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  • Writer's pictureDr. 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 and Najib Razak’s Wasatiyyah.
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.

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.
Malaysia’s multi-ethnic population of about 30 million comprises Malays and Bumiputras, Chinese, Indians and Others. Islam is the official religion in Malaysia and accepted as a way of life for the Malay. This brand of institutionalised Islam is the key factor influencing the way of life of the current population of Muslim Malays. Being a Muslim is synonymous with being a Malay. Thus, a convert (or often referred to by Muslims as a revert) to Islam is expected to practise the Malay norms for professing Islam so much so that there are now several aspects of the Malay culture that have been Islamised. This process of acculturation — “Masuk Melayu” — means that to be a Muslim, one has to be regarded and perceived as one who also observes Malay customs, dressing and language.
So, how do Malays in Malaysia incorporate Islamic values into their way of life? A look at their underlying assumptions — defined as cultural dimensions of harmony, hierarchy, group, high context and shame — may provide some answers.
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 (courtesy) 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 non-confrontational communication style as being too open, frank and forthright can come across as heartless and insensitive to the feelings of others (tak 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.

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 observepatience (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.

Written by Dr. Asma Abdullah
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