The two faces of Malay morality in Malaysia

In this article I wish to explain something about the ‘peculiar’ side of Malay morality that must be baffling non-Malays as citizens of this country.

On the one hand, Malays seem so devout with their thousands of expensive mosques, expensive trips to pilgrimages, expensive sacrifices of cows and buffaloes, being careful of halal or permissible food, items and incomes, and yet, on the other hand the Malays seem to support corruption of civil servants, abuse of power by top Malay politicians, murders of non-Malays and even of Malays, kidnappings of innocent citizens from any constitutional crimes as well as vulgar name callings on non-Muslims.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Anwar Ibrahim (left) and Mahathir Mohamad in 1996. Mahathir had sacked Anwar and let loose the police and the mainstream media to undress the man in the most undignified manner completely bereft of any human conscience, Islamic morality or Malay courtesy. Afp

How can ‘devout’ Muslim Malays praying five times a day allow massive corruption of power by their own kind amid the loud speaking muftis crying foul on non-Muslims on issues of khat or those who are accused of insulting the Prophet? 

Stranger still is the fact that it is the devout who seem to condone corruption, extremism and suspected misuse of authority by such institutions as the police, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the Municipal Officers, all being Malays who would have probably visited Mecca several times for the Holy Pilgrimage. I will try to provide a look into the Muslim Malay idea of what they think Islam asks of them.

Falling from grace

At the end of the 20th century Malaysia was rocked by a scandal so heinous that the ruling Umno party almost fell to its knees in the 1999 general election. Mahathir Mohamad had sacked his deputy Anwar Ibrahim and let loose the police and the mainstream media to undress the man in the most undignified manner completely bereft of any human conscience, Islamic morality or Malay courtesy. 

The Malays reacted by taking the moral high ground and rejected Umno in droves at this violation of both Islamic and Malay morality. The Barisan Nasional was reinstalled to power by the non-Malay voters who disregarded this blatant use of force as just another day in Malay politics. 

Mahathir sweetened the non-Malay voters by his turning the policy on the use of English for Science and Mathematics. Many citizens hailed this welcome and ‘progressive’ effort by a Malay leader, but actually it was just another day in Mahathirian politics.

In the 1999 General election, Umno almost lost its shirt. They were saved by the ‘creative’ Election Commission who ‘managed’ the election and the non-Malay voters who stood fast with Umno and the BN. The non-Malays were perhaps too concerned about their pockets and had no time for moral conscience. I had supported the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia that carried the Reformasi flag from muddy fields of ceramah to ceramah. ABIM and IKRAM were the reformist Islam that had begun with the rise of Anwar and had now stood on a firm ground in Malaysian society, played a major role in fighting this injustice. 

Most Malays who supported the Reformasi were both from the educated and the uneducated classes. The Malays who supported Umno and its immoral practices had become a minority. The majority of Malays were led by the reformist Islam from ABIM and IKRAM (then known under a different name). The Malay morality then was against abuse of power and corruption and most importantly a violation of Islamic values of human dignity.


Such was the power of Malay morality that was unanticipated by Mahathir that he was removed from the presidency of Umno. Of course, history officially recorded the famous last Umno Assembly speech of ‘Dah lama dah!’ while bathed in tears with a shoeless Rafidah begging him to not retire. So, officially Mahathir ‘retired’ but in reality, Umno big wigs said the election loss was due to his miscalculation of the way he handled the Anwar affair and Malay morality.

On 22 June 2002, the nation was sent into shock when Dato’ Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad announced his resignation from all UMNO and Barisan Nasional posts. The announced came out of the blues as he was winding up the debate at the 56th UMNO general assembly. No one, not even his aides, had any inking that he had any intention to quit.

Such was the strength of Malay morality – it stayed strong from the 70-30 pro-Reformasi to 55-45 per cent to give Anwar a resounding win against the two third majority of BN in 2008. In 2013, Anwar and the opposition were fully supported by non-Malays, the civil societies like Bersih and a fairly acceptable Malay strength of 45-55. The opposition was said to have actually won the election except for the ‘magic hands’ of the Election Commission in the Black Out incidents of many polling centers.

After that, the world changed for Malaysians. Umno began a systematic hijacking of the Malay Muslim agenda by creating the Chinese and the DAP as the enemy. Saving Islam from the DAP and the rising liberal Civil Society were now the standard mantra. I have recorded all the racial and religious flash points that were blown out of proportion with extreme success by certain Malay NGOs like PERKASA and ISMA. 

The ‘kepala lembu’ incident, the kepala babi in the surau issue, the bakkutteh affair, the Low Yat racial attacks, the Red Shirt rally, the Taman Austin incident, the call to Bible burning affair, the Allah issue and many, many more became ‘controlled’ flashpoints. I say ‘controlled’ because it was always done in a manner adequate enough to be blown up in the social media but not enough to cause actual fighting or riot. Very well controlled.

But the more important question now is why did the Malays, from a high moral ground came down so much to now support politicians with millions of cash, watches and hand bags as well as those who have Islamic foundation but has no building on the address?

The rise of cultural Muslim Malays

The answer, to me, is the rise of the cultural Muslim Malays in the middle class. These Malay middle class educated in the West enjoying all the ‘sins’ of a Western lifestyle suddenly became religious in their fifties after watching friends die of heart attacks left and right. They began to learn to read the Qur’an and pray five times a day and pay tens of thousands just to complete the pilgrimage. They were hasting to be ‘good Muslims’ before they die. They have no time to ponder questions of ‘modern Islam, liberal Islam, Islam and democracy or Islam and human rights. 

Their ustaz teachers, who are educated much lower than them, teaches these middle-class Muslims to ‘stay away from all that is un-Islamic’ and you will all be in heaven. Stay away from alcohol-drinking friends, stay far away from liberal-thinking Muslims, don’t think and just listen to your ustaz, and stay away from non-Malays who are always finding ways to destroy Islam. That is the teaching undergone by these middle class. At the universities, the same narrative is being taught by ustaz with PhD and Masters, their message no different than those that studied only up to pre-university qualifications.

Then came speakers like Zakir Naik who says such things as it is okay to support corrupt leaders as long as they are Muslims. The idea of a perpetual ‘war’ with the non-Muslims or Kafir is the main narrative that is propagated by schools, madrasa, mosques, religious lectures and universities which permeated every education aspect of Islam. 

In Sabah, a graduate performed the Nazi salute and proclaimed his support of killing of Jews en masse without any shred of mercy, compassion or rationale. In Kajang, a group of graduate Muslims threatened the Dong Zong over the khat issue. In the national mosque, an Umno leader called for Jihad against Malaysian citizens over a single issue of insulting Islam. In the East coast, the leader of an Islamic political party declares citizens of Malaysia as ‘musuh-musuh Islam’ and are unfit to be elected to any kind of leadership position. In the north, a Mufti degraded the Hindu people with his kindergarten understanding of the religion.

The Malay middle class are fed up with this narrative and this rolling stone has turned into a boulder that cannot be stopped unless drastic actions can be taken. Before Covid-19, I told myself that Malaysia can never be saved because the damage was now in the fourth stage terminal level. But I saw that Malays can change over three months of the Movement Control Order (MCO). 

Surprisingly the Malays meekly accepted the no-Friday prayers order, the no-congregation order, the no-Raya order, the no-pilgrimage order and even the no-communal burial order! Incredible! The Malays can actually be retrained … if that was wanted. But the universities have been compromised, AMANAH is still sleeping and Anwar is still playing the PM tug-of-war games while Malaysia burns with racial and religious hatred and corruption that is accepted and appreciated as the five daily prayers.

I see absolutely no hope for Malaysia with the Malays deeply entrenched in these false narratives of Islam. With Amanah, ABIM, IKRAM and Anwar playing Malay and ‘fundamental Islamic’ politics, there is ‘probably’ nothing much that Malays who believe in the fairness of the constitution and the dignity of all citizens can do to change the general narrative. Short of an economic catastrophe to wake the Malays from their religious and moral delusions, I would not put money on the future of Malaysia.

By Professor Dr. Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi – Sin Chew Daily (Malaysia) / The Phnom Penh Post

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