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What Malay-Muslim nationalism is, and how it matters

Ooi Kok Hin
Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | This is a rejoinder to Bersatu supreme council member and policy and strategy bureau chief Rais Hussin’s article “No way will MMN be the future of Malaysian politics”.

The article was, in turn, a response to my essay ‘The end of ethnocentric elite rule in Malaysia’. Even though Malay-Muslim nationalism is only mentioned within a paragraph, Rais devoted his entire piece to object to this concept. It is useful to restate the concept, as it is intended to mean, first.

What is Malay-Muslim nationalism? It is a convergence of two strands of nationalism that have always had a forceful presence in Malay politics – and in extension, Malaysian politics. On the one side, Umno represents ethnonationalism. Historically, from Onn Jaafar’s mobilisation of the Malay masses against Malayan Union to Abdul Razak’s Malay economic nationalism and Mahathir Mohamad’s The Malay Dilemma, Umno is the party that unabashedly champions Malay nationalism.

It was Malay nationalism that defeated the Malayan Union, rolled in the era of New Economic Policy (NEP) and produced a slew of legislation and policy decisions that guarantee Malay political paramountcy as well as special rights and reserved opportunities in widespread socio-economic areas.

This form of ethnonationalism is also manifest in the creation of National Culture Policy and its kin, which defined Malay culture, Malay language, Malay identity as the core of national culture, the sole national language and the basis of national identity. An extreme mutation of this nationalism can be exemplified by the concept of Ketuanan Melayu.

Ketuanan Melayu possesses at least two distinct meanings within the context of ethnonationalism; firstly, the view that Malay supremacy must be asserted in political, economic, social and cultural spheres, and secondly, the narrative that Malays are the host (“tuan tanah/tuan rumah”) and the non-Malays are the latecomers who have been accepted into the house but are never equal to the host.

On the other side, there is PAS representing religious nationalism. How is PAS’ religious nationalism different from Umno’s ethnonationalism? The answer lies in their previously divergent perspectives on the role of Islam in public affairs. They differ in the degree to which they answer the following issues: How much Islam should dictate on nation-building, control and police individuals' lives and how important Islamic credentials are for selecting candidates for public office and as leaders.

It is not that Islam is left out of Umno’s ethnonationalism but that PAS is much farther to the right of Umno in pushing for Islam to regulate society acts as criteria for selecting state leaders and becomes the basis of laws and policies. Whether it’s “Amanat Hadi” (in which PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang claimed that those who separate religion and politics are kafir) or attempts to enact hudud, PAS’ brand of nationalism is distinctly religious nationalism.

These two distinct forms of nationalism are converging. Forty years of “the race to Islamisation” in which Umno competes with PAS for the mantle of who is the better champion for Islam – brilliantly documented in Farish Noor’s two-volume study of PAS – has significantly altered national politics and the state of the nation. Then, GE14 took place. Umno lost power and found itself in the opposition, with PAS. The two strands of nationalism no longer compete with each other...

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