With Arabisation, whither Malay culture?

opinion April 18, 2017 01:00

By Johan Jaaffar
The Star/ANN 

In their increasing efforts to become “more Muslim”, Malays are becoming less Malay. We are discarding almost everything that we perceive as “Malayness” and embracing what we believe to be “Islamic”.



In doing so we are losing our real identity by trying to be what we are not. 

In the name of religion, we Malays are questioning not only how we look but also our traditions – even folktales and the performing arts.

Islamisation is not about Arabisation. You don’t need to be an Arab to be a Muslim.

But what we are seeing in Malaysia today is the process of Arabisation of the Malays. The Malays have never been as confused in manifesting their true identity as they are now.

Islam encompasses a discourse on race. The Koran acknowledges the existence of tribes.

But propagating a notion of one’s race as superior to others is not acceptable. In short, there is no conflict between manifesting one’s race and at the same time professing Islam.

Yet the fault lines began to appear in the 1970s, when the  Islamic movement pressured Malays to rethink their culture. We were told we needed to “look Muslim” to be one. “Looking Muslim” meant imitating the Arabs.

The pressure is now back on to be “more Muslim”, for example in attire and gestures.

Words are also important: the traditional Malay Hari Raya has become the Arab Eid Mubarak. It is no more Selamat Hari Lahir, but Sanah Helwah. The term for the annual Koran reading competition has also evolved to ensure its “Islamic” (read “Arab”) purity: musabaqah, tilawah, ujian.

The recital competition is an interesting indicator of how Islamisation has evolved in Malaysia. It was introduced by by Abdul Rahman, the first prime minister, in 1960. 

Two of the most successful qariah (woman readers) were Faridah Mat Saman and Rogayah Sulong, winning the competition seven times and four times respectively.

Notably they never wore the hijab while reciting – a practice that only became custom in the 1970s when the so-called new Islamic revival emerged

Prior to that, Malay women, as can be seen in the movies of the 1950s and 1960s wore traditional Malay dress.

I am sure Malay women of my mother’s generation were no less Muslim before they adhered to the new dress code and traded in their baju kurung and kebaya for what they perceived to be more “Muslim dress”.

The Sultan of Johor weighed in on the debate recently, saying Malays should focus more on retaining their own culture instead of trying to imitate the Arabs. 

Johor leaders have historically been at the forefront in pushing modernisation, tolerance and moderation. The religious education of the state is exemplary in nurturing students who are open-minded yet confidently Malay and Islamic.

Politicians have joined the fray. Former Culture Minister Rais Yatim has also felt the need to speak up about pernicious Arabisation of Malay culture. “We are not Arabs,” he declared.

Lately former Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin has written about the danger of Malays unwittingly believing that “what is Arab is Islam”.

Sadly, despite a spirited effort by well-meaning and concerned Malay intellectuals, the voice of conservatism is suppressing all discourse of reason.

Religion is an emotive subject. As the result of the tyranny of the silent majority, pleas for reason are little heard these days.

The Malays have adapted well to other cultures, unashamedly embracing traits and characteristics from abroad. But they had up until fairly recently been steadfast in protecting what they believe is their own culture and identity.

But Arabisation, in the name of religion, is changing all that. The entire culture is being challenged and society is sliding towards an unthinking conservatism and an alien culture. 

– The Star/ANN 

Johan Jaaffar is a journalist, former chairman of media company Media Prima and author of “A History of Modern Malay Literature”.