JAG Statement: The State Has No Role in Policing Morality

It has become apparent in the past few months that we, as Malaysians, can no longer afford to remain silent over the increasing role of the state in policing the morality of its citizens.

The arrest of a transgender in the garden of a friend’s house by religious authorities in Taiping (The Star, March 2, 2005, p.12); the Malacca Belia 4-B campaign to spy on young people under the pretext of controlling morality (Malaysiakini.com, February 22, 2005); and the JAWI raid on a Kuala Lumpur nightclub and subsequent detention and humiliation of approximately 100 Muslim youth (Sunday Mail, Jan 23, 2005, p1) are unfortunate incidents that demonstrate how moral policing violates the personal dignity of humans and their rights as citizens. We question the state’s role in defining and controlling the morality of its citizens and its use of punitive religious and municipal laws. Forced and fearful compliance with such laws results not in a more moral society but a mass of terrified, submissive and hypocritical subjects.

We are concerned that when religion is so much part of the political arena, it increases the state’s inclination to police the private lives of its citizens. Given the multi-religious and multi-ethnic composition of our society, any attempt to regulate a person’s conscience, faith or private life has grave implications for all citizens and communities, as well as the relationships between communities.

The use of state instruments such as the police, religious and Rela officers to control morality is nothing new. The use of Muslim youth to spy on other Muslims, however, is unprecedented. It violates not only Qur’anic injunctions but also common standards of community trust. Further, it invites vigilantism. Reported plans to rope in non-Muslim youth to spy on non-Muslim couples indicate how quickly such invasive and authoritarian policies can affect Malaysians.

We are against the use of these state instruments, and the individuals and groups enlisted as their surrogates, to regulate morality. How people dress and where, how and with whom they socialise are personal choices.

The outcry following the nightclub raid and detention of some 100 Muslim patrons by JAWI officers recently and the case of a couple booked by City Hall enforcement officers for holding hands at the KLCC park in August 2003 indicates the Malaysian public’s concern over the issue. In the past, many similar incidents went unreported because those who were charged pleaded guilty without legal representation for fear of the shame and discrimination of a prolonged public trial. It is clear that public opinion has changed, and that laws must be changed to reflect our increasingly open and progressive society.

Any law that attempts to regulate a citizen’s life to the smallest detail has far-reaching consequences to the point that it becomes unjust and unenforceable. The vague provisions of such laws leave them wide open to interpretation and abuse by enforcement officers, which can lead to selective prosecution and victimisation, usually on those from a marginalised class, gender and/or community.
The responsibility of the Government is to uphold and protect the rights of its citizens to justice, equality, freedom and dignity at all times.

In the spirit of our democratic and pluralistic society, we the undersigned affirm that morality is a matter best dealt with by individuals and their families, and we call for:

a) The repeal of provisions in religious and municipal laws that deny citizens their fundamental right to privacy, freedom of speech and expression, and those that overlap with the federal Penal Code;

b) The appointment of a committee to monitor the process of repealing these laws, including representation from women’s groups, human rights groups, civil society organizations, progressive religious scholars and constitutional experts;

c) The strengthening of our pluralism through community dialogue around morals in our society, rather than the divisiveness bred by sub-contracting of moral policing and neighbours spying on neighbours.

Endorsed by

All Women’s Action Society (AWAM)
Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC)
Metal Industry Employees Union National Human Rights Society (HAKAM)
Sisters in Islam (SIS)
Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)
Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)
Women’s Development Collective (WDC)

Dr Farish A. Noor
Beth Yahp, political scientist
Rosli Omar, writer
Shanon Shah, singer-songwriter