Tan Sri Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim gave an extensive interview to both Khairie Hisyam Aliman & P Gunasegaram of Kinibiz. Entitled “Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim Calling for Sense and Sensibility’ we reproduce here the interview in parts.(Sept 29- Oct 12, 2015)
"Malaysia today faces myriad issues, from rising religious extremism and racial tensions to increasingly entrenched corruption and growing overstepping of constitutional boundaries. In a time when the nation urgently needs to take stock and face painful realities, former secretary-general of the Treasury Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim is among prominent figures calling for a return to our collective senses”
A constitution, as well as the fundamental principles it represents, is the bedrock of a nation’s governance. But what happens when the constitution’s supremacy is encroached upon, as is the case with Malaysia’s in recent times?
In the first part of the interview Mohd Sheriff discusses the message of G25, the blurring of constitutional boundaries and why we should return to the Constitution’s basic tenets.
Tell us a little about where G25 stands and what led to the first statement issued last December.
We issued the statement in December last year. If you look at the statement, the issue is about the administration of Islam in the country. But underlying the concern are the questions related to constitutional issues – about human rights, freedom of expression, and the fact that the constitution is the supreme law of the country.
As per the statement we are saying that the administration of Islam is being done in a way which is not in line with the provisions of the Constitution. And so we have suggested that there should be a consultative committee which can look at how fatwas and religious laws are made in the country so that the council can take into account all views before making a decision.
Right now the problem is that the religious officials, the ulamas, are given a free hand to come out with their fatwas and religious laws. And as we can see in the state court cases, whenever these laws are contested, the court upholds that these laws are violating the Constitution.
So why not discuss these things properly before the laws are made so that if they are clearly against the Constitution, then the fatwa council or the state legislature should not proceed.
A lot of the problems arise because they are trying to criminalise personal sins, making personal sins a state crime. That to us is unconstitutional because crime is a federal mat- ter. It’s not a state matter. So states which use their religious authorities and state legislature to pass state enactments on religion, criminal- ising personal sins, should be questioned on whether what they are doing is right.
That’s the whole intention behind the statement. But since then G25 has also commented on other issues in the country.
The latest now, as you can see in newspapers, is the statement regarding public institutions and the one that was reported on Aug 19 was about G25 saying that we must protect the integrity of Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM).
But of course in our statement we don’t just talk about BNM. We talk about MACC (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency), the EC (Election Commission), the AG (Attorney-General) office, and even Jakim (Department of Islamic Development Malaysia). These are key public institutions in the country.
What was the main reason that G25 was founded?
We are not a registered body, we prefer to remain informal. And we hope that we can play a role to influence society to think along the same lines as we move forward. We should emphasise the rule of law based on what is provided for in the Constitution in all areas.
As you know there are some groups that are suggesting that in order to ensure the supremacy of Islam in the country you must change the Constitution. We are definitely not in favour of that because it will mean that Malaysia will gradually go on a different path where laws and regulations are made according to religious rulings.
Eventually that may lead the country towards what I call a theocracy where the ulamas or council of ulamas have the final decision in the administration of the country. We have seen this happening in the Middle East. When that happens then we are no longer a democracy.
That some entities are going beyond constitutional limits is a fairly recent trend and wasn’t observed in previous years such as the ‘80s, ‘90s. What happened in the interim that led to this situation of increasing Islamisation today?
I agree, this is not new. For example khalwat (close proximity) law has existed since I was a school boy, since the 1950s, 1960s. But what concerns everybody is that the religious officials seem to have become more aggressive in the recent years. And I think, as most analysts have commented, it seems they have got more aggressive since the last general election.
That’s probably because they are starting to use religion for political objectives. And using religion also to bully other races and to try to stifle public discussion on issues of concern.
These issues even include economic policies and education policies. Anyone who criticises these policies is regarded as anti-national, anti-Malay, committing sedition against the king and country. And the moment anyone criticises any of the Islamic laws, there is a chorus of voices asking for action to be taken under the Sedition Act.
Have you had any problems after making your comments?
No, I would say the opposite. We tend to get a lot of support from the public. I think there is a wide recognition that we are not against Islam.
We recognise that Islam is the official religion of the country. We assert the fact that the states have a duty in the administration of Islam because that is provided for in the Constitution. All we are asking is that when they implement their religious responsibilities, they should take into account the Constitution.
There seems to be reluctance from the executive arm of government to go back to the Constitution, to call for a constitutional view on things. Does it come back to political expediency or are there other factors in play?
There have been statements from political leaders that we must protect the supremacy of the Constitution. But I think the statements should be made very, very clear so that there is no doubt about it. And any extremists should be quickly rebutted by the top leadership, explaining how they are undermining the supremacy of the Constitution.
I don’t think they (top leadership) should be shy about talking about the supremacy of the Constitution because that is a fact. That is what the Constitution says.
How much success have you had in pushing your views across? What kind of problems do you face?
We are trying our best to meet the influential people among politicians and others.
Who are some of the people and groups that you have met?
I think it is best that I don’t mention that specifically. Although my colleague Farida (Noor Farida Mohd Ariffin) has been very open about this, I would like to observe the request made by those we met that we should not mention their names publicly.
All I can say is that they sympathise with our views. They never tell us to stop or to disband ourselves. In fact they even encourage us to go ahead. I think that is a good sign that at heart, our leaders and our sultans are pragmatic, democratic and they are fully constitutional in the way they look at how the country should be run.
Without disclosing identities, would you say that in general the sympathies extended to your views have been reflected in the public statements that they have gone on to make?
Yes. Even the prime minister himself has made statements about democracy, the rule of law. But what I would like to see is that when there is a specific incident happening, they should respond quickly with that message. Like the Low Yat incident, it took them quite some time to come up with a strong statement. That is not a good way of handling crisis of that nature.
I’ve always believed that in a country like Malaysia with our multiracial population, this kind of crisis will crop up from time to time. We cannot avoid it. But if there is a strong and immediate response from the top leaders, it will give the impression of zero tolerance at the top level (to such issues).
That’s why it’s important that a strong, quick response is always a necessary thing. Whichever country you go to, this kind of racism is always present, even in the US and the UK. But there I think they know this will happen from time to time but whenever it hap- pens they apply the full force of the law.
Has your group talked to Perkasa?
No, we have not talked to Perkasa. Isma was interested in meeting us, I was told, but I don’t think we have been able to set up a meeting with them. But we are willing to talk to them; even though our views will be different, I think it would be useful to sit across a table and exchange views.
Recently we had a meeting with Abim and I was very impressed with their outlook on Islam. Basically they are saying that we should look at the social ills and use Islam, use religion, to try and solve the social problems. Because if you really examine the religion in detail, there is a lot of emphasis on helping the poor, the disabled, and the weak to cope with the problems of life.
No matter how prosperous a country is or how good the economy is, there will always be certain sections of the population which need help. And religious authorities and groups can play useful roles in the society.
For example, the Friday sermons in the mosques can tell the congregation about the evils of corruption or about the evils of political funding, even. The dangers of youth having unprotected sex, for example, because I was told in the meeting with Abim that they are dealing with a lot of girls who have given birth outside of marriage.
We have to face these social problems and if it is necessary to talk about condoms, for example, why should we condemn it as being against the Malay culture or against anyone’s culture? The fact is that you cannot prevent these things from happening. So it is better that we give advice the right way so boys and girls can take care of themselves.
Sex education in schools and even in mosques should be promoted. And religious authorities can play a big role because being religious people they can influence, (as do) the grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers and mothers who take care of their children, advise their children, instead of going on the other side where they want to punish, where everything is about punishment and sin which must be punished.
Sometimes these socials ills happen because of circumstances beyond the control of the families. Families break up because of financial problems and children get affected – should they be punished if they commit certain sins as a result?
What G25 started off with was in terms of ensuring the religious laws don’t impinge on the Constitution. Now you’re widening this to other areas of the Constitution like the integrity of the Constitution itself. So is your intention to act like a watchdog for the Constitution?
I rationalise this by saying that although the G25 open letter (in December) specifically talked about the administration of Islam, if you look at the letter in detail you see a lot of discussion about the constitutional principles of human rights, protection of women, and the right to be consulted in the administration of Islam. These are basic principles of the Constitution.
But if you think about it, other developments can also play an important role in affecting Islam and the Muslim community. Say corruption. If there is widespread corruption in the country, Islam itself will become a victim.
Look at the Arab Spring. What was the source of the revolution there? It was corruption. You notice that when the street revolution was happening in Egypt, the country was doing quite well economically, for example foreign investment was coming in.
But because of corruption, people feel that all these growth and investments are benefit- ting certain groups (only) while they are not getting any benefit. In fact 40% of graduates in Cairo were unemployed.
So when unemployment happens to that extent, they start to rationalise that we are poor and unemployed because people at the top are squandering the wealth. They rationalise that and so they go to the streets and carry out the revolution. We don’t want that.
Link to original article in Kinibiz.
This is part 1 of 5