Category Archives: Malaysia

Rural Malay Reactions to Islamicist "Resurgents"

I noted various changes in the fieldwork site of Bogang (Negeri Sembilan) between my first period of research, from 1978 to 1980, and my second, from 1987 to 1988. First, the public address system housed in the village mosque and used to call people to prayer was always operational (and set at a higher volume) during the second period, in sharp contrast to the situation during my first fieldwork, when it was typically out of order. Second, the quintessentially Islamic salutation “assalamualaikum” was far more frequently used, and other Islamic symbols and idioms permeated local discourse. Third, young male dakwah [‘evangelical’] adherents now appeared in the village on a fairly regular basis to “spread the word.” And fourth, the dress of girls and young women had become much more modest, and some of them had taken to wearing the long skirts, mini-telekung (head coverings, like those worn by Catholic nuns in the United States), and other headgear donned by female dakwah adherents in the cities.

Transformations such as these are in some respects superficial, but they are important public markers of the shifting religious climate in villages like Bogang. Other, less “tangible” changes include the further delegitimization of spirit cults, shamanism, and other ritual practices subsumed under the rubric of adat [traditional custom]; the development of non- or arelational forms of individualism, realized by conceptualizing serious wrongdoing (such as the harboring of spirit familiars [pelisit]) in terms of “sin” (dosa) rather than “taboo” (pantang [larang]); the emergence of a more pronounced pan-Islamic consciousness, a key feature of which is greater awareness of current trends elsewhere in the Muslim world, where Islamic resurgence, efforts to forge worldwide Islamic solidarity, and radical separation between Muslims and non-Muslims is the order of the day; heightened concern with demarcating local (i.e., intra-Malaysian) boundaries between Muslims and non-Muslims; and, related to this last point, greater suspicions of all non-Muslims, as expressed in the intensified bodily vigilance of males and females alike.

While many of these shifts are broadly compatible with the stated objectives and overall agendas of dakwah leaders, we should not jump to the conclusion that ordinary Muslims are firmly behind or centrally involved in the resurgence. Indeed, we should start with a clean slate and the most basic questions: How are the legal and other initiatives cited earlier being received by ordinary, especially rural, Malays? And, more broadly: What is the nature of ordinary, particularly rural, Malays’ perceptions of and attitudes toward the resurgence? The answers to these questions are elusive for two reasons. First, some of the legal and other initiatives noted earlier are of very recent origin and have yet to have their full impact in rural areas. And second, such questions have been largely ignored in the literature, even though most observers are well aware that Malaysia’s Islamic resurgence is a predominantly urban, middle-class phenomenon.

The short, admittedly imprecise, answer to the question regarding ordinary, especially rural, Malays’ perceptions of and attitudes toward the resurgence is that, while some of them support it, many, perhaps most, are clearly hostile both to various elements of the movement and to the state agents and others who endorse it. This hostility exists even though ordinary Malays experience Islam as central to their daily lives and cultural identities, and embrace in principle most, if not all, efforts to accord Islam greater primacy among Malays and in Malaysia generally. In Bogang, for example, many elders lament that those who have sought to sanitize local religion by cleansing it of its “parochial accretions” are ignorant not only of the true teachings of Islam, but also of the ways of local spirits (jinn); these elders hasten to add that the neglect of spirits due to the nonperformance of rituals such as berpuar and bayar niat has led to repeated crop failure and, in some cases, the demise of rice production altogether.

Others speak scornfully of the fact that members of certain dakwah groups (for example, Darul Arqam [now banned in Malaysia]) have thrown their televisions, radios, furniture, and other household commodities into local rivers to dramatize their disdain of the polluting influences of Western materialism and to underscore their commitment to returning to the pristine simplicity of the lifestyle of the Prophet. These dramatic gestures were highly publicized—and undoubtedly exaggerated—in the government-controlled national press at a time when the government was actively attempting to discredit the more radical elements of the movement. Though practices such as these are not typical of the dakwah movement as a whole, they loom large in some villagers’ perceptions of the resurgence in its entirety. More to the point, they fly directly in the face of the most. pressing concerns of rural Malays, especially the poorest among them, who seek to improve their standards of living—ideally to attain middle-class status through the acquisition of more land and other wealth-generating resources—and who struggle desperately to avoid further impoverishment and proletarianization.

Other residents of Bogang talk about the sexual inappropriateness and hypocrisy of the members of some dakwah groups (Darul Arqam?) who, according to villagers’ understandings of accounts in the local media, allegedly engage in “group sex” while enjoining fellow Muslims to observe strict sexual segregation. Still others feel that the dakwah emphasis on sexual segregation is largely redundant, since sexual segregation has long been a feature of rural Malay society. Perhaps more important, they feel that it represents a glaring example of the resurgents’ ignorance of rural Malay culture and yet another indication of their profound hostility to it.

SOURCE: “‘Ordinary Muslims’ and Muslim Resurgents in Contemporary Malaysia: Notes on an Ambivalent Relationship,” by Michael G. Peletz, in Islam in an Era of Nation-States: Politics and Religious Renewal in Muslim Southeast Asia, ed. by Robert W. Hefner and Patricia Horvatich (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 241-243


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No Island Is an Island, Not Even Simunul in Tawi-Tawi

Tawi-Tawi lies in the southwesternmost corner of the Philippines, only miles from Sabah, Malaysia. Over three hundred islands are located in this province, most of them small and uninhabited. The island of Tawi-Tawi is the largest of these islands. The Sama are the predominant ethnic group of Tawi-Tawi Province and live along the coast of Tawi-Tawi Island and on the shores of the many small islands that surround it. The island of Bongao (pronounced “Bunggau”), located on the western tip of Tawi-Tawi Island, is the provincial capital and regional center of trade.

Simunul Island is seven miles south of Bongao. The island is only fifteen square miles in size, but it contains fifteen barangay (communities) and is home to over 25,000 people. With its swaying palm trees and turquoise-colored sea, Simunul is picture perfect. There were moments during my fieldwork there when, watching the sun set over the sea and listening to the call to prayer, I believed that Simunul was a timeless, distant place. As a coup was attempted in Manila, as Iraq invaded Kuwait and the Gulf War ensued, and as the Soviet Union collapsed, life went on as usual in Simunul.

Or, I should say, life went on as usual for me. People of Simunul were aware of these world events and understood that they would soon experience the ripples of their effects. After the coup attempt in Manila, more people planted cassava because they realized that political instability in the capital would result in inflated food prices. Likewise, the situation in the Middle East caused the price of gasoline to rise, requiring people to pay another five pesos to travel to Bongao.

The Sama of Simunul, concerned about their kin who work in Middle East, closely followed the events of the war announced over the radio. One man was convinced that if a world war ensued, Simunul would be one of the first places to be bombed, as a result of its strategic importance. This conviction is less absurd when one considers that the Japanese invaded Simunul during the Second World War, that Simunul was the training ground for President Marcos’ covert Operation Merdeka [an attempt to “liberate” Sabah] in 1967, that the people of West Simunul participated in the Moro National Liberation Front from 1972 to 1974, and that the Philippine Navy shelled West Simunul because of this MNLF activity. The people of Simunul do not “go off to war” in foreign lands. Unfortunately, national and international violence has a way of coming to their small island.

While I could thus pretend to be on a remote and isolated island, the Sama with whom I lived could not afford the luxury of such an illusion. The seas I perceived as clear, tranquil, and little-trafficked were actually swirling ocean currents that for centuries have been drawing the Sama into contact with a succession of outside powers. Simunul is not and has never been an isolated enclave.

For centuries the Sama of Simunul Island were subjects of the Sulu Sultanate. This sultanate emerged in the fourteenth century and was dominated by the Tausug people of the island of Jolo (pronounced “holo”). The Sultan of Sulu administered the Tausug, Sama, and Bajau people of the Sulu Archipelago by assigning datu, traditional regional leaders, to specific regions. These datu were usually Tausug men who were subordinate, loyal, and accountable to the sultan.

The Sama also have ties to the Malays of Sabah, Malaysia, with whom they have a lively and profitable trading relationship. This relationship continues today in spite of the national boundaries that separate Malaysia and the Philippines, and the laws that define their trade as smuggling. Currently, almost half of the Simunul population lives and works in Sabah, where they easily find jobs in lumber mills, restaurants, and shops. The wages are quite high in Sabah, and consumer goods are much cheaper than in Tawi-Tawi. When the Malaysian government cracks down on illegal aliens, the Sama are shipped back to Tawi-Tawi, only to return days later aboard the boats of traders/smugglers. There is thus a steady traffic of people and goods between Sabah and Simunul.

The Sama are also oriented toward Mecca. Mecca is the ponsot dunia, or navel of the world, for these Muslims. People pray toward Mecca, sacrifice to travel to Mecca as pilgrims, and, when they die, are buried with their bodies facing Mecca. The Middle East is not only a center of Islam, however. It is also a center of employment. The Sama began sending people abroad in 1975. In 1990 about 14 percent of women from Simunul between the ages of twenty and forty worked in the Middle East as domestic helpers, midwives, and nurses. Seven percent of men of the same age group worked in the Middle East as laborers.

The people of Simunul are oriented toward the United States as well. After the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States took possession of the Philippines. After many violent military acts, the Americans “subdued” the Muslims of Mindanao and Sulu, a feat the Spanish had failed to accomplish during their three-hundred-year reign in the Philippines. Employing a policy of attraction, the American government instituted public schools throughout the Philippines. In 1918 the United States built an elementary school in Simunul. Shortly thereafter, children continued their studies in a high school located in Jolo. By the 1930s the Sama themselves were becoming teachers and replacing the Americans and Christian Filipinos who taught them. Today, about 30 percent of the adult population of Simunul has had some college education, and half of this number are college graduates. Their ability to speak English fosters an awareness of and participation in world events and discourses.

These seas of strong currents carried Tausug datu to Simunul and brought American teachers and administrators to Bongao. These seas carried furtive traders and workers to Malaysia and brought pilgrims to the Persian Gulf. These seas also brought foreign Muslims, carrying the Word of Islam, to the people of Simunul.

One of the first of these foreign Muslims was a man the sarsila (local histories) identify as Sheik Makhdum. According to the sarsila, Sheik Makhdum arrived in Simunul aboard an iron ship but, once in sight of the island, walked the remaining distance on the water. He taught the people of Simunul about Islam and impressed them with his supernatural abilities. Sheik Makhdum built a mosque for his followers, carrying tree trunks from the jungle to the seashore as if they weighed no more than matchsticks. The pillars of this mosque still stand today, serving as a testament to the presence and the power of Sheik Makhdum. These pillars have been dated to the fourteenth century and support the claim that this is the oldest known mosque in the Philippines.

Many Muslim traders and missionaries followed Sheik Makhdum to Simunul, some of them spending their lives on the island. The descendants of these missionaries have a special status in the community and are believed to be direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

After the Second World War, many Muslim Filipinos were educated in madrasah (schools of Islamic learning) in Jolo and Basilan. These learned men became missionaries and traveled throughout Mindanao and Sulu to teach people about Islam. Four of these missionaries found their way to Simunul and spent years living with and teaching the Sama.

SOURCE: “The Ahmadiyya Movement in Simunul: Islamic Reform in One Remote and Unlikely Place,” by Patricia Horvatich, in Islam in an Era of Nation-States: Politics and Religious Renewal in Muslim Southeast Asia, ed. by Robert W. Hefner and Patricia Horvatich (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 184-187


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Spreading Malay Literacy in the 1930s

A new generation of Malay commoners was also finding a voice [during the 1930s]. An important source for this was the Sultan Idris Training College for Malay schoolteachers in Tanjong Malim, just north of Kuala Lumpur. The college was an unlikely site for innovation because it was founded to provide teachers for vernacular schools, the stated role of which was to educate Malays to become better fishermen and farmers. Yet the Malay staff of the college generated new enthusiasm for Malay literature and history, particularly the vanished golden age of the fifteenth-century empire of Melaka. They developed the Malay language in a new, standard Romanized script. The Japanese ally Ibrahim Yaacob was a graduate, and it was from amongst his costudents that many of the members of the Kesatuan Melayu Muda – the Union of Malay Youth – were drawn. To Ibrahim Yaacob, the rulers had left Malays like ‘a boat without a steersman’. His writings were a call to awareness of the Malay nation, the ‘Bangsa Melayu’, which was to take precedence over old loyalties. In this, the young had a special role. A Penang magazine called Saudara (‘Friend’) had created a revolutionary league of pen-friends modelled on the ‘Teddy Tail League’ of the Daily Mail. It allowed young Malays to address each other as strangers, as equals and across gender lines. Conservatives panicked that it would encourage girls to write love letters.

SOURCE: Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire & the War with Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Penguin, 2004), pp. 48-49

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Malaya’s Role in the British Empire, 1930s

If India was the jewel in the imperial crown, Malaya was the industrial diamond. In 1940, the governor of Singapore estimated, Malaya was ‘worth’ an estimated £227.5 million to the British Empire. Its exports were £131.25 million, of which £93 million were to foreign countries, especially to the United States, to which it sold more than any other territory of the British Empire except Canada. From 1895 until the Japanese war, at no point did British Malaya need financial help from outside. Its status as a model colony was achieved from its own resources, and its accumulated budget surpluses saw it through the Great Depression. The key to the great public works and civic conceits of the Straits Settlements was opium. Duty on opium accounted for between 40 and 60 per cent of its annual revenue. Its production was monopolized by the government ‘Chandu factory’ on Pepys Road in Singapore which turned out 100 million tubes a year. Much of the revenue burden of Malaya therefore fel upon the Asian, particularly Chinese, labourers who were the greatest consumers of opium. The British crescent in Asia was supported by narco-colonialism on a colossal scale.

One of the most dramatic effects of the coming war was the way it forged the crescent into a bloodstained unity. First, the Japanese unified the peninsula from Singapore through Thailand to the borders of Assam by armed invasion. In response the British punched a land route from north India through the nearly impassable ranges of Assam and north Burma into the Irrawaddy valley. Reoccupying the Malay peninsula, they reclaimed their Southeast Asian patrimony. In fact, the designation ‘Southeast Asia’ was itself a brainchild of the military strategists who created Southeast Asia Command in 1943. Yet, as jazz-age imperialism drew to its end in 1939, there seemed little enough as yet, besides their rock solid belief in British superiority, to draw together the white settler societies of the crescent.

SOURCE: Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire & the War with Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Penguin, 2004), pp. 33-34

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Three Views of the Purge of Singapore Chinese, 1942

A member of the Japanese Kempeitai:

The Military Police had no power to change or even protest the order for a purge of the Overseas Chinese, although they opposed it from the outset. At the Military Police Academy they had studied various national legal systems as well as international law and were, accordingly, more knowledgeable than staff officers in matters of trial and penalty. To the police it was difficult to believe that those glorious warriors, who had just gained a stupendous victory, those prominent staff officers who had received the highest military education, would talk and behave so erratically, at a time of busy operations and when Malaya was in an unsettled state immediately after the stupendous British surrender.

Without influence and lacking assertiveness, Lt. Onishi returned to his Headquarters and conveyed the liquidation order to the captain of his auxiliary Military Police. The cruel task would fall on his company of auxiliary police. Neither the auxiliary forces nor the military police were eager to massacre the Chinese. A company at that time consisted of around 60 soldiers equipped with rifles or light machine guns. They hauled the victims away in lorries and slaughtered them down by the beaches. One of his auxiliary Military Policemen, Yamaguchi, carried out the executions with the help of the others, near Changi Road. The number of victims is not known. The figure given by the Japanese was 6,000. The highest Chinese figure was 50,000.

A Chinese survivor:

Yap Yan Hong was one of those who went to Onishi’s Jalan Besar checkpoint for screening. On the morning of the radio announcement, he put on a pair of new shoes and his best shirt. They were told to bring food and drink for three days. At the packed Jalan Besar Stadium he had a harrowing time, suffering from heat during the day, from exposure to cold at night, never knowing what to expect from one moment to the next. On the third day the women and children were told to go home. But the men were lined up and paraded before a high-ranking officer. As they passed him he flicked one index finger. If it was his left it meant the person must be detained; a flick of the right finger was a sign to go home. The fate of many thousands of people hung on the whim of a single person, on the wagging of a finger.

When asked by the military policeman at the third interrogation point where he had worked since the outbreak of war, young and naive Yap Yan Hong thought of the most innocent occupation. “In the map drawing business,” he replied. This could be a spy, the policeman thought. So Yap was detained for two days. Then he was tied with a rope as part of a group of six and made to mount a truck with two other groups. They were taken past Changi prison to the end of the island. It was already evening when his group was made to wade into the sea and was shot by the Japanese auxiliary military police forces. Yap was lucky. When his rope made contact with the sea water, it loosened and Yap, miraculously, was able to swim away, and survived to tell his story.

An Indian Independence League member:

On the afternoon of 21 February, Mr. Royal Goho, leader of the Singapore branch of the Indian Independence League, visited Maj. Fujiwara Iwaichi, who at his liaison agency (the Fujiwara-kikan) was successfully recruiting Indians to join the Indian National Army.

“Major, do you know that the Japanese soldiers are indiscriminately detaining Overseas Chinese and massacring them? One can barely face such cruelty. Has the Japanese Army lost its mind? The British had already surrendered and the war was supposed to be over!”

Busy overseeing the surrender of the 55,000 Indian POWs, Fujiwara was unaware of the incident.

Goho pleaded:

The residents of Singapore and Malaya respected the Japanese soldiers’ bravery and their fine policy to liberate and protect the natives. It is true that Indians and Malays were deeply hostile towards those Chinese who had been exploiting them to their hearts’ content under the British. And it is true that some even rejoiced in the massacre of Overseas Chinese. However, upon witnessing horrifying scenes, their regard for the Japanese Army has turned into fear. This is a sad thing for the Japanese Army. Can’t you do anything to stop it?

Fujiwara dispatched some members of his agency to investigate the situation. The result of the investigation was even worse than what Mr. Goho had recounted. Shocked by the seriousness of the matter, Fujiwara immediately went to see Chief-of-Staff Sugita at Army Headquarters, and inquired if this really was an order from the Army.

With a pensive expression, Sugita lamented that his moderate position had been overruled by staff officers holding extreme opinions, and an order to carry out the massacres had been issued much against his wishes. Fujiwara countered that the result of this purge was a disgrace for the Japanese Army ….

SOURCE: Guns of February: Ordinary Japanese Soldiers’ Views of the Malayan Campaign & the Fall of Singapore 1941-42, by Henry Frei (Singapore U. Press, 2004), pp. 153-154

See also British accounts of the fall of Malaya and Singapore (via Wikipedia).

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T. G. Ash on Malaysia’s Multiculturalism

Timothy Garton Ash, who did yeoman work reporting from Eastern Europe before and during its escape from the Soviet Empire, files a now-trademark world-weary report in the Guardian from Malaysia, headlined I respect your articles of faith – will you respect mine?

Measured by the standards of the Middle East, indeed of most majority Muslim states, Malaysia is an exemplar of interfaith coexistence.

As the maritime trading crossroads of south-east Asia, it has for centuries been a place where all of what Europeans have called “the east” has met – Indians, Chinese and Japanese, as well as the native peoples. Its population became even more diverse under the aegis, at once repressive and transforming, of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonialists. (From the window of the National History Museum, which is housed in a building where John Major once worked as a banker, you still peer down on a somewhat melancholy cricket pitch.) This place was globalised well before anyone talked of globalisation.

Look a little closer, however; talk to Malaysians from the minority faiths as well as critical observers within the Muslim community, and the picture becomes more muddy – as befits a city whose name means “muddy confluence”. For a start, the communities coexist rather than co-mingle. I’m told there is relatively little intermarriage. This is no melting-pot. “We live and let live,” says the Buddhist businessman of Sri Lankan origin. Apart from anything else, the different groups’ religious prescriptions often prevent them eating each other’s food.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with such peaceful coexistence. The same was true of another often-lauded exemplar of multiculturalism, Sarajevo, before the second world war, and it is probably true of parts of London and New York today. Only advancing secularism (as in Sarajevo under the communist regime led by Marshal Tito) or farreaching assimilation (as has been traditional in France and America) produces the deeper mixing. But retaining separate communities does mean that politics remain group-based and there is always the potential for violent conflict to erupt, as happened here in 1969, if one group feels strongly disadvantaged.

In Malaysia, all communities are equal but some are more equal than others. Although the National Front coalition, which has been in power since 1957, includes Chinese and Indian parties, the Muslim Malay majority is dominant. While the Chinese still have a predominant position in the business community, there is affirmative action for the Muslim Malays, and other “indigenous” groups, in access to higher education, jobs in the civil service, government contracts and housing. Inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict is avoided not by the systematic balancing mechanisms of a liberal democracy, with fully representative politics, free media and independent courts, but by a semi-democratic, semiauthoritarian balancing act, with a distinct tilt towards the Malay Muslim side. The day I arrived, the government announced the indefinite suspension of the Sarawak Tribune newspaper, which published one of the Danish cartoons. It also made it an offence for anyone to publish, import, produce, circulate or even possess copies of the caricatures….

You may say: what right have I, as a westerner, a guest and a descendant of British colonialists to boot, to point these things out? Indeed, the religion with which I grew up teaches that one should start by criticising one’s own faults rather than those of others. That seems to me a good principle. So my first responsibility is to look at the way my own communities – Oxford, Britain, the EU, the west – treat their own minorities, not least their Muslim minorities. We have plenty of discrimination and double standards of our own.

Does that disqualify me from commenting on other countries’ shortcomings? I think not, especially when what I’m doing is reporting criticisms made to me by Malaysians, people who do not feel they can speak entirely freely in their own country and who would not be published if they did. In fact, I believe that as a writer with access to free media I have a duty to speak up for those who cannot speak freely for themselves. That’s my strongly held belief, and I trust that political leaders of other faiths, including Islam, will respect my beliefs. Then we can have a productive interfaith dialogue.

via RealClearPolitics

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Sultanical Reforms in Brunei?

Macam-macam reports on the latest cabinet reshuffle by the Sultan of Brunei (whose Silver Jubilee mug I proudly possess).

Two of the most striking changes included the appointment of the first non-Muslim ever to the Cabinet:

Lim Jock Seng, an ethnic Chinese, was made foreign minister 2, a post higher than deputy foreign minister, but one step below Foreign Minister Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, the sultan’s brother.

and the removal of long-time Education Minister Abdul Aziz, reviled as one of the most pro-Muslim and anti-everyone else members of the Sultan’s government.

This highlights one problem of nepotism-ridden bureaucracies: You need twice as positions, one to do the real work, the other to enjoy the title and ensure political reliability–or your customer base, in the case of a Chinese community bank I used to work for. Unrelated immigrants from China, Korea, the Philippines, and other states of the U.S. did a lot of the back office technical work, each carrying at least half the weight of a nonproductive relative of the owners who interfaced with the old-time customers. The CEO and principal shareholder, who was reputed to favor unrelated employees, but couldn’t bring himself to fire the deadwood, eventually sold the bank in frustration.

The Brunei reshuffle reminds me of a linguistic treatise I read a decade or so ago about the proliferation of “speech levels” in the bureaucratic Malay of the Sultan’s palace. Brunei’s Palace Malay has a far richer treasury of words used to exalt one’s superior and debase oneself than any other Malay dialect. (It almost equals Javanese.) And that vocabulary has expanded just as fast as the Sultan’s well-paid bureacracy has expanded during the Sultanate’s oil boom. It’s as if the U.S. government were to issue guidelines for how a GS-8 is to address a GS-12, and vice versa, and so on up the bureaucratic ranks.

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