Freeing the Malays and Muslims from religious mind control


There appears to be a Malay-Islamic Inquisition in Malaysia.

It does not involve burnings at the stake.

It comes as ostracism at school, the workplace and in the community for failing to comply with rigid parameters. Not wearing a headscarf is frowned upon. Transgenders are institutional pariahs.

Religious arrogance and zealotry are norms. Muslim leaders can assuredly rebuff equal partnership on inter-religious discussion panels. The Islamic moral police is free to raid churches and insult the Malay person’s dignity and autonomy.

Refusal to play along with another community’s passion for its customs is condemned as chauvinistic or unconstitutional – the fate of elected representatives in Sarawak who chose the customary suit and tie over expensive uniforms and songkoks for a state assembly opening.

Closing the gap with South Korea or Singapore at the top of quality-of-life indicators such as the UN Human Development Index is a minor national concern.

We are prouder to have been ranked by the Pew Forum’s Government Restriction Index alongside Saudi Arabia and Iran as world champions in constricting religious freedoms and other civil rights.

The time has come to face the facts. ‘Moderate Malaysia’ and ‘moderate Islam’ are as good as dead. If our interest is to revive moderateness, we do not flog dead hypes. We must address the causes of death.

The problem

Two pervasive mentalities stand out among the chief culprits. They are racial and religious supremacy.

Racial supremacy expects non-Malay citizens to be eternally grateful to the Malay race for granting their forefathers citizenship at Independence. It demands from the non-Malays unquestionable deference to the Malays, their culture and arbitrary declarations of Malay rights or privileges.

Religious supremacy is the conviction that the Islamic belief is superior to all other beliefs and that it is the only path to true spirituality. Its adherents must not compromise on officially stipulated Islamic ideas and practices and cannot opt-out of the religion. Non-believers are fodder for conversion.

A set of underlying reasons drive these mentalities. Political motives aside, there is a historical fear of disenfranchisement; a concept of entitlement as an exclusive birthright; envy; low self-esteem; a craving for a source of self-pride; a fear of the new or alien; meekness; and narrow-mindedness.

Supremacism is sold as the cure-all. But it only adds to the problem.

The projection of cultural or religious might becomes a pretext for the powerful to impose conformity and thereby control upon a majority. Behind the false security of religious dogma or ethnic nationalism, it is spiritually and psychologically defeating. It turns what should be a happy bazaar of exchange between cultures into a cautious tightrope walk. It sabotages nation-building, whatever the unifying slogan or initiative devised.

Consider how this plays out in Malay-non-Malay relations.

The ordinary Malay in Malaysia is kept at a near constant state of anxiety by the tirade about the non-Malays seeking to usurp Malay political and economic rights. The Malays are repeatedly called on to be united in the name of race and religion to fend off this imagined strike. To alleviate his insecurities the Malay is offered:

  1. A political guarantee that national policy will be dictated by the Malays (or Muslims) and economic concessions in the form of government jobs for the unemployable etc. These are promised in exchange for support for certain political parties and obedience to hierarchy;
  2. Supposed spiritual salvation by thorough religious submission. This is codified in law, taught in religious education, enforced by religious bodies and reinforced by social and peer pressure; and
  3. Financial incentives such as easy loans and credit for material intoxication by retail therapy and a temporary relative wealth effect vis-à-vis the non-Malays.

There is no commensurate effort to unleash the Malay mind and encourage the Malay person to seize the day, excel, question, take charge, propose or dissent. Political leaders and the religious bureaucracy do not favour this; an empowered people puts at stake their political influence and economic privilege.

The outcome is a large class of Malays that is averse to thinking, recoils from taking responsibility and content with following instructions. Ennui, the deep weariness and dissatisfaction stemming from mindless satiety and boredom, is a common affliction.

It is to this oppressive vacuity that the non-Malays are portrayed as ‘threats’. It is also implied that the non-Malay cultures and attitudes can weaken Malay religiosity or morals (see, for example, Jakim’s ‘Guidelines for Muslims celebrating religious festivals of non-Muslims’).

The Malays, for their part, are seen by the non-Malays as being exclusive and hegemonic with their loudspeakers and educational and economic quotas.

The result is isolation between the communities, the straining of social ties under the slightest provocation and the successful thwarting of real solidarity between the races.

The usual prescription is for the non-Malays to toe the line, to adapt without protest, or— told more gently by a prominent Malay DAP member— to be “responsive” to the Malays’ “primordial sentiments of culture and religion”.

This misguided paradigm must go.