011: That “Endangered Species” otherwise known as the Malays

By Farish A. Noor ~ October 4th, 2006. Filed under: TOM_Main.

“The existence of the disabled native is required for the next lie and the next and the next…”
Homi K. Bhabha, ‘Articulating the Archaic: Cultural Difference and Colonial Nonsense’

Ho hum… There we were, all ready to celebrate the end of the old and the coming of the new. Even the oldies like myself were prepared to do the unthinkable and put on a pair of trendy black Nikes, turn in the corduroy jacket and opt for something a bit tighter and loose-collared, just to join in the celebration of the coming of a Brave New World. No sooner had we uttered the words ‘Brave New Malaysia’, the troubling echoes of the past could be heard once more: “Malays in danger, Malays in danger, Malays in danger!” (Which is, by the way, just a semantically adjusted version of the equal hackneyed PAS record “Islam in danger!” – even the remix version is as dull as the original.)

Perhaps it is normal after all, that when a political movement is bankrupt of ideas it can only fall back on the stale rhetoric of the past. Numerous examples come to mind as we reflect on this – ranging from the decrepit apartheid regime of South Africa in its final days, wallowing in the mire of its own toothless racist rhetoric; to the government of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s that sought to relive the ‘golden years’ of Britain’s faded past and its moth-eaten imperial legacy while the country’s manufacturing and industrial sectors were falling to pieces… Why should Malaysia be any different?

In Malaysia today it would appear as if some of the members of the ruling UMNO party are also suffering from a serious case of nostalgia. The recent report that a number of organizations like the Young Malays Secretariat and Prowaris – both of which are said to be linked to the UMNO party – were behind the organization of a conference based on the theme of ‘Malays in Danger’ reads like a depressing reminder of how little has been achieved in terms of the opening up of the minds of Malaysia’s Malay majority community.

The organizers of the event – Prowaris and the Young Malays Secretariat – were later accused of stirring communalist sentiments that might worsen the relations between the country’s Malay and Chinese communities. In response to these criticisms the organizers of the event have argued that the aim of the conference was to discuss the economic, political and social condition of the Malays, whom they insist are lagging behind in the development process in the country.

While some might argue that a frank and open discussion about the relative economic backwardness of the Malays is a legitimate subject for discussion, one is nevertheless forced to ask the obvious question: If that be the case, then surely this is a problem for Malaysian society as a whole, rather than the Malay community exclusively? And if this premise is accepted, then we need to proceed to the next question: what was the rationale behind the labeling of the conference, and why was the chosen theme ‘Malays in Danger’? Danger from what, and from who, one might go on to ask.

Fear and Patronage: The dynamics of Malay feudalism in a nutshell.

Fear, it should be noted, is one of those variable factors in politics that is ever so useful. Washington’s active cultivation of the popular fear of Islam and Muslims has helped it curb the civil liberties of Americans more than ever before. One can justify the bombing of countries like Afghanistan and Iraq by appealing to the common fear (and prejudice) of ordinary Americans if one knows how to play the ‘fear card’ well enough. In the 1930s and 40s, the Nazis of Germany and Fascists of Italy also played the same card, playing on popular misconceptions and paranoia about Jews, Communists, urban intellectuals and cosmopolitans. The net result was a world war and the murder of millions of innocents.

Every politician who had read Machiavelli knows the value of this variable factor, and modern postwar Malay political culture is founded on this systematic exploitation and instrumentalisation of the common fears of the Malays. Chandra Muzaffar (1) and Syed Hussein Alatas (2) were among the first Malaysian scholars who studied the dynamics of Malay politics during and after the colonial period and they were the first to note the intimate link between the accumulation of power and the deliberate cultivation of communal fear. Neo-feudal Malay politics, as Chandra has noted, is based on the premise that a Malay political leadership has to establish itself on the premise that it exists to protect and defend the rights and interests of the Malay-Muslims. In this respect it should be noted that both UMNO and PAS are mirror twins: while one appeals to ethno-communal interests the other appeals to religio-communal interests, but both are fundamentally sectarian and exclusive in their own ways.

Ironically, as both Chandra and Alatas have also noted, the logic of Malay neo-feudalism – based as it is on the logic of ‘protection and patronage’ – also rests on colonial fabrications of the identity of the colonized natives, in this case the Malays. UMNO’s (and to some extent PAS’s) somewhat patronizing attitude towards to ‘poor, weak, under-developed’ Malays is startlingly similar to colonial constructions of Malay identity during the colonial period. When we read and hear the speeches of some UMNO ideologues today, resonances of the discourse of the British colonial order can be heard as well.(3) During the colonial era it was the colonial order of power and knowledge that was used to spook the Malays and render them politically docile. Now, in the postcolonial era, it is the same repertoire of ideas and values that are being used to spook the Malays into quietitude and obedience still!

As ever, there were noted exceptions to the rule and individual actors and agents who did not go with the flow of the mob. Lest it be forgotten, Malaysia’s ruling UMNO party was originally a collection of around 40 Malayan-Malay nationalist organizations, that spanned the expanse of the political spectrum. When UMNO was originally formed in the post war years, it was envisaged as a catch-all organization that would bring together all the Malay nationalist organizations and movements in the country, from the left to the right of the political divide. Included in this gallery of political actors and agents were leftist-nationalist and anti-colonialist organizations like the Malay Nationalist Party (PKMM) whose leaders included some of the most progressive, non-communalist intellectuals like Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy, Ahmad Boestaman and Ibrahim Yaakob.

Ibrahim Yaakob, for instance, never felt that ‘Malay unity’ was under threat or that there was a need for an ‘enemy’ to unite the Malays. For progressive non-communitarian Malays like him, the commonality of the Malays was never in any doubt. As he wrote in his book ‘Nusa dan Bangsa Melayu’ (1951):

‘Sesuatu yang berasal satu, walaupun sudah petjah belah dihantjurkan oleh sesuatu kuasa, lambat laun akan kembali satu.’ (4)

Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy was even more radical in his ideas of Malayness and Malay identity, going as far as claiming that all the peoples of Nusantara were fundamentally Malays and that even the so-called ‘migrant races’ in Malaysia should ultimately be seen as part of the wider ‘Malay family’. These were Malay intellectuals who were not only proud of being Malay, but whose understanding of Malayness was not based on a narrow race-based communitarianism that was divisively sectarian.

However no sooner had the UMNO coalition been cobbled together, the Malay leftists of the PKMM left the movement on the grounds of irreconcilable ideological differences with the traditional Malay elite. Since then UMNO has been dominated by the right-wing representatives of Malay politics and this inclination to the right is reflected in UMNO’s rhetoric and ideology, emphasizing notions of racial unity, collective Malay self-interest, Malay values, culture, language as well as the religion of the Malays: Islam. The inclusive, plural and complex understanding of Malayness has since been reduced to a fixed signifier in Malay politics and political culture/discourse. In turn the idea that the Malay/Muslims need to be ‘protected’ and ‘guided’ by the political masters has been the defining feature of UMNO and PAS’s politics ever since.

Where have the brave Malays gone?

Half a century on, however, it would appear as if the rhetoric of UMNO is all but spent and irrelevant. UMNO’s ideologues continue to harp on and on about ‘threats’ to the Malay community, both real and imagined; but at the same time seem curiously oblivious to the fact that the groundswell of Malay public opinion has shifted to another register altogether: that of political religion. At the same time UMNO’s ideologues and spokesmen have failed to notice the shifts and changes that have taken place in Malay society in particular, and how many of these changes were actually occasioned by the developmental policies of the UMNO-led government itself.

In the 1950s, when the Malays barely made up half of the fledgling country’s population, the rhetoric of ‘Malays in danger!’ may have had some persuasive impact. So deeply rooted was the fear that the Malays might be ‘swamped’ by the other communities in Malaysia that there later emerged an unstated consensus between both UMNO and its nemesis the Islamic party PAS (then under Asri Muda) that the Malays needed to remain united above all else.

But thanks in part to the rapid development brought about by the UMNO-led government of the 1980s, Malaysia has witnessed not only a demographic boom among the Malays (who now number more than 60 per cent of the population) but also the internal pluralisation of the Malay community itself. Malay women in particular are more economically independent than ever before, better educated and certainly more visible in the public arena. Malay urbanites in turn are certainly more cosmopolitan and open-minded when it comes to the choice of who they work and play with (JAWI interventions notwithstanding).

For some of the more Jurassic representatives of the old order, perhaps these changes have come too fast and too apparent for their own comfort. Is it a surprise then that many of the right-wing Malay nationalist groups are no different from the right-wing counterparts in the Islamist party PAS when it comes to their constant criticism of Malaysia’s nascent feminist movement? Is all this talk of ‘Malays in danger’ nothing more than a flimsy disguise to cover up the insecurities of the outdated conservative Malay male, still longing for his idealized homeland where the Malay male rules the roost, the wife is kept in the kitchen and the so-called ‘migrant communities’ are kept in their place?

To reiterate the point we wish to make: If it is the case that the Malays of Malaysia are lagging behind in terms of economic development, then this is indeed a matter of concern for all Malaysians. But for such concerns to be addressed they need to be articulated in a public space using a public discourse that is common and accessible to all. Spurious talk about ‘Malays in danger’ articulated by right-wing ethno-nationalists using the discourse of communitarianism brings us no closer to solving any of the structural inequalities that exist in Malaysia today. But such a broad-based approach that bridges, rather than enforces, communal differences would be the way for those with brave hearts and broad open minds. Sadly that is precisely what is lacking among some of the so-called ‘defenders of the Malay cause’ in Malaysia right now. What Malaysia and the Malays in particular need right now are not empty slogans laced with fear and paranoia, but rather a generation of brave Malays who are prepared to take the logic of nation-building one step further, and closer to its logical conclusion: Having won our independence, the Malays need to transcend their own parochial Malayness and become Malaysians themselves.


  1. See: Chandra Muzaffar, Protector? An Analysis of the Concept and Practice of Loyalty in Leader-led Relationships within Malay Society, Penang: Aliran, 1979.

  2. See: Syed Hussein Alatas, The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to the 20th Century and its Function in the Ideology of Colonial Capitalism, London: Frank Cass, 1977.

  3. Compare the patronizing view of the Malays as a people who need to be helped, protected and guided by UMNO with the view of the Malays as seen through the lens of former British colonial ideologues for instance. In his work ‘In Court and Kampong’ (1896), the colonial resident Hugh Clifford wrote thus: ‘..One cannot but sympathise with the Malays, who are suddenly and violently translated from the point to which they had attained in the natural development of their race, and are (now) required to live up to the standards of a people who are six centuries in advance of them in national progress. (italics ours)’. The theorist Homi Bhabha has argued that: ‘…colonial ideology utilised the idea of the lazy native to justify compulsion and unjust practices in the mobilisation of labour in the colonies. It portrayed a negative image of the natives and their society to justify and rationalise European conquest and domination of the area. It distorted elements of human and social reality to ensure a comfortable construction of the ideology’.(Homi K Bhabha, ‘Articulating the Archaic: Cultural Difference and Colonial Nonsense‘, in Nation and Narration, pg. 2)

  4. Ibrahim Yaakob, Nusa dan Bangsa Melayu, 1951. pg. 5. (We would like to thank Rustam A. Sani for giving us a copy of this rare and important political text many years ago- F.)

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