The Sustainability of the Next Islamic Initiative in Malaysia

The Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Mosque in Shah Alam is one of the most iconic symbols of Islam in Malaysia. Credit: Unsplash/Firdouss Ross

A Series on Political Islam and GE15 – Part 4: The Sustainability of the Next Islamic Initiative in Malaysia


The dissolution of the Malaysian Parliament on 10 October 2022 and the announcement of GE15 on  19 November 2022 piqued the curiosity of the people and political analysts alike as well as encouraged them to engage in analysis and discourse of the upcoming election.

These are obviously multifaceted, ranging from politicking mechanisms and strategies to predictions of the victors and losers. However, one which has been rarely, and in fact hardly, discussed and analysed is the government’s Islamic initiatives relating to Islamic administration and development of the ummah.

Previously, each time the government changed, there would arise the introduction of a new Islamic initiative with its specific tagline. For instance, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s first administration introduced the Inculcation of Noble Values. It was followed by Islam Hadhari during the premiership of Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Maqasid Syariah and Malaysian Syariah Index during the premiership of Dato’ Seri Mohd Najib Abdul Razak, Rahmatan-lil-‘Alamin during the second premiership of Tun Dr. Mahathir, Manhaj Rabbani during the premiership of Tan Sri Dato’ Haji Muhyiddin bin Md. Yasin, and Inisiatif Mantap and Pelan Intervensi Agensi Agama Mendepani COVID-19 (Intervention Plan of Religious Agencies in Facing Covid-19 – PIAGAM-C19) during the premiership of Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob.

Of all these initiatives, at least two advocates admitted that theirs were actually an improved continuation of previous initiatives. Minister of Religious Affairs Datuk Seri Dr. Mujahid bin Yusof Rawa who championed the establishment of Rahmatan-lil-‘Alamin, for instance, explained that it is a continuation of previous policies such as Islam Hadhari and Wasatiyyah. Minister of Religious Affairs Datuk Haji Idris Ahmad, who designed Inisiatif Mantap, also guaranteed that he will continue and adjust any previous Islamic policies and programs that benefit all Malaysians, according to his prevailing government policies. Apart from the confessions of the respective advocates themselves, it has been suggested that Islam Hadhari, too, was actually a continuation of Mahathir’s Inculcation of Noble Values.

Notably, only Najib Razak and Ismail Sabri produced more than one initiative. This is because, in Najib’s administration, Maqasid Syariah was used as an indicator to the Malaysian Syariah Index, particularly on the preservation of religion, life, mind, progeny and property. PIAGAM-C19 during the premiership of Ismail Sabri was used as a plan to attain the objectives of Insiatif Mantap, which are to solidify: 1) mental, physical and spiritual matters; 2) Islamic education system; 3) family institution, social and Islamic community; 4) institution of mosque and prayer hall (surau), and; 5) socio-economic of the ummah.

However, irrespective of the number of Islamic initiatives and guarantees in sustaining previous initiatives, all sizzled out as their advocates left the administration. Such seems to be fate for present Inisiatif Mantap and PIAGAM-C19 as well.

Would the initiative by the next government suffer the same fate, if there is one at all? What is the cause of this and what solution can be prescribed for this problem?

The Gist of the Islamic Initiatives

The objectives of the Islamic initiatives in Malaysia were similar. They were meant to improve the governance and administration of related agencies and to measure the Islamic-ness of efforts by the ministries. These would lead to the development of the Malaysian ummah. However, these initiatives did not provide comprehensive coverages to target groups.  

For instance, the Inculcation of Noble Values was only confined to government administration. Maqasid Syariah and Malaysian Syariah Index were utilized to measure the government’s status in carrying out the nation’s administrations. Meanwhile, Rahmatan lil-‘Alamin was restricted to the administration of Islam. Furthermore, Manhaj Rabbani relates only to the Islamic administration of agencies under the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs). Additionally, Inisiatif Mantap was only limited to the Key Performance Index for the first 100-days of the religious affairs miniister while PIAGAM-C19 merely covered the endeavors to overcome socio-economic problems of the ummah during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The only initiative that could be regarded as comprehensive was Islam Hadhari. This initiative covered almost all aspects, from faith and piety in Allah, to just and trustworthy government, to freedom and independence to the people, to mastery of knowledge, to balanced and comprehensive economic development, to good quality of life for all, to protection of the rights of minority groups and women, to cultural and moral integrity, to protection of the environment, and to strong defense policy.

The reasons for the limited coverage and scope of other Islamic initiatives may be attributed to at least two factors: the advocates’ degree of power and the timing of their introduction and implementation.

For example, Mahathir Mohamad’s power as prime minister was obviously vast but the timing of the introduction of the Inculcation of Noble Values was not suitable for its implementation in all aspects of governance. Islam then was just beginning to resurge while Islamic awareness among the Malaysian civil servants was limited.

However, Mahathir believed that only clean governance with noble (read: Islamic) values would maximize productivity and build up a progressive Malaysia, hence the emphasis of the noble values on administrative civil servants. This endeavor could be considered as an early modest endeavor in injecting Islamic elements into the Malaysian administration.

The context was different during the reigns of Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak. During both administrations, Islam had resurged quite substantially and initiatives like Islam Hadhari and Malaysia Syariah Index seemed attainable at the national level, what with the power of both prime ministers as advocates.

However, Islam Hadhari and Malaysia Syariah Index were different. Islam Hadhari was constructed as an Islamic civilizational strategy while Malaysia Syariah Index was formulated to measure ministries’ achievements on Islam-based indicators. Islam Hadhari, thus, is more comprehensive in nature as it covers the development of Malaysia as a whole, as compared to Malaysia Syariah Index which only dealt with Islam in ministries.

The other three initiatives – Rahmatan-lil-‘Alamin, Manhaj Rabbani and Inisiatif Mantap – were restricted to the administration of Islam in 14 agencies and functioned under their advocates’ lesser power, the religious affairs ministers. The timing of their implementation was also not conducive. During the introduction of these Islamic initiatives, Malaysian politics was unstable as marked by the political crises under Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope – PH) and Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance – PN). Due to this, a comprehensive Islamic initiative was impossible.

The Advocates

It remains unknown why the advocacy of Islamic initiatives shifted from the offices of prime minister to the minister of religious affairs. However, one insight to this could be the degree of passion and enthusiasm of the respective advocates. Initially championed by prime ministers, Islamic initiatives were recently driven by ministers of religious affairs who are also advocates of Islam.

The advocate of the Rahmatan-lil-‘Alamin, Dr. Mujahid Yusof Rawa, is a leader of Parti Amanah Negara (National Trust Party – Amanah), a breakaway of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Malaysian Islamic Party – PAS). The advocate of Manhaj Rabbani, Dr. Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, is a former Mufti of Federal Territory. Lastly, the advocate of Inisiatif Mantap and PIAGAM-C19, Haji Idris Ahmad, is a PAS leader.

Another possibility is because of the political instability, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. As prime ministers were occupied with dealing with the political, health and socio-economic crises, the task of promoting Islamic initiatives were left to the hands of the ministers of religious affairs.

The power difference of advocates shape the political will and availability of resources. Islamic initiatives initiated by prime ministers entailed strong political will and abundant resources, hence their greater impact. Meanwhile, initiatives propagated by ministers of religious affairs did not enjoy the same level of political will and resources, hence their lesser impact.

Notably, the Malaysian royalties, the custodians of Islam, do not seem to have a direct hand in all of these Islamic initiatives. Out of the six Islamic initiatives, only Rahmatan-lil-‘Alamin gained the Conference of Rulers’ approval as well as the approval from Majlis Kebangsaan Hal Ehwal Islam Malaysia (National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs – MKI), the advisory body of the Conference of Rulers. It is unclear, though unlikely, that other Islamic initiatives went through a similar process. However, future Islamic initiatives may be different as the position of the Chairman of the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs is now held by one of the ruling monarchs in rotation for two years with the prime minister as his deputy.

Towards a Sustainable Islamic Initiative

Three lessons can be drawn from the experience of past Islamic initiatives.

Firstly, the lifespan of these initiatives was dependent on the political power of their advocates. The longer the advocate is in office, the longer their implementation, hence the sustainability of the initiatives.

For instance, for Inisiatif Mantap and PIAGAM-C19 to continue after GE15, both Prime Minister Ismail Sabri and current Minister of Islamic Affairs Haji Idris Ahmad must remain in power. Other outcomes from GE15 would lead to a discontinuation of these initiatives.

Secondly, the degree of impact and accomplishment of the initiatives are dependent on the positions of the advocates. Initiatives led by prime ministers entail strong political will and large resources. Despite this, the sustainability of the initiatives still depends on the duration of the political power of the prime ministers. Irrespective of how impactful the initiatives are, new prime ministers usually would formulate and come up with their own-named Islamic initiatives. The sustainable life of the initiatives, thus, is still strongly determined by the life of their political survival, not by the impactful outcomes of the initiatives. 

Thirdly, the positioning strategy of the initiatives is a determinant factor in their sustainability. Almost all the initiatives were housed at Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (Department of Islamic Development Malaysia – JAKIM) at the Prime Minister’s Department. As an Islamic religious department directly under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Department, where the office of the Ministers of Religious Affairs is located, JAKIM was given the task to handle and realize almost all of the Islamic initiatives.

Undoubtedly, JAKIM is blessed with many officials with a background in Islamic studies, but not necessarily well-versed in socio-economic development of the ummah. Majority of the initiatives were thus approached more from the perspective of Islamic studies and, to some extent, lacking the insights of the socio-economic development perspective. Consequently, this became a hurdle in the effort to implement the initiatives on all ministries, such as in the case of Islam Hadhari. The outcome of the efforts left much to be desired.

Some lessons were learned. A new Islamic initiative by the next Malaysian government, if any, must consider the above issues. A sustainable initiative must be led by the prime minister, but its implementation has to be shifted from JAKIM to the administrative power of the Malaysian civil servants, specifically socio-economic development experts at the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) and the Implementation Coordination Unit (ICU), both under the Prime Minister’s Department.

This shift would enable a professional construction of Islamic socio-economic development planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. This is because EPU’s expertise lies in construction of the country’s development policies while ICU coordinates the implementation.

Following this, the policies of the Islamic initiatives could be integrated into Malaysia’s national development planning and implementation such as in the Malaysia’s Five-Year Plan Series. In such case, the Islamic initiatives policies may remain protected in stronger hands, hence sustainable, with lesser impact from the political fate of their advocates.

The next Islamic initiative, therefore, may be considered to be housed under the roof of central development agencies like EPU and ICU that guarantee a systematic and professional treatment of the initiative as well as assures its sustainability, while remaining imperious to the changes of the government in the future. This is difficult, however, as JAKIM and the ministry of religious affairs might not be willing to let go the ownership of the initiatives.

Alternatively, the new Islamic initiative may be positioned under the auspices of the Conference of Rulers of Malaysia. Nevertheless, how far the Conference of Rulers could intervene in central government development agencies, with their own political will and resources, has to be studied further.

The change of the chairman of the advisory body of the Conference of Rulers (i.e. MKI) from the prime minister to a royalty may open a new avenue for the new Islamic initiative. But to what extent the Islamic initiative is in the jurisdiction of the Conference of Rulers – and how extensive the Conference of Rulers have been with regards to Islamic practices – may indicate whether the Conference of Rulers may ensure the sustainability of Islamic initiatives. The venture into all these questions may greatly help in sustaining any future Islamic initiative after GE15.


Malaysia is fortunate to have a myriad of Islamic initiatives, but unfortunate for their short-lived and unsustainable fate. These can be attributed to the position of those advocating these initiatives, the timing of the initiatives’ introduction and implementation, as well as their attachment to JAKIM rather than to central socio-economic development authorities such as EPU and ICU.

The solutions to these three problems are two-fold. Firstly, the formulation of the Islamic initiatives may become more sustainable if they are undertaken within central development agencies such as EPU and ICU. Secondly, the concern and support of the Conference of Rulers in the planning and implementation may help in sustaining the Islamic initiatives as well.

The next government should take into account these determinant factors responsible for the unsustainability of Islamic initiatives and the suggested steps to sustain Islamic initiatives in the future. All in all, the grip of the politicians and the top political office on the Islamic initiatives needs to be minimized and the engagement of Islamic-oriented professional civil servants, ones with strong background in socio-economic issues, with the private sectors need to be maximized.

Part 1: Islamists vs Islamists in GE15

Part 2: Expected Acceptance and Rejection Factors for PAS and UMNO in Peninsula Malaysia in the 15th General Election

Part 3: The Malay-Muslim Politics and Malaysia’s GE15

Part 5: Mediatised Religion in Malaysia: Islamization by Trolling?

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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  • Prof. Dr. Muhammad Syukri Salleh is Honorary Professor of Islamic Development Management at Centre for Islamic Development Management Studies (ISDEV), Universiti Sains Malaysia, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia. He was the Founding-Director of the Centre. Currently, he is also an Adjunct Professor at Faculty of Islamic Development Management (FPPI), Universiti Islam Sultan Sharif Ali (UNISSA), Negara Brunei Darussalam.