In 2020, as the world faced the Covid-19 pandemic, Malaysia saw the resurgence of the Malay narrative. This is not unusual as annually, politicians and far-right nationalists demand for Malay rights to be further reinstated and entrenched in public policies. Sparked by the cover of a book edited by Kean Wong, “Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance, and Hope on the Road to New Malaysia,” Malay anger bayed for the blood of the writers and the editor. What fascinated political observers such as myself, was that moderate and observant Muslims such as Asyraf Wajdi bin Dusuki, who is the Youth Chief of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and is admired as a reasonable politician, and his ilk joined in the vicious fray over the book.
Overnight, sales of the Malay headgear, the tanjak, significantly increased, and many Malay politicians and activists took to donning the Malay costume.
The Rise of Tanjak Power and Malay Pride
Sometime during Malaysia’s first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, I decided to write a book and also return to my original research plan of studying Malay youths. I was supposed to have pursued a postgraduate path and then IMAN came up, so Covid-19 in many ways was a blessing. The book, which is a collection of interviews conducted over Zoom and in real life, was about young Malay voices who wanted to have their voices heard.
To be a Malay these days is contentious; not just among non-Malays but also within the Malay demographic. I wrote the following as a Linkedin.com post which I had tried submitting to the Malaysian media but it was deemed too sensitive:
“Firstly, this return to Malayness, ajaran, agama Melayu, started making its presence known in 2018. During the time of the Anti Icerd rally, I noticed the presence of young Malay men wearing the tanjak, and promoting Malay entrepreneurship on Instagram and other social media platforms. The intentions of these young men sporting the Busana Melayu were reputedly honourable: instead of being reliant on third parties for their livelihood, it was time they wrested the power back and created their own small medium enterprises. I personally thought this was encouraging and powerful. Why rely on the state when you can be independent and set your own course?
As time went on, I observed and noted the following: they were Malay nationalists, but not really supremacists. As entrepreneurs, they were self-sustaining in the name of race and religion, and independent from the state, gave back to charity. Wresting back this identity that had long been politicised and hijacked by the powers that be and political actors, and it solidified and increased their social capital and confidence, and provided a personal and professional ‘Hala tuju’ (direction).
As more and more groups of young men and women popped up on social media, promoting Malay traditional wear, and selling mystical books on Malay healing (as opposed to Islamic healing known as ruqya), I realised that this was more than just a trend, but a spiritual journey of an identity they felt was disappearing.
This (trend) was a pushback against what the state has deemed Malay identity and the Arabisation of Nusantara Islam, especially Wahabism and Salafism. Tanah Melayu seems to be in a constant state of colonisation; we had white masters before and now we have been living through Salafisation/Wahabi-sation of our language, culture and faith. It would be unfair to accuse our Arab forefathers of destroying ourselves as Islam Nusantara was also influenced by the arrival of the Hadramawt traders. The Malay Narrative must be brought back to the fore.
On social media, books on perubatan Melayu, (Malay healing) are popular. There is a spike in sales/demand and interest. E-commerce platforms like Shopee and flea markets report brisk sales of such books. More local ustazs, those who are not as famous as Ustaz Don Danial for example, are creating their own groups, teaching perubatan Melayu, meditation, and practices with silat elements, zikir and Quranic verses. People are eager to learn about Malay cultures, rituals and traditions. They are made up of professionals, academics, the silat wannabe and the lost lambs seeking an identity.
While this phenomenon is nation-wide, it would seem that it is more apparent in urban areas in the Klang Valley, and it is predominantly young men. This coincides with IMAN Research’s ongoing findings: the number of unemployed graduates who are young men is increasing, and many do not complete secondary school. Every time the team goes to the ground, and even in my interviews with these young men during the lockdown, we are told that Malays lack social capital. It made me wonder: 60 years of independence, Malay privilege and inequity, and we still demand social capital. How did we get here? Are these imagined fears?
To understand this anger, we will need to refer to previous studies by IMAN Research undertaken to understand why Malaysia youths were predisposed to extremist thought.
In The Beginning
In 2016 leading up to 2018, IMAN Research (IMAN) began a nationwide study on how (Malay Muslim) youths viewed their identity as Muslims and young Malays and their sympathy towards ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.) The project revealed issues of identity, lack of social capital and angst, and these findings spilled over into IMAN’s next study in 2019, “Believing in Extremism: What Drives Our Youths.”
We asked Malay Muslims between the ages of 18 to 35 who came from four different locations in Peninsular Malaysia. They also had varying degrees of education and socio-economic status. We chose this demographic because they represented 66% of the total population in Malaysia then, and were politically astute (there was 83% youth turnout for the 13th General Elections). They were also technologically savvy: 47% of them had more than one mobile phone, and heavy users of Facebook (13 million used the platform).
While Malaysian youths represented 62.8% of the total workforce, there was negative growth in mid-income jobs. Many were unemployed. Their income was 40-50% less of the national average. 28% did not complete secondary schooling and juvenile crime was high. At school, they did not mix with other races.
At the time of our focus group discussions, 200 Malay Muslims had joined ISIS, surpassing Indonesians. More than 120 individuals had been arrested since 2013 from either trying to join ISIS or returned from fighting. There were also many educated Malay-Muslim women who sympathized with Syria and jihadists. Many could not differentiate between Syria and ISIS.
Not only were Malay youths resentful of the non-Muslim communities’ economic successes, they were also not comfortable with successful Malays. “They probably had connections with powerful people/They come from money, hence it is easy for them to gain employment,” were some of the comments.
They also felt immense pressure to assimilate religiously and ethnically, through language and religion and were brought up under strict religious doctrines which may be xenophobic in nature, hence the reassertion of Islam as the only identity they have. Many commented on negative perceptions of Malays, “(We) Malays are seen as lazy, corrupt and weak. We do not want to identify with that, that is why we see ourselves as Muslims first.”
There certainly was anger towards the state and what they felt was an aggrievance towards society.
Talking to Young Men
When you look at social media, the trolls tend to be young men. The anger that I sense has been seething a long time. I started asking around for angry young Malay men. Most had strong views, but seemed resigned. Nami, a writer, was more elaborate.
In a short email interview, I asked him whether this anger was directed towards the Malay elite.
“Not really,” he said. “Right now, we (Malays) are living in Malay postmodernism, when at the same time we are looking forward to our own identity to be defined from outside influences such as Arabisation or Westernisation.”
“Look. The majority of Malays are really sick of those who use religion to benefit them, but at the same time, they will not tolerate current Western norms such as LGBT. Malaypolitik is like our neighbours’ in Asia, – warlords and all, where political parties exist not because of an ideology but of a person.”
His journey that saw him leaning left and then experimenting with the right, attending gigs and dating girls whose views warped his mind, wasn’t any different from his peers. They were and are young.
“It’s not about being left or right pun (also). It’s because I want to defend the identity before it fades away, after the effects of globalization.”
Nami may be concerned about the impact of globalization on Malay identity, but he may or may not realise, his anger like his friends are shared by other angry young men around the world.
A group I follow on Instagram is Bangsa Bertauhid which promotes Malay pride. Now, one of the things the founder talks about a lot is how Malays have always been at the lower rung of the economic ladder, and that they now can wrest power from the elites and non-Malays by investing in themselves and their businesses. It was also a call to wear Malay national costumes, a pushback from outside influences, such as colonisation, Western powers, and Arabisation. I thought and still think this is fantastic; we have a beautiful culture, language and heritage. The appreciation of Malay culture was always within the realms of academia, the moneyed, the knowledgeable and eccentrics – today young people are reclaiming their roots, and they aren’t from those realms. Kudos to them, I say.
What Malaysia is seeing as hate from nationalist parties, the far-right movement and pro Malay groups, is a manifestation of what is going on in the country right now.
Tengku Ahmad Ridhaudin, a postgraduate student, keris enthusiast and collector, who hosts a lively Facebook page spoke to me about this surge of Malay narratives. “The problem is that our idea of Malayness is coloured by Eurocentric views of our history. And strange ideologies entrenched in Malay society. The whole human body is evidence of the existence of God. “Manusia ni tau mereka sentiasa ber-Tuhan.(The Malays cannot run away from God) but their knowledge is limited, and this was seen as an opportunity by the Orientalists to redefine Malayness. Ada fardhu ain, cukup. Kalau cikgu salah, you tak berdosa, cikgu yang dosa. (It is enough to have farduh ain, obligatory acts that must be performed by each individual Muslim. If the teacher has faulted, you would not have committed a sin, instead the teacher has sinned) The knowledge in Islam is accumulative, but Wahabbis ni (these Wahabbis) send doubt, hence the person’s faith falters.”
He disagreed with how some Malay writers write about our paranormal myths as they all come from an Orientalist perspective – “it’s not from the Malay roots. The problem is that the Malays themselves don’t read Malay manuscripts written in Jawi. Who said Malays don’t write? Who said they didn’t have the documentation?”
Another friend said this to me, “There is a desire to reclaim what was lost to the breakneck speed of modernity and industrialisation and the recurring ‘reform’ efforts that garbaged all that is Malay into the tahyul mahyul (superstitions) and asabiyah (social cohesion) boxes. In the end, Mat Salleh’s (Westerners) catch you with your RP English and ask if you’re not from around here, and Arabs stare at your sparse beard, and decidedly un-Arab multi-coloured jubah. We need to land on that ‘somewhere’ and not the imagined ‘elsewhere.’”