Very well-written article.

Malay in the country that bears his name
WEDNESDAY, 19 MAY 2010 11:01

CPI note: We’re reproducing an article below from Shuzheng with the blogger’s permission as we believe it is a thought-provoking and timely discourse. We hope this material can serve as a basis for reflection during the Bloggers Universe Malaysia gathering this Saturday (May 22) which will discuss bridging the religious divide and other faith-related issues.


The Islamification of the Malay

The Chinese, so the Malay thinks, is a belligerent lot. He interprets the belligerency as a form of material pursuit, revealed sometimes in personal relationships. In politics, the aggression is made out to be an attempt at political hegemony so that racial division helps to fuel the perception.

Yet, as a counterpoint, consider the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644 CE) Chinese who settled in Malacca during the early 15th century. Five centuries later, they have incorporated elements of Malay culture – mannerisms, good behaviour, language, women’s clothing, cuisine – without giving up the core of the Chinese identity that is tied to family honour, ancestral reverence and rituals, and kin lineage, that is, Confucianism.

The common, modern-day Chinese, in particular the descendents from China’s southern most provinces, may be abrasive, which is a characteristic of the spoken language rather than as an infection of DNA. But he has no ideology to indoctrinate, no religion to proselytise, nobody he wishes to convert, and no political supremacy to advance.

The virtues taught to him, he wishes only to retain and hand over to his next generation, and those are not the kind of causes to win over the Malay village next door. He has not a cultural agenda also, because the Confucian take on religion is this: respect the gods, but keep your distance. His political view emanates from the family as the primary unit of the state. On that, and onwards to the highest level of government, the ideal rule is arrived at not by a set of political doctrine but through individuals possessing personal virtue and appropriate sacrifices.

All that if properly understood by the Malays ought be reassuring. Yet, when Hishammudin Hussein raises the keris in a theatrical and a bizarre defence of Malay rights the Chinese are confounded more than they angered. A man, they say, chooses his enemies and the danger in the fire that Hishammudin has ignited is the need to invent an enemy once he fails to find any.

Amok aside, an endearing element of Malay culture is, to the Chinese, his transcendental, almost subliminal sense of individual serenity. The Chinese early imagery of this composure is the tranquillity of a Buddhist or the stoic monk whose self is resilient to all the hardships on the sun-baked farm with six children to feed and a roof that never stops leaking. It’s a trait the Chinese admire, but feels he will not attain. This perception of the Malay is now converted into horror, and repeatedly put on display by Hishammudin and his keris.

But the single most important person responsible for the horror is probably the former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed. He did not merely change the perception of the Malay. He altered the Malay sense of self-worth when he, in the book The Malay Dilemma,interpreted the serenity and composure as a regressive Malay trait to be done away with rather than as a hardy and enduring stepping stone towards Malay cultural and material progress, in ways like the Thais do.

It has been said that when a man stops believing in something, and in himself, he does not believe in nothing; he believes in anything. This outcome unfolds today in Malay religious, political and cultural life and made most vivid by the display of a stained mattress during the sodomy trial of Anwar Ibrahim: the profane becomes legal.

Before and at the time of the first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and perhaps even into the third, Tun Hussein Onn, Islam was subjected to the Malay value system: composure, decorum, rituals, public conduct and so on. Islam, as the Constitution defines it, may be a constituent of the Malay identity but does not replace it.

Islamification of the Malay inverts that order. Inevitably, therefore, the local, state and national governments go about the process of removing vestiges of a Malay culture considered un-Islamic, and in the course of it sometimes takes the Chinese and Indians along.

This process is sometimes referred to as ‘talibanization’, after the Talibans of Afghanistan, its former rulers. By talibanization, it is to mean that in certain aspects of the Islamist agenda, change are exceptions to the rule. More than that, it is to infer that variants exist between the Islam as conceived in Arabia and the Islam deemed as acceptable to Malay society. But there is only one Islam: the Islam in the Quran, in the Sunnah, and as the Arabs launched it and not as the Malays wish for or not wish for.

Few Muslim-Malay writers have marshalled some Quranic verses in order to show the benign face of Islam; most importantly, there is no religious compulsion (Quran 2:256) and it is in accord with a secularist and humanist regime (Quran 9:5, 10:108, 39:41, 39:46, 50:37-45).

But the same cherry-picking also goes on among those who seek to introduce Islamic law (examples, Quran 2:221, 3: 85, 4:11, 5: 38, 9:29, 9:66, 24:4) so that the central dilemma isn’t in resolving the contradictions – which comes only after and not before the introduction of Islamic law.

The dilemma of the Malay, so it appears, is whether and, if so, how he should take up his faith in Islam, and make it the totality of his legal, moral, political and cultural identity. To be sure, Islam demands it:

“And whatever the Messenger gives you, take it, and whatever he forbids you, leave it. And fear Allah: truly Allah is severe in punishment.” 59:7

“If anyone desires a religion other than Islam, never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter He will be in the ranks of those who have lost.” 3:85

Islamification of the Malay is total submission, followed by emersion, of the Malay identity into Islam, and eradicating all that came prior to the Malay conversion. V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidad-Indian writer, was perceptive in understanding this phenomenon when hesaid in 1990 that the non-Arab Muslim world is populated by “people who had been doubly colonized, doubly removed from themselves”.

“(N)o colonization had been so thorough as the colonization that had come with the Arab faith. Colonized or defeated peoples can begin to distrust themselves. … It was an article of the Arab faith that everything before the faith was wrong, misguided, heretical; there was no room in the heart or mind of these believers for their pre-Mohammedan past. The faith abolished the past. And when the past was abolished like this, more than an idea of history suffered. Human behavior, and ideals of good behavior, could suffer.

To possess the faith was to possess the only truth; and possession of this truth set many things on its head. To believe that the time before the coming of the faith was a time of error distorted more than an idea of history. What lay within the faith was to be judged in one way; what lay outside it was to be judged in another. The faith altered values, ideas of good behavior, human judgments.”

A part of the Indian sub-continent went down that path of self-refutation when on Day One of independence it subjected its Constitution to Islamic law. Pakistani Muslims were not necessarily wrong in doing so; they were only applying the faith.

In Malaysia, Islamization of the Malay is going on in earnest, or so it appears. If they had their way the Islamists will want the pure Arabic, Wahabbist and Salafist seventh century version, even if it is blindingly totalitarian and inhumane, no exceptions permitted. Numerous Umno and PAS officials and religious/civil bureaucrats have convinced themselves that this Arab-Islamic culture is the only way to project Malay power, since Islam and Malay-ness are mentioned side-by-side in the Constitution, and even though no Chinese or Indian is the least bit interested to usurp the special Malay position.

Is the Islamification of the Malay complete? Hardly. But if it comes to pass, the Malay, Muslim by law, will be the first to experience the full frontal blast of its power, and there are countless examples to go with in Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Indonesia’s Aceh and so on to know what that means.

If Malay-ness did not begin with Islam, should it then end with the faith? It is too late now to change what makes for a Malay. By the same token, the answer to the question is also found therein, in the Constitution, which asserts the Malay identity not by upending the roots of his civilization but simply by stating the primary ingredients in it and that Islam is a merely part thereof and not the total sum or the replacement.

In this quest to return to his roots, the Malay will find a sympathetic ear and many allies among the other ethnic groups who can only mean well because it is in their interest to see the Malay heart and soul settled, composed and tranquil, and so kept free from any form of colonization. Once the self is renewed, the Malay can preserve the control of his being and go on with the Dayaks, Chinese, Indians, and Kadazans in the business of building a country that bears his name.