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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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, March 31, 2024

Subtle Signals From A Royal Iftar

 Subtle Signals From A Royal Iftar

M. Bakri Musa


A recent video of a royal iftar (Ramadan’s breaking of the fast) with the Agung, Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim, as guest of honor (or possibly host) posted by the Madani Government and making the rounds in social media drew my attention. The scene was a refreshing departure from the norm, symbolically as well as in so many other ways.


            Begin with the guests. The Malay dignitaries were as expected in their finest formal attire of collared colorful Baju Melayu, with glittering golden and silver (or perhaps diamond) collar studs, together with exquisite gold-embroidered kain songket samping (wide cummerbund). That is a common sight at official functions. What drew my attention with this one was the Agung’s attire. He was in a plain deep-blue, collarless baju Melayu worn over his plebeian kain peleket samping of simple cotton, locally referred to as the Madras pattern.


            Two sartorial points. One, the collarless style (congkak Musang) worn by the King is uniquely Johor. No surprise there. Traditionally the congkak Musang style is for commoners except that members of today’s Johor royal family have increasingly adopted it as their own. Two, and of special significance, was that the Agung wore his baju over instead of under his simple kain pelekat samping, a striking contrast to the Malay guests. In Johor that particular style of dressing is for commoners while the samping over baju and pants style is the exclusive preserve of royalty. For the rest of Malaysia however, that samping over baju is the accepted style for everyone, as reflected by the Malay guests.


            Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was the only Malay guest that evening sensitive to this uniquely Johor tradition. He donned his long Baju Melayu in a pale subdued color, letting it hang loosely over his samping. I doubt very much whether the other Malay guests in their splendored attire were aware of their glaring social paus faux, or the subtle message that the Agung and his Prime Minister were imparting at that glittering evening. Anwar’s baju however, was not the congkak Musang (collarless) style.


            There are other non-sartorial subtle but no less significant signals I gleaned from that function. One was of the Agung chatting amiably with the female guests. In most Malaysian gatherings the women would be clustered in one corner. Likewise with the dinner table seating; most of the tables had mixed (with respect to gender) seating. The other was of the Agung sitting cross-legged on the floor with his guests when breaking fast. I do not know whether they were using their fingers. That plebeian gesture was not at all jarring with the formally-dressed attendees and amidst the elegant ambience.


            The most significant symbolism from that formal evening was the obligatory Maghrib prayer immediately after the breaking of the fast and before dinner. Elucidating that necessitates a brief digression.


            Soon after Abdullah Badawi was sworn in as the nation’s fifth Prime Minister back in October 2003, his publicity office put out a video of him leading a small congregational prayer with his ministers, top civil servants, and the mosque’s usual Imam standing behind him. No mistaking the symbolism there. Abdullah was attempting to or allowed himself to be portrayed as both temporal as well as spiritual leader, in the grand tradition of our great Prophet Muhammad (May Allah be pleased with him) and his four Rightly-Guided Caliphs. 


            That scene of Abdullah being Imam was of course video-taped and shown widely. What should have been a private personal moment of meditation was turned into potential campaign and publicity fodder. This was the man who also attempted to establish his own brand of our faith, Islam Hadhari, with him being the head, of course.


            Today few can even remember Islam Hadhari. That was all crass grandstanding using our great faith as the backdrop. That is not a surprise with leaders who have nothing else to show. Hadi Awang, leader of the Islamic Party PAS, is still using our faith for his political ends. It still works, at least among backward Malays of Kedah, Kelantan, and Trengganu. Inadequate leaders exploiting religion or using it as their prop is of course not unique unto Malays or Muslims.


            At that royal iftar neither the Agung nor Anwar led the Maghrib prayer. Instead it was a young Imam, with the Agung, Prime Minister Anwar, and other Muslim guests behind in an egalitarian row, as is the tradition.


            Imagine that Imam going home later that evening and telling his dear wife (I am presuming that he has only one) and children, “Honey, I had the privilege and honor of a lifetime earlier this evening. I led a congregational prayer with the Agung Sultan Ibrahim and Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.” What a memory for him and his family! What a legacy!


            What touched me was the Agung’s sensitivity to symbolisms, as demonstrated by his plebeian attire while maintaining his regal bearing. As can be seen, sultans and other leaders do not have to patronize unhygienic roadside warung kopi and thereby risk their health and safety just to show that they are with the rakyat. People will see such gestures for what they are, condescending “photo-ops,” or worse, slumming. Besides, there is little need for today’s leaders to go wandering around incognito a la Caliph Omar to know how their subjects are doing. A modern efficient Statistics Department can give a better and reliable picture. 


            At that royal iftar the Agung, Sultan Ibrahim, again showed that he is very much in tune with his subjects. And he demonstrated that with class and majesty, which made it even more impactful.


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