Ketuanan Melayu – a non-Muslim view
Ong Kian Ming | Nov 12, 08 12:06pm
Before I begin, I want to caveat this by stating that I am not, and do not pretend, to be an expert on Islam. I am writing this purely from my perspective as a non-Muslim Malaysian.
The issue of Ketuanan Melayu has yet again raised its head after the recent speech by former minister Zaid Ibrahim at the LawAsia conference. In the aftermath of that speech, Zaid has been called a traitor to his own race and has been asked by Umno leaders to apologise.
Instead of deconstructing Zaid’s speech and the predictable Umno response, I want to examine the possible negative effects that Umno’s unyielding stand on emphasising Ketuanan Melayu has had on the public image of Islam in the eyes of non-Muslims in Malaysia.
As far as I know, Islam is one of the two major faith traditions in the world (the other being Christianity) which practices active proselytisation. In Christianity, these activities are sometimes known as evangelism. In Islam, it is known as ‘dakwah’ which literally means ‘an invitation’ or to ‘to invite’ in Arabic.
Again, as far as my limited understanding is concerned, dakwah or reaching out to non-Muslims, which may be prioritised differently depending on the rules of government in that state, is nonetheless an important responsibility on the part of Muslims.
If this is indeed the case, then the question of why there are relatively few non-Malay converts to Islam is certainly worth asking. There are currently an estimated 50,000 Chinese Muslims in Malaysia out of a total Chinese population of more than six million. In other words, less than 1% of the Chinese population in Malaysia is Muslim.
The percentage of Indian Muslims is presumably higher but this has to do more with migration of Indian Muslims to Malaysia rather than new converts among the Indian community who are not Muslim.
In Malaysia, all Malays are Muslims
To answer the question with any level of certainty would require numerous years of serious study and research. For now, I would like to propose a hypothesis for why this could be the case.
We in Malaysia have been conditioned assumed that all Malays are Muslims. Indeed, it is stated in the constitution under Article 160 that ‘Malay’ means a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, and conforms to Malay custom.
But what is not stated in the constitution is that all Muslims must necessarily be Malays. Indeed, many non-Muslims often forget that there is a significant number of non-Malay bumiputera Muslims in Sabah and Sarawak and that pockets of Indian and Siamese Muslims can be found in Penang and Kedah.
The perception among non-Muslims in Malaysia that all Malays are Muslims and that most of the Muslims they know are Malays. This is surely a challenge and obstacle which groups such as the Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia (Yadim) who want to proselytise to this group of people must face. If Islam is the preserve of Malays only, why should I, as a Chinese or Indian, want to step into this preserve?
But such proselytising efforts, already difficult to begin with because of social and cultural obstacles, are surely made much more difficult by Umno’s insistence of repeating the mantra of Ketuanan Melayu.
By doing so, they are inadvertently changing the public perception of non-Muslims towards Islam – that it is no longer a religion which emphasises equality of all races. Again, as far as I know, there is no one ‘superior’ race or nationality in Islam. Malay Muslims, Indonesian Muslims, Pakistani Muslims, Arab Muslims and all other Muslims are of equal standing in Islam.
But with the assertion of Ketuanan Melayu, the status of equality is threatened, at least in the context of Malaysia. Malay Muslims are suddenly elevated to a position of racial superiority over that of Indian and Chinese Muslims.
One of the underlying driving forces of the civil rights movement in the United States was the fact that black soldiers who were fighting and dying side and side with their white brethren in Vietnam found themselves segregated when they returned home.
While not equivalent, one can imagine a situation which a fictitious Chinese Malaysian may face if he undertook a similar journey such as the one Malcolm X took to the Middle East and discovered the reality that was the Muslim ‘ummah’ converging from all over the world and coming from different nationalities to worship in Mecca but then went back home to Malaysia only to find that his Chinese Muslim children do not have the same rights as those of his Malay friends.
Putting immense psychological barriers
With each increasingly strident cry of Ketuanan Melayu, Umno leaders are putting up immense psychological barriers in the path of non-Muslims who may otherwise have been attracted to the tenets and practices of the Muslim faith, especially when approached by trusted friends whom they see as excellent examples of the religion in practice.
Almost as important is the fact that such cries also put barriers in the minds of Malays who may otherwise not find it problematic to proselytise to their non-Malay friends. If they have been influenced to think that Islam is only the preserve of the Malays, then why should they reach out to their Chinese and Indian friends and tell them about Islam?
Of course, one can easily show examples of other countries where Islam is not equated with a particular race but has not gained many converts. Our neighbours in the north and in the south are good case in points.
But I would counter with the argument that Malaysia occupies a unique position in the world in that it is one of the few countries with a majority of Muslims and a significant proportion of non-Muslims in its population. Not many other countries in the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) can boast of this unique configuration.
As such, Malaysia has the opportunity to demonstrate not only to its minority non-Muslim population but also to the rest of the world that Islam can be and is a religion which is attractive and relevant for all peoples rather than with a certain group which has traditionally been associated with that religion.
Imagine the kind of statement which Malaysia would be making on behalf of Islam if by good governance and the implementation of a more open, just and equal society, it would attract a significant number of Chinese, Indians and other non-Muslim bumiputera groups in Sabah and Sarawak to embrace Islam on their own accord and on their own terms? Would that not yield more returns for Islam than the constant shouting from the rooftops about Ketuanan Melayu?
In putting forth this hypothesis and trying to stretch it as far as I think it will go, I’ve had to leave aside other explanatory factors as to why many non-Muslims in Malaysia do not consider Islam as a viable alternative in their ‘menu’ of religious alternatives.
I’ve left out the fact that many of them probably do not see Umno leaders as exemplary models of what a Muslim lifestyle should be. I’ve left out the fact that institutional structures have increasingly equated converting to Islam as ‘masuk Melayu’ where one has to abandon one’s culture even if some aspects of it do not contravene with Islamic practices. I’ve left out the many social and cultural pressures which a Chinese or Indian convert to Islam faces among his own family and friends.
But I do this for a specific purpose. If this article reaches the hands of any Umno leader or member, I hope that they will reflect on some of the consequences of their hardline stance on Ketuanan Melayu.
With every shout of Ketuanan Melayu, you push away another non-Muslim from Islam. If you think that the responsibility of dakwah to non-Muslims is important, perhaps even more important that the NEP or calls for racial supremacy, then you should reconsider your current position.
No matter how one tries to spin it, most non-Muslims will equate Ketuanan Melayu with racial superiority of the Malays and this puts an indelible psychological mark on their minds that Islam, at least the version that is espoused by Umno, is not consistent with the equality of races within the religion. You need to consider that your actions may be partly responsible for preventing most non-Muslims from even considering a religion which, in my opinion, all Malaysians need to learn more about, even if they do not consider embracing it.
ONG KIAN MING is a PhD candidate in political science at Duke University.