By Wan Saiful Wan Jan

10 October 2008

Since the day I first told friends that I am a liberal, I keep having to answer two questions. The first one is “If you are really a Muslim, how can you call yourself a liberal?” And the second is “What type of PAS member would believe in liberal ideas. Isn’t Islam already complete?” The fact that these questions were asked shows how seriously misunderstood the word “liberal” is.

Clearing the confusion about what liberalism is not easy. But we have to start somewhere. That is why my friends and I in the Malaysia Think Tank organised Freedom Academy (Akademi Merdeka) at Residence Hotel, Bangi, on 22-24 August 2008, and we will be organising more of such events. Do join us if you want to further explore liberal ideas from a religion-neutral perspective. But, to start with, in this short article, let me try to explain some of the principles of liberalism and why I, as a Muslim, see no contradiction between my faith and my political ideology.

Before that, let me make an important clarification. The word ‘liberal’ has been abused so much that, in some cases, the meaning has been greatly distorted. In America, the word has been stolen by people who generally believe in greater state intervention (e.g. the Democratic Party). In Malaysia, as soon as you say you are a liberal, many would assume you mean “Islam liberal”. I am neither of those. Neither of them represents liberalism in the classical sense. I am a classical liberal, and, if I were in America, I would be called a libertarian. To avoid further confusion, let us use the word “libertarian” and let me explain what that means to me.

Rule of law

Classical liberalism or libertarianism is not a new doctrine. A libertarian’s most basic belief could be traced back to the Jewish and Greek idea of a “higher law”, a law by which everyone, including the ruler, could be judged. I would add that the advent of Islam strengthened this belief, and reinforced the idea that the rulers and those in positions of power are not the ultimate source of authority. They too are subject to the law.

Libertarianism is therefore not a call for total lack of rules and laws. It is a call for everyone to be subject to the same set of rules and laws, with no one being above the law. This is the best safeguard that we have against dictatorship and totalitarianism. The opposite – the rule of men – gives power to the ruling elite to dictate how others should live their lives. This, to me, is closer to totalitarianisms like communism and fascism and is most certainly not Islamic.

Limited government

Rule of law calls for equality between the ruled and the ruler. Since those who are ruling usually holds the key to coercive power – such as the ability to legislate, and control of the armed forces and the police – it is very important that their powers are limited for otherwise, if the rulers have unlimited powers to legislate and dictate, the state will descend into the rule of men. Hence the need for a limited government, another important principle of libertarianism.

The government is an institution to which citizens delegate the authority to rule. It is that delegation that gives government its power. But the government is such a powerful institution that it can easily become a dangerous one, especially when it coerces citizens into obedience, subverting the very people who bestowed upon them the authority to rule. To prevent such coercion, the powers of the government must be limited, usually through a written constitution that both enumerates and limits executive power with checks and balances.

As a Muslim, I am strongly against dictatorship or centralisation of power. Islam as a religion does not have a centralised religious authority, preferring instead to empower believers to make decisions for themselves and trusting them to seek knowledge in order to make informed decisions. This is why I believe that those in authority should empower the people to make their own choices, and not force the people to comply with the whims of a select few at the top of the hierarchy.

Free individuals

The concept of limited government implies that individuals are free to choose how they live their lives as long as they do no harm to others. Libertarianism sees the individual as the most basic unit of society. Society or ‘the collective’, is in reality a collection of individuals pursuing different purposes of life. It is these individuals that associate themselves with each other, subsequently forming a group or society. Just as individuals are free to associate themselves with a group or a cause, they must also be free to dissociate themselves from it. They cannot be forced to remain within a collective, nor can they be forced to abide by the will of the collective. This is very much in line with the Islamic notion that Islam frees people from servitude to mankind to servitude only to God. Denying individuals their freedom to choose is robbing them of an important gift from God – the ability to think and make choices. Worse, it subverts God’s sacred position.

Each individual must respect the dignity of another individual regardless of race, religion or gender. This means respecting the differences between people and not trying to impose uniformity. It also implies that individuals have both rights and responsibilities, such as the right to be respected by others, and the responsibility to respect others. But, and perhaps most importantly, the concept of free individuals demands that the government must not encroach into what is private to the individuals. As long as the actions of an individual do not harm others, government must not interfere.

Market solutions

It is well known that libertarians support free markets. But the reason for this support has been confused by many. Some even accuse supporters of the free markets as supporting inequality between the haves and the have-nots. This completely misses the point. Libertarians support the free market because it is the only system that respects human dignity. Denying people choice, including in the economic system, is a denial of human dignity and their ability to self-determine.

Some people, especially socialists, would argue that the government must ensure ‘equality’ in society. They are wrong on two counts – morally and pragmatically. As a Muslim, I believe God has already created us equal to each other as human beings. This is more important than any notion of economic equality. But even if imposing economic equality is morally desirable, experience shows that government intervention to this aim results almost always in even more inequality. In Malaysia, the New Economic Policy (NEP) is perhaps the best example of how when government tries to impose equality, the result is inequality. It baffles me when politicians argue that the answer to this government failure is even more government intervention, this time in the guise of a welfare state.

Towards a liberal Malaysia

As a Muslim, I am reminded of how earlier Muslims prospered without much state intervention. Although they had laws which everyone had to abide to, these were very much limited to defence and maintaining peace. Each individual Muslim is responsible for their own actions. They were global traders operating in relatively free world markets. The Prophet Muhammad himself was a successful trader who married another successful trader. Many of his closest companions were also traders. These successful free-marketeers even allowed the market to deliver many of their public services. Government at that time did not run schools or hospitals. They had waqf (private charitable foundations) to support the provision of education, healthcare and even to run mosques. In other words, schools, hospitals, and even mosques, to name just a few, were private institutions, free from government interference.

So, there we go. Being a liberal to me is about respecting the rule of law, limiting the claws of government, freeing individuals from servitude to another human being, and bringing back market solutions. As a Muslim, is it conceivable for me to be otherwise?


Wan Saiful Wan Jan is Director General of Malaysia Think Tank.

This article was published in Malaysiakini (, and has been translated into French, Persian and Arabic


  • katherine 2010 Feb 13 / 17:01

    Thank you so much for the wonderful article. As a libertarian (often misunderstood as well!), and Malaysian, I am greatly appreciative and applaud the work of you and your colleagues in bringing about greater discourse, enlightenment and empowerment to the individual back home. In our big libertarian lego world, sans scaffolding, we need strong, hardy bricks that are able to connect and build upon, on, from each other.

  • Immanuel Lim c/o Discern Publishing House 2010 Mar 10 / 15:40

    Nicely put, Saudara Wan Saiful, thank you. Please continue to share this message to educate our people on how to think & live correctly. 🙂

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