The pathologies of Malay nationalism


Historians highlight the early 1980s as the point of no return. The revivalism of Islam was the demand of a strong Malay grassroots then. The regime, eventually armed with the credibility of Anwar Ibrahim’s Islamist background, launched its deep and thorough project of Islamisation in response: Islamic banking was introduced. The International Islamic University, Malaysia (IIUM/UIA), now heavily sustained by Saudi funding, was established. So was the Institute of Islamic Understanding (IKIM), which has since then served as the intellectual mouthpiece against pluralism and apostasy. 

Ahmad Fuad Rahmat, CPI

The nation

The problem begins with the nation-state ideal; for its coherence depends on there being a people deemed as the rightful owners of a land. It is rooted to the belief that territory is property – a thing to own – and that loyalty to the people means, among other things, the readiness to uphold the integrity of territory to ensure it belongs to the nation.

This requires clearly defined, finite, national borders, which – at least at the face of it – appears as a simple enough idea. Matters become complicated when we ask who those borders are meant for. There cannot be a nation-state, if there is no nation to begin with.

But identities unlike land cannot be enclosed and demarcated. Cultures do not flourish in vacuums. They develop out of interactions and fusions with one another. New words, outlooks and practices are adopted while others fade, in a slow, arbitrary and often ambiguous organic process of contact and migration through time.

The nationalist agenda is at odds with this reality. The belief in the congruence of identity and territory – or indeed identity as territory – at the face of inevitable cultural change that can neither be controlled nor predicted, means that each nation will always find itself in the position of having to redefine the conditions of membership, to determine what or who should or should not be excluded. Culture too is given boundaries as a result.

The nationalist imagination must, in other words, assume however implicitly that there is some supposed essence underlying the flux of culture and identity, out of which the ‘Otherising’ so common to nationalist politics is legitimised. The marker could be anything from a common language, religion, ethnicity, race or history. It could even be a set of values or general traits. None of this is exclusive, of course. At any given time, depending on the issue and occasion, different factors can be evoked to proclaim dissimilarity.


Islam as we’ve seen time and time again has featured prominently in attempts to imagine a core to Malay identity. It is in fact presented as a condition: the protection of Malays, we’re told repeatedly, depends on the preservation of Islam.

History has had much to do with this. The growth of Islam in 15th century Nusantara converged with the Malay apex of imperial grandeur, where for centuries Malay kingdoms dominated commerce, producing diplomatic relations and maritime armies that placed the Malaccan Straits on the map of world trade.

This began as a very much elite affair, for the earliest Muslim converts in the Peninsula were among the feudal and merchant classes. It was not only until Islam eventually reached the commoner that its defining presence in Malay notions of identity began. Gradually, Islam became appreciated as a force of enlightenment, as it inspired Malays to leave their supposedly superstitious animistic ways of life towards a higher stage of civilization. The necessity of learning the Quran for basic rituals meant that Islam was also the context with which Malays experienced their earliest exposure to systemic, although largely informal, learning. In fact, Islam as education remained the case for common Malays for centuries.

But while education and memories of empire shaped Malay attachments to Islam, its legalistic thrust ensures that it would remain a useful tool. One would be right, for example, to dismiss the recurring Hudud polemics as mere political ostentations between two parties seeking to out-Islamise one another, but in doing so we must not forget how much Islam, with its endless list of dos and don’ts, makes for a convenient resource of conformity and control.


That would not be so troubling, if not for how the pressures for more and more Islam are actually coming from the ground up. Today, Islamic validations are increasingly sought for things as mundane as medicine, fashion and entertainment, as can be seen in the rising trend of halal living. Academic discussions on Islamic science have produced volumes of theoretical literature, albeit with little effects on actual scientific practice or meaningful discoveries. Unsatisfied with the already rigid curriculum of Islamic studies in national schools, more and more private Islamic schools, including kindergartens, continue to be established throughout the country. The list can go on and on.

The state has had little need to take issue with the above demands, for the simple reason that any Islamisation, given present circumstances, would only secure a more Malay definition of Malaysia anyway. Thus it was not at all surprising to see the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), always already seeking to solidify Malay rule, having no qualms about competing on this turf. They seemed to have even relished the challenge, excelling – in realpolitik terms – in ensuring the drastic insertion of Islamic policies into the Malaysian state.

Historians highlight the early 1980s as the point of no return. The revivalism of Islam was the demand of a strong Malay grassroots then. The regime, eventually armed with the credibility of Anwar Ibrahim’s Islamist background, launched its deep and thorough project of Islamisation in response: Islamic banking was introduced. The International Islamic University, Malaysia (IIUM/UIA), now heavily sustained by Saudi funding, was established. So was the Institute of Islamic Understanding (IKIM), which has since then served as the intellectual mouthpiece against pluralism and apostasy. A more Muslim oriented foreign policy was initiated. New laws were imposed, banning imports of non-halal beef and Muslim entry into casinos. Marriages and sermons were made subject to Islamic certification and approval.

Today, JAKIM (Malaysian Department of Islamic Development) is the third most funded department under the Prime Minister’s Office, receiving RM 402 million in 2010 alone. It stands among several other Syariah institutions that were recently erected in rapid succession such as Jabatan Kehakiman Syariah, Malaysia (Department of Syariah Justice) in March 1998 and the Syariah section of the Attorney General’s office in 2003. The latter is to ensure that all laws – including international laws Malaysia are to ratify – are Syariah compliant. In 2009, planning for a Jabatan Penguatkuasaan dan Pendakwaan Syariah (Syariah Enforcement and Prosecution Department) began.


But what is all that power for?

Curiously, the persistence of conservative presence in Malay politics suggests that the increased Islamisation of government, on top of the huge representation of Malays in the military, police, civil service, the cabinet, petit bourgeoisie and banking, in addition to our nine monarchs, are still somehow not enough to assuage insecurities.

It can also be argued that the significant powers that Malays have amassed through the government and bureaucracy over the years are mere catalysts for greater conservative demands, for in apprehensive hands no amount of power will suffice if it cannot translate to total control.

Thus it may be more accurate to look past the power held to see what the power is meant to protect in the first place. And for this we will have to inquire into a prior anxiety, one that is more essential in driving the politicisation of Malay identity as a whole, and that is the fear of losing control over Malaysia’s multicultural complexities.

To clarify, the conservative claim is not that the Malays were here before everyone else. Rather, the Malays, at one point the subjects of a glorious medieval empire, were the ones who shaped the customs and civilization, and by consequence the historical significance, of the Peninsula.

It was therefore the bitterest injustice for the Malay nationalist imagination that independence from centuries of colonialism began with the masses of Malays in wretched poverty. They were 70% of Malaysia’s poor at the time, confined mostly to low level-menial work. University education was far from reach and with little, in fact inconsequential, ownership of capital (Malays owned only 4% of all businesses) Malay control of the country was nothing more than ceremonial despite the triumphant proclamations of Merdeka (Independence).

Malays in fact became poorer in the ensuing decade, a reality that soon compelled the demand which we are all too familiar with by now: that only the material enrichment of Malays can mend inter-communal relations since they would no longer have to bear the shame of being poor sons of the soil.

Shame and self-loathing

This shame left a deeply bitter mark, for the little real political power that Malays could claim also translated to a crisis in self-esteem. The worst of this fermented into the long tradition of self-loathing that one can find in bourgeois Malay thought, whereby Malay poverty is often explained away as an obvious outcome of laziness.

The Malay Dilemma by Mahathir Mohamed (Malaysia’s longest serving Prime Minister at 22 years) has for some reason survived as the most frequently reissued attempt to defend that thesis. Not only did it draw a direct causal link between Malay laziness and poverty, they were also somehow taken as certain proof of Malay racial inferiority.

But if we are at all to recall that book for its originality, it would have to be for the rather taxing attempt it made to explain that link with pretensions of evolutionary science. Otherwise, the Malay Dilemma was merely reiterating an impression that was already prevalent among early Malay bureaucrats. After all, it was published only a year after Revolusi Mental (Mental Revolution), a longer book comprising of essays that also insisted on the Malay poverty-laziness-inferiority idea, this time by the most prominent Malay educators in government then.

It is painful, though not unfair, to acknowledge that there was some hint of inevitability to all that, especially when viewed from a broader historical perspective. Munshi Abdullah, the pioneer of Malay reformist thought, was already lamenting Malay inferiority – also in the manner of simplified sweeping claims about Malay laziness – as early as the British takeover of the Straits. Indeed, it was against his profound awe of British science and technology that the lazy, inferior, bumbling, dumb and superstitious Malay which he took constant note of was often “portrayed” in his works (although always, somehow, in the pretext of some deep care and concern he had for Malay progress).

This spirit of supposed tough love resonated again in the early 20th century, this time in Pendeta Za’ba’s works which was also not short of bile. The modern man of Malay letters said that the Malays were poor in “all aspects of life” – in demeanour, attitude and worldview, “in all the conditions and necessities that can lead to the success and greatness of the nation”. Malay youths spend too much time on wasteful activities, he said, and “are perverse in indulging in their carnal and animalistic needs” while having no foresight or prudence in spending. Their elders, on the other hand, are too caught up in stupid superstitions. The works of Malay literature are also “poor and not of the kind that can uplift spirits and improve thought”.

One can argue that such frankness is common to all nationalist rhetoric. It can be likened by analogy to the kind of direct criticism we have all encountered in one way or another in heated family arguments, only the end message in this case is of course broader and more political, to provoke Malays to wake up and strive.

But what makes the above preoccupations with racial inferiority particularly pernicious is the conclusion drawn at the end of it all: the Bourgeois Malay’s ultimate prescription for independence was not revolt or rebellion against exploitation and underdevelopment. Rather, the way forward was conceived in terms of the capitalist ethos, through hard work, self-reliance and private enterprise.


The central role of British colonialism in perpetuating myths of the lazy native is a subject that is best dealt in another discussion, although it would suffice at this point to state the curious fact that the notable Malays who were most willing to uphold and defend that myth were significantly influenced by the colonial lebensvelt.

Munshi Abdullah, for example, taught and translated Malay for Stamford Raffles on top of many other notable Orientalists. Both Za’ba and Mahathir – whose treatises on the subject were originally written in English – were educated via the British system. It was indeed through this orbit of circumstances that the capitalist ethos brought by the British found their advocates among Malay nationalists, however indirectly.

For a better sense of what’s at stake here, we should consider the contrasting attitudes of Malay nationalists who were not as fortunate. For example, Rashid Maidin the labourer, or Ahmad Boestamam the son of a peasant, saw little to no virtue behind the laziness myth or British capitalism, having witnessed and lived through first-hand the violent exploitation of labour that was needed to service British industries. The Malayan left, with whom they mobilised, advocated instead a more confrontational and militant route towards self-determination. Naturally, the British, in the post-war ruin of their empire amidst fears of a Communist takeover of Southeast Asia did all they could to suppress all manifestations of leftist unrest, often with little hesitation to resort to violence or outright political intervention.

The fact that the Malay left and the British ended up more and more preoccupied with one another after independence also meant that Malay capitalism was met with less resistance. This, however, did not mean that it was without its obstacles. There was, for one, the absence of a critical Malay mass: the majority of Malays at the turn of Merdeka were rural, illiterate, uneducated and, more significantly, unfamiliar with the belief in “grace-through-hard-work” that the early Malay elites and bureaucrats embraced.

There was also a problem in the form of an apathetic Malay elite, the old guard of UMNOists close to Tunku Abdul Rahman (Malaysia’s first Prime Minister) who were not seen as committed enough to the cause of Malay development. The Tunku recalled the Malays as “a simple and contented people, used to their own way of life, their distinctive traditions, their deep Islamic belief in God and the hereafter, and respect for their Sultans. Sons of the soil and the sea, they lived close to nature in a bountiful land. Why bother to work so hard?”

But nothing stood in the way as agonisingly as the peninsula’s demographic realities. In 1955, the Malays constituted 84.2% of the total electorate. After independence it was reduced to just 56.8% due to the formal mass incorporation of Chinese and Indians as Malaysian citizens. This was not an easy fact to accept especially for those who just regarded them as temporary migrant workers whose presence in the Peninsula was due to colonial, rather than Malay, demands. It didn’t help that the Chinese were soon perceived as threats: When they were not smeared as mere greedy businessmen, they were feared as treacherous communists.