by Tricia Yeoh. First published in The Sun 9 July 2015

At an IDEAS public forum last weekend on whether or not Malaysia is ready for a liberal political party, it was evident that all three of the panel speakers acknowledged the term ‘liberal’ as being controversial in this country.

Sure enough, in July 2014, the Selangor Islamic Religious Council (MAIS) issued a fatwa against any individuals professing liberalism, and deemed any publications with elements of liberalism (and religious pluralism) as haram, or prohibited, and liable for seizure by religious authorities. In May this year, Prime Minister Najib Razak said that liberalism is a threat to Islam, and that it would ruin Muslim identity. Is this really the case?

This is surely ironic, given that liberalism is fundamentally embedded into the core of our nation’s being. That is, if our leaders bothered to recall their history lessons. Audience at the event on Saturday were reminded that our very own Rukunegara, crafted by the late Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, contains as one of its goals to “ensure a liberal approach towards our rich and diverse cultural traditions.”

In fact, one of the speakers, Dr Juli Minoves, representing Liberal International (a global network of more than 100 liberal political parties around the world), shared the fundamental principles of liberalism, which may in fact be better accepted by a bigger rmajority than what people may think.

The Oxford Manifesto 1947 has as amongst its principles the belief in a person’s independent thought and action, respect for the human person and family, freedom of worship and liberty of conscience, freedom of speech and of the press, freedom to associate or not to associate, free choice of occupation, access to full and varied education, the right to private ownership of property, gender equality and consumers’ free choice.

According to this manifesto, these rights can be conferred only by true democracy, and that “true democracy … is based on the conscious, free and enlightened consent of the majority, expressed through free and secret ballot”. These seem to be central tenets of any democracy, and far be it to decry any of these fundamental forms that essentially make up our own constitutional democracy in Malaysia.

The critique of liberalism in Malaysia has stemmed mainly from its perceived incongruity with religion, as if liberalism is the very antithesis of religion, or is essentially anti-religion (as one of the audience members so eagerly pointed out). If anything, liberalism is silent on religion, and is neutral on matters of faith and the afterlife.

Speaker Khalid Jaafar from Institut Kajian Dasar (IKD) reminded as such, that religion speaks primarily of salvation and spiritual matters, saying little of affairs of the world. Both he and Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, former CEO of the PAS Research Centre quoted from the Islamic hadith, which states that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), whilst giving advice, said, “You know best the affairs of your worldly life” (from the Sahih Muslim hadith).

That is to say that religious texts provide us guiding principles on morality, but is short on the state of our existence. Human beings are bestowed the gift of intellect and reason, and equipped with these tools, we determine for ourselves the shape and form of democracy we want to have. What society do we want for the here and now? What type and quality of education do we want for our children? Liberalism is an ideology (with socialism or communism as opposing ideologies) that does not detract from, but rather adds to, a person’s faith and experience of the present world. In fact, religion can only truly flourish in a liberal society.

What the forum was disappointingly thin on, however, was the position that liberals take with regard to the role of the state. By strict definition, classical liberals would prefer to adopt an approach in which the state has a much smaller role over the lives of its citizens. When government is given a greater say over how our lives are governed (through economic and education policies, to name a few), this reduces our individual right to self-determination.

Perhaps the question for Malaysians today is not whether the time is ripe for a liberal political party, but whether liberalism can flourish the way it did in the past.

IDEAS President Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin Muhriz Tuanku Muhriz reminded that the Umno of the past in fact believed in all the fundamental principles of liberalism, when working towards the nation’s independence, in its stance for free enterprise and against communism, and led by Almarhum Tunku Abdul Rahman, and therefore asked if they were not already liberal? Undoubtedly the party of 1946 is a different species from what it is in 2015.

Both Parti Gerakan and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), which have observer status respectively with Liberal International, are parties that believe in liberal principles. Gerakan is in dismal shape today, if any shape at all, whilst PKR is faced with coalition problems of its own. It remains to be seen if these self-avowed liberal parties are able to take mainstage at any point in the country’s future.

That said, public fora such as these are imperative – if anything, they exemplify and manifest into being the belief in freedom of speech. Liberals are by definition liberal in their approach to others (or ought to be), taking into serious consideration the views of all even if disagreeing with them. Is liberalism really a threat to society or religion? If the belief in the very fundamentals of democracy forms the mould of liberalism – the same democracy that our founding fathers worked towards and that which we espouse today – then the answer is a firm resounding no. It is time to take back the term liberal.

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Tricia Yeoh is the Chief Operating Officer of IDEAS

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