In his 1987 book, ‘The closing of the American mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students’, Allan Bloom, an American political philosopher, argued that the social/political crisis of 20th-century America was really an intellectual crisis resulting from an education system that rendered students incapable of critical thinking.
Given the statements emanating from the recent ‘Rise of the Ummah Convention’, one has to wonder if something similar might be going on here as well.
Have decades of politico-religious indoctrination led to the closing of the Malay-Muslim mind, diminishing their self-confidence and making it difficult for them to arrive at a realistic appreciation of the world they inhabit?
Are we, in fact, witnessing an intellectual and emotional retreat into a dark world of self-created fantasies and fears straight out of some ‘wayang kulit’ show?
The dominant narrative
Listening in on the very public discourse within significant segments of the Malay community, it appears that racial and religious issues have overtaken everything else to become the dominant narrative. Their whole world seems to have been reduced to something of an existential racial and religious struggle for survival against a plethora of enemies of their own making.
This shift in mindset is finding expression in a number of different ways. For one thing, we are seeing a rising tide of segregationist ideas including Muslims-only laundrettes, barbershops and photo-studios. As well, there is growing acceptance of the idea that it is haram to wish others for Christmas, Diwali or Chinese New Year, attend functions in non-Malay/non-Muslim homes or even to vote for non-Muslims.
The underlying presumption, though unspoken, is that non-Muslims and non-Malays are somehow unclean, that their very presence is defiling and challenging to the Malay-Muslim sense of identity and that good Malays/Muslims ought to have as little to do with non-Malays as possible.
The animus towards non-Malays has reached such intensity that even the pathetically few senior positions held by non-Malays in public service attracts controversy. Have we gone from aspiring for a public service reflective of our diversity to one where even the few non-Malays in high office are a few too many?
And, by insisting that Islam does not permit non-Malays to hold senior positions in a Muslim-majority polity, PAS president Hadi Awang has conveniently provided a theological justification for institutionalizing discrimination against non-Muslims.
At the same time, we have government-affiliated think tanks and educational institutions regularly obsessing about cataclysmic threats to Islam from imaginary groups. Christians, in particular, are vilified and even their prayers for a better nation are considered subversive and disrespectful. The crusades ended in 1291 but apparently some have not yet received the memo.
The underlying sense of insecurity also extends to culture. Traditional Malay culture, with its rich infusion of Asian influences, for example, is now considered something of an embarrassment and is downplayed or denied while Arab culture is considered superior and extolled. In the process, key elements of Malay culture – dress, dance, art and custom – are being jettisoned in favour of the desert culture of Bedouins.
Surely, if there is a battle worth fighting, it is the battle to preserve Malay culture and its unique contribution to civilization.
And now we have clerics like Ismail Mina Ahmad attempting to rewrite non-Malays out of the history of our nation while educators like Datuk Raof Husin insist that even the meagre scholarships that non-Malays presently receive should be withdrawn on the spurious grounds that it is unconstitutional. Do they ever listen to themselves? What kind of a nation considers it okay to be so spiteful and discriminatory against its own citizens?
It is, I suppose, the next step in the evolution of the “pendatang” construct with minorities cast as interloping, unpatriotic, scheming idolaters who deserve nothing but contempt for daring to consider themselves Malaysian with equal rights and privileges.
Not by accident
Of course, all this is not happening by accident; it is, rather, the result of a well-orchestrated though ultimately destructive strategy by UMNO deep-state (with the tacit support of PAS) to reshape and refocus the Malay-Muslim mind. The objective is to ensure the party’s own survival by diverting attention from scandal and failure to imaginary threats that the party itself has invented.
And they have been so successful at this game that a wide cross-section of Malay-Muslim society has now bought into their narrative, making it the dominant framework through which everything else is viewed. When even university professors start unthinkingly regurgitating this fabricated and bizarre narrative, the stage is set for intellectual, cultural and religious conformity and rigidity – groupthink on a national scale replete with dysfunctional decision-making, the suppression of dissenting views and isolationist tendencies.
As many observers have rightly noted, race and religion have been weaponized and employed to keep Malay-Muslims subservient and non-Malays on the defensive. In the process, UMNO has condemned all Malaysians – Malay and non-Malay, Muslim and non-Muslim – to forever run on the treadmill of an existential struggle for survival against each other while leaving the party to do as it pleases.
Descent into absurdity
And so, at a time when our nation is faced with serious and very real problems from corruption and the plunder of national resources, institutional decay and the abuse of power, we have groups worrying about who should cut their hair or wash their clothes or take their photographs.
At a time when the real enemies of our nation are destroying it, we have no shortage of pseudo-nationalists ready to do battle against minorities, deviants, gays, liberals, atheists and, of course, Jews and Christians.
At a time when we are confronted with serious social problems, youth unemployment and falling living standards, we have people arguing about who is best qualified to carry out amputations for theft or proper procedures to ascertain the gender of men or women who might fall short of some airhead’s idea of what they should look like.
At a time when even Saudi Arabia wants to return to moderate Islam, we have zealots blindly pushing the nation towards an extremism that has proven so destructive elsewhere.
Such is the extent of the lunacy that has descended upon the nation.
Zenith of power, abyss of insecurity
Ironically, this shift in mindset is happening at a time when Malay power has reached a zenith unparalleled in history, and Islam itself more firmly entrenched and accepted than at any time since it first came to the country in the 12th century, courtesy of traders from India.
As well, one would have thought that some 60 years after independence, after more than 40 years of Bumiputraism, after securing near total dominance of the nation’s political and economic structures, the armed forces, the civil service and academia, and with the steadily declining non-Malay demographic, Malays would at least feel more confident and secure.
Instead, thanks to UMNO, a siege mentality has descended over a large segment of the Malay community making them fearful and resentful, bigoted and unsure of themselves. As well, it is obliging them to retreat behind self-defeating walls that will render them less able to compete and hold their own in a rapidly changing world. If they cannot be secure and confident within the narrow confines of a small multi-ethnic polity, how will they compete in a borderless world that respects neither race nor religion?
It is, in many ways, the ultimate betrayal.
Battle for the Malay mind
To be sure, the struggle for the Malay-Muslim mind is far from over.
Alarmed by the emerging ethos, the slow extinction of Malay culture and the rising tide of intolerance, the Malay rulers, the ultimate custodians of Malay religion, culture and identity, are speaking out like never before, and in uncharacteristically strong terms.
A number of Malay groups and individuals have also risen to challenge the UMNO-inspired narrative. G25, the Patriots Association, PAGE and Islamic Renaissance Front, to name a few, have been outspoken opponents of bigotry and racism while championing an alternative vision of a Malay community at peace with itself, confident of its place in the world, open and tolerant.
They are about the only bright spot in an otherwise gloomy picture, and upon their success will rest the future not just of the Malays but of all Malaysians.
Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 26th January 2018