Malaysians, aren’t we all liberals?

There is a misconception towards the concept of ‘liberals’ in Malaysia (and I heard this happens in Indonesia as well). It seems to be used as a derogatory word without understanding the meaning of it. By observing social media posts by those who use the word ‘liberal’ as a derogatory word, the term is often being used in religious polemics. While going against religious views do resonate with the philosophy of ‘liberalism’, liberalism is not only confined to religion.

What is liberalism? Basically, it is a philosophy that is based on liberty and equity. Etymologically, the term is derived from the word ‘liber’ which means ‘free’ in Latin. Liberals have a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles. Civil rights, democracy, gender equality, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are the few principles that resonate with liberalism. Our federal constitution has adopted liberal principles during its early formation. Other than that, a low degree of government control towards freedom of speech and freedom of the press are the few liberal principles that citizens of Malaysia had advocated for during the recent 2018 Malaysian general election.

According to Abd Aziz A’zmi (2016), The Reid Commission (Suruhanjaya Reid) had based the principles of liberalism as the foundations to form the Federal Constitution of Malaya in 1957. The branch of liberalism that our federal constitution is based on is classical liberalism. Classical liberalism basically emphasizes the individual rights to freedom of economic and civil activity. The current political, social, economic conditions that we experience today are the result of these liberal principles being implemented in policies in various areas of the government and private sectors. 
Other than that, during the recent 2018 Malaysian General Election, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are the two liberal principles that have been restricted by the previous government. Malaysian citizens have been voicing out against such restrictions and it has been one of the reasons for the change to a new government. By taking account of the liberal principles and Malaysian citizens’ uproar prior to the 14th General Election, it’s safe to say that we are liberals.

But why do certain groups in Malaysia are resistant towards liberal views? Or, to be specific, when they heard the word ‘liberal’, they are prone to perceive it as negative. Perhaps they are just mostly uninformed. Maybe they are not actually resistant to liberalism, but secularism. Secularism is a view that stems from liberal principles. Freedom of religion, as one of the liberal principles, means having the choice to adopt secular views. Secularism gives a country the freedom to separate religious considerations when making decisions in government institutions. By being a majority Muslim country, of course, this goes against the teachings of Islam as its teachings consist of all aspects of a Muslim’s life be it social, political, or economics. Secularism does just the opposite. 

Another idea that most Malaysian Muslims go against is ‘Liberal Islam’. I personally understand where the resistance is coming from but such groups tend to view ‘Liberal’ and ‘Liberal Islam’ as one of the same. Although Liberal Islam does stem its ideology from liberal principles, ‘Liberal Islam’ is just a subset of liberalism. Even though we do practice liberalism, our country’s constitution does not apply liberalism in the Western sense of the word. According to Abd Aziz A’zmi (2016), our constitution, while recognizing Islam as the dominant religion, only applies to the principles of liberalism that are compatible with Islam while retaining Asian values.

By reading this, I hope you fellow readers can finally understand what ‘liberal’ actually means and how it has contributed to the formation of our country and realizing the fact that we are actually upholding liberal principles. It’s not for us to totally reject the philosophy of liberalism completely as it can benefit a multicultural and a democratic society such as ours.

p/s: If you have any rectifications or refinements regarding my essay, just drop me a comment.


Abd Aziz A’zmi. (2016). LIBERALISME DALAM KONTEKS ASAS PEMBINAAN NEGARA MALAYSIA. Malaysian Journal of Social Science, 1, 1-16. Retrieved November 18, 2018, from

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