Malaysia's top judge has sparked controversy by suggesting the nation's legal system be changed from English common law to Islamic sharia principles.
Addressing a conference in Kuala Lumpur last week that honoured a Muslim judge who fought for sharia, Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim said 50 years of independence had failed to free Malaysia from the 'clutches of colonialism'.
Articles in the constitution that allowed for English judgments and common principles should be abolished and sharia principles 'infused' into the legal system, he said.
Malay-language newspapers and Muslim clerics hailed his comments, but non-Muslims said the chief justice had seriously undermined the ethnically diverse nation's secular foundations.
'He has belittled the ongoing celebration that marks 50 years as a secular nation with his demands for sharia,' said Xavier Jeyakumar, a Christian from the multi-ethnic opposition Keadilan party.
'He is the highest judicial authority and is pledged to defend and uphold secular law and the constitution, but he is advocating sharia. This is the dilemma we are all trapped in.'
The Malay-dominated government, under pressure from majority Muslims, tried to appear neutral, saying on Tuesday it would 'carefully study' the judge's comments.
Some Muslim leaders have spoken out against what they said were 'political gimmicks' aimed at satisfying Muslims ahead of an upcoming general election.
'Muslims are not satisfied with the statements because no fundamental changes happen afterwards,' said Hatta Ramli, a leading member of the Parti Islam se-Malaysia.
'Mahathir Mohamad declared Malaysia an Islamic state in 2001, but nothing happened afterwards,' he said, referring to the former prime minister.
'The same corruption and cronyism and unjust methods continue. It is the same now. We are not taken in by declarations.'
Yusri Mohamad, president of the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement, an influential advocacy group, said Islamisation did not pose a threat to the nation's other religious groups.
'It has been going on for many years and we all support it,' he said. He also said non-Muslims had nothing to fear from sharia.
'It is just and fair to all citizens.'
He said the government must take proactive steps to enhance Islam and sharia as the bedrock of the country.
The friction is growing more evident as the country gears up for the climax of its 50th independence anniversary on August 31.
Non-Muslims, who make up 40 per cent of the population, feel Malaysia is inexorably turning into an Islamic country with all citizens eventually coming under sharia law.
'The proposal is clearly unfair and unjust to the non-Muslims. It is completely insensitive and against the reality of the country, which is secular and multi-religious,' said Yap Swee Seng, executive director of Suaram, a leading human rights group.
'His claim that we are still colonised is unfounded because our judges have full discretion whether to accept or reject common law principles,' Mr Yap said.
'The constitution also permits judges to consider findings in India and other commonwealth countries,' he said, adding there would be chaos if the chief justice's demands were met.
Reflecting the anxiety among businesses, The Sun daily said in an editorial that any move to replace the current legal system would seriously undermine investment confidence in the country.
Parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said the judge's declaration was not an isolated event but reflected the desire of Muslim conservatives for an Islamic theocracy.
'We must all take it seriously,' he said, adding that all Malaysians were faced with the dilemma.
'Do we want to go down the sharia road? What happens to us non-Muslims and the secular rights and guarantees?'