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Monday, February 7, 2011

In Praise Of Secularism

Just back from 6 days of complete disconnection of the cyber world and after scanning through the news never thought that Malaysia is still raging on with racism and 1Malaysia being treated like gabbage by utusan and Umno while the incompetent PM simple could not do anything about it.

While waiting for my new postings, please have a read on this well written article.

By AB Sulaiman

In my earlier but one commentary, I stated that the Malay problem is the root cause of the nation’s problems. Soon after it was published on Jan 6, a dear friend and former office colleague sent me a note.

Ali (not his real name) agreed with my observation but disagreed strongly with my suggestion that one of the ways of solving ‘the Malay problem’ would be to secularise the Malay mind. He seemed to be saying, “Yes I agree with all your observations so long as you don’t ask the Malay to secularise his thinking”.

His reaction was all too familiar, for secularism is considered a dirty word, amounting to blasphemy and apostasy, to the Malay community – a major sin in orthodox Malay reckoning.

But Ali, and those who think like and agree with him, can be no more wrong. Here’s why:

What does secularism mean in the first place? A noted British sociologist, Bryan Wilson, defines it as “The process whereby religious thinking, practices and institutions lose social significance.”

I’d go back to the time when nation states were developing in Europe to appreciate this definition a bit more.

In the early formation of the state, power was concentrated in the Church, hat is, in the hands of the clergy or priestly class. Religion was so powerful that not only the people but even the King was under its centralised control. (Note: The word ‘Church’ of course is symbolic of ‘religion’, specifically Christianity; and ‘King’ of ‘state’).

But I suppose the individual human spirit is born free, and did not quite accept the perpetual bondage of religion. So, in the course of history, the people were getting increasingly tired of the Church. In the Reformation period (about the 16th century onwards) they rebelled against it.

The rebellion came from two quarters, the intelligentsia on one part and the King on the other. Some of the followers of the Church, like John Calvin and Martin Luther, developed their own interpretation of the Christian scriptures. They ‘rebelled’ against the Catholic orthodoxy and formed their own denominations. They are generally called Reformists.

In the case of the King, I take Henry VIII as an example. He wanted the Church to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, but the Church refused. Henry VIII ‘rebelled’ by creating the Protestant church, divorcing Catherine and marrying Anne Boleyn.

Transfer of power to the people

The effect of this rebellion saw state power transferred from the clergy to the monarchy and people.

But the King, a mere human, soon got involved in excesses he used to practise even before his escape from the priestly clutches.

He was, after all, the absolute monarchist in a feudal setting. This made the people angry all over again. Soon they rebelled against the King. Just look at what happened in France in 1789. They guillotined the royalty and nobility in the streets of Paris while the people cheered!

The effect this time was that the monarchy was sidelined; state power from then on was completely transferred to the people. For the first time in human history, the individual experienced and enjoyed complete freedom from religion and the state.

Secularisation in other words split the people on two quantum occasions: one, from the clutches of the church, and two, from the monarchy. State power then belonged to the people.

President Lincoln of the US recorded and described it as ‘the government of the people, by the people and for the people’. Note that religion and King were not even mentioned in this classic definition.

Individual freedom

The personal freedom brought about by the clergy-monarchy-people split brought with it the sense of the individual to the fore.

It allowed the growth and maturing of the spirit of the individual. He is responsible for his own progress, his freedom and his opportunity to develop his own talent, skills and individual spirit; so long, of course, this is done within the confines of the law.

This spirit enables a person to develop his own sense of pride and dignity, his own mertabat (dignity and honour); and find satisfaction and happiness in his own accomplishments.

What this means in turn is that it places the value, autonomy and benefits of the individual over that of the group (or race), society or nation. It makes the individual the prime unit in a social system. He is his own boss.

The independence of the individual gives rise to the development of human rights. He has the right of speech and expression, of religion and marriage, and to seek his own happiness. Mainly, it gives the person the ability to think independently make decisions based on the best alternatives available to him.

Scientific knowledge

The growth of the personal freedom of the individual, and of individual thinking, coincides with the growth of human knowledge, especially in science or scientific knowledge.

Science in turn is understanding nature. For example, science tells that lightning is electricity, not a sign of an angry God way up in the sky. It says that all living things have shape and size, ‘body’ temperature, and move about no faster than the speed of light.

All living things exist following the laws of physics, and that this law operates independent of a god. Gravity, for example, operates whether god exists or not.

An increasing understanding of nature leads to human control over it. To illustrate, matter when heated expands, and water expands into steam. With this knowledge, the steam engine was invented.

There was the rise in technological advancements. There was the rise in invention of new tools and implements, like the microscope and more powerful telescopes.

Early trains were powered by the steam engine. The combined harvester could plough huge acreages of wheat fields, so much so that large-scale farming was made possible. And today. we have the amazing computer.

The rise in scientific knowledge and the invention of tools have given the human civilisation the ability to look deeper into the minute world and further into the length and breadth of the universe.

Democratic principles

There are several other principles and tenets of democracy worth mentioning here. The first is the development and rise of the rule of law. The rule of law must prevail in society, otherwise there will be chaos.

Second, there is the system of check-and-balance between the legislature, executive and judiciary.

Third, there is the election process of identifying and appointing political leaders in a democratic system of government.

Fourth, there is the full participation of the people in the running of the country. The general population is given the opportunity to participate in the debate for the formulation of public policies. This is done via the conduit of the civic societies, the mass media or by direct communication with the people’s elected representatives.

Engines of growth

It turns out that the combination of the individual spirit (I), the progress and development of scientific knowledge (S) and the development of democracy (D) have pushed human civilisation to faster and greater progress.

In other words the ISD combination is the engine of growth of the human civilisation. I am therefore making the assumption here that there is a high correlation between ISD countries with the progress and development of the human civilisation.

Consider the following:

1. All of the early European nations experiencing the Industrial Revolution were experiencing the development of the individual spirit and the scientific progress, for example the UK and Germany.

2. All developed and advanced economies are democratic. Today there are few non-ISD developed countries. China, being socialist, is non-ISD, However, one can testify to the mushrooming number of entrepreneurs and capitalists there.

3. Their peoples are highly literate, knowledgeable and comfortable with science and technology.

Today, virtually all highly developed nations are ISD. Just look at the US, Western Europe, Australia, Japan and South Korea.

People power

Critics might say that for a country to progress, there must be many factors existing in the economic make-up. There must be sufficient infrastructure, for example roads and bridges, schools and hospitals existing in the country.

There must be sufficient raw materials like coal, oil, iron, and such. There must be people with fairly high purchasing power to start the consumer base of the economy.

But while admitting that the availability of raw materials and infrastructure are essential, they can never equate the ‘I’ (namely the enterprising human spirit) as part of the ISD equation.

Look at Japan. It is a group of hilly islands with poor raw material resources. It had hardly anything but people, people and more people. Before the World War II few would guess it would become an economic behemoth from the 1960s till to-date. It has been able to do so because of the quality of its human resource, its high ‘I’ factor.

South Korea’s is a similar story. Again after the World War II, few could imagine it would become the economic superpower it is today. The country is basically barren and does not have any raw materials in any meaningful quantity. Yet, like Japan, they delivered their country as a member of the highly economically productive ISD nations.

Then, take the case of little city-states that have nothing but people, people and more people, as in the cases of Hong Kong and Singapore. They have developed a dynamic economy out of nothing but the spirit and enterprise of their people.

Malay experience

Malaysia is a most sorry case of economic non-performance in the world community of nations. In the early Sixties, we were at an even level with modern power-houses like Singapore, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

We had all of the prerequisites of development some of them did not have. We have the land, the people, the system of administration, the raw materials and perhaps even the capital to compete and shine in the world arena.

Today, these countries are in the ISD league, but we are trying to join them, not now, but in 2020. Judging by the look of things, we are not about getting there. Why?

Because we have been led by the Ketuanan Melayu (KM) polity which, unfortunately, has the following European pre-Reformation features:

1. The general Malay person has little sense of the individual. His focus is towards communal (call it racist) interest and solidarity. He lacks confidence and considers himself weak, thereby dependent on government largesse.

2. KM created an education system focussing not on science and technology, but on principles like morality, cultural values and religion.

3. Malay political leaders consider it to their advantage to retain the feudal monarchical system of government. Democracy in this country is nothing more beyond a general election every four or five years.

The KM polity operates on the platform of untuk agama, bangsa dan negara (for religion, race and nation). These are ‘un-ISD’ principles.


Malaysia has not yet experienced the ISD reformation, because:

1. The Malay individual is still expecting special treatment to cure his lack of confidence. It looks like the New Economic Policy and its successors are here to stay. He is protecting his mertabat at other people’s expense.

2. Religion is not for the individual to choose, but the government ‘chooses’ it for him or her.

3. The people are fragmented into ‘Malays’ and ‘non-Malays’. This is no way of creating a one-race, one-nation, 1Malaysia political entity.

4. Good, young and talented people are running away to other countries. One, Singapore, is very happy with this.

5. Foreign investment is low, while domestic capital is running away. The recent Global Financial Integrity revelation that between 2002 and 2008 as much as US$291 billion have been illegally siphoned out of the country would just make this issue dire.

6. Public institutions are breaking down. The education system is such that the universities are producing graduates who can’t think or able to have meaningful communication or other social interaction. The legal system is an international joke.

7. Don’t talk about the essence of democracy in this country: the rule of law has become the rule of men. Equality and fairness is for the connected. Belief in religion (Islam) is mandatory.

8. Corruption is epidemic. as hinted by (iv) above.

How can Malaysia get out of this rut? It’s a complex question with no definite answers. But I propose one possible solution – by it becoming an ISD nation!

So, to my friend Ali and others with similar thinking, there is, after all, something to be said for the Malays to begin accepting secularism as a cure for this ‘Malay problem’.

AB SULAIMAN is an observer of human traits and foibles, especially within the context of religion and culture. As a liberal, he marvels at the way orthodoxy fights to maintain its credibility in a devilishly fast-changing world. He hopes to provide some understanding to the issues at hand and wherever possible, suggest some solutions. He holds a Bachelor in Social Sciences (Leicester, UK) and a Diploma in Public Administration, Universiti Malaya.

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