This post is in response to a diary over at Street Prophets, entitled Religion News: Malaysia, which discussed two recent stories, the so-called "Allah" case where the Malaysian Catholic newspaper, The Herald, has been fighting the government for the right to use the word "Allah" in its English-language publication, and an unrelated story about three women who were caned (along with four men) for adultery. I didn't have time when that diary first came out to write a lengthy comment; however, with my other priorities now fulfilled, I've been able to work on a response.
What I want to do in this post is to explain some of the context in which these two stories are set. The stories come from a country that most Americans are unfamiliar with, involving a religion that many Americans don't understand very well, in part due to all the misinformation about our religion that circulates in both the virtual and real worlds. Not surprisingly, this context is very complex and subject to frequent changes involving, among other things, Malaysian history, politics, personalities, racial and ethnic relations, and religion. I've tried to explain all these aspects as briefly as I can; however, the essay is already long enough that I've decided to split this "comment" into two posts.
Before I begin, I want to give my bona fides regarding Malaysia. I freely admit that I'm an outsider looking in. However, those of us here in Singapore are almost all, by definition, Malaysia-watchers due to the proximity between their country, peoples and cultures, and ours. Many Singaporeans, including my wife's family, have relatives in Malaysia. When Singaporeans talk about going on holiday, they normally mean traveling up to Malaysia, and indeed, I myself have made a number of trips into Malaysia since 2003. Their news often is reported by Singaporean media, and one Malaysian TV channel, with its own news program, is broadcast into Singapore. And, of course, I am married into a Malay family with whom I have discussed Malaysian culture, history and politics many, many times over the years. So, while my knowledge about Malaysia is certainly imperfect, I think I have a decent grasp about what goes on up in that country.
There are several things one must keep in mind when discussing religious news out of Malaysia: Malaysia is a melting pot of several different ethnicities and cultures. Western (Peninsular) Malaysia (which I've traveled through) is primarily made up of Malays, Chinese and Indians, whereas East Malaysia (on the west coast of the island of Borneo) is mostly made up of Bumiputera (Boo-me-poo-trah), the indigenous tribes, along with Malays and Chinese (there are hardly any Indians in East Malaysia). There have also been strong influxes of immigrants (especially illegal) to Malaysia from all over South and Southeast Asia. So ethnically, religiously, and culturally, there is a very wide mix within Malaysia.
Another factor to consider is Malaysian politics. The country is a parliamentary democracy, and has about 33 political parties; however, four parties dominate: UMNO (United Malays National Organization), DAP (Democratic Action Party), PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the People's Justice Party, most commonly known as Keadilan), and PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party). UMNO has been in power more or less since independence in 1957, working through a coalition with 11 other parties to form Barisan Nasional (National Front). This coalition is the legal holder of the Prime Minister-ship; however, it is UMNO that calls BN's shots. The other three major parties, DAP, Keadilan and PAS, recently formed their own coalition, called Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance). This alliance is still rather shaky, especially as its leader, Anwar Ibrahim (a former Deputy Prime Minister under Dr. Mahathir Muhammad) is in the opening stages of his second sodomy trial. Likewise, there are some lingering concerns among non-Muslims that PAS's recent "good behavior" will revert back to its original form some time in the future.
Malaysian politics have been in a state of flux since 2002, when the former Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir (he was originally a medical doctor), announced that he would retire from office in 2003, serving as PM for a total of 22 years. Dr. Mahathir is arguably the most influential man in Malaysian history, and still commands respect and admiration from many Malays. As mentioned above, Anwar Ibrahim was Dr. Mahathir's former Deputy Prime Minister, but was sacked by Mahathir in 1998; there are various suggestions as to why this was done. Anwar's replacement as DPM was Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who eventually replaced Dr. Mahathir as PM in 2003. Abdullah was generally seen as a promising replacement to Mahathir, especially with respect to getting rid of the corruption within Malaysian society. Although he won election to a second term in 2008, Abdullah was increasingly seen as a weak leader. Dr. Mahathir even quit UMNO as a protest against Abdullah's leadership. Abdullah finally resigned in April 2009, with Najib Abdul Razak (son of Malaysia's second Prime Minister) currently in office.
The 12th General Election, in March 2008, not only saw Abdullah reelected PM by a slimmer margin than he had won in 2004, it also saw the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, making significant gains in both the national and state parliaments. In the national parliament, BN lost a total of 58 seats while Pakatan Rakyat won a total of 62, bringing their total number of seats to 82 (36.9%), up from a total of 20 seats (9.1%) won in 2004. Keadilan had won 31 seats, up from 1 in 2004, while both DAP and PAS won 16 new seats each. In the state parliaments, Pakatan Rakyat took over five states, up from one in 2004 and two in 1999 (PAS had won the state parliaments in the previous two elections).
Now, of course, UMNO feels threatened by the rise of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, but of the three opposition parties, UMNO feels most threatened by PAS. DAP's constituency is mostly Malaysian Chinese, along with some of the Indian population, while Keadilan's is mostly left- to moderate-Malays. PAS has traditionally targeted very conservative Muslims, while UMNO has picked up the majority of conservative Muslims who fall between Keadilan and PAS. (When I say "left," "moderate" or "conservative," I'm not using the terms associated with American politics; rather, I'm using descriptions for Muslim attitudes. If one was to compare Asians' political views to that of Americans, you'd find that many Asians are definitely left-of-center.) UMNO doesn't target Keadilan supporters because the latter are mostly anti-UMNO; however, PAS has traditionally worked toward turning Malaysia into an Islamic state (through the implementation of all aspects of Shari'ah). As a result, UMNO has tried to increase its electoral support by stealing away PAS supporters by being "more Muslim than thou." UMNO still isn't nearly as conservative as PAS was in the early 2000s, before the latter's big electoral defeat in the 2004 election, but UMNO has definitely made overtures toward the more conservative Muslims (who tend to concentrate in the north of the country).
In the meantime, I think we are seeing two distinct developments happening within the government's bureaucracy with respect to religious issues. On the one hand, I think more bureaucrats are taking advantage of the political flux to make their own judgments regarding religious issues. One example is the fatwa against yoga that was issued back in 2008. This was slapped down by the Sultan of Selangor, who said that the council which issued the fatwa should have consulted the nine Sultans of Malaysia first. Another development is that there seems to be confusion between the two sets of judiciaries (the civil courts and the Shari'ah courts) as to who has precedence over various matters. The Shari'ah courts, apparently, are either taking the lead or being referred to by the civil courts. This was one of the criticisms with respect to the caning of the three women. As the Al-Jazeera article that Ojibwa referenced notes:
The caning, however, has raised new questions about whether a state religious court can sentence women to be caned when federal law precludes women from such a punishment, while men below 50 can be punished by caning.
However, the trend I have observed over the past few years is that if the case involves a Muslim or issues pertaining to Islam, then the Shari'ah court will have precedence, regardless of what the federal law says.
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):
...in 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:
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.