top of page
  • Writer's pictureMarie Tseng

The Impact Of Islamization On The Malays In Malaysia

I am very happy to share this article written by Dr Asma Abdullah. Dr Asma helps us understand the complexity of being Malay in Malaysia and how religion, ethnicity and culture are tightly interwoven.



Dr Asma Abdullah*

Source: Breaking The Silence: Voices of Moderation: Islam in a Constitutional Democracy by G25 Malaysia. Published by Marshall Cavendish (Asia) Private Limited, 2016


The Malaysian government’s policy of Islamisation to promote Islam in the public sphere began in the 1960s. Supported and protected by provisions of the Federal and State Constitutions, the national leadership established several permanent bodies, departments, agencies, educational institutions and courts to manage Islamic affairs and promote Islam (M.

Azizuddin Sani, 2014). These include JAKIM (Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia, or

Department of Islamic Development, Malaysia) at the federal level, Shariah courts, the

International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM), KAGAT (Kor Agama Angkatan Tentera, the religious corp of the Malaysian Army) and PDRM (Polis DiRaja Malaysia, or Royal Malaysia Police) in the administration of all states and institutions.

These efforts had the blessings of three consecutive Prime ministers who supported the amendments of the Federal Constitution to increase the power of Islamic legal authorities and the inculcation of Islamic values, beginning with Mahathir Mohamad, followed by

Abdullah Badawi with his concept of Islam Hadhari 1 and Najib Razak’s Wasatiyyah 2.

In contemporary times, it can be said that the process of Islamisation by the country’s leadership has been responsible in spreading Islamic education in the public universities to produce human capital with adequate knowledge and values in Islam. At the same time, graduates from universities have been co-opted into the Islamic bureaucracy to protect, strengthen and expand its policies, rules and code of conduct to regulate the behaviour of Malay Muslims. This includes the introduction of Islamic banking and finance, compliance to Shariah law, consumption and regulation of halal food, and compulsory pre marital courses before marriage.3

This chapter attempts to highlight the process of acculturation among Malay Muslims to overt Islamic symbols, values and practices from the 1980s to the present. It will conclude by highlighting some cultural challenges at the intracultural (among Malays), intercultural (among Malaysians) and cross-cultural (with the international community) levels as Malaysia continues to brand itself as a moderate and progressive Muslim country.


Article 160 of the Malaysian Constitution defines a Malay as someone who professes the

Muslim religion, habitually speaks the Malay language and conforms to Malay customs (Siddique, 1981:77). As an ethno-religious group of people, Malays are unified by a common religion of Sunnah wal Jamaah Islam. Those who leave Islam will automatically lose their privileges granted in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia. Hence Malays are constitutionally defined and politically constructed; this differentiates them from the other Malay groups in the neighbouring countries of Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia.

1. Malays believe in living harmoniously with Nature and their surroundings.

This conviction helps to promote a healthy co-existence with the people around them and willingness to accept things the way they are. Such traits have induced an attitude of humility and a non-confrontational stance, making life in the community easy and smooth. The concept of harmony is illustrated at two levels — individual and societal.

At the individual level of adab, a Malay is courteous in words, generous in deeds and sincere in actions. He is well mannered (sopan santun), polite (berbahasa) and refined

(halus) when interacting with those senior in age or higher in social standing. One’s adab reflects good breeding and self-control. A person who demonstrates coarse (kasar) and impolite behaviour is perceived as insensitive to the feelings and dignity of other Malays. He may even be described as insufficiently educated (kurang ajar), which is a great insult to Malays and their families.

At the social level of Rukun, Malays are expected to preserve group harmony in the family, community and society. Malay children learn to be members of a crowd as illustrated in the saying “duduk sama rendah berdiri sama tinggi” (sitting or standing, one has to be at the same level). They are affectively related to the others and gain from them satisfaction and a sense of well-being, based on the perceptions and acknowledgements from friends and those close to them.

This interplay of acceptance, tolerance and group harmony have created a people who are accommodating and obedient and inclined to go with the flow for the sake of peace. They hold religious thanksgiving prayer ceremonies (kenduri doa selamat) on significant occasions such as success in a venture or an important examination, or milestones in life, such as entering a university or even starting a new job. It is significant in their belief to express gratitude to Allah, their Creator, because whatever comes their way is by Divine planning and are blessings from Allah.

2. Malays observe hierarchical relationships where the unequal distribution of power is natural and proper.

There is ready acceptance of top down authoritarian relationships between old and young, superior and subordinate, husband and wife, and parent and child. Filial piety is of utmost importance and there is high regard and respect for elders. There is also reverence for the religiously pious (ulama) as such people are traditionally associated with Islamic wisdom, experience and knowledge. As a result, Malays are reluctant to question their religious teachers who are seen to be knowledgeable about Qur’anic texts.

Stated briefly: “You are a good Malay only if you are a good Muslim, nothing else.” There is therefore compliance to Shariah law based on the five values of worship (ibadah), decency (adab), selflessness (tawadhu), obedience (taat) and holiness (halal/fitrah).

3. Malays are more comfortable when they are a member of a group or network than when alone.

The social programming of Malay children makes them want to be cooperative, interdependent and loyal to a collective. The ‘we’ predominates over the ‘I’, making Malays more inclined to maintain harmonious, stable and friendly ties with one another. This is aligned with Islamic teachings where being alone is discouraged as one’s existence becomes meaningful only in the context of interacting and doing things together with others.

Group praying is very much favoured; so are eating (makan) sessions especially during festive occasions where dining together promotes goodwill (sillatulrahim). In matters of religion, Malay Muslims will hold frequent group discussions (usrah) on Islamic teachings. Elderly Malays are more likely to end their conversations with the phrase “Untuk bangsa, negara dan agama” (For the good of our race, nation and religion) emphasising the importance placed on group membership in nation building.

As a result, Malays find it difficult to articulate their individual strengths, attributes and achievements to others for fear of being seen as boastful (riak) which is discouraged in Islam. Again, Malays adhere to the belief that talents and strengths are from Allah and must be used for the benefit of others.

4. Malays observe a high context form of communication where verbal messages and the circumstances surrounding the communication events have to be considered..

Among Malays, the choice of words, tone of voice, body language, eye contact and facial expressions serve to express Malay cultural values of tolerance, humility and face-saving. Malays are friendly and respectful. At times they will say “yes” when they actually mean

“no” so as not to disappoint those who are important to them. When referring to future undertakings they say “In shaa Allah”, (God-willing) which expresses a commitment unless there is a sudden or unexpected event preventing them from carrying out that commitment; this is a reminder that the future is not within anyone’s power, but Allah’s.

When conveying something unpleasant, Malays prefer to use a less direct and nonconfrontational communication style as being too open, frank and forthright can come across as heartless and insensitive to the feelings of others (ta’ ada hati perut). The commonly used phrases of jaga hati (show empathy), sakit hati (angry), susah hati (worry) and luka hati(hurt) are used to describe the various types of emotions among Malays.

5. Malays are shame-driven with an external locus of control and are concerned with

“what might other people think or say about me”.

As there is a clear code of what constitutes good conduct in Islam, Malays are concerned with how others see them, especially in their religious practices. This is particularly important as the individual is always affiliated to a bigger group of family and relatives, and the shame of that individual becomes that of the extended group. This belonging to the larger group can help deter them from committing wrongdoings or sinful (dosa) acts, such as drinking alcohol and having illicit affairs, for fear of bringing shame to the family and punishment in the hereafter.

A positive effect of shame (malu) is the concern for face-saving which is part of the inner make-up of the Malays. Since protecting one’s face takes precedence over being brutally frank and running the risk of losing face, Malays may come across as less forthcoming and reticent, and will offer ambiguous responses in stating the truth, causing them to use white lies (bohong sunat) or hide their own opinions and impressions if those are not in line with those in the mainstream.

The above-mentioned dimensions provide the cultural foundation for Malays to observe their Islamic faith.


One outcome of this Islamisation is a deeper understanding of the religion through a proliferation of religious classes and talks by both local and foreign scholars at mosques and lecture halls, Islamic programmes broadcast on radio and television and, as well, the dissemination of ideas through social media. The State too is emboldened to codify every facet of Muslim life in worship, attire, food and thoughts.

The process of acculturating Islam among the Malays is overtly expressed through several domains. First, and most conspicuous of all, can be seen in the way Malay women dress which is based on the more conservative Middle Eastern and Arabic long dress (jubah and arbaya) with the headscarf (hijab).6 This form of dressing has been commented by both Malaysians and foreigners as a form of Arabisation of the Malay culture. While the hijab (or tudung, in Malay ) will continue to be a normal sight for achieving the ideal Muslim, female Malay identity (one who is gentle, polite, well-mannered and good hearted) the jubah and arbaya are new forms for them to express their faith through fashion. In maintaining the religious significance of the tudung, it also means contemporising it with current dress sense, colours and accessories.

To many Malays, Arabisation is one way of overtly showing their Islamic religiosity as the Malay culture has always been open and receptive to external influences. In the past their forefathers looked to the seas as an economic pillar of strength and have always incorporated foreign elements from India, China, Persia, Arabia, Siam (now Thailand), Sumatra, Java, Portugal and Britain into their own. However, there are those who choose to wear the Arabic jubah for ease of movement especially when performing prayers.

In recent years, more Malay women in the entertainment industry have chosen to wear the tudung probably to gain popularity among their conservative Malay Muslim fans. This has further helped the growth of busanah Muslimah, the Muslim women’s attire industry. Apart from being a show of religiosity, the Arabised attire of tudung with jubah has now become more of a fashion trend. Men, on the other hand, are free to wear western clothes. However, on Fridays and special occasions, they may choose to wear the headgear (serban) and long robe reflecting a Muslim’s emulation of Prophet Muhammad’s dress code; these are clearly Arabic, not Malay.

Secondly, as Arabic is the language in which the Qur’an was revealed verbally and then written in, Malays have also added several words into their social interaction with fellow Muslims. Some examples are included in Table 1, indicating the fluidity and flexibility of the Malay language in accommodating new words into their vocabulary.

Table 1: Some Arabic words that have entered into the Malay lexicon




Thirdly, with increasing religious piety, Malay Muslims are now strengthening their understanding of Islam through a variety of activities:

(a) organising and participating in ceremonies in praise of Prophet Muhammad (saw) (Majlis zikir) at national levels;

(b) attending knowledge sessions (Majlis Ilmu) in mosques, classrooms and private homes to internalize Islamic values. This also occurs in the workplace as they view work as a form of

worship (ibadah) based on the aim (niyyah) of gaining rewards for Now and Hereafter;

(c) instilling brotherhood/sisterhood (ukhwah) among Muslims and referring to each other as

‘sisters and brothers’;

(d) listening to talks by Islamic scholars, both local and foreign on YouTube;

(e) setting up of dedicated TV and radio stations that promote Islamic teachings;

(f) sharing religious postings and reminders among their WhatsApp groups; and

(g) reading translations and interpretations (tafsirs) of the Holy Qur’an and the many Islamic books which are easily available in Malay.

With all these resources, the Malay Muslim is now more knowledgeable about Islam

than the ordinary Malay of yesteryear.

Malays are also discarding certain traditional cultural practices that are now deemed unIslamic. These include (a) mandi bunga, mandi pantai and the belief in medicine men (bomoh); (b) celebrating significant events with music and merrymaking; (c) dancing the joget lambak; and (d) sitting on the wedding dais (bersanding). Many Malays have also stopped watching traditional forms of entertainment such as wayang kulit, mak yong and dikir barat. In doing so, Malays believe they are aligning, purifying and cleansing their religious belief to reflect a more Islamic way of life.

Malays are also replacing the singing of Malay songs and dance with religious songs (nasyid and kasidah). Malay women have replaced miniskirts and tight jeans with clothes that cover their body and hair considered as aurat. Women in the police and armed forces, use the headscarf and not the cap. They believe that these observations are aligned with their Islamic practices.


As Malays become acculturated to the values and practices of Islam in a multicultural society and in an increasingly globalised world, they face a number of challenges at different levels of cultural interface as shown in Table 2.

Firstly, at the intracultural level, Malays have to project a Muslim identity which is aligned with the Malay cultural dimensions of harmony, hierarchy, shame and collectivism as well as values of peace, moderation and patience. As they become more conscious of their Islamic identity, their traditional costumes of baju Melayu, baju kurong and kebaya labuhare slowly being replaced with a more Arabic style of dressing. Perhaps the time has come for Malays to champion the preservation of their heritage — be it attire, music or language — by showcasing them with a contemporary appeal yet aligning them with Islamic values.

Secondly, at the intercultural level Malays have to be able to express clearly the Islamic values of modesty and moderation through the overt symbols of dressing, food prohibitions and restrictions on social mixing between genders to their fellow Malaysians.

There are aspects of the Malay culture that incorporates the Islamic rules of wajib

Table 2: Types of Interactional Settings

(obligatory), makruh (unclean), sunat (encouraged), haram (forbidden) and halal

(permissible) that are not often made explicit to non-Malays, causing them to be unaware of prohibitions in Islam. 7 Conversely, Malays too have to be better informed about the cultures of fellow Malaysians and move away from being ethnocentric to becoming ethnorelative.8 This is where the government through schools and higher institutions of learning have to support initiatives on intercultural and interreligious dialogues and understanding among Malaysians so that future generations will be able to respect, appreciate and celebrate the religious and cultural diversity in the country.

And thirdly, at the cross cultural level, Malay Muslims in Malaysia have to come to terms with the concepts of human rights, pluralism, liberalism, feminism, sexism and moderation which are problematic as their interpretations are not always universally acceptable. Unlike other monocultural Muslim societies, Islam in Malaysia has its own particularistic definitions because of its diverse population. 9 This is where all government and non-government Islamic religious authorities have to facilitate open conversations with fellow Malaysians and avoid being seen to impose their views on non-Muslims. There is a need for the government to be locally responsive and globally connected so that Islam in Malaysia will be respected as a religion of peace and justice.


Over the last 50 years the religion of Islam has gradually become a strong identity marker for the constitutionally defined Malay Malaysians, differentiating them from the other ethnic groups in the country. The State has played a significant role in systematically strengthening the Malay understanding and belief in Islam so much so that being a Malay is now interlinked with the religion and that a Malay’s religious identity is now replacing ethnicity as the central element of the nation’s identity.

In general, Malays are noted for their accommodating posture, tolerance and ability to coexist with others. More specifically, they have to project an identity as Muslims who observe patience (sabar) and moderation in their life as propagated by Islam in order to brand

Malaysia as a progressive Muslim nation, a staunch supporter of the global call for

Wassatiyah and a strategic partner in the fight against terrorism, alongside the super powers.

Peace is so vital in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic environment and once that is achieved Malaysia can be considered a model of moderate Islam — a multicultural democracy and a beacon of tolerance.



1. The concept of Islam Hadhari was championed by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who introduced it with the aim of achieving 10 main principles: faith and piety in Allah; a just and trustworthy government; a free and independent people; a vigorous pursuit and mastery of knowledge; a balanced and comprehensive economic development; a good quality of life for the people; the protection of the rights of minority groups and women; cultural and moral integrity; the safeguarding of natural resources and the environment; and strong defence capabilities.

2. Wasatiyyah, an Arabic term, has been translated as ‘intermediacy’ by Hamid Ahmad Al-Rifaie, Al-

Wasattiyah: An Orthodox Pivot for Dialogue of Cultures, Series of ‘To Know Each Other’, No. 19, International Islamic Forum for Dialogue, Jeddah: Al-Medinah Press, 2005, p.15. Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi refers it to “a set of principles on moderate and balanced thought,” please see, “The 30 Principles of Principles of Moderate and Balanced Thought”, this opinion appeared on 22 February 2010 in

3. The Shariah may be described as a legal system in a broad sense laying down the fundamental principles of law, religion and ethics combined. Malaysia has two legal systems: the Shariah courts and the Federal courts.

The Shariah courts settle family matters (such as divorces), inheritance questions and violations of the pillars of

Islam. These courts can impose limited punishments (six months’ imprisonment and fines up to about RM5000).

They apply exclusively to Muslims; only Muslims can bring cases to these courts, and until 2006 only Muslims testified in them

4. Malaysian citizens consist of the ethnic groups Bumiputera (67.4%) which includes Malays and others native to Malaysia, Chinese (24.6%), Indians (7.3%) and others (0.7%). Among Malaysian citizens, Malays make up the predominant ethnic group in Peninsular Malaysia (63.1%). The bumiputera (“sons of the soil”) is composed mostly of Malays. Others, predominantly East Malaysian ethnic groups, include Dayak, Melanau, Bajau, Kadazandusun and Murut. Many Malaysians perceive everyday life and politics through the lens of ethnicity.

5. Islam is the most widely professed religion in Malaysia, accounting for 61.3%; Buddhist 19.8%; Christian 9.2%; Hindu 6.3%; Confucianism, Taoism, other traditional Chinese religions 1.3%; other 0.4%; none 0.8%; unspecified 1% (2010 est.)

6. Hijab means more than just covering the hair; it refers to the general code of modesty as outlined in the Holy

Qur’an. Showing off one’s beauty depends on the cultural context we live in. There are many parts of the body that are used for showing off beauty across all cultures and these are realities of our human condition not just culture. Hair is recognised by many scholars of Islam, as well as other scholars across the world, as one of them. To be sure that you are not showing off your beauty as a woman, Muslims are required to cover up these areas appropriately.

7. Wajib refers to obligatory, compulsory work which Muslims are compelled to do to enable them to earn an honest living. Haram is work that is forbidden to do, is sinful and against the teachings of Islam. Harus is proper and optional, like doing work that needs to be done. Sunnah is doing things to emulate Prophet Muhammad, like growing a beard or wearing clothes to cover body parts. Makruh is unclean and forbidden and should be avoided. Halal is permissible and Shariah compliant.

8. Ethnocentrism is a stage where the individual assumes that his/her view of the world is essentially central to reality. The first stage of Denial starts when we do not recognise cultural differences, followed by Defense when we recognise some differences, but sees them as negative, and then Minimisation, that is, when we are unaware of our own projection of our own cultural values and see them as superior to others.

Ethnorelative is based on the assumption that cultures can only be understood relative to one another and that a particular behavior can only be understood within a cultural context. It moves from Acceptance when we shift perspectives to understand that the same ‘ordinary’ behavior can have different meanings in different cultures, to Adaptation when we can evaluate other’s behaviour from their frame of reference and can adapt behaviour to fit the norms of a different culture and finally Integration when we can shift our frame of reference and also deal with resulting identity issues.

9. Universalism means when cultures believe in the primacy of rules and people spend much time negotiating the details of contracts because they believe it is important that the rules be clearly defined. Particularism looks at cultures with rules that are contextual. They do not believe that contracts need to be detailed, since actions will naturally be determined by the situation of the moment, rather than by whatever might be written on a piece of paper.



Andaya, Barbara Watson and Andaya, Leonard: A History of Malaysia. (2001 Basingstroke: Palgrave)

Asma Abdullah, Going Glocal (1996, Malaysian Institute of Management, Kuala Lumpur) Asma Abdullah, Understanding Multicultural Malaysia. (2000 Pearson Prentice Hall, Malaysia) Sunday Star, February 2, 2014.

Department of Statistics, Malaysia, Population and Housing Census, Malaysia 2010, available at: iew=article&id=1215&Itemid=89&lang=en.

Halimah Mohd Said & Zainab Abdul Majid, Images of the Jawi Peranakan of Penang (2004, Universiti Pendidikn Sultan Idris)

Hood, Salleh, Peoples and Traditions (2006:Archipelago Press, Singapore)

Milner, Andrew, The Malays. (2011:Wiley Blackwell, Malaysia

Mohd Azizuddin Sani, Islamization Policy and Islamic Bureaucracy in Malaysia, Trends in Southeast Asia. (2015, ISEAS Publishing, Institute of South East Asian Studies, Singapore)

Siddique, Sharon. “Some Aspects of Malay Muslim ethnicity in Peninsular Malaysia”, in Contemporary Southeast Asia, (1981), 3,1,76-87

Dr Asma Abdullah is a freelance consultant and facilitator. She lectures on Cross Cultural

Management, Training and Development and Organisation Development at Putra Business School, Serdang. She worked for 22 years in Human Resource in an American MNC and now conducts training for both public and private organizations on Malaysian culture and management.

She can be contacted at

712 views0 comments


bottom of page