Let’s talk about the ‘other Malays’

Weeks ago, when Isma claimed that Islam is under threat and urged Malay-Muslims to defend their religion, some of my non-Malay friends came to me with questions over the goings-on with “the Malays”.

The question posed to me was rather general: “Why do ‘the Malays’ still feel threatened when they are the majority, and Islam is the official religion of the country?”

It came as no surprise to me. I am often asked to shed light on topics related to “the Malays” since I am considered part of the group. Often, I end up stating my disagreement with, for example, the idea that looking at a cross would shatter my “iman”, or other conservative and extreme views of Malay-Islam that Isma and Umno-PAS have been advocating.

But this is how we know each other – by simply lumping everyone, including those whom we don’t care much to know in person, into groups. Instead of looking at the complexity and particularities of individual persons, we refer to our friends as Malay, Chinese, Indian and, when we are out of categories, “others”.

Worse, we rely on stereotypes used in news and social media instead of coming up with our own interpretations of others through direct interaction. At least in this country, we tend to use “Malays” as an umbrella term that covers people who share the same ethnicity and religion, though we may find that they vary in political and social preferences.

Malays have never been one

Let’s look at how diverse the “Malay” is. While differences may be subtle, “Malays” in Kelantan, for instance, have always been proud of differentiating themselves from “Malays” in other states such as Johor “Malays” or Patani “Malays”, who once preferred to call themselves “Jawi” rather than “Malay”. Even the subtleties of differences among the “Malays” in Kelantan are evident in variations of accents based on areas.

“Malays” in Johor, many of whom are direct descendants of the Javanese, have always been proud of their Malay-Javanese culture and traditions, putting Malay before Islam, unlike their Kelantanese counterparts for whom Islam has become their identity marker. There are many “other Malays” in Singapore, as coined by Joel Kahn, a scholar of anthropology and Southeast Asian studies, who are not indigenous to the Malay Peninsula, and unlike in Malaysia, Islam is not a criterion for a “Malay”.

Throughout history, there have been cases where individuals can “masuk Melayu” (enter Malay-ness), like in the case of Ridhuan Tee, or “keluar Melayu” (leave Malay-ness) as in the case of Batak-Melayu who, at one point, ceased to be Melayu and remained Batak. Beyond the peninsula, in Indonesia, the term “masuk Melayu” means “to enter Christianity”.

Each type of “Malay” carries distinctive cultural characteristics. Loyalty, for example, has never been a basic quality of the “Malays”, as we know it. Back in the day, “Malay” subjects, when they felt discriminated against by their sultans, would seek refuge in other kingdoms or open up new lands and submit to no leaders.

The idea of being “Malay” developed over time. Anthony Milner, a historian of Southeast Asia, argues that the concept of “Malay” is a constructed idea that allows people from various cultural backgrounds to become members. Even the people who are identified as “Malay” today were not known by such a name, but rather by the name of a particular kingdom, sultan, or place, usually a river, like the people of Sungai Kuantan.

We should acknowledge that “Malays” are diverse and dynamic, with many complex characteristics that cannot be dismissed through mere generalisation and stereotype. The complex history of “Malay” gives us a very rich culture to explore.

Moving away from Umno-PAS-Isma’s narrative

Today, “Malays” find themselves everywhere, interacting and exchanging cultural values with people from the outside world. Winding back to the glory days of “Malay” civilisation when “the Malays” were known as a maritime community and settled in port cities, taking part in cultural exchanges was the way of “the Malays”, forming a hybrid society. Thus, to associate all “Malays” with Umno-PAS and Isma is an insult to the many other “Malays” within that big community who were once and still are fluid and progressive.

Stereotypes are misconceptions and often damning. They assume that everyone in the group shares the same needs and values while disregarding individuals’ capability to express his or her personal distinctiveness. Being “Malay” here means to conform to the expectations of the dominant narrative, hence denying the possibilities of expressing what being a “Malay” means individually.

Unfortunately, many “Malays” have fallen victim to this. They are forced to be Muslims first and Malays second, even when they choose otherwise.

They are told that wearing the tudung is the way to be a “proper Malay” lady, even if they choose to wear kebaya to express their Malay-ness.

We need to teach ourselves to look at individual needs rather than viewing everything through ethnic lenses. We should have the liberty to define our own “Malay-ness”. Reducing the variation of individual meanings and experiences of “Malay-ness” into fixed stereotypes and labels is harmful to society and individual persons.

The fact is that many “Malays” do not buy the idea that Umno is their guardian and the reflection of the “Malays”, as its acting president, Mohamad Hasan, has claimed. None of the right-minded “Malays” want to be associated with the abuse of power, corruption and moral decay that have become part of Umno. Nor would they concur with some of the PAS leaders who prefer to look at “non-Muslims” as kafir.

They want to be valued because of their individual abilities and struggles, not because they are “Malays” and hence entitled to special privileges. Like everyone else, they want to compete on a level playing field. The least we can do is to not help Umno-PAS and Isma to dominate the “Malay” narrative. We need to take the meaning and narrative of “Malay-ness” back from them.

Izzuddin Ramli is an analyst at Penang Institute.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.