JAKIM is the country’s Department of Islamic Development. Placed under the Prime Minister’s Office, it receives almost RM900 million every year to fund its activities.
Like Saudi Arabia, we have a Minister (and Deputy Minister) in charge of Islam, but this makes us different from Indonesia – the largest Muslim country – which has a Minister who oversees all religious affairs rather than those related to Islam alone.
This Minister’s portfolio covers other faiths that Indonesia’s Constitution recognises; the budget for this portfolio is also nowhere near as large as Jakim’s.
In Malaysia, Islamic matters have to be administered by a Federal Minister and a Deputy, not to mention the state religious councils and departments under the respective Malay Rulers.
Obviously, the Government thinks the other religions that Malaysians practise do not require such funding, except occasional giveaways before general elections.
Jakim has been in the limelight recently because of its huge financial resources, and its sometimes controversial position on policies and religious pronouncements, which it channels through its vast network, including mosques.
What is plainly troubling to many is the lack of clarity and accountability of Jakim’s activities, and how it spends taxpayers’ money.
We do know that nearly 30% of its revenue – close to RM280 million – is just to cover annual salaries and management expenses. A sign of not-so-productive bureaucracy.
When members of the public, i.e. taxpayers who fund Jakim, wanted to know more about how the department spent its money, its Director-General became upset.
He rejected the idea of a more transparent auditing system because, he said, Jakim is not just another department that dabbles in trivial matters.
His reaction was typical of some of our leaders who become sensitive when questions are asked of their departments or ministries.
For example, when Jakim, through its Deputy Minister, says the department has to spend a lot of money to combat “liberal ideas” and those out to attack Islam, we need to know what those ideas and who these alleged attackers are.
Also, exactly what kind of activities has Jakim developed to stop Muslims from having “liberal” ideas and how effective are they?
Would it not be better to live and let live, and allow all kinds of ideas to coexist, instead of spending money to combat them?
So do Jakim officers have to travel regularly to New York City to study “hedonism”, and to Paris to understand the dangers of existentialism? Do they have to send more teachers to Saudi Arabia to counter these ideas?
If the department is unwilling to be transparent about its activities and how it spends its money, it’s only natural that the people will ask questions, or even speculate that these activities are only happening on paper to justify the department’s enormous budget.
One of Jakim’s principal activities is to streamline Islamic affairs – but this is what the department has been talking about since the 1960s.
Yet today hundreds of thousands of divorce cases are not resolved.
There is still no uniformity, not even on the simplest matter of service of summons in the Syariah Courts.
The Syariah Court buildings are impressive and cost millions; but Jakim has not produced law reports of the cases decided, resulting in uncertainties of the applicable legal principles in many of the decisions.
If one looks at Islamic criminal offences, there is also no uniformity amongst the states in terms of the substance of the charge, the rules of evidence, and the sentences the judges can hand down.
Syariah lawyers have to be separately accepted and tested in each of the states before they are qualified to appear before them.
Given all of this, what kind of success can Jakim claim to have in streamlining Islamic affairs.
Jakim has also assumed responsibility for controlling deviant Islamic groups. How does Jakim measure its success in this area?
Calling some Muslims deviants is not the way to justify one’s existence or to expect several hundred millions of ringgit every year from the taxpayers.
A group like G25 is made up of Malays who are highly qualified, and have contributed to the development of the country. Even if they are liberals, why make a fuss?
Then Jakim says it has a duty to “build well-established Islamic thinking”. What has it done to make Malaysian Muslims more “advanced” in their thinking?
As far as I can see, the measures that Jakim have taken are punitive in nature. It has a well-established record of issuing threats, declarations or fatwas that make Muslims fear many things rather than equipping them with the ability to think constructively.
Inculcating fear is not a tough job, and it costs very little.
Nurturing useful knowledge and developing positive behaviour that supports a peaceful and harmonious society is the real challenge.
In my view, Jakim has not succeeded in this respect.
There is a sizeable business aspect to Jakim’s activities. Here again, they must be transparent because we do not want people to accuse Jakim of engaging in unfair or unsavoury activities.
Licencing halal premises, importing halal foods and building halal hospitals and supermarkets are moneymaking activities, some of which run into hundreds of millions of ringgit.
When money is involved, spiritual considerations sometimes take a back seat, and holy men become less holy when faced with money.
We do not want the people to accuse Jakim of being like the Vatican of the Middle Ages, when even monarchs sought the Vatican’s help for business and for waging wars.
We do not want Jakim to be a reservoir of wealthy Islamists. We want Jakim to epitomise Islam that is just, honest and transparent.