A group of prominent Malays made up largely of former top bureaucrats has called on the government to safeguard the Constitution from sweeping Islamic conservatism that has been repeatedly endorsed by the Malaysian authorities.
The unprecedented open letter published in the media yesterday, penned by the 25 men and women condemning Kuala Lumpur's policies, has caused a buzz within the ruling elite. It comes a week after Prime Minister Najib Razak presided over Umno's annual assembly, which saw him ditching a plan to remove the controversial Sedition Act.
"Religious bodies seem to be asserting authority beyond their jurisdiction," read the letter issued by former ambassador to the Netherlands Noor Farida Ariffin on behalf of the 25 signatories.
Five of the signatories were former secretaries-general, the most senior non-political post in the civil service. They included Tan Sri Ahmad Kamil Jaafar, former secretary-general at the Foreign Affairs ministry, and Tan Sri Aris Othman, former secretary-general at the Finance Ministry. Six were former ambassadors.
Lamenting the "rise of supremacist NGOs accusing dissenting voices of being anti-Islam", they criticised the government for allowing Islamic authorities to issue edicts that they claimed violated the Constitution. They said the Sedition Act has been used to "silence anyone with a contrary opinion".
Datuk Seri Najib had last month abandoned a 2012 promise to repeal the Sedition Act, after the overwhelming majority of his party said the law was crucial to protecting Malay rights and national harmony.
Malaysia has seen increased ethnic tensions since the Barisan Nasional lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2008, and dissenting voices gained a wider audience in social media.
The government has seized Malay-language Bibles in a dispute over the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims to refer to God. Police have also refused to abide by civil court orders in some family disputes that pit them against the Syariah Court, saying the Islamic court has equal standing.
The letter called Islamic Affairs Minister Jamil Khir Baharom's claim of "a new wave of assault on Islam", in reference to recent civil suits against Islamic authorities, an "inflammatory statement".
In his reply yesterday, Datuk Seri Jamil said the Constitution has always allowed for Islaic courts. He told reporters at a public event: "Why do we want to flip this over by saying syariah courts are subjected to the Constitution?… We should not entangle the issue."
An April survey by respected pollster Merdeka Centre showed that 71 per cent of Malays supported hudud, the strict Islamic penal code, a key indicator of religious conservatism.
Analysts believe the step taken by former top civil servants is a starting point for progressive Malays, who have been drowned out by more organised right-wing voices. "With Najib losing any real semblance of moderation, retiree groups are coming out to save the nation's soul," analyst Bridget Welsh told The Straits Times.
This article was first published on December 9, 2014.
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