Something significant is taking place in Malaysian politics. An open letter urging a rational discussion on religion signed by 25 former senior servants and addressed to Prime Minister Najib Razak has gained popular support. The group, which came to be known as the “prominent 25,” is petitioning Najib to lead a peaceful dialogue about the application of Islamic laws in Malaysia.
The letter raised several issues concerning what they think is the excessive and unfair implementation of the shariah law in many aspects of governance. They questioned why some religious bodies are “asserting authority beyond their jurisdiction,” such as in the issuance of various fatwa that violate the Federal Constitution. They also cited the indifference of authorities over the “rise of supremacist NGOs accusing dissenting voices of being anti-Islam, anti-monarchy and anti-Malay.” And they pointed out how the Sedition Act “hangs as a constant threat to silence anyone with a contrary opinion.”
“These developments undermine Malaysia’s commitment to democratic principles and rule of law, breed intolerance and bigotry, and have heightened anxieties over national peace and stability,” they added in the letter.
They wanted Najib to “assert his personal leadership” in reviewing the implementation of Islamic laws in the country: “Those who act in the name of Islam through the administration of Islamic law must bear the responsibility of demonstrating that justice is done, and is seen to be done.”
In recent years, some hardcore Islamic and nationalist Malay leaders inside Malaysia’s ruling coalition have successfully lobbied the government to act against perceived threats to Islam and the dominance of the Malays in the affairs of the country. Those who opposed or criticized their views are often accused of conspiring to undermine either Islam or the state.
The views expressed by the “prominent 25” echoed the sentiment of many academics and activists who have been resisting the rising religious intolerance in Muslim-dominated Malaysia. But these voices were either ignored or derided as negativist commentary.
Thus, the decision of the 25 retired senior officers of the government to sign their names in the letter has been a shot in the arm to the campaign to protect Malaysia’s secular democracy. The signers have instantly symbolized moderate forces unhappy over the growing power of extremist and ultranationalist leaders in the bureaucracy.
After the letter went viral in the cyberspace, other moderate voices were encouraged to speak out against religious and racial discrimination. Ninety-three NGOs declared support for the letter signers. They were joined by the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, which praised the group for drafting the letter. Internet users circulated online petitions using the Twitter hashtags #KamiJuga25 (We are also 25) and “I am #26” to show support for the stand taken by the group of 25, “by standing together in solidarity as #26.”
Zurairi AR from Malay Mail Online recognized the importance and political impact of the letter: “Not only are they contributing by providing alternative views against the conservatives, but they are also making their views prominent by virtue of their standing. When someone like the prominent 25 speak up, they send a message that not only are those views acceptable, but there are decent people backing them.”
The government has not yet offered an official response to the letter but some Islamic leaders have already criticized the 25 for making baseless claims.
If the aim of the letter senders is to spark discussion about the role of religion and governance in a democratic society, then they have already succeeded. Hopefully, it will convince those of their former colleagues who are still holding high positions in the bureaucracy to consider carefully the application of Islamic laws in Malaysia.