Malaysia:  ‘Islam Hadari’ Cannot Correct Itself

Farish A. Noor

Posted Feb 27, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Malaysia:  ‘Islam Hadari’ Cannot Correct Itself

By Farish A. Noor

It would seem rather odd, not least for Malaysia-watchers overseas, that despite the talk of the ‘moderate and progressive’ brand of normative Islam that has been bandied about in Malaysia under the general theme of ‘Islam Hadari’ (Civilisational Islam) that the practice of normative Islam in Malaysia seems anything but moderate and progressive. Among the latest instances normalised abnormality include the seizure of Bibles from a Malaysian Christian returning from the Philippines, on the grounds that the Bibles had to be checked by the Ministry of Home Affairs for security reasons; the demolition of Hindu temples that were said to have been built illegally; the furore over the conversion of Malaysians from one religion to another, etc.

Recently a loose coalition of Muslim NGOs have also put forward their demands to the Malaysian government and all the parties contesting the 12th General Elections of Malaysia, calling on them to defend the status of Islam and to explicitly reject the idea that Malaysia is a secular state. The Islamist NGOs also voiced their concern about the very notion of religious pluralism in the country, and called for the stricter implementation of Islamic rules and laws that already exist in Malaysia.

Yet while these exclusive demands are being voiced in the public domain, the Malaysian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi maintains that Malaysia is a progressive and moderate Muslim country. How does Malaysia qualify as a moderate country when books are routinely vetted and banned by the authorities, when the moral police are allowed to conduct raids into people’s homes, and when even the discussion of religious pluralism is seen as anathema for so many?

The present impasse that Malaysia faces would suggest that the much-lauded ‘Islam Hadari’ project of the Badawi administration has not made an impact and remains at best a discourse of the state that has not been accepted and internalised by the populace, in particular the Malay-Muslim majority. It also demonstrates that the attempts by the UMNO-led government to open up the minds of the Malay-Muslims has not really succeeded and that the long-awaited renaissance of Muslim intellectual thought is a long way off. Why?

The primary reason for this failure lies in the dynamics of the Malaysian governmental system and the politics of the ruling UMNO party itself.

UMNO was and remains primarily a Malay-Muslim party that sees the Malay-Muslim majority as its primary vote bank. From the outset UMNO presented itself as the ‘defender’ and ‘protector’ of Malay communal interests, and was seen as the patron-master of the Malay community. UMNO’s only rival was the Islamic party PAS, and since the 1980s both UMNO and PAS have been eyeing the Malay community with a view of gaining political power and leverage by securing the Malay-Muslim vote.

This however requires that both parties maintain the notion that the Malay-Muslim community is a fixed and homogenous constituency. Furthermore since the 1980s UMNO and PAS have both tried to gain the upper hand against each other by demonstrating their Islamic credentials, adopting a ‘holier-than-thou’ approach and thus sparking off what has come to be known as the ‘Islamisation race’ in Malaysia.

The nature of UMNO’s leadership of the Malays however remains unchanged, and is based on a strong patron-client bond that sees the Malays as perpetually in need of protection, leadership and representation. In the process, Malay-Muslim identity has been foregrounded at the expense of a wider sense of national belonging, on the basis of citizenship. Thus UMNO’s patronage and control of the Malays has not only rendered them weak and dependent on UMNO’s goodwill and patronage, but has also keep them confined within the narrow essentialised parameters of fixed ethnic-religious identity.

Over the past three decades, it was UMNO’s cultivation of the Malay-Muslim community, couched in terms of a protectionist politics of patronage, that crippled the Malays and kept the Malay intellectual community bound to its patronage machinery. Yet despite the opportunities given to them, the leadership of UMNO has never really tried to use this as a means of opening up the minds of the Malays, to challenge them intellectually and to present the Malays with an alternative (and genuinely progressive) understanding of Islam: Progressive Muslim authors have been banned by the government, their books taken off the shelves, debates on issues like religious pluralism and inter-faith dialogue scuttled.

The net result is the Malay-Muslim community that we see in Malaysia today, which has grown more defensive, reactionary, conservative and narrow in their worldview, thanks to the debilitating effects of this form of suffocating patronage. UMNO’s leaders have also complicated things further for themselves by occasionally jumping on the communal bandwagon, and Malaysians have witnessed – time and again – the spectacle of UMNO leaders brandishing weapons in public and talking on and on about the special rights and privileges of the Malays.

Thus is it a surprise if the liberal and progressive ideals of the ‘Islam Hadari’ project have never taken root in Malaysia? How can any government – UMNO-led or otherwise – hope to inculcate the progressive and modern values of a universal religion if, at the same time, it has also helped to create a community that is narrow-minded, conservative and not receptive to such ideas? Here lies the trap that the UMNO leadership has dug for itself: While promoting a vision of Islam that is plural, modern and liberal it has also cultivated a community that is narrow, reactionary and conservative. The real result of five decades of UMNO-led rule is the creation of a more narrowly-defined, racialised and sectarian society where inter-racial and inter-religious dialogue and contact has dwindled. To expect ‘Islam Hadari’ to correct the mistakes of UMNO’s own ethnocentric communitarian politics is a contradiction in terms. A party that perpetuates the divisive politics of racial and religious communitarianism cannot preach universal love and respect, not even among its own members and supporters.


Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the research site.