March 7, 2010

Understanding Malaysia (II)

This is part two (of two) of my post, Understanding Malaysia. The first half can be read here. This essay has also been cross-posted at Street Prophets, parts one and two.

The so-called "Allah" case, on the other hand, seems to be tied to the question of exactly who a Malay is and Malay rights. Race is an important issue in Southeast Asia, especially so in Malaysia. In Singapore, the rule as to a child's racial designation is that he or she takes the race of the father. So, for example, my daughter, who was born to a Caucasian father and a Malay mother, is officially classified as a Caucasian child. (Singapore very recently modified this rule by saying that children of mixed race can now be listed with both races; however, the lead race in the classification is the race that will be counted for official statistics. So, to use my daughter's example again, we can now classify her as either Caucasian-Malay or Malay-Caucasian, with the first of the two races being her "official" race by the government.) In Malaysia, the rule was recently changed to show the child as taking the race of the father. However, there then comes up the question of whether the child is bumiputera or not. According to one blogger (an American Muslim who lives in Sarawak, one of the Malaysian states on the island of Borneo): the rest of the country, children born of one bumiputra parent inherit bumiputra status, whereas in Sarawak, both parents must be bumiputra. Combined with the ruling above about inheriting race from the father, and you wind up with West Malaysians who are ethnically European but receive Bumiputra privileges, and Sarawakians who are ethnically Malay or Iban but do not receive Bumiputra privileges.

(See his post, Bin Gregory Productions: Good News for Mixed Kids, and another blogger's post, Macvaysia: Some Information about Malaysian Birth Certificates and "Official" Ancestry", for some of the complexities and inconsistencies about this issue.)

The reason why bumiputera status is so important in Malaysia is because the government provides a very significant affirmative action program for bumiputeras. Dr. Mahathir got his political start writing op-ed pieces as a young man (using the pen-name C.H.E. Det). In September 1969, he lost his UMNO membership after he criticized the then-Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. In his time away from politics, Dr. Mahathir wrote a controversial book that examined Malaysian politics and history in terms of race, entitled The Malay Dilemma. This book, which was banned in Malaysia until Dr. Mahathir became Prime Minister, essentially spelled out Dr. Mahathir's political positions:

  • The Malay race are the indigenous people (bumiputeras) of Malaysia.
  • The sole national language is the Malay language and all other races are to learn it.
  • The tolerance and non-confrontational nature of the Malays has allowed them to be subjugated in their own land by the other races with the collusion of the British. [The British began setting up trading posts along the Malay peninsula starting in 1771 (Singapore's was founded in 1819). In 1867, Malaya became a crown colony of the British, and remained in British hands (with the brief interlude of the Japanese occupation of 1942-45) until 1957, when Malaya became independent.]
  • A program of affirmative action is required to correct Malaysian Chinese hegemony in business.

When Dr. Mahathir became Prime Minister, he implemented his affirmative action program for the bumiputeras in what became known as the New Economic Policy (NEP). As late as 1970, when The Malay Dilemma was published, Malays owned a mere 2.4% of the Malaysian economy; at that time, most of the economy was either owned by the Chinese minority or foreign-owned. (Even today, most of Malaysia's businesses are owned by the Chinese, although their percentage is not nearly as high as it was in the past.) The NEP provided Malays with a number of special advantages and economic subsidies, which has helped to increase Malay ownership of businesses (up to about 18% as of 2004) and reduce poverty throughout the country. The NEP in turn helped to cement the notion of ketuanan melayu, Malay supremacy. Dr. Mahathir's belief, as expressed in The Malay Dilemma, was that too many non-Malay Malaysians were drowning out the Malay majority, economically, culturally and politically. Thus, according to the Malay Agenda, non-Malay Malaysians are expected to accept Malay supremacy as the price of Malaysian citizenship.

(It should be noted that the policies of the NEP and even of ketuanan melayu have been criticized by both Malays and non-Malays. Anwar Ibrahim has stated that, if he becomes Prime Minister, he would discontinue the NEP in favor of helping Malaysians of all ethnicities as opposed to solely Malays. Even a poll conducted in 2008 showed that 65% of Malays felt that race-based affirmative action should be done away with. [My own personal opinion is that the NEP issue is akin to the Social Security issue back in America, and will lead to legislative failure for any politician or political party that tries to take the NEP away.])

There is also the issue of Article 160 of the Malaysian constitution (enacted in August 1957), which legally defines who a Malay is, including a Malay's religion. Essentially, the law is that Malays are, by definition, Muslim; moreover, that while Malays can and are able to convert out of Islam, doing so will cause them to lose all of their bumiputera privileges. In other words, conversion out of Islam will cause a Malay to be considered legally a non-Malay. (Conversely, non-Malay Muslims might be able to be considered Malay if they meet certain conditions. I have been told that if I obtained Malaysian citizenship, I myself might become legally classified as a Malay.)

And so there are these various factors, between the notions of Malay supremacy, bumiputera privilege, and Malay (and Indian) Muslim identity, that have helped to create in the mind of Malays the idea that "Allah" belongs to Muslims only. For non-Muslims to claim "Allah" as the name of God when there are other words in both English and Bahasa Melayu that can be used for the name of God seems to be too much for some Malays to bear.

These reasons, of course, are not the only factors affecting the "Allah" case and the resulting upheaval; I wrote about another factor, the fear of Malays converting to Christianity, back in January. Likewise, I wouldn't be at all surprised if I left out some other reasons. For example, I received the following comment on my blog recently that reads, It was a developing then developed country. And that is absolutely true as well. All of the above needs to be seen within the context of Malaysia transforming itself through rapid economic growth.

In any event, the point of my writing this essay is to stress that context matters. The typical response by many people to stories involving Islam or Muslims is either to base their judgment upon a superficial understanding of the situation (at best) or prejudicial stereotypes. If you've read through this far, you can see just how complex these two small news stories really are.

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