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Islam and Ethnicity in Malaysia

Mohamad Nasrin Nasir
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Islam and Ethnicity in Malaysia

This entry will attempt to explain the roles of Islam and ethnicity in the modern nation state of Malaysia. Islamic religion in general had reached the shores of Southeast Asia by the thirteenth century. As of today, the citizens of Malaysia number around 28 million, with a majority (17 million) being adherents to the Islamic religion.

The existence of various Muslim dynasties from the thirteenth century onward is a testament to how popular Islam as a religion was in the region. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, the fourteenth-century Muslim traveler, recounted in his travelogue, The Travels, visits to many of these kingdoms while on his way to China. He also recalled how many of the Muslim ports of Southeast Asia, namely Pasai, Palembang, and Samudra, among others, were all filled with merchants from India, Arabia, and Persia. This is not surprising, considering the easy passage, or sea route, that was established between Pasai (the harbor kingdom on the Sumatran northern coast) with India (Subrahmanyam, 1990). The sultans who owned these ports, namely the dynasties of Aceh, Malacca, and Palembang, had special docks made for them in the Hyderabad region, which became the ports of Masulipatnam and Nagapattinam (Subrahmanyam, 1990). This indicated the ease of connectivity between the region with India and Southeast Asia, as well as its centrality in the development of religion and thought in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the existence of merchants from various lands also meant that the Islamic thought coming into the region was varied and consisted of many different sects or schools of interpretation.

The threat of colonialism (in the form of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British) to Southeast Asia began in the sixteenth century and lasted until the twentieth century, and effectively influenced the region in many ways. The most important effect was the breaking up of the old Muslim dynasties into various independent nation states. In Malaysia, the imposition of western colonial ways of administration later influenced ideas of ethnicity and religion, as well as nationhood (Milner, 1994). Thus, we cannot interpret the Malay understanding of ethnicity and religion without first considering the role of the British Empire in shaping such ideas. Ethnicity was not a big issue during the time of the Muslim dynasties prior to colonialism, but it became central to identity beginning in the British period and lasting even until today.

During the time of the British, the Malays were divided into those who were under the rule of the Sultans and those who were not, effectively deemed the “other Malays” (Kim, 1991). The latter term refers to individuals who came from outside of British Malaya, particularly from the surrounding archipelago, which is present day Indonesia, Brunei, Riau, and Singapore. The former group categorized those who were domiciled in Malaysia before the coming of the British. Such divisions were to play a significant role in the shaping of Malay ethnic identity (Omar, 1993).

With the creation of the Pangkor agreement in 1874, the British colonizers decided that all matters concerning the Muslim religion and Malay customs were to be under the purview of the Malay sultans of each state (Omar, 1993). All other matters pertaining to the state were kept under the British resident’s powers via orders from the Colonial Office in London. In this way, some of the rights of the Malaysian citizens were preserved under the purview of the sultan and his court. Simultaneously, the growing number of migrant communities seeking work in the various British-led agriculture and industrialization efforts brought the issue of Malay identity and rights to the fore. The Malays were wary of such industrial developments and the growing number of migrants in the country. In 1946, when British colonial administrator Harold MacMichael proposed the creation of a Malayan union where citizenships were to be given to migrants, the Malays responded with large-scale demonstrations across the country (Sopiee, 2005). The liberal citizenship proposal had furthered a deep-seated fear among Malays that their country was slowly slipping out of their grasp. The powers and authority of the sultans were also to be reduced via the implementation of the Malayan union proposals, thus giving the impression that the Malay position was not secured under this new arrangement. The rejection of the Malayan union brought about an awakening of Malay political consciousness. The Malays had seen how the sultans were powerless in defending their own rights from the British, let alone the rights of the people. Political activity among the Malays heightened with a mass demonstration led by Onn Ja’afar in 1946 (Sopiee, 2005). This later led to the establishment of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in 1946, which symbolized the resurgent Malay nationalism in which UMNO was to play a major part in the coming decades. The convergence of Malay rights and the Muslim religion was the main idea within Malay nationalism (Roff, 1994; Boon Kheng, 2002).

The rise of Malay nationalism within the Malay community also evoked similar ideas regarding rights within the Chinese and the Indian communities. The successful rejection of the Malayan union led the Malays to organize themselves into various parties and societies, all with the aim of seeking independence from the British. Apart from UMNO, which was viewed as an aristocratic party, the popular Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) was the first to call for independence or merdeka in Malay (Roff, 1994). What it meant to be Malay was often debated in this early period. For instance, in the 1940s, in response to the question of “Who is a Malay?,” a movement called the “Malay blood purity campaign” defined a Malay as “a man whose male parent is a native of this Malay Peninsula or of any of the neighbouring islands of the Malay Archipelago” (Roff, 1994). It should be noted that Islam did not prefigure much in pre-independence Malay nationalism, with the exception of those from the Middle East or the Malay Ulama. The views of these individuals regarding Islam and Malay ethnicity can be seen in the magazine Al-Imam, which was similar to the al-Manar magazine that was popular with the reformist movement in Egypt (Roff, 1994).

Al-Imam was founded in 1906 by Syed Syeikh al-Hadi, who was a central figure in the Malay Muslim literati and a former graduate of al-Azhar University in Egypt (Mutalib, 1993; Gordon, 1999). A reformist, al-Hadi’s ideas in regard to religion created a polemic with locally educated scholars known as the Kaum Tua (Old People). The reformist groups, known as Kaum Muda (Young People), were often engaged in debates with the Kaum Tua. However, such exchanges were mainly about religion and very rarely touch upon the concept of the Malay race. Among the Kaum Tua, the common Malay understanding of Islam consisted of a mix between past Hindu practices integrated into Malay culture. The Kaum Muda blamed the Kaum Tua for this allowance, which they perceived as affecting the purity of Islam among Malays. The hostility between these two groups was so intense that each boycotted the other in public religious functions, such as weddings and communal prayers (Mutalib, 1993).

After Independence

Ideas on Malay rights, customs, and religion that were emphasized by various groups eventually led to their inclusion, though limited, in the drawing of the constitution of Malaysia by the Reid Commission.

Islam and Malay Ethnicity in the Constitution

Malay ethnicity is defined in Article 160 of the constitution as follows: “Malay means a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom […],” thus combining the idea of ethnicity with religion (Federal Constitution, as of 1st March 2017). However, this does not justify the idea of Ketuanan Melayu, which argues for Malay pre-eminence and ownership of the country, and has been propagated in certain quarters of the political spectrum in recent years. Instead, the constitution clearly upholds the principle of equality, if only on a racial and ethnic level.

Alternatively, indigenous Malay groups have been accorded “special rights” in the original drafting of the constitution, particularly with regard to land ownership and public education. These policies have been criticized as racially discriminatory and as intended to create opportunities only for indigenous peoples, known as bumiputera, a controversial term translated as “son of the soil.” However, the Reid Commission regards them as temporary measures, stating that “in due course the present preferences should be reduced, and should ultimately cease so that there should then be no discrimination between races or communities” (Colonial Office records on the Reid Commission, quoted by Funston, 2016). Additionally, the commission has offered a timeline, “[e]choing the oral advice of UMNO leaders it suggested that after 15 years there should be a review. The legislature could then determine either to retain or to reduce any quota or to discontinue it entirely” (Funston, 2016, p. 20). Although former prime ministers of Malaya Tunku Abdul Rahman (d.1990) and Tun Abdul Razak (d.1977) had discussed and agreed with the commission on the term of fifteen years, this deadline was never officially implemented (Thomas, Anything but the Law 2016, p. 176). Instead, many politicians and leaders of the Barisan Nasional party, especially UMNO, have taken a more hard-line approach by attacking anyone who would question the Malay right of ownership or the idea of Ketuanan Melayu (Funston, 2016).

The place of Islam in Malaysia was also discussed when drafting the constitution of the country. Islam is mentioned clearly in the constitution and the road toward its establishment was an arduous, albeit necessary, one. The Reid Commission, which was entrusted by the British Colonial Office to draft a constitution for the Malaya Federation, suggested the establishment of Islam as the national religion: “In respect of religion, the Commission decided not to make any provision relating to an official religion for the Federation although the Alliance had proposed that Islam should be made the official religion” (Fernando, 2002, p. 147). Originally, however, the rulers had requested that religion remain a state matter, as they were the heads of religion for their respective states. Alternatively, the Alliance Party proposed that Islam should be made the official religion for the federation. Interestingly enough, the Reid Commission expressed concern regarding the contradiction between the declarations by the Alliance Party, led by UMNO and Tunku Abdul Rahman, with the wishes of the rulers of the states (Fernando, 2002).

The fact that Malaya was a secular state, yet the federation wanted a provision for Islam to be the official religion, seemed to be at odds in the minds of the constitution drafters, so they including the following clause: “Islam is the religion of the Federation but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation” (Section 3.1 Federal Constitution).

Changes were further made to elucidate the intention of the commission: “There has been included in the proposed Federation Constitution a declaration that Islam is the religion of the Federation. This will in no way affect the present position of the Federation as a secular state and every person will have the right to profess and practice his own religion and the right to propagate his religion, though his last right is subject to any restrictions imposed by State law relating to the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the Muslim religion” (Federation of Malaya Constitutional Proposals (White Paper) (1957), Kuala Lumpur government printer) (Fernando, 2002).

This clear statement of the secular nature of the federation was later challenged by state actors and NGOs, who utilized Section 3.1 of the Federal Constitution. Their view was that Malaysia was presented as an Islamic state by the federal constitution, and that this claim did not sit well with history (Thomas, Anything but the Law, 2016, p. 118). This controversy was to play a major role in Malaysia as issues of ethnicity and the rights of non-Muslims came to the fore in the early 2000s.

State-based Religious Institutions and the Rise of Islamization in Malaysia

Despite the fact that Malaysia is technically an officially secular state, Islam is still the established religion of the federation and the government has implemented certain measures to ensure a smooth administration of the religion. Various governmental Islamic institutions were established for the purpose of administering zakāt (Pusat Zakat), ḥajj (Tabung Haji), economic development of Muslims (YADIM), and Islamic development (JAKIM). Additionally, a religious minister portfolio was established under the prime minister’s department. The minister would also be responsible for JAKIM, the Malaysian Islamic Development Department, which was initially instituted to oversee ḥalāl procedures in the meat industry (Mohamad, 2011). In the past ten or so years, however, JAKIM has begun to expand its influence to matters of ʿaqīdah (faith) and society by regularizing the Friday sermon nationally. The minister also oversees a project aptly named “the control of publications and Qur’anic texts” (Bahagian Kawalan Penerbitan Teks al-Qur’an), which regularly bans books considered “dangerous and could be confusing to readers especially the young” (Aziz, 2017). Accordingly, including some of these clauses does restrict some fundamental liberties to prosper in Malaysia. The establishment of various state-based organizations to administer religion has, in recent years, led to limitations on certain liberties belonging to local Malay Muslims. As the Malay identity is increasingly defined (by JAKIM and other state religious institutions) to include that of a Muslim who follows Shāfiʿī law and the Ahl al-Sunnat school in faith issues, other differing interpretations are often viewed as a threat by the state authorities.

An example of this is the Malay Muslim attitude toward the local Shia Malay Muslim community in Malaysia. Glimpses of the Shia faith or ʿAlid beliefs arrived in the region as early as the sixteenth century and could be seen clearly in various literary genres in Malay (Brakel, 1975). The local Shia as a community was not found in either local historical records or colonial records, thus causing Shiism to be seen as a late phenomenon of Southeast Asian Islam. Since the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries, migrant Shia communities were present in British Malaya and Singapore (Ende, 1975; Musa, 2006). Now it is estimated that there are around 250,000 Shia adherents in the country. The Shia, however, are viewed with paranoia and stigmatized by various government-based religious institutions. JAKIM in particular encourages this trend by working hand in hand with other government institutions, including local universities, to propagate a sectarian narrative against the Shia. Accordingly, nine out of eleven state religious authorities have effectively banned the practice of the faith in their own respective states (Müller, 2017).

The tendencies of the former government of Najib Razak, through the religious section of the prime minister’s office, have caused a hardening of sectarian attitudes among the Malay Muslim majority in recent years. At the international level, however, Malaysia projects a moderate image through the theory of Islam Hadhari (Civilizational Islam) via the Global Movement of Moderates office. During the period of Prime Minister Badawi (2003–2008), then-deputy Najib Razak announced that “Malaysia was an Islamic state and had never become secular!” (Munro-Kua, 2017). This sentiment indicated a more Islamic foundation and leaning for the government. The pronouncement also created confusion and anxiety on the part of the non-Muslim population (Kessler, 2008). Internally, however, local religious institutions in the various states continue to conduct raids and enforce moral policing against Muslim behavior that is deemed heretical, deviant, or sinful, by arresting the Shia adherents, Aḥmadīyah, and even Muslims who consume alcoholic beverages (Munro-Kua, 2017).

This is a clear case where we find religion as practiced by the Malays restricted to a certain interpretation, namely the Ahl al-Sunnat school and how it is made to be part of an understanding of the Malay identity. In other words, where the nation state is homogenous in regard to ethnicities that inherit the state, its homogeneity stops at the particularities of Islam as a religion. Many experts have pointed out the flawed Islamization as it is practiced in Malaysia (Arosoaie and Osman, 2017). Apart from it being sectarian, there has also been a resurgence of an exclusive Malay Muslim identity that excludes and discriminates against other minority religious groups such as Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus. Malays now, according to a survey conducted in 2008, “consider themselves as Muslims first and Malaysian citizens second” (Kessler, 2008, p. 66). The merging of Islam and the ethnic Malays has had a strong influence on the Islamization occurring across the country.

This is evident in the call for the implementation of Islamic criminal law. Since the 1990s the Pan Islamist Party of Malaysia (PAS) had broached the idea of implementing the Sharīʿah penal code, the Ḥudūd. In 2016 the current president of PAS Abdul Hadi Awang brought a private member’s bill (RUU355) to the Parliament in an attempt to expand the powers of the Syariah Court to include some aspects of the Islamic penal code (Arosoaie and Osman, 2017). However, the bill was not debated in Parliament due to negative responses from Muslims and non-Muslims alike, many of whom saw it as an effort to further Islam in Malaysia through political and legal means. Nonetheless, the bill and the uproar that it caused among the public hardened the attitudes of some Muslim Malays, which furthered anxieties among the non-Muslim populace.

Relations between Muslims and non-Muslims took a sinister turn at the end of 2015, when a local church was told to remove its cross from the side of its building by a crowd of local Malay Muslims (The Star, 2015). A year later a Molotov cocktail was thrown by an ISIS supporter at a local nightclub, setting fire to parts of the building (Yunis, 2016). The alleged abduction of Pastor Raymond Goh and community activist Che Amri also furthered the negative perception attributed to the Malay Muslim community (Kumar, 2018). Additionally, there have been a total of four hundred arrests of ISIS supporters in the country (Palansamy, 2015). One potential reason for the rise in support could be the politicization of Islam combined with the hardening of ethnic Malay identity, which was widespread in the past government (Hudson, 2015).

Although the outlook was bleak with the rise of sectarian attitudes along with the hardening of Sunnī identity among Malays, the Barisan Nasional government was defeated at the fourteenth general election held on 9 May 2018. The victors were a combination of Malay (Bersatu), moderate Islamist party (Amanah), and inter-ethnic-based parties (PKR & DAP). Interestingly, they are collectively known as the Coalition of Hope (Pakatan Harapan), signifying a more positive and inclusive path to the future. Whether this new coalition will bring about a new and open dialogue concerning Islam and its place in Malaysian society is yet to be seen. Malaysia has been independent from the British for more than sixty years and is still a relatively new democracy if compared to the UK or the US. Whether such openness will be utilized to further understand Islam and Malaysia’s race dynamic is uncertain. For the time being, the current prime minister believes in justice as the foundation of an Islamic nation, as he claims, “the more just a society is, the more Islamic it is” (Mohamad, 2011). These recent political changes will hopefully emphasize the idea of a just society for all, rather than a religious theocracy for the few.


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