheriff was a civil servant for 31 years. His last-held position was secretary-general for the Ministry of Finance. Upon his retirement, he was appointed managing director of Khazanah Nasional Berhad, Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, from 1994 to 2003.

Since the 1990s, there has been growing signs of political Islamisation in Malaysia. This has led to growing conservative attitudes of Muslims in the country, manifested in issues such as whether they can touch dogs, and incidents involving government agencies and public buildings enforcing a conservative dress code.

There are also other instances that suggest the authorities are stepping up efforts to enforce the practices of Sunni Islam as part of the government’s long-running Islamisation policy.

Mr Sheriff, who is currently the non-executive chairman of Malaysia’s state owned toll highway company Plus, believes the religious authorities should take into account current developments affecting Muslims.

“Unfortunately, instead of having an open mind about the social transformation taking place, religious authorities are reacting negatively by alleging that the younger generation is losing its Islamic roots and is adopting the permissive lifestyles of the West.

“Claiming themselves to be guardians of Islamic morals, the religious officials are enforcing the laws on morality more strictly than in the past,” he said.

He later told TODAY that Muslims should be left to decide for themselves how they want to live their lives.

“The main problem is religious officers don’t see it this way — they see it as their right to introduce laws to criminalise certain kinds of behaviour. But lawyers have argued that states that pass laws to treat moral offences as crimes are acting unconstitutionally because crimes are under the federal law and not state law,” he said.

Under the Malaysian Constitution, Islamic matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance fall under the jurisdiction of state governments and Malay rulers.

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