Why It Matters

Moderate Johor put to the test

Madam Zakiah Mat Lila (facing camera) from Mersing, a coastal town in eastern Johor, will vote only for Muslims and applauds strict Islamic laws, such as cutting off the hands of thieves and caning fornicators. ST PHOTO: KEMBURAJU THANGARAJAN

Johor has long been hailed as a bastion of moderate Islam. Its popular and well-respected ruler, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, makes no secret about his abhorrence of religious intolerance and racial discrimination.

He speaks his mind and has struck down attempts to stir tensions in the multicultural state of 3.6 million people, where Chinese and Indians make up a significant minority - one in three residents.

So, a recent survey commissioned by ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, indicating that Islamic conservatism and exclusivity are on the rise in the state, has raised some eyebrows.

The poll of 2,011 Johoreans, 55 per cent of whom were Malays, revealed strong Muslim support for hudud, or the strict Islamic criminal code which metes out penalties such as cutting off hands in cases of theft and stoning for adultery.

Particularly surprising was that one in two Malays had called for the laws to be applied to all Malaysians, regardless of their faith.

With Islamic revivalism sweeping across the globe, the survey confirms Johor has not been spared, even with a forward-looking Sultan.

The 59-year-old ruler seems keen to follow the example of Singapore, which last month barred the entry of two Islamic preachers over concerns of hardline and divisive teachings. His push for a Bangsa Johor identity promoting tolerance is also gaining traction as calls of support for him to bring back English as a medium of instruction in schools grow louder.

Rising conservatism is a challenge for the Sultan as the state's constitutional head of Islam. But Johor is in a good position, with an overwhelming nine in 10 Johorean Malays agreeing that the ruler is a good guardian of the religion. The hope is that more will share his outlook on matters of faith.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2017, with the headline Moderate Johor put to the test. Subscribe