Malaysia is fast-becoming ground zero of a global “Culture War”, as conflicting visions of society struggle for dominance.
Broadly speaking, there are two main forces at work: on the one hand there is a more western-inclined, common-law based outlook. This has been shaped by the country's strategic location at the heart of one of Asia's busiest trading routes, its rich history and the various communities that have settled here.
On the other, there is a purist approach that prioritizes Islamic traditions.
As a writer and onetime lawyer, I very clearly belong to the first category.
However, there's no doubt that that the second is gathering in strength.
For many years, I've avoided much interaction with the “other” side, if only because the different world views seem so intractable.
Still, with a sense of wanting to understand the conservative community better, I arranged to meet with a charming, newlywed Malay couple, Afiq and Muna, both in their mid-twenties and graduates from the International Islamic University on the eastern fringes of Kuala Lumpur.
With their loose-fitting, modest attire (Muna wears a hijab that reaches down to her waist), they look like quintessentially pious Muslims.
Whilst their attire may distinguish them from other young people, they share many of the same challenges: they are struggling with the high cost of living and prohibitive property prices.
Both also recognized that their lives won't be as prosperous as their parents, which in turn fuels their anger and disdain for Prime Minister Najib Razak and his government.
On a more personal note, I liked the way Afiq encouraged Muna, a trainee lawyer to state her views.
Indeed, as we talked, I was struck by Muna's lovely smile and her calm, authoritative manner.
Currently a chambering student, her legal education – she has studied both the Shariah and Civil legal systems – has imbued her with an enviable directness.
Afiq's (he’s a Shariah compliance officer at a pharmaceutical company) arguments are less so.
Muna is particularly impassioned about a controversial bill to amend the Shariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 (i.e. the “RUU 355”) championed by the Islamist PAS party with the Government's tacit approval.
While it may seem arcane and irrelevant, the Bill has become a lightning rod for criticism.
Well, essentially, it seeks to enhance the sentencing powers of Malaysia’s Shariah courts.
For Malaysia's large non-Muslim population as well as the more progressive elements in the Malay community, this move is viewed as an attempt to introduce hard-line hudud law.
Unsurprisingly, Muna views things differently. For her, the two parallel legal systems are supposed to be equal.
However, it's clear that the Shariah system has lesser powers and she regards this as an injustice.
She talks about how the Shariah system was in existence “before” the arrival of the Europeans.
To Muna, the seeming subordinate status makes her feel as if “…our identity as a society that holds true to Islamic values and laws are being slowly eroded."
Afiq is particularly concerned about the failure to deal with pre-marital sex and drinking.
As he explains: "Islam is not just a private and personal relationship between man and God, but it also governs the relationships between men. There are certain acts that are sinful in Islam and I believe that adequate punishments should be meted out…Even though these acts only involve the person and God, I believe laws should be made to curb these problems.”
Inevitably, we touched on politics and how the controversy would shape the upcoming General Elections – Malaysia's 14th since Independence. Since both were PAS members, the discussion was quite heated.
As I questioned the tactical wisdom of pushing the Bill so aggressively and its potential impact on PAS' electoral fortunes, Muna interrupted me: "Pak Karim, PAS is not simply a political party. We are also a movement that seeks to change the society. There are two elements that continue alongside the politics: 'tarbiyyah' (education) and 'dakwah' (out-reach). Our aim is to create a truly Islamic society that embraces the tenets of the Quran."
She also added quite firmly: "Don't forget that most UMNO members share our views on Islam and the need to raise our respect for our faith. Their leaders are a different matter."
Determined and forthright, Muna rebutted my questions at every step, making me realize the enormity of the Culture Wars still ahead.
Whilst I remain a committed advocate of the existing common law system which I feel possesses a unique ability to balance the rights and interests of the different Malaysian communities, I fear that those tasked to deal with the Muna's and the Afiq's of today may lack the passion and drive.
Being secular and liberal has never felt so lonely.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.