Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Malaysian – Malay | Muslim

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Community, Malaysian

Malay | Muslim

Relates to community

Close to 60 percent of Malaysia’s 26 million people are Muslim, while around 20 percent are Buddhist, 10 percent are Christian and 6 percent are Hindu. Historically, Malaysia has been predominantly populated by Malays who began to be converted to Islam from as early as the 13th century. For many people, being Malay has become synonymous with being Muslim, and this has been textualised in Article 160 of the Malaysian constitution, in which a Malay is defined as one whose religion is Islam, who habitually speaks the Malay language and who conforms to the Malay culture. Although Muslims and non-Muslims have been living in relative harmony in Malaysia since the May 1969 riots, from one perspective, the Malay/Muslim formula has been a source of potential conflict in the country. Islam has been portrayed as combining with ethnicity to become the key differentiating criterion between the Malays and ‘Others’ (that is, the Chinese and Indian Malaysians, as well as members of other ethnic groupings who are largely non-Muslims). The othering process that takes place at the level of ‘everyday-defined reality’ and ‘authority-defined reality’ involves not only a demarcation between those who are following the path of the One True God against those who sometimes portrayed as misguided; it also involves the invention of ethnic boundaries that are uneasily entangled with the ideals of Islam.[1] Even if a Malay/Muslim person has neglected all aspects of his or her faith with the exception of reciting the syahadah (or declaration), he or she is likely still to feel insulted if referred to as a kafir (or disbeliever), and might even respond with violence. Concomitantly, a Malay/Muslim who converts to another religion (murtad) is regarded as a source of concern to the community.

This was manifested vividly during the course of debates on the Lina Joy conversion case. Born into a Malay family but having converted to Christianity and professed that religion for more than eight years, Lina Joy’s attempt to formally change on her identity card her religion from Islam to Christianity was met with street protests and death threats from a segment of the Malay/Muslim community in Malaysia. The main line of contention among a segment of Muslim Malaysians is that this case and others that follow are symptomatic of a shift in religious affiliations among Malays and this threatens the sacred place which Islam has held among them. Admittedly, there have been some Muslims who have spoken out in support of Lina Joy, the most outspoken being the human rights lawyer, Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, who wrote a brief to the Federal Court in support of Lina Joy. He received an anonymous death threat in August 2006 and his picture along with a caption “Wanted Dead” was circulated.[2]

Muslims activists in the country such as those in PAS argued that ‘Melayu Kristian (Malay Christians)’ are not Malays, and that, despite the fact that the Singapore state attempts to include such converts within the Malay community on that island, these Christians actually fall short of accepted standards of Malayness. A PAS party analyst drives this point home by averring that apostasy ‘is a crime in Islam’ and that ‘the silent majority of Muslims’ in the country were anxious over attempts by certain interest groups to sideline the Syariah court on issues pertaining to conversion out of Islam.[3] The reaction of members of UMNO to this and other issues pertaining to the importance of maintaining the Malay/Muslim identity was virtually identical to PAS on this particular issue, though couched in terms that tend to augment the UMNO party’s dominance. Aside from portraying the conversion cases as a form of ‘moral panic’, a ruling UMNO party minister expressed concerns that such incidents would jeopardize Malaysia’s religious configuration and administrative systems.[4]

It can be argued that ‘Malaysian security’ is, in essence, ‘Malay/Muslim’ security. The over-riding interest of both UMNO and PAS leaders is to preserve the supremacy of Malays and this has been underscored by a recent study done by Mohd Rizal Mohd Yaakob who observes that the roots of such ethnicized conception of Malaysia security could be traced back to period of communist insurgency in the 1940s and the Indonesian Confrontation in the 1960s.[5] Both parties lay claim to being the rightful guardians of the religion of the Malays and would block any attempts by other religion’s missionaries to convert Malays into their respective faiths as enshrined in the constitution. In other words, the frequent usage of the ‘Malay/Muslim’ formula in the realm of discourse informs policies and politics in Malaysia, just as policies and politics in the country help to give currency to the term.

The Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) has a different view on this. The party sees the Malay/Muslim identity as an inclusive rather than an exclusive category. To be Malay/Muslim is to acknowledge that the rights of the non-Muslims are protected and to works towards ensuring their freedom to practice their beliefs so as to widen the roles of all religions in society. The party, which is dominated largely by Muslims, is however ambivalent over the issue of religious conversions out of Islam which attest to the dilemmas faced by any Malay/Muslim activist in Malaysia – be of the liberal or conservative  – to decouple Islam from the Malay identity.[6]




[1] Kikue Hamayotsu, ‘Islam in Nation Building in Southeast Asia: Malaysia and Indonesia in Comparative Perspective’, Pacific Affairs, 75, 3 (2002), pp. 353-375 and Shamsul A.B., ‘History of Identity, an Identity of a History: The Idea and Practise of ‘Malay Identity’ in Malaysia Reconsidered’, in Timothy P. Barnard (ed.). Contesting Malayness: Malay Identity across Boundaries (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2004), 135-148; Anthony Milner, The Malays (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008)

[2] Human Rights Watch: World Report 2007 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007) p. 287.

[3] Dzulkifli Ahmad, Blind Spot: The Islamic State Debate, NEP and other issues (Kuala Lumpur: Harakah, 2007), pp. 160-164. ‘Mempertahankan Islam sebagai identiti Melayu’, Harakah, 24 November 2006,, accessed on 23 September 2008.

[4] ‘BBC Hardtalk with Dato Sri Syed Hamid Albar’, BBC News, 13 September 2007,, accessed on 12 November 2008. Moral panic refers to an exaggerated and false perception of a situation or group of people depicted as being dangerous, deviant, and guilty of violation of the norms of society. See Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

[5] Mohd. Rizal Mohd. Yaakob, ‘Isu Keselamatan dalam Politik Malaysia’ in Ghazali Mayudin et. al., Demokrasi Kepimpinan dan Keselamatan dalam Politik Malaysia (Bangi: Penerbit UKM, 2006), pp. 180-183.

[6] ‘Malaysia’s Opposition Pulls Up Lame’, 7 July 2007,, accessed on 1 April 2011.


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