Malaysia Uncut

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Thumbs up to living in Malaysian diversity

Thumbs up to living in Malaysian diversity

byPatricia Martinez  date: 2006-08-15
Kuala Lumpur – It is a fact of life that even in exemplary democracies, elites or those in leadership roles speak on behalf of the citizenry. Whether from government or civil society, or either side of the political divide, speaking on behalf of people in terms such as “Malaysians should…”, “women need…”, “Muslims want…” are often based on assumptions and generalisations about what ordinary people think, want and need.

However, assumptions are also simply presumptions based on conversations or one’s personal observation, without a method to gauge proportions or the intensity of such needs and wants. These assumptions can then be described as an appropriation of the voices of those on whose behalf one speaks.

Surveys — the technology of asking a numerically representative group of people questions in order to elicit information — are a useful tool for revealing the “voice” of a large group of people. Yet there are obvious limitations to this technology.

For example, there is an inherent bias in all questions, and surveys too are premised on projecting for the group from a representative sample. Despite these limitations, surveys can be fairly accurate indicators of what a large group of people feel, want and think about themselves.

Between December 15 and 18 of 2005, a survey of over 1,000 randomly selected Muslims was conducted across Peninsular Malaysia. The telephone survey sought to obtain information about identity, issues and concerns, as well as what Muslims thought about suicide bombing and the countries that are often described as constituting “the West”, namely the United States, Europe and Australia.

The survey questionnaire, in Bahasa Malaysia, was devised through three focus groups in consultation with academics, policy-makers and civil society.

The survey was pre-tested before being administered by the Merdeka Centre.

The Merdeka Centre sampled respondents on the basis of the proportions of the Muslim population (by state and by gender) as indicated in the updated census published in 2003 by the Department of Statistics.

The results of the survey indicate that the majority of Muslims in Peninsular Malaysia are defined primarily by Islam rather than by their national identity as Malaysians, but are comfortable with living alongside people of other faiths.

The results also confirm what has been described as growing orthodoxy. For example, the majority feel that shari‘a in Malaysia is not strict enough, and 57.3 per cent want the hudud, the shari’a punishments for different crimes, to be implemented.

However, a majority, 63.3 per cent, also opted for the shari‘a to remain under the Constitution in Malaysia (the other answer or option given to the question was, “the shari‘a to replace the Constitution in Malaysia”).

In terms of identity, when asked to choose which defined them most, being Malay, Muslim or Malaysian (ethnicity, religion or nationality), 72.7 per cent chose being Muslim as their primary identity. As their second choice of identity, more respondents chose being Malaysian (14.4 per cent) than being Malay (12.5 per cent).

When asked if they felt all three identities, 99.4 per cent replied “yes”. In an effort to verify the answer to the question about which identity defined them the most, respondents were asked in a subsequent question to rank the components “Malay”, “Muslim” and “Malaysian” in importance. Seventy-nine per cent again ranked being Muslim first.

One interpretation of this result is a heightened self-consciousness about being Muslim, since Islam dominates public discourse.

Another interpretation is that after 49 years of nationhood, Malaysians have adopted many aspects of Malay culture — food, dress and language — thus blurring the boundaries that differentiate Malays from the rest of the population of predominantly Chinese and Indian origins. Islam then becomes the defining element of Malay identity.

Therefore, since racial differentiation is all of politics, policy and a fact of life in Malaysia, perhaps the mostly-Malay respondents of the survey chose being Muslim as indicating the boundaries of their identity.

Another reason could also be the intense emotion that a love for one’s religion evokes, hence identifying oneself primarily by that religion rather than by nationality or ethnicity.

Whatever the reasons, most of our policies and programmes on nation-building and unity focus largely on overcoming the schisms of ethnicity. Perhaps we should note that it is not just race which differentiates us as Malaysians; religion is clearly confirmed as also a key factor.

However, this does not mean that Muslim respondents choose to be defined as Muslims rather than as Malaysians in order to be exclusive or separate.

In response to the question “Is it acceptable for Malaysian Muslims to live alongside people of other religions?” a resounding 97.1 per cent said “yes”.

In response to other questions, 79.5 per cent said that Muslims should learn about other religions in Malaysia and 83.8 per cent responded that Muslims could participate in dialogues with people of other faiths.

These findings indicate a greater level of acceptance of the reality of Malaysia’s diversity than appears in current public discourse. The responses can also be interpreted as the security and confidence that Muslims have regarding their religious identity, and the innate tolerance and justice of Islam.

These results indicate also an outcome of the daily interaction of ordinary Malaysians who are not cocooned in their chauffeured cars but who travel, study, shop and work alongside each other.

In other words, Muslims are able to come to terms with what it actually means to live in a multi-religious nation, without detracting from their strong sense of identity as Muslims.

This is how Malaysia is unique among Muslim nations, and why Malaysian Muslims are often described as moderate because of their successful negotiation of the racial and religious diversity that is their context.

It is a diversity that reflects the reality of an increasingly globalised world with no nation able to claim that its population comprises only one racial or religious group, and with all of humanity having to find the skills and will to live together.

Other responses in the survey indicate that the strongest influence on them as Muslims are their parents (73 per cent), with religious teachers coming in a far second at 9.4 per cent, and religious lectures and sermons at 3.2 per cent.

Ninety-three per cent had heard about Islam Hadhari, but only 53.3 per cent were able to state that they understood it. Islam Hadhari is a mid-twentieth century theory of government based on the principles of Islam as derived from the Qur’an, currently being promoted by the Malaysian Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

A slim majority of only 53.7 per cent correctly identified the rulers as the heads of Islam in Malaysia, with over 40 per cent describing either the mufti, the director of a State department for Islam or the Prime Minister as the head of Islam.

A total of 77.3 per cent want stricter shari‘a laws in Malaysia, and 44.1 per cent feel that the authority to monitor and punish the immoral behaviour of Muslims should be with the State religious authorities, with the family coming second at 33.3 per cent.

However, if these results depict conservative attitudes, it should be noted that that 76.6 per cent answered “yes” to the question “In Islam, do men and women have equal rights?”

More men than women answered in the affirmative. But only a slim majority, 55.5 per cent, stated that women can be shari‘a court judges.

Finally, as for suicide bombing, 62.1 per cent chose the option that it was the “wrong action for Muslims”, only11.6 per cent chose shaheed or martyr, and a high percentage — 24.8 per cent — chose “don’t know” (which, because of its significant size, can be interpreted as respondents not being willing to state their point of view).

In terms of their feelings regarding the US, Europe and Australia, the options of “like”, “OK”, “dislike” and “hate” were provided.

Thirty-nine per cent chose “hate” to describe their feelings towards the US, with 44.5 per cent choosing “dislike”. In other words, 83.5 per cent of Muslims in Peninsular Malaysia have a negative attitude towards America.

For Europe, 18.8 per cent chose “hate” to describe their feelings, with 38.2 per cent choosing “dislike”, so over 50 per cent have a negative attitude towards the continent.

However, 34.3 per cent chose the option “OK”, more than double the number (13.4 per cent) who did so to describe their feelings towards the United States.

For Australia, 18.3 per cent chose “hate”, 36.6 per cent chose “dislike” and 35.1 per cent chose “OK”.

It is significant that negativity defines Malaysian Muslim attitudes towards what constitutes “the West”, and this finding is in consonance with other global surveys on Muslim attitudes, such as those conducted by the Pew Research Centre (which does not poll Malaysians although it has studies on Indonesia).

The survey results show the complexity of Muslim attitudes in Peninsular Malaysia, and how this complexity reflects their real engagement with various aspects of national life.

The results also discredit some of the assumptions and generalisations about Malaysian Muslims.

As such, claims writ large about who Muslims in Malaysia are and what they want, feel and need, are sometimes exaggerations if not generalisations.

The results are mixed, neither confirming moderation alone nor indicating overwhelming conservatism. But what the survey results do confirm, hearteningly, is that Muslims are able to live with the diversity that is Malaysia, and the reality that is our world.


Patricia Martinez is an associate professor at the Asia-Europe Institute of the University of Malaya. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: New Strait Times, 10 August 2006

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Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.



Thursday, August 24, 2006 - Posted by | Commentary

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