Sunday, October 23, 2016

Our unifying national philosophy

OCTOBER 3 — A nation without an ideology is like a teenager without a direction. A direction of some sort, even a broad and general one, for example, to appreciate life and its gifts is essential to determine the quality of life.
It also acts as a fence that reminds the teenager to be wary of influences that may make him unappreciative of life’s gifts, such as indulgence in drug abuse. 
Likewise, a nation will just float along aimlessly and in conflicting directions if the people lack a national ideal they can use as a yardstick. I have written many times before, asking what is our national dream and philosophy, keeping in mind we are a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-cultural and cosmopolitan nation.
We require a common national philosophy and a set of national values that can unite us as Malaysians and guide our Malaysian spirit to evolve and grow. Like nurturing a child, a nation requires constant nurturing, too.
Today, we perceive our nation to be in a state of ethnic, religious, social and economic tatters. Madness in behaviour and speeches, and mediocrity in work and productivity appear to have become a national norm.
Our leaders have to be proactive to reverse this trend and correct the perception. If the leaders are able to remove the political cataract blinding their eyes, they will see the nation is crying out for a direction and a national philosophy all Malaysians can identify with. 
As a nation that achieved independence, we were learning how to co-exist as Malaysians due to our diverse backgrounds.
We had our first racial clash, albeit politically originated, in May 1969. That was our first and I am sure our last bitter experience of a civil clash. 
As a result of this bitter experience, our past leaders were wise to recognise the need for a national philosophy which can be a guiding force to unite and provide a national direction for the people.
The National Consultative Council, headed by the late Tun Abdul Razak, had the unity and “soul” of the nation in mind when the principles of the Rukunegara were formulated.
What is so special about the Rukunegara? Firstly, everyone seems to have forgotten it was formalised as a national ideology through a declaration by none other than the Yang diPertuan Agong on  Aug 31, 1970.
I learnt the Rukunegara in school and I recall reciting it at school assemblies. It represented our national values.
It has five main principles namely, belief in God, loyalty to the King and the country, upholding the Constitution, rule of law, and good behaviour and morality.
The purpose of instilling these five principles is explained by the preamble to the Rukunegara. 
The preamble provides Malaysia aspires to achieve a greater unity for all her people by:
  • Maintaining a democratic way of life;
  • Creating a just society in which the wealth of the nation is equitably shared;
  • Ensuring a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions, and;
  • Building a progressive society which shall be oriented to modern science and technology;
The Rukunegara contains not only universal values so relevant to a diverse society like ours, but it also sets a clear direction which we all can share to make this nation great.
We really need to be united by common values before we are pulled apart by mischief makers in our society who are bent on dividing us.
What is urgently required now is the rebirth of Razak’s political will to give life to the principles of Rukunegara. 
I support the increasing call that the Rukunegara is made as a preamble to the Constitution of Malaysia.
This will allow the courts to interpret the Federal Constitution within the context of the national philosophy particularly with regards to the protection of the fundamental liberties of the citizens as enshrined in the Constitution.
It will also enable the protection of the constitutional monarchy and the parliamentary democratic political structure of our country. 
If our current leadership has Razak’s wisdom, foresight and courage, I foresee discussions, conversations and the political will to promote the Rukunegara to the position it was meant to be.
However, as Just International president Dr Chandra Muzzafar recently pointed out, since the 1980s, the Rukunegara seemed to have been systematically put aside. Is it any surprise then there is a feeling today that our nation seems to have lost its soul while we may have generally achieved major material progress? 
I appeal to our current leadership to put back the soul in our nation. 
* Jahaberdeen is a senior lawyer and founder of Rapera, a movement which encourages thinking and compassionate citizens. He can be reached at
This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Managing the judge

SEPTEMBER 26 — I often advise young litigation lawyers to know who the judges they are appearing before are and, if possible, to observe some of the trials they are presiding over. Talking to a few seniors about the conduct and behaviour of the judges in trials and hearings is equally important. Different lawyers may have different experiences with the same judge.
Being humans, no two judges are alike. Some judges make it a total pleasure to appear before them right from case management to conclusion of trial. These judges are friendly, courteous, systematic and understanding of the constraints litigation lawyers face. Some other judges may be considered as difficult for various reasons. There are also judges who are mostly silent on the bench. You will not know what they are thinking while some others, you wish they will not speak so much. All this is normal as human beings are prone to idiosyncrasies, prejudices and making mistakes.
If the lawyer has never appeared before a certain judge, I find case managements are a good time to understand the kind of judge you will be facing. I believe judges also use the same time to assess the lawyers. It is like some legal “dating” before the trial begins.
It is an accepted principle in the legal process that it is possible for a judge to make mistakes in evaluating evidence and therefore, make the wrong decision. Hence, the appeal process. This is common in litigation.
The litigation lawyer has the duty of advancing his client’s interest and legal position. Sometimes, you may be faced with a difficult judge whom you find to be interfering too much with your cross- examination, for example. Trials by nature can be quite stressful and it is possible for us to get carried away by emotions. It is always helpful to remain calm as it is when you are calm you are able to formulate the correct sentences and remain focused on your client’s interest. If you feel the interference is unwarranted, it is important you respectfully get everything on record so that on appeal, you will appear courteous, sincere and reasonable.
It is critical that litigation lawyers remain professional and courteous even when they may be annoyed as succumbing to annoyance may worsen the situation. While it is critical the trial lawyer should hold his ground on matters that concern the interest of his client, it is pointless to argue with the judge. Quarrelling with a judge in open court is completely unprofessional and embarrassing for everyone. Judges, too, generally avoid unnecessary arguments with trial lawyers as it may diminish their own reputation.
Sometimes, during trials, it is common for lawyers and judges to get into a heated argument about the law or what is permissible under the Evidence Act. Sometimes, it may concern the nature of the question the trial lawyer wants to ask or his style of asking the question which the judge may not approve. All these are common court drama. I have experienced some wise judges stand down to let matters cool down and sometimes, invite the lawyers into chambers to discuss the matter. Judges are experts at maintaining impartiality or at least the appearance of impartiality and seasoned trial lawyers are experts at managing their emotions quickly or at least the appearance thereof.
One of the important ways of managing the judge is to come for trials prepared. The easiest way to annoy a judge is to appear before the judge unprepared or shoddily prepared for your case. In this regard, extensive pretrial preparations are important such as finding out how the judge likes the bundles or exhibits to be prepared, the witness statements to be read or deemed read and so on. Knowing the legal angle of your client’s case and also being peremptorily prepared for possible questions by the other side or even the judge is useful as this may earn the judge’s respect.
I know it is instinctive for trial lawyers, who make a living by arguing, to automatically argue or rebut a position the judge takes which is contrary to his. I find this is not a useful approach. I often advise my own legal team to never behave defensively with a judge. It is important for trial lawyers to concede when they are wrong or make a concession when it is not particularly important for their client’s case. In other words, the trial lawyer should always keep his ego carefully locked up in his briefcase.
While I have experienced one or two judges who had given me a difficult time in my early years of practice, I find it distasteful when I hear some lawyers say they lost the case because the judge does not like them. Being in practice for many years, I know this is untrue and cannot be true.
Firstly, the judge has better things to do than to invest his personal feelings in a trial lawyer. Secondly, the judge is always mindful he has to legally justify his decision and hence, the judge would not jeopardise his career to spite a lawyer.
As long as trial lawyers remember judges are human beings and that they themselves have a duty to present their case professionally and as efficiently as possible, I believe it will be a reasonably pleasant day in court notwithstanding the stress of a trial.
* Jahaberdeen is a senior lawyer and founder of Rapera, a movement that encourages thinking and compassionate citizens. He can be reached at
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.
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Saturday, September 24, 2016

What system of governance: Theocracy, democracy or secular?

SEPT 19 — To me, and I repeat, to me, it is not about being obsessed with the label of “secular” or “Islamic” country though I do not have serious problems with people using the term. I try to understand what they are actually saying as the substance is more important than the label. 
My position is clear: I do not support oppressive regimes or ideas whether they are labelled “secular” or “Islamic”. To be clear, I do not support a “secular system” that is anti religion as that is oppressive of a person’s faith. Likewise I do not support an “Islamic system” that takes away the professed Muslim’s inherent right to serve Allah as he understands it from the Quran as that is equally oppressive of faith. 
In any case, I believe the practice of one’s faith or religion should not be allowed to affect national security, general public order, peace and harmony in the country or deny the basic fundamental rights and liberties of other citizens guaranteed under our Federal Constitution. 
A theocratic state is often understood to be a political State which is founded on a particular religion. A theocracy may be defined as a form of government which defers not to civil development of law, but to an interpretation of the ‘will of a God’ as set out in religious scripture and authorities. 
In realistic terms, therefore, it will be ruled by a few men who will interpret the religious scriptures in the name of God for the rest of the populace. The clergy and religious leaders will be dominant under such a political structure. Human political history suggests the earliest forms of government are theocratic probably because a reference to a “divine” source was necessary to impose law and order then. 
Since theocrats believe they rule by divine sanction and are implementing the divine will, it is doubtful if they will brook any dissent to their views. 
Hence, any criticism of the government may be construed as criticising the religion and going against God. A study of the State-Church relationship in Christian political history will bear out this point. In other words, theocracy would naturally be anti-thesis to democracy which is a political structure that allows for consideration of diverse views and for leadership opportunities by ordinary citizens. Criticism of government policies in a democracy is considered a fundamental right and duty of a concerned citizen. Democrats welcome criticism, theocrats do not.
In modern times, the two ‘pure’ theocractic political structures are probably the Vatican and Iran though there are “quasi theocratic” states such as Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Afghanistan, Sudan and so on. 
Secularism, as I understand it, is a political system that is neutral to organised religion and it makes a conscious separation of those mandated to run the state from religious dignitaries and religious institutions. A secular state is not anti religion as is often misunderstood in our country — probably confused with the political system known as ‘State atheism” which promotes atheism as a state policy. I do not support state atheism because of its obvious denial of the freedom of faith as theocracy is equally guilty of.
Just as there are various degrees of democracies and theocracies, there too are various degrees of secularist political systems. Unlike theocracies which are dictated by religious personalities, the degree of democratic and secularist practices are determined by the people. It may be tweaked to adapt as situations changes.  
So, if we look at the substance beyond the labels, we see these are political systems and modes of governance with their own unique features, values and consequences on the governed. The real question that citizens ought to ask is: What degree of control and in what areas do they want the government to have on them? In other words, how much freedom are they willing or should give up for the greater good of the nation?
I believe our answer lies in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia and in the interpretation of its articles. Clearly, we are not a theocratic state as the country has never been governed by clerics. We are a parliamentary democracy with many features of a secular state as is generally understood. Due to the political reality that the majority of the citizens (voters) are Muslims, there are attempts by several religious leaders and their supporters to gradually turn Malaysia into an “Islamic theocratic” state as understood by them. I hope I am wrong but I detect this trend is increasing.
Even though Article 3(1) provides that Islam is the religion of the Federation it also states that other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.  
The Federation is obviously made up of 13 states and three federal territories. How we interpret the words “Islam is the religion of the Federation” will determine to what extent religious dignitaries will influence the governance of the Federation and hence on the liberty of the people. 
I believe this point is very important to be remembered, especially by Judges when they are confronted with such an issue before them. To me, the wording of Article 3(1) is clear the constitution never intended for the country to evolve politically into an “Islamic theocratic State”. 
The Constitution also accords various fundamental liberties which I would argue generally supersedes religious positions. It is the duty of the government and the courts to uphold these fundamental rights despite any personal inclinations, if any. I admit this is a tricky and sensitive area but has to be addressed with courage, knowledge and sincerity, nevertheless. I have said many times before in certain cases where Muslim judges may find themselves in a conflict of conscience situation, then they should honourably recuse themselves from hearing the matter. 
With respect, I believe our courts have erred when they made an artificial distinction between faith and religion as if religion is completely independent of the requirement of faith. Such an artificial distinction is often made when Article 11(1) on the freedom to practise and profess a religion comes up for consideration. The other area which will determine the direction our political system of governance will be heading is on the interpretation of the word “precepts of Islam” as used in the Constitution.  I hope to touch on this area in the future, God willing. 
In the meantime I pray that our political leaders understand and are aware of these developments.
* Jahaberdeen Mohamed Yunoos is a senior lawyer and founder of Rapera, a movement that encourages thinking  and compassionate citizens. He can be reached at rapera.jay@gmail.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.
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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Working towards national unity

AUG 22 — I am writing this article from Rio de Janeiro, being here to support our Malaysian badminton team.
While I am happy to note that we become united in our support of the national team, it also reminds me that back home, there is a perception of increasing fractures in national unity among us.
It is clear that in the Games, including badminton, national identity becomes more important than ethnic, cultural or religious identities. A multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan based country presents itself to the world and behaves as a united nation representing all citizens of the respective countries. 
In the Olympics, we work hard and are united in the quest for gold. Is it not overdue that we work hard and are united in achieving the gold for being united as citizens of Malaysia?
The perception that our national unity is fracturing is not completely without basis. 
There are still too many things around us that are calculated to accentuate our differences rather than remind us of our similarities. The insane politics of racism and religious bigotry is still very much alive in this advanced computer and Internet age.
Take, for example, the latest new political kid on the blog, a political party that is going to be premised on Malays only membership. The frightening thing is that this race based party is formed by former members of the Malaysian government. Is this not an admission by themselves that they have failed to instil the spirit and awareness of being Malaysian when they were in power?
I can understand their argument that it is politically expedient to do so and their competition is with Umno and PAS. This, therefore, highlights the very point I have been making for two decades now — political expediency often is the culprit that divides the nation.
Malaysians must move away from condoning political expediency that hurts the nation in the long run.
The perceived fractures of national disunity not only emanate from ethnic differences but also intra and inter-religious differences. There are wrong approaches and unnecessary efforts that seem to divide Malaysians based on religious preferences.
This itself is intrinsically contradictory because religion which is supposed to be spiritual is becoming a factor of division rather than a catalyst for unity, love and compassion between fellow Malaysians. The rakyat and the National Unity Department in the Prime Minister’s Department should be more creative and pro-active in finding ways as to how religion can be a unifying factor and so on.
Likewise, there is also increasing sectarianism within the Malaysian Muslim community which, if we are not careful, may lead us to the kind of sectarian disputes that are taking place in the Middle East. Once again, serious thinking and planning by the National Unity Department, the minister of religious affairs and other stakeholders to address this potential danger should be made urgently.
I have a question to pose to those who have been entrusted to plan our national unity – what common ideals or dreams have you given the average Malaysian?  It appears to me that as a nation we have no common direction, each going in separate and often opposite ways.
There is increasing confusion arising from the quarrels of a secular or Islamic state without any proper, intellectual, civilised and substantive debate or discussion. In this age, we still behave like the primitive cavemen shouting down others instead of advancing our arguments in a coherent and polite fashion.
We seem to lack a culture of knowledge and polite discourse. What is even worse, there seems to be no concerted and committed efforts by those entrusted to bring about such an environment. Hence, the citizens think that many at the top are mere seat-warmers with no ideas or vision.
With respect, I am beginning to suspect that those entrusted with the job of bringing about national unity are still grappling for a foundation or basis of national unity. Should the basis be religious? Should it be Islam since Article 3 of the Federal Constitution says that Islam is the official religion of the federation. If Islam, then which “structure” and “how much”? If it is not religious based, then what?
For national unity to come about, there has to be a national identity, national values, a national common vision or goal or dream. These need to be identified.
National unity cannot come about based on religion in a multi-religious society because while there are commonalities, there are also dogmatic differences that cannot be reconciled. However, religious sentiments may be used as one of the motivating sources for unity if we focus on the fact that religions do teach kindness and goodness to one another and that we are created by the same Supreme Being, albeit that we call Him by different names.
However, the extremists in the respective religious circles may not like this as it may offend their notion of exclusivity of their religions.
Even within the same religion, there is a problem of pleasing the sects and sub sects that exist. Hence, these are the problems and challenges that may arise if we use religion as a basis for national unity.
It, therefore, appears that the search for a basis and planning for national unity need to transcend religious boundaries.
So what is it that we can use as a basis for national unity? We need that direction and we need that urgently. We cannot wait for the next Olympics.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Moving towards Muslim intra-faith tolerance

There has been much discussion and many conscious efforts to bring about inter-faith understanding and tolerance so that people from different religious backgrounds may learn to live together in peace and harmony in this country. 
The Federal Constitution itself was so drafted to enshrine this principle of religious tolerance while acknowledging Islam as the religion of the Federation.
Since Merdeka, we see there are mosques, gurdwaras, temples, churches and many other holy places belonging to diverse religions co-existing peacefully.
Malaysians celebrate each other’s religious festivities as an occasion to foster togetherness without the respective religious beliefs being threatened.
There is not only tolerance but acceptance of the fact that being from different religious backgrounds is not a deterrent to working and living together.
By and large, most Malaysians accept this diversity of religious beliefs as a rich feature of Malaysia.
Malaysian Muslims, too, accept this reality as a sign from Allah of His creativity, mercy and wisdom.
Hence, God willing, religious differences do not cause disunity or strife among Malaysians.
The situation, however, I am afraid is different when it comes to tolerance within the Muslim community itself. 
In the Middle East, Pakistan and many other countries, sectarian differences in the Muslim community is characterised by enmity, disunity and sometimes violent conflicts among themselves.
The Shia-Sunni conflict is historical and continues to undermine global Muslim unity.
Even within the Sunni community itself, various sub-sects and extremist groups seem to have sprouted creating conflict within its community. The Islamic State  is positioned as an offshoot of the Sunni community.
In Malaysia, I sadly note sectarian differences seem to be taking a stronger negative presence in our society, threatening to undermine Malaysian Muslim unity. I may be wrong and I hope to be wrong but I observe that intra faith conflicts in the Muslim community seem to be increasing as the number of graduates from religious studies increase. 
Compared to say, about 40 years ago,  there seems to be less tolerance in our society pertaining to differences in opinions, views and interpretation of aspects of Islam among Muslims themselves.
A clear disunity among the Malay Muslims occurred when the political contest between Umno and PAS escalated in the 80s right through the 90s.
PAS was projected as representing Allah’s will in the political arena while Umno was seen as a nationalistic party despite the fact Umno’s constitution also placed the protection of the Islamic faith as one of its main objectives. 
“Islamic politics” became a significant political behaviour in the quest to woo the Malay Muslim’s votes.
The political contest between Umno and PAS led to the unfortunate disunity among the Malay Muslims as a result of the kafir mengkafir phenomenon where PAS politicians labelled Umno as infidels.
Hence, from politics, it mutated to a choice between belief and disbelief. Thereafter, each party tried to be more Islamic than the other but perception-wise, Umno was lagging behind in the “Islamic” image department.
I recall even many Umno members secretly believed PAS was indeed more “correct” on the Islamic path. The upshot of it is that the use of “Islam” for political purposes had the unfortunate result of breaking up Malay Muslim unity. 
In this regard, Najib and Hadi’s efforts to bring together Umno and PAS is seen as a move to lessen this political disunity among the Malay Muslims.
Over the years, there is greater emphasis on matters Islamic or perceived to be Islamic due to the political realities of the country. Concurrent with this, there is also increasing conflict between the Muslim thinkers not formally trained in religious studies and the Muslim scholars formally trained in religious studies. I note there is also increasing conflict among the Muslim scholars themselves. 
If the “conflict” is merely a civilised academic contest of ideas and interpretations with the view to espouse and put forth the best interpretations for consideration and humble debate, it is laudable. Civilisations are built upon citizens who are willing to think and behave compassionately.
However, it appears the contest increasingly dominant in the public sphere is not one with a view to share ideas but seems to be a contest to monopolise religious discourses and interpretation of what “Islam” is.
I believe this trend is increasing in our country and is actuated by the quest for power, control, wealth and also religious arrogance. 
Such a contest for monopoly of religion, if not curtailed, may lead to serious fractures in the Muslim community.  It is therefore extremely important for Muslims who wish to stand united by the “rope of Allah’ to be wary of such mischief makers clothed in the robe of religion.
Furthermore, I believe also some (not all) religious “experts” have developed a sense of religious egoism where, unwittingly or otherwise, they have equated their understanding and their interpretation to that of Allah’s.
In other words, the interpreter of scripture has elevated himself to the status of the Giver of scripture. Such a mindset is almost narcissist in nature and is dangerous to society. Such religious leaders may also become the leaders of disunity among the Muslim community.
To foster unity among the Muslims, no amount of outward and superficial show of “Islamness” will help if the spirit of Islam is dead within them. The Quran is replete with advice, exhortations and guidance on how to deal with differences of views even among the Muslims. They have to learn to be more tolerant of each other’s differing views on Islam.
Allah has many times in the Quran said He will settle all differences in the hereafter and that our duty includes doing righteous deeds, be humble, be useful to mankind and His creations, be compassionate and be mindful of our own duties and responsibilities.
So long as we have a few but “powerful” men who want to behave like god on earth, our efforts towards a united Muslim community will still remain a challenge. It is this challenge that the majority spiritual Muslims and the many guided and learned scholars have to bravely and consistently address before matters get worse. Let us never turn Malaysia into another Middle East.
* Jahaberdeen Mohamed Yunoos is a senior lawyer and founder of Rapera, a movement which encourages thinking and compassionate citizens. He can be reached at
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.
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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

I am a Muslim

JUNE 20 — The month of Ramadan and the abstinence from food does put you in a more self-reflective mood than other months. Of course, self-reflection should be a routine exercise as it spring cleans the mind and the heart.
I am a Muslim or, more accurately, I try to be as good a Muslim as I possibly can. It is both easy and difficult as all contest between good and evil is.
Though genealogically, I am supposed to be a seventh generation “born Muslim”, if there is such a thing. I like to think that I am a Muslim by my own choice from the age of 30 when I finally “came” to the Quran.  How God judges me is His prerogative.
I had a typical Malay upbringing where you are sent to Quran reading classes by the time you are five years old. By the time you are 10, you already know how to read the Quran, pray and fast. You know the basic five pillars of Islam.
However, when I was 12 years old, for an unknown reason, the question of God’s existence bothered me. I became increasingly bored with the sermons of hellfire in our neighbourhood mosque. 
Instead of frightening me into submission, it started to disgust me. The ustad around me also could not answer many of my teen questions and often I was scolded for asking blasphemous queries. But the yearning to know God was very strong in me and almost unstoppable.
This yearning led me to study various scriptures and even go into the church to learn the Bible, talk to Hindu priests about the Bhagavad Gita, and study some sudras of Buddhism. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time reading, debating and thinking about God and religion. I read and debated about atheism too.
I met as many priests, ulamak, swamis and atheists who would want to discuss and debate with me. It was not enough for me to just accept a religion or a scripture. Having come from Penang, I now recall Penang as a liberal and open-minded society, where such discussions are generally allowed or at least no one condemns you to immediate hellfire for enquiring.
That was my journey as a teenager throughout adulthood. I made a conscious decision to be a Muslim from my own evaluation of the Quran, Hadith and scholarly views. I am convinced that the Quran is the most reliable source of revealed scripture but I will not insist that anyone else must believe so too.
I am only too happy if someone wants to discuss the Quran with me because I want to share the wisdom and mercy of Allah with anyone who wants to. 
If someone disagrees with me, I am humble enough to know that my interpretation and understanding is not absolute. Furthermore, I have no wish to usurp the jurisdiction of Allah when it comes to guidance. I simply refuse to play the role of a demi god on earth though I know that many religious “leaders” and experts have absolutely no compunctions behaving so.
When I came to the Quran, I realise that the prophet Abraham also took the road of enquiry and seeking. His own father excommunicated him merely for enquiring. There are many instances of prophets reflecting and meditating to understand the world.
I am happy that today there are more and more Muslims beginning to make an effort to understand the Quran instead of merely reciting it. However, it saddens me too that there is also an increasing trend towards coercion by a minority but dominant and loud groups.
This religious coercion takes various forms from extremist statements, extremist and fascist behaviours and to even legalising certain “religious laws” on the sly. I say on the sly because these laws are enacted without my actual consent. Thus, being legally a Muslim, I am compelled to be subjected to it. 
However, those that impose those laws will not be present before Allah with me to defend me if they are wrong.
Does not this compulsion, to accept the views of others regardless of how learned they claim to be, an oppression? 
Muslims may, sooner or later, ask how do they reconcile the Quran’s clear principle that no one else is responsible for our actions and belief except ourselves with the insistence on forcibly accepting so called learned views?
Feelings of guilt or deluded sense of piety does not help to resolve the conflict between compulsion and personal responsibility in matters of faith. I may be wrong but the problem could very well be in the fact that being a Muslim, which is a journey, had been turned into a set of behaviours which is forced upon you even if you are not spiritually ready. 
In other words, in the interest of uniformity, you are compelled to be a hypocrite to avoid worldly punishments. Administrative and political expediency seems to override the individual’s right to have a personal relationship with his Creator.
Muslims attend prayers at Masjid Wilayah in Kuala Lumpur. The writer says compulsion to accept the views of others could be regarded as oppression. — Picture by Azneal IshakMuslims attend prayers at Masjid Wilayah in Kuala Lumpur. The writer says compulsion to accept the views of others could be regarded as oppression. — Picture by Azneal IshakI also note that politics cannot seem to keep away from the religion of any majority in any country. In India, for example, Hinduism seems to creep in and in Malaysia, Islam. The Christian world had already undergone its share in political history. This is actually a malady because politics being what it is, may very well interfere with the free practise of one’s faith as he deems fit.
This interference becomes effective with the cooperation of some of the religious class who likes the power that comes with cooperating with politicians.
As a Muslim, I believe that so long as there are mere humans who insist on monopolising the interpretation of Allah’s words, there will be strife, tension, disunity and oppression in the name of Islam. 
I pray that the Muslim spirit is allowed to be developed as enjoined in the Quran through beautiful preaching and polite discussions and not by coercion or force. Happy Ramadan.
* Jahaberdeen is a senior lawyer and founder of Rapera, a movement that encourages thinking and compassionate citizens. He can be reached at
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Ramadan a month of self reflection

June 6 — The Ramadan month is here again as it does every year. Every Sunni Muslim knows that fasting is required during the month of Ramadan, it is one of the five pillars of his faith. He knows how to fast, when to break fast and what to do during the fasting month so that his fast fulfils the requirements of the fast.
This is the time when Muslims undergo disciplinary training of abstinence from food, drinks, lust and management of emotions for the love of Allah. The month is also filled with nightly ritual prayer of terawih, a special prayer which is much longer than the normal five times per day prayers.
Correctly practised, Ramadan is capable of being a month that transforms the caterpillar into a butterfly, change of bad habits into good ones. It can cause the hijrah or migration of  a person from a lower state into a higher state, a poor character into an exemplary one.
Whether Ramadan serves the purpose of transforming a person into a better human being or it only serves as a mere religious ritual depends on many factors, primarily how the individual Muslim sees it. It will be a sad state if good character emerges only for one month to be replaced by poor character for the next 11 months.
One of the significance of the Ramadan month is that Muslims believe the Quran was first revealed during this month. The first verse revealed was said to be the following in Surah Al Alaq: Read (O Muhammad!) in the name of your Lord who created (96.1). He created man from a clot (96.2). 
“Read, and your Lord is the Most Honorable (96.3) who taught with the pen, (96.4) taught man what he did not know.’’
Hence, the month of Ramadan is also a month of learning and relearning. In line with the first verse of the Quran, Muslims can use this month to revisit the contents of the Quran and to reach out to its messages. To read in the name of the Lord who teaches humans what they know not. This will be the best opportunity to evaluate how far we may have moved away from the teachings in the Quran and accepted other teachings of men as divine.
To the believer, there are many pearls of wisdom in the Quran and guidance for mankind in many areas of our life, particularly how to be a human being useful to His creations and to ourselves. The most basic and fundamental teachings of Islam comes from the Quran.
If a Muslim takes the trouble to allocate a mere one hour a day in the month of Ramadan to study the Quran, he may emerge more knowledgeable about Islam as contained in the Quran at the end of the Ramadan month.
Reading sincerely leads to self-reflection and hopefully, leads us nearer to Allah in our actions and we become useful human beings on earth so that those who do have the benefit of the Quran can see its mercy through our actions of kindness and industry. 
Reading the Quran will make us aware that there are many approaches of peace that Allah has taught us when we are faced with potentially hostile situations.
Reading the Quran also teaches us to preempt potentially aggressive or hostile situations in our dealings with other fellow human beings. As I mentioned earlier, reading the Quran will lead to self-reflection which is very important in life, like spring- cleaning our house or our cupboard. There could have been many mental cobwebs and dirt that may need to be dusted in our minds and our hearts.
Allah has clearly stated in the Quran that he will not change our state until we change what is within us. In other words, He requires those who want to improve to take stock of themselves — their diligence level, their mindsets, their thirst and quest for knowledge and so on.
I would invite my Muslim brothers and sisters to look inwards at ourselves during this Ramadan and see whether we are responsible for the state and condition that we are in. I find that too often we are busy blaming everyone from the Jews to anyone else who does not sound like us for our woes.
The story of Prophet Yunus in the Quran is an excellent example to critically evaluate myself when things go wrong. More likely than not, I must have erred in some way for me to receive “negative” response from the world.
“And remember Zun-nun (Yunus), when he departed in wrath: He imagined that We had no power over him! But he cried through the depths of darkness. There is no God but You: glory to You: I was indeed wrong! 021.088. So We listened to him: and delivered him from distress: and thus do We deliver those who have faith.” (Al Anbiya 87 – 88).
Salam Ramadan to all and may you each be blessed with what you sow.

*Jahaberdeen is a senior lawyer and founder of Rapera, a movement that encourages thinking and compassionate citizens. He can be reached at
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Malay Mail Online.
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Hadi’s Private Member’s Bill and its implications

Private Member’s Bill sought to be passed by PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, which the government graciously allowed to jump queue in the list of matters to be debated in Parliament.
First is the political dimension where PAS is clearly trying to achieve a political score with the Malay voters.  It has been widely publicising it is willing to work with anyone to achieve its “Islamic goal”.  In this case, if the Bill succeeds, PAS will have the “glory” in political history as the party which was responsible for “enhancing the status of Shariah courts” and for paving the way for further implementation of  Islamic criminal law.
If it does not succeed in passing the Bill, Umno MPs will be accused of being insincere and “opposed to Islamic laws”.  Clearly, in this game, PAS gets the credit either way with the general Malay voters.
Politically, Umno therefore is “snookered” unless it can bring the issue up to another completely different intellectual and political level which I am afraid Umno is incapable of due to misconceived fear and other reasons.
Secondly, the Constitutional dimension.  As a matter of parliamentary courtesy, it is admirable the government has given way to a Private Member’s Bill from the Opposition to be heard before government business, which always takes precedence. I believe this is the first time and as the Parliament speaker Tan Sri Pandikar Amin repeatedly tried to educate the opposing members from the Opposition, this is a precedent.
I respect and admire Pandikar’s patience in educating the opposition members on the clear provisions of the Standing Orders. It really baffled me the opposition members are opposing their own Private Member’s Bills being heard first. Painfully amusing.
Constitutionally, any Act can be amended or even repealed by Parliament in accordance with the law and the Constitution. Hadi’s Bill ostensibly seeks to amend the Shariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 in relation to enhancing their punishment provisions.
Currently, under section 2 of the aforesaid Act, Shariah courts can only impose punishment with imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or with any fine not exceeding five thousand ringgit or with whipping not exceeding six strokes or with any combination thereof. This is the so-called “356” punishments which Hadi’s Bill hopes to enhance. Obviously Hadi wants to enhance the penal powers of the Shariah courts to be able to implement Kelantan’s Shariah Criminal Enactment Code of 1993, through which they hope to impose hudud punishments. 
Hence, we are back to PAS’s version of hudud which they want to compel Muslims to follow by force of law. Put it another way, PAS’s “noble aim” of “serving Islam” is to ensure Muslims are subjected to greater punishments and despite what is provided for under the civil law system.
The long-term effect of enhancing the penal punishments will be to allow more criminal offences perceived to be offences against the “precepts of Islam” and within List II of the State List of the Ninth Schedule to the Federal Constitution to be passed. Hence, we will see a situation where there will be two sets of criminal laws for Muslims — the Shariah and the civil law system. Obviously, this will give rise to various complex constitutional issues such as equality before the law and so on. I believe even a challenge under Article 11(1) of the Federal Constitution may be mounted by a Muslim who does not want to be subjected to it though this would require a court which would decide without “fear or favour”.
I do not know why the government has never thought of evaluating whether the existing criminal laws under the federal laws are already consistent with the Quran and authentic Sunnah and hence “Islamic” or not. Surely, the federal government is not taking the position the existing criminal laws under the civil justice system do not achieve “justice” as enjoined by Islam and therefore, un-Islamic?
It truly baffles me why as a nation we are keen on creating two parallel legal systems in the country. Apart from the injustice which may ensue, aren’t the policy makers concerned this would lead to disunity and enmity between the Muslims and non-Muslims? I hope I am just being over worried about the fate of my country.
Thirdly, the faith and theological dimension.  Muslims, especially those who with knowledge and take their faith seriously, will not like imposition on their faith and servitude to Allah. There have been tremendous debate and differences of views, even among scholars, on what constitutes “hudud” and “takzeer”.  Despite the fact most scholars agree the term “hudud laws” refer to only those offences for which punishments are clearly prescribed for in the Quran, some other scholars and politicians insist on including various other offences as hudud offences even though they are not mentioned in the Quran. Furthermore the word “hudud” in the Quran does not even refer to any penal offences. It simply means “limit” and the relevant verses refer mostly to matrimonial matters.
Many notable scholars, including the renowned Prof Dr Hashim Kamali, are of the view for every punishment, the Quran also provides for forgiveness to the offender. However, this provision of forgiveness is absent in PAS’s version of hudud. There are many theological debates and issues concerning “hudud laws” that are still unsettled to this very day. I fear imposing such laws on Muslims, which are very tied to their faith and servitude to Allah, may give rise to disunity among the Muslims.
I would like to repeat my call to the government to seriously study the possibility of a “fused” legal system to maintain only one legal system in the country which can cater to the peculiar needs of each religious community while ensuring general justice for all Malaysians.
* An error in the print version of this article has since been rectified here.
** Jahaberdeen is is a senior lawyer and founder of Rapera, a movement that encourages thinking and compassionate citizens. He can be reached at
*** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.
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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Who or What is "Government"

The word “government” appears about 450 times in the Federal Constitution and understandably, it is not defined.
In our country today, there is an increasing demand for accountability and transparency from the government. Citizens want to know what the government is doing, how they are doing it and why.
Obviously, the citizens seem to want to play a greater and more significant role in the direction and evolution of the country. A simple enough desire but a complex quest as life is complex with many aspects to it.
On the other hand, if we do not know what a “government” is, how do we know what role to play in shaping the destiny of our nation?
We have heard about the separation of powers between the executive, judiciary and legislature, the three branches of government that are supposed to “check and balance” each other through their perceived independence from each other. In reality, however, the so-called independence may not be absolute due to overlaps between the three branches. 
For instance, the executive is made up of Cabinet members who are also members of Parliament, the legislature. These are the elected members of Parliament and at the state level, the elected state representatives — the so called people’s representatives in a democracy.
In theory, the members of the legislature are required to pass laws that would curb any abuse of power by the executive and to pass “good laws” that would benefit the nation generally. However, in reality, since some of the members of the legislature are also members of the Cabinet, how would the citizens ensure laws are not passed to perpetuate the power of the existing executive members?
Some of the laws passed by Parliament may contain what is known as “ouster clauses”. 
These “ouster clauses” aim to oust the jurisdiction of the courts to review the executive’s exercise of discretion in certain matters. In other words, the courts may be precluded, for example, from reviewing a minister’s decision thus effectively removing the theoretical “check and balance” objective of the separation of powers doctrine.
In my view, a more effective “check and balance” mechanism is a mature, responsible and united opposition in Parliament, which our country sorely lacks. I observe a greater role has been played by non-governmental organisations, pressure groups and organised concerned citizens that consists of opposition members in many cases.
Our discussion has not even touched on what exactly is a “government”.  It is not easy to come up with a comprehensive definition of “government”.  Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as  “ the group of people who control and make decisions for a country, state, etc, a particular system used for controlling a country, state, etc, the process or manner of controlling a country, state, etc.  This is a useful simple definition because it sets out three important areas that concerns government — the people involved, the system used and the process of governance used.
Once the ordinary citizen understands these three areas, then it becomes easier for them to decide which of these areas they want to be involved in or concerned with. 
In the context of Malaysia, our system of government is made up of the federal, state and local governments. It is often forgotten Malaysia is a federation made up of thirteen states and three federal territories (Labuan, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya). It is not like a situation where there is one country governed by one body of government in all aspects. The states have their own legislature and executive bodies. While the federation has the Federal Constitution which is the “supreme law” of the land, the 11 states also have their own state constitutions.
At the same time, while we have a constitutional monarchy and a King at the federal level, we also have nine state monarchs (Sultans) who have certain powers as given to them by their State Constitutions.
It is for this reason, for example, we do not have a codified uniform Shariah law for the whole country because Islamic law is a matter for the state to legislate. There are some matters the federal government can decide and there are certain matters only the state government can decide. Hence, in a system such as this, close cooperation between state and federal governments becomes crucial.
The process by which the country is governed is also determined by both Parliament and state assemblies that pass the necessary laws. This is an extremely important process as it will determine the behaviour of citizens in terms of what they can and cannot do in the broadest sense possible.
For example, some states have made it an offence for any Muslim to skip Friday prayers three times in a row, which is punishable either by fine or jail term. 
In other instances, the kinds of laws passed by both the state and federal legislatures can have a major impact on how and how much the ordinary citizen can earn his living or what kind of life he may lead.
What about the people involved in the three branches of government? Obviously, we would broadly hope it is made up of competent, honest, diligent, compassionate and “good” people. However, hope alone will be insufficient and we have to put in place the best possible mechanisms that can reduce the chances of our hopes being dashed.

* Jahaberdeen is a senior lawyer and founder of Rapera, a movement that encourages thinking and compassionate citizens. He can be reached at
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.
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