Secular or non-secular: How Art Harun got it wrong on the Reid Commission
By Mat Rempit Hubris
- I would like to draw the reader’s attention to a critical factual error contained in an article written by lawyer Art Harun titled ‘Secular or Non-Secular? What history tells us’ which appeared both in his blog and also in The Malaysian Insider.
- In that article Art fatally misrepresented the Reid Commission — the drafters of the Merdeka Constitution. But before I elaborate and provide evidence, I think it is only fair to furnish the readers with some background information on Art Harun’s article.
- Firstly, his article is a tad under 1,300 words long. Yet, out of that amount, only about 300 are actually Art’s own words. And this shouldn’t be surprising once you know what the article tries to achieve; it attempts to demonstrate that Malaysia has secular roots by reference to the historical record — hence the roughly 1,000 words of the rest of the article mainly comprise quotations of the historical material that Art uses to prove his point.
- Anyway, to avoid being accused of putting words into Art’s mouth, the following is the reason given by the man himself for citing all those historical material. (He said it in the comment section of his blog when responding to to a reader by the name of ‘Ellese’):
Art had written in response to Ellese:
“However, from the historical point of view and the constitutional point of view as well, what was intended is that this country should be secular in nature. That’s the premise. And that’s why I had produced all those speeches and statements in my article.” (see screenshot in footnote)
- Now, the historical sources that he cites are very prestigious — the Alliance Government, the Reid Commission and the British Government. And his article also quotes from Joseph Fernando’s monograph titled ‘The Making of the Malayan Constitution’ which is an invaluable academic work largely based on primary historical material.
- With regards to the issue of whether Malaysia (Malaya) is a secular or a non-secular country, all the entities he cites — the Alliance, the Reid Commission and the British Government – essentially say the same thing: that the country was meant to be a secular state and that the inclusion of a provision such as Article 3 (which states that Islam is “the religion of the Federation”) shall not imply Malaysia is not a secular country. Indeed according to Art, “All of them was at pain to say and emphasise that.” (Again quoted from his reply in the comment section to Ellese)
- But therein lies the problem: with regards to the Reid Commission, what Art says is NOT TRUE; the Reid Commission said NO SUCH A THING. On the issue of a state religion, Art Harun quotes a portion of the Reid Report. He is referring to paragraph 169 of the report. However, what Art attributed to the Reid Commission is missing a crucial phrase which alters the meaning entirely.
Below is what is quoted by Art Harun of the Reid Report:
“We have considered the question whether there should be any statement in the Constitution to the effect that Islam should be the State religion. There was universal agreement that if any such provision were inserted it must be made clear that it would not in any way affect the civil rights of non-Muslims — ‘the religion of Malaysia shall be Islam. The observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practising their own religion and shall not imply that the State is not a secular State’
There is screenshot below in the footnote.
- Now the actual paragraph 169 of the Reid Report is as follows. I’ve underlined the part that Art missed out.
“We have considered the question whether there should be any statement in the Constitution to the effect that Islam should be the State religion. There was universal agreement that if any such provision were inserted it must be made clear that it would not in any way affect the civil rights of non-Muslims. In the memorandum submitted by the Alliance it was stated — ‘’the religion of Malaysia shall be Islam. The observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practising their own religion and shall not imply that the State is not a secular State”.
In the footnote is also a scan of the page from the Reid Report where I’ve underlined the part of the sentence that Art Harun left out.
- True, it is only half a sentence but with regards to depicting the position of the Reid Commission pertaining to the issue of Islam as a state religion, it makes all the difference in the world. Why?
- Because when you read the paragraph without that crucial half a sentence you will get the (wrong!) impression that the Reid Commission indeed held the position that having Islam as a state religion doesn’t imply that Malaysia is not a secular state.
The observance of the principle that the religion of Malaya shall be Islam and that this principle shall not imply that Malaya is not a secular state was the position taken by the Alliance Memoranda submitted to the Reid Commission, and not that taken by the Reid Commission itself.
- What the Reid Commission did was merely acknowledge in its report that the Alliance had wanted to insert such a provision. They themselves had not committed to it.
This is not just a matter of pitting my word against Art’s; rather the fact is also recorded by Joseph Fernando’s above mentioned work (page 129) clearly states that:
“In respect of religion, the Commission decided not to make any provision relating to an official religion for the Federation although the Alliance had proposed that Islam should be made the official religion.”
- Indeed according to Fernando, in private, the Reid Commission felt that the Alliance’s claim (that having a state religion doesn’t compromise Malaya’s status as a secular country) was a contradiction. Anyway I have scanned the said page 129 of Fernando’s book below, so you can read the whole passage yourself.
- Thus, to recapitulate, contrary to what Art Harun claims (that the Reid Commission was at pains to say that Malaya was still a secular country despite the presence of Article 3), the Reid Commission did NOT say such a thing.
- Now, the questions are: Was the omission intentional — that is, was Art deliberately tampering with the paragraph to mislead his readers? Or was it a case of simply being sloppy — meaning he wasn’t careful enough while quoting? Or could it be possible that he hasn’t actually read the primary material himself, and hence, didn’t know that his quotation was fatally incomplete?
- Lets us consider the possibilities of the above scenarios.
- Scenario number 1: SLOPPINESS or INTENTIONAL?
What’s the likelihood of sloppiness? Well, if it was a case of being sloppy, the question that arises is: How come there seems to be a consistency to the sloppiness? Sloppiness usually happens in a random way.
Now, what I mean by this is that the omission seems to serve the purpose of fitting in with the overall narrative of Art Harun’s article which is to prove through the citing of historical documents and statements that Malaya (Malaysia) is a secular state. Within the framework of such a narrative, the altered version of the pertinent paragraph contained in the Reid Commission report fits in perfectly; indeed it is a critical plank — for it will allow Art to present the Reid Commission’s opinion as if the commissioners had believed that Malaya was a secular state.
Furthermore, by dropping the crucial phrase “In the memorandum submitted by the Alliance it was stated (— ‘’the religion of Malaysia shall be Islam)” makes it sounds as if the Reid Commission’s position was consistent with the Alliance’s position and as well as with the other sources that Art cites in his article.
And to achieve this narrative, he must also at the same time exclude Joseph Fernando’s description of the Commission’s position that “In respect of religion, the Commission decided not to make any provision relating to an official religion for the Federation although the Alliance had proposed that Islam should be made the official religion.”
Yes, Art Harun might not have been aware of Fernando’s description but since he also quotes from the same book, how realistic is it that Art Harun was unaware?
And that is why I say that the consistency in terms of sloppiness seems suspicious — instead it looks like an example of selective omission. First Art must be unaware that the quote he attributed to Reid Commission was doctored and secondly, although he himself cites Joseph Fernando’s book, yet Art overlooked the description contained in the very same book which is at odds with his own narrative.
Additionally, the possibility of such sloppiness becomes even more far-fetched when we remember that Art Harun is a lawyer. Lawyers are trained to go through the wording of written material— whether agreements, laws, rules and/or regulation – with a fine toothcomb.
Indeed, precise words are the holy grail of their profession. Why? Because legal disputes pertaining to infringement or compliance of written laws and agreements are in many ways directly related to how it was exactly worded.
Thus if indeed Art was that slapdash in failing to check the veracity of the quotations he uses from the Reid Commission, then it was a very convenient shoddiness — as I’ve said, it fits with the objective of his narrative. Unintentional omission is, by its very nature accidental, and accidental mistakes should happen haphazardly and inconsistently, but in the case of this article, it happens in a pattern — a pattern which I might add, serves a particular script.
And if we remember that such shoddiness is contrary to legal training which pays meticulous attention to words, it begins to look more deliberate than unintentional.
But who knows, stranger things have happened before.
- Scenario 2: HE DIDNT ACTUALLY READ THE MATERIAL HIMSELF
This scenario is not unusual. Many people do not have access to the original material — hence what they know of it, and if they are writers, what they quote from it, usually comes from second-hand sources including other people’s writings. But if Art Harun’s citing of the Reid Commission was an example of this, then he should have said so upfront — it’s the ethical thing to do. Or else it will give readers the impression that he has gone through the material firsthand.
But since he didn’t declare that he might have borrowed his writing from another lawyer (just as an example), I think no one can be blamed for having all these doubts about the honesty and integrity of Art’s article. After all, his article and or rather, the nature of the omission it contains, is far from being above suspicion.
Indeed it invites suspicion.
If I was optimistic about his integrity, then I would say that he was simply being shoddy in quoting an altered version of paragraph 169 of the Reid Commission Report — meaning, it wasn’t intentional. Optimism would also prompt me to give him the benefit of the doubt in other ways — for example, he didn’t read the material firsthand, hence, he did not realize that he was quoting a tampered version of the above paragraph.
But if I was pessimistic (some might say, realistic), then I would be inclined to believe that he mislead his readers by deliberately misrepresenting the Reid Commission.
Either way, all the conclusions are negative — being sloppy is not as bad as being dishonest, but it’s still quite an indictment nonetheless — especially for someone who has a legal eagle background.
PS — Please don’t get me wrong—: This article is not about attacking Art Harun personally. Rather it’s about the importance of respecting the integrity of historical documents especially when discussing issues of national identity. The material should be allowed to speak for itself. This entails making doubly sure that they are quoted accurately and truthfully.
PSS — The reason why I write this in Helen’s blog rather than post it as a comment on Art Harun’s blog is simple: I don’t think it was possible to show scans of the documents above within the comment section of his blog. To me, providing photographic proof of the historical material — both the original page of the Reid Report that contained paragraph 169 and also the relevant page of Joseph Fernando work – was most necessary. Or else it was simply going to be a case of pitting my word against Art Harun’s.
Additionally, Art’s article has also been published by The Malaysian Insider, which means that to the TMI editors, Art’s article was significant enough to deserve a wider airing. Unfortunately a wider airing for something that contains a fatal factual mistake pertaining to historical material will also mean compounding and spreading the disease of historical fallacy.
We all know how readers love to disseminate through e-mail and Facebook the articles which appear in the pro-opposition websites. Even though Helen’s blog is not a news portal that can match the large circulation of TMI, nonetheless she has agreed to hosting my rebuttal so that the fundamental error contained in Art Harun’s article can be pointed out.
After all, that is the purpose of a responsible blog — to encourage informed and honest discussion.