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.
DEFINING A MUSLIM AND MALAY
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.