Malaysia’s fumbling, pragmatic modernity

IN HIS recent article ‘Malaysia Backpedals on Modernity’ Professor Sadanand Dhume laments what he sees as the fundamental contradictions in Malaysia’s uneven development: The country boasts of a robust commercial infrastructure, replete with the now-familiar symbols and markers of capital-driven modernity and development such as the twin towers of KLCC.

By Farish A Noor

Published: Tue 15 May 2007, 8:35 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:26 AM

Yet at the same time inter-religious relations in Malaysia have plummeted to an all-time low and Malaysia’s state-appointed religious authorities have begun to behave like a law unto themselves, raiding the homes of Malaysians at night in the name of ‘moral policing’, splitting up Malaysian families in cases where the spouses are not of the same religion and taking children away from their parents.

Prof Dhume rightly raises the question of what is happening in Malaysia today? For a country that boasts of being a haven for religious moderation and tolerance, we see little proof of such tolerance at work. Books on Islam by authors like Karem Armstrong have been banned or not allowed into the country, and most recently an international conference on Building Bridges between Muslims and Christians was called off at the last minute. Who, one might ask, is running Malaysia? The office of the prime minister, the religious authorities or, worse still, the increasing vocal and demanding hard-right conservative religious lobby?

Yet Malaysia is not unique in its manifold and stark contradictions. Like many other countries that have and are experiencing the rise of popular religiosity, Religion has entered the public political and discursive domain in an all too glaring manner. While public debate in Malaysia during the 1960s and 1970s was focused more on issues related to the economy and nation-building, it is now practically impossible to discuss anything in Malaysia —be it pop culture, the media, consumer trends or even political activism —without going through the prism of religious discourse in general and Islam in particular.

Similar trends can be seen in many other Muslim countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey and the Arab world. The same also holds true of Hindu, Buddhist and Christian-majority countries in many other parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. (Analysts often fail to note, for instance, that while Islamic resurgence is evident in Malaysia and Indonesia, there has also been a steady increase in right-wing, conservative and literalist Christian and Buddhist religiosity in majority-Christian Philippines and majority-Buddhist Thailand next door.)

However the case of Malaysia is particularly striking due to the contrast between the fruits of capital-driven development and the reaction of the conservative right. Malaysia’s tallest KLCC towers may charm and beguile visitors to the country but at the same spot young couples were charged with moral indecently for simply holding hands in public.

Clearly there has been a great gap between the material and economic development in Malaysia in the 1980s compared to the development of popular religiosity in the country. Compared to neighbouring Indonesia where Islamic studies at the state’s Islamic universities have been regularly reformed and modernised via the introduction of social sciences and disciplines like sociology, anthropology, political theory, linguistics, philosophy, logic and the scientific method; Malaysia’s development in terms of Islamic studies has remained comparatively stagnant. Islam and religion in general is studied in Malaysia, and not researched as it is in Indonesia. This partly accounts for the dogmatism that prevails in debates on religion in the country.

The other factor that accounts for the uneven state of Malaysia’s development is its racialised communitarian politics, a throwback to the colonial era which the post-colonial leaders of Malaysia have not seen fit to discard. Many of the more right-wing religious-communitarian groups may wear the mask of civil society organisations and look like NGOs, but are little more than sectarian groupings that are using the tools of civil society to undermine it. The moral panic they have generated concerning inter-religious marriages are as much driven by the collective desire by some sections of the Malay-Muslim community to make it more difficult for non-Malays and non-Muslims to marry Malays in the country. Here race, rather than religion, is the real driving force; and the conflict that arisen out of many cases of inter-racial marriages stem from this desire to ensure that the Malay-Muslims remain the dominant group in the country. (Odd, considering that inter-racial marriages have always been common in Malaysia in the past.)

In short, Malaysia’s modernity is at best a case of pragmatism and hybridity at work, with mixed results. It cannot be denied that economically Malaysia has been comparatively more successful than its neighbours, but the social divisions —both racial and religious —that lie beneath the surface threaten to undermine the country’s unity in the long run. While right-wing Muslim groups spread more rumours about nefarious "Christian plots" to undermine Islam in the country and the state’s own religious authorities spread rumours about secret ‘mass conversions’ of Muslims, the other religious communities are bound to grow more insecure and reactionary too.

As religion in general and Islam in particular comes to dominate the public domain more and more, the present government and future administrations of Malaysia will have to deal with the social antagonism, frustration and alienation that is bound to come with the dominance of one group, the Malay-Muslims, vis the rest. Where is Malaysia heading then? And what of the Malaysian ideal and the very idea of a universal, non sectarian Malaysian citizenship that ought to be the first and only basis of Malaysian politics and governance? Here lies the real concern for Malaysia, for despite its high towers and shopping malls, religion has fragmented this society as never before and the idea of a universal Malaysian identity now seems lost.

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist

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