JOHOR BARU • The Sultan of Johor has entered a controversial debate surrounding Malaysia's Islamic institutions when he said he wanted to know whether the Islamic Development Department (Jakim) has a reported annual budget of RM1 billion (S$330 million).
Jakim is a key agency under the Prime Minister's Department which, along with the government's Islamic Economic Development Foundation (YaPEIM), has had its roles and financial dealings placed under the spotlight in recent weeks.
Critics of Jakim, YaPEIM and other Islamic institutions question their increasing power to make regulations that affect Muslims and how their big budgets are spent - both sensitive topics in a country where Islam is the official religion.
Jakim is involved widely in Islamic education, including paying the salaries of 15,000 imams (mosque leaders), and is also charged with ensuring that restaurants wanting to serve food to Muslims carry the halal logo.
Malaysia's deputy minister in charge of religious affairs, Datuk Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, said last month that the department needs its RM1 billion budget to carry out its activities. He said these included thwarting the teachings of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to "deviant" sects.
The confirmation of the huge budget for an Islamic body raised eyebrows. In an interview with The Star daily, Johor's Sultan Ibrahim Ismail, in speaking on a range of topics, was asked about the role of Malaysia's nine royal houses as the custodians of Islam amid debate about federal agencies exerting their influence.
His answer was that Jakim can give advice or propose guidelines but it is up to the nine sultans to accept these.
He then asked: "I am curious to know - if it is true - why do they need a RM1 billion budget? Does it include allocations to all the states?"
He said that he planned to bring up the issue at the next Conference of Rulers, meetings held twice a year featuring the sultans and their chief ministers.
"I want them to show me their breakdown for expenses," he was quoted as saying.
Apart from its huge budget, Jakim has had its role questioned for nosing into what some deem as individuals' personal affairs.
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said last month that Jakim was imposing "its version of Islam" on everybody.
"Today, Jakim wants to Islamise everything," Tun Dr Mahathir told reporters after attending an event.
"In the Quran, it says 'there is no compulsion in Islam', but Jakim wants everyone to follow its version of Islam."
YaPEIM has also had its financial dealings questioned recently. These included questions on why it needed to have a golf-simulator on its premises, and the use of public funds for a trip to the United States involving a top official.
YaPEIM's main functions are promoting micro-credit for small businesses, aiding the poor and running Islamic pawnshops.
In the interview, the Johor ruler praised Singapore.
"There is so much we can learn from Singapore. They have done well, let's be honest here.
"We don't have to go on expensive study trips to Europe or the United States - just go across the Causeway to Singapore, they have done so many things that are correct and efficient," he said.
Sultan Ibrahim also said that Prime Minister Najib Razak should be given "a chance".
"I know the Prime Minister has come under much criticism, but I say give him a chance...
"The year has come to an end, we must move on."