November 24, 2015
In Malaysia Islam is big business
by Azrul Mohd. Khalib
Cash is King PM and Finance Minister
There exists a reality which has been present ever since men discovered organised religion: organised religion as big bsiness.
There are countless examples from history. In ancient Egypt, people would voluntarily give offerings to the cult of Pharaoh in the belief that they were living gods or descended from divinity. Jesus flipped out when he saw the moneylenders at their tables in the temple with the sheep, oxen and pigeons on sale. Martin Luther was so upset about the selling of indulgences as a method of fundraising that he raised hell by nailing 95 objections to the door of a church.
In more recent times and in our cozy corner of the world, we have seen examples of priests driving luxury cars, wearing expensive watches and living lifestyles more suited to the rich and famous. Just last month, the court decision of a corruption scandal convicting the leaders of a mega church and involving fraud of millions in funds rocked Singapore.
So, being part of organised religion especially in the leadership, can be a lucrative and profitable enterprise both personally and for the faith, of course. It should be no surprise to anyone that those involved would fight tooth and nail on any move which threatens the status quo.
The New Executives of Business Islam
Over the past few weeks, we have heard the bleating and baying of protests from officials, personalities and politicians in response to revelations and accusations alleging the misuse of funds earmarked and intended for religious and humanitarian purposes.
Make no mistake, the amount of money involved in the administration, development and enforcement of Islam in Malaysia is huge. And it involves the use of money from both Muslim and non-Muslim taxpayers. That must be made clear as there is often a mistaken belief, particularly among Muslims that everything dealing with Islamic religious expenditure comes solely from Muslims and that non-Muslims have no right to object or comment on how expenditure is done.
However, regardless of the source of the funds, these religious affiliated bodies must justify the major provisions made to them and also be held accountable, like all other government institutions.
The allocation (2015:RM783 million; 2014: RM 806 million) given to the Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (JAKIM) under the Prime Minister’s Department gets most of the attention and the fuss as it is visible under the federal budget. It is one of the largest allocations under the Prime Minister’s Department.
However, when the different allocations for the Jabatan Agama Islam Negeri under the individual state budgets including that of the Federal Territory are combined and counted in, the annual amount is closer to more than RM 1.2 billion.
The Big Spending Guardian of Business Islam
The figure increases further when the costs of running the offices of the state muftis, and bodies related to administration of Islamic justice such as the Shariah courts and judiciary, are taken into consideration.
Last year, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Jamil Khir Baharom was happy to announce that the 2013 collection of zakat (tithes) from Muslims in Malaysia had exceeded RM2.2 billion. In fact, data from the Centre for Zakat Collection (Pusat Pungutan Zakat) also indicates that contributions appreciate on an average of around 20 per cent each year. That is a lot of money and it is good that there is such a large amount available for humanitarian and welfare purposes as the need these days is quite great.
Unfortunately, we seem to be good at collecting but less efficient or diligent in delivering much-needed assistance to the intended recipients and beneficiaries.
The Business Outcome-Damaged Goods
Despite the fact that zakat can only be used to help those of the Islamic faith (as opposed to sedekah which is for anyone) and with such large amounts available annually, there are still too many who are being left out or denied help and assistance.
For reasons which range from the moral and undesirable (e.g. being transgender persons, sex workers, living with HIV and AIDS) to the bureaucratic (incomplete paperwork, no address of residence, non-Malaysian), many, especially the poor, homeless and destitute, are left with hands outstretched hoping to receive money and access to services which ironically were established to help and serve them but remain out of reach.
Knowing of this and seeing so many in need has led many Muslims in Malaysia to wonder where the zakat money has gone to despite the huge amounts collected each year. It is an increasing trend for those fulfilling their religious obligation to do so directly to the poor and needy. Simply put, most of those who do so no longer trust the authorities to distribute their zakat.
The recent arrogant and baseless statement by Dato’ Che Mat Che Ali, chair of the Federal Territory Zakat Centre (PPZ-MAIWP) that Malaysian Muslims are committing a sin when they do so lends strength to this distrust. His assertion that such donors were more likely to be generous to “cute widows” or “eloquent speakers”, rather than those truly in need, was really offensive and likely to result in a backlash with more people electing to bypass the PPZ.
Transparency and accountability of funds related to religious bodies is an issue which appears to not be taken seriously by those in authority. Senator Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki recently stated that the two overseas courses by the Yayasan Pembangunan Ekonomi Islam Malaysia (Yapeim) ― reportedly costing RM290,000 to organise ― were part of the government’s efforts to stop the spread of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) in Malaysia.
Maybe he thinks that we are all stupid or gullible but it is laying it quite thick to expect Malaysians to believe that you had to go all the way to Paris (the city of love!) to do that.
This is on top of the earlier allegations that Jamil Khir, his wife and their entourage had used over RM400,000 in Yapeim funds meant for orphans to pay for an eight-day trip to the US which included shopping sprees and games of golf.
Amidst the fallout came the revelations that this government-backed foundation made a combined annual revenue of RM1.034 billion from 16 profit-making subsidiaries. More than half a million people contribute monthly to Yapeim through a monthly salary deduction scheme which is expected to bring in RM65.73 million this year. A pawn broking business (Ar-Rahnu) is also expected to bring in RM83 million by the end of 2015. Sounds like a successful business.
Let’s not kid ourselves. When it comes to Islam in Malaysia, it is a business. And everyone wants to get a piece of the pie, enjoy the perks and benefits and make a bit of money on the side. All for the faith, of course.