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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #71

Chapter 9: Islam in Malay Life

Religion must act as the lights do in a car, and not as the brakes do.
—Abdolkarim Soroosh, Contemporary Iranian Philosopher


Islam is Malaysia’s state religion. It permeates all aspects of Malaysian life, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In this chapter I will examine the impact of Islam on law, education, and economics. These are the three major areas that have the greatest impact on the ability of Malaysians generally and Malays in particular at meeting the challenges of globalization.

A visitor to Malaysia quickly becomes aware of how pervasive Islam is in the country. At prayer times the Azzan (call to prayers) is heard loud and clear from loudspeakers at the minarets of the numerous mosques. One is awakened in the morning by the Azzan and put to sleep at night by it. The Azzan regularly interrupts television programs, often at the most inopportune moment, as just before the dramatic climax of a scene or even in mid sentence. It is not the call to Azzan that exasperates viewers; rather the rude and crude manner in which the robotic technicians back in the studio mindlessly and mechanically stopped the tape. If they can find a convenient spot to interrupt programs for commercial breaks, why cannot they do the same for the Azzan? They can, but the fact that they are not doing it reflects the contempt they have for their viewers. And during the fasting month of Ramadan, the entire country is in suspended animation; nothing gets done, particularly in the public sector.

While in the past Malays would greet one another with “Selamat Pagi!” (Good Morning!), today they use the Arabic salutation Assalamualaikum (Peace be upon you!). Young men now sport beards and wrap themselves in thick turbans and flowing green robes, oblivious to the scorching heat and humidity, all in an effort to appear “Islamic.”

Mosques during Friday prayers overflow, with congregants forced to pray outside. In their pious pursuit they have no qualms about praying over stinking open sewer drains. Such jarring incongruities do not affect their sensibilities. Every year Malaysia sends more pilgrims (on a per capita basis) to the holy land than any other nation. Many brag about making the trip many times, even though it is required only once, and then only if conditions permit. But I see many young men and women eagerly interrupting their careers to make the pilgrimage.

Presumably these fortunate souls have paid off their home mortgages and put aside enough funds for their retirement and children’s education to be able to afford the trip.

This pervasiveness of Islam leads many to suggest that the faith is experiencing a revival or resurgence. This appearance of religiosity and piety is only a façade, a very thin veneer. Muslims in Malaysia appear Islamic only in their adherence to the rituals and other external manifestations of the faith. Alas one looks askance at their core. Tolerance, long a tradition with Islam, is sadly lacking among them. They look upon fellow Muslims who disagree with them as kafir (infidel) – an extremely pejorative term when applied to Muslims – and refuse to partake in any social or religious overtures with them. Imagine what their attitude is towards the real kafirs: non-Muslim Malaysians.

On a more mundane level, they drive like maniacs, oblivious of other road users. They park their cars in the middle of the street and block the traffic in their rush to be at the mosque. That they would inconvenience other road users is irrelevant as long has they get to claim their religious brownie points. As for charity, another esteemed Muslim attribute, well, they have paid their zakat (tithe) and that is enough. There is no need for them to contribute to their children’s schools or local community. Nor do they profess any concern for the plight of fellow Muslims from Bangladesh and Indonesia amongst their midst. Those foreigners are illegal immigrants anyway, not worthy of any goodwill. Slavery and indentured labor may have been banned but Malaysians’ treatment of their maids would make slave owners of pre-Civil War America look generous by comparison.

To me, there is no revival or renaissance of Islam in Malaysia, more a regression to a form more suitable for ancient Bedouins. More accurately, present-day Malays are obsessed with the ways of ancient Arabs rather with the pristine message of Islam.

In 2001 the government issued a publication written by one of its functionaries proclaiming that Malaysia is an Islamic state. Written in Malay, it was a clumsy attempt to blunt PAS’s charges that the nation is not “Islamic” enough. The booklet was meant to be a preemptive attack on or to “out Islam” PAS, to use Farish Noor’s (a Malaysian writer) phrase. Instead it precipitated a raging controversy. The government was forced to sheepishly withdraw the silly publication. A measure of the booklet’s irrelevance is that its cover features a plane. What those images have to do with Islam is beyond my comprehension. In light of the 9-11 attacks, it is not a terribly smart idea to associate Islam with jet planes.

Subsequent to that there was another raging controversy over some essays written in the popular press by lay Muslim writers. These provoked the ire of the religious scholars, who deem that such discussions on Islam are their exclusive preserve. They went to the extent of petitioning the King (the head of Islam) to take actions on these writers for allegedly insulting Islam. That the King and his Council of Rulers actually entertained such a silly petition is by itself very revealing.

Such heated controversies reflect the coarsening of public discourses in Malaysia. These public discussions, far from enlightening the citizens and bringing them together, merely succeeded in acerbating the polarization and deepening existing divisions. The blame for this sorry state of affairs goes to both the organizers and participants of such events. These discussions were less on the merits or demerits of the issue, rather more on displaying the oratorical prowess and Islamic credentials of the participants. These public debates very quickly degenerated into name-calling, and reduced simplistically to “my ulama is more knowledgeable (or pious) than yours” type of exchanges.


Next: Authoritative Versus Authoritarian Ulamas and Scholars

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