“Malaysia, Truly Asia?” was written in 2006, barely 5 years after 9/11. While one may not think that there is much connection between both, the paper argues that incidences such as globalisation and 9/11 have produced a heightened form of Islamisation in Malaysia. As a result, this has marginalised further the minority ethnic groups in Malaysia.

The paper was written when I was working as a researcher at The Pluralism Project, a research center at Harvard University that investigates issues on religious pluralism both in theUnited Statesand around the world. I was asked to write the paper because Southeast Asia was fast becoming an intellectual goldmine for scholars on terrorism, religion and politics for several reasons.

First, terrorism started to manifest itself in the region. The second Bali bombings had just occurred in 2005 (the first happened in 2002), for which Jemaayah Islamiyah claimed responsibility. In the Philippines, groups like Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front continued their terrorist activities during this period. These groups did not act in isolation, as there were reports stating that they were linked to Al Qaeda. Moreover, the planners of 9/11 supposedly met inKuala Lumpurto discuss the details of the event.

Second, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia started to become case studies for scholars to understand the possibility for the conflation of Islam, democracy, and multi-religious harmony. Needless to say, it was an exciting time to be in the field of Southeast Asian studies.

One of the key findings of the research report was the heightening of the Islamisation process in Malaysia and how it affected the other Malaysian ethnic groups. It is important to emphasize on the word, “heightened” as Islamisation in Malaysia is neither a new nor unique event. Islamisation has been taking place especially during the Islamic resurgence of the 1970s when the global Islamic population was influenced by the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and the Afghanistan war during the same time. As a result, the Malaysian government, under the helm of Mahathir saw a need to control the growing Islamic resurgence.

Islamisation is also due to the politicisation of Islam in Malaysia. Due to the focus of the paper and the sensitivity when discussing this topic, this should only be discussed briefly here. Islam is embedded into Malaysia’s constitution and many have argued over the different interpretations of Islam’s role in the country. In addition, Malaysia’s Federal Constitution also states that all Malays are Muslims. This conflation of ethnicity and religion is unique because in contrast, not all Arabs are Muslims. As a result, the current ruling administration, as well as the previous ones, has had the difficult task of juggling Malay/Muslim interests as well as the interests of the different ethnic groups. In addition, the growth of Malaysian Islamic political groups such as Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) also increased the need for the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), the major political group from the ruling coalition to be “more Muslim” in order to win Malay votes, who represent the largest ethnic majority of the Malaysian population.

Lastly, Islamisation in Malaysia is also due to globalisation. In Globalized Islam (2004), Oliver Roy, the French sociologist had argued that globalisation has produced a new form of Islamic revival. This revival is due to the fact that Muslims sense a threat to their religious identity and is then compelled to reassert themselves individually in a religious manner. This has created a “global” version of Islam in contrast to an Islam that is situated within its own culture and context.

The growth of the internet and the media, coupled with tourism especially from the Middle East has propagated this strengthening of this desire to be “more Islamic” or “more Muslim”. In Malaysia, one can see this happening. It is more common for Muslims to be wearing Islamic garb and the growing of beards in Muslim men. Arabic is suddenly seen on a more common basis especially on the TV. Nasyid, the signing of Islamic religious songs, is now a popular phenomenon. Additionally, there is even now a Nasyid radio station. All this must be seen as different means to preserve the Muslim religious identity.

The controversy regarding the different apostasy cases, the debate over the use of the word “Allah”, the firebombing of churches, and the demolition of Hindu temples that have plagued Malaysia in the last few years must be seen within this Islamisation context. As a consequence, the fabric of the country’s ethno-religious harmony is tenuous.

This is also exemplified by the 2008 Malaysian general elections. The causes behind the significant loss of seats for the ruling coalition have been much debated. Some blame it on the minority group’s displeasure with the ruling coalition, while others attribute it to the Malays’ displeasure with UMNO. In addition, the political and technological savvyness of opposition groups such as, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, DAP and PAS, contributed to the reduced votes for the ruling coalition. While analysts continue to dissect the momentous event, the results of the 2008 general elections demonstrated a divided and fragmented Malaysia.

How then do we solve this division? The current prime minister has unveiled his laudable “1Malaysia” program in 2010. It was meant to bring the country and its different ethnic groups together. While it is still too early to judge the efficacy of the program 3 years after the program, numerous protests against the government have taken place. The government has, at times, countered with a strong response, like what was witnessed in the recent Bersih rally crackdown in July 2011. This has indeed challenged the government’s sincerity regarding the 1Malaysia program.

In order to solve this division, Malaysians must truly understand the nuances behind the fragmentation of their society. The nuances must be understood within the framework of ethnic politics, and less of religion. The democratisation of media, caused by the Internet, has created a space in which a genuine discourse on the problem can take place. It is also a space in which Malaysians can obtain unfiltered news.

This must also be aided by non-governmental organizations that must continue to speak out against injustices. Organizations such as Sisters in Islam have been internationally recognized for their work in “pushing the boundaries of women’s rights within Islam and within the framework of a country that is fast modernizing and relatively democratic”. In addition, they are also known for their close reading of the Qur’an that has advocated for a more pluralistic understanding of the religion.

I titled my research report “Malaysia, Truly Asia?” in order to question the authenticity of the government’s multi-million dollar tourism campaign. Is it one that truly exemplifies a country that is truly Asia? I truly think so. I still remember the 1992 Thomas Cup winning team that had members of all races in that team. I still remember the 1998 Commonwealth Games in which we celebrated our success in organising the high profile event. I still go online to watch the PETRONAS commercials that are usually aired during Hari Raya, Chinese New Year and Deepavali because it reminds me of the magnificent beauty of being a member of a multi ethnic country.

Ethno-religious boundaries must be crossed in order for Malaysia to achieve its full potential. It is only then, that Malaysia can be truly Asia.

Christopher Rodney Yeoh is currently working as a history teacher at Beaver Country Day School, Massachusetts. He completed his Masters of Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School in 2007 in which his focus was on Islam and politics in Southeast Asia.

This article is part of a series of articles under the theme, “Faith in Malaysia.”