A bizarre Malaysian court case encapsulates Malaysia’s identity politics, reports Waleed Aly of the Sydney Morning Herald.
Six years ago, Proton – Malaysia’s national car maker – teamed up with car makers in Iran and Turkey pledging to develop the world’s first “Islamic car”. Apparently automobiles had hitherto been non-Muslims.
If that’s not absurd enough, this week we learnt it’s a good thing Malaysian cars can’t talk, because if they could, they’d no longer be able to use the word Allah to mean God. That’s what a Malaysian appeal court ruled this week, after a Catholic, Malay-language newspaper had dared to drop the A-bomb.
The Allah controversy has been running for years and isn’t over yet. This decision overturned the original finding from 2009 in favour of the newspaper. Now the editor is planning to appeal to the highest court in the country and the government will resist.
This immediately reminded me of Proton’s Islamic car: strip both these stories of the pious language that decorates them, and they’re ultimately about the maintenance of Malay pride. These are symbolic gestures of ethno-nationalism. And that whole issue is becoming increasingly radioactive in Malaysian politics and society.
To see this, consider what precisely makes the Islamic car so “Islamic”: compartments for storing a headscarf and Koran, and a compass to indicate the direction of Mecca. That’s it. As though no car in history has sported a compass or storage. If you’re in any doubt about how thin this Islamic veneer is, consider that Proton was considering a “secular” version for non-Muslim markets.
This is not about function. It’s not meeting a consumer need. This is appealing to consumer identity. It’s selling a feeling of authenticity. Don’t just be a Muslim, be very Muslim. The content of that commitment matters far less than the statement it makes.
The Allah imbroglio is altogether more serious, but no less strange. Arab Christians, Jews and pagans were using the word before Islam came along. The word has always appeared in Arabic translations of the Bible without controversy. The same ultimately came to be true in the Malay language, which incorporates plenty of Arabic lexicon. So it’s hardly surprising that Malaysian Christians have been using the word, too. For longer than Malaysia has existed, as it happens. It’s in their Bibles, too.
Why should this suddenly be a problem? The Malaysian court held that Allah “is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity” and that therefore its use in a Catholic newspaper “will cause confusion in the community”. The fear, apparently, is that Muslims will suddenly start practising Christianity if both faith groups refer to God by the same name. Malaysian Muslims therefore need a form of protection from their own ignorance that no Muslim community has needed anywhere at any time.
But this isn’t about that. If it were, you’d expect Malaysia’s Islamist opposition party (Pas) to be at the forefront of this charge. But it is not. Indeed, it is mildly opposed.
This is instead about an old guard of Malays (who are officially always Muslims) confronting the fact that the privileged position they’ve held for the first 50 years of Malaysian independence simply can’t hold for the next 50.
Now they’re lashing out, as if trying to resist the death throes of their own supremacy.
That supremacy is a matter of law. Indeed, it’s in the constitution, which establishes Malay quotas for entry into civil service, public education and access to federal business licences. The idea was partly that Malays – who were vastly economically disadvantaged – would gain ground on the far wealthier Chinese.
When the British drafted this law, the intention was that it would be temporary. Turns out it wasn’t, and race has been a constant inflammation point in Malaysian politics ever since, as several race riots demonstrate.
The ruling party, Umno, is a great defender of this privilege. For decades it has served them well. But that edifice crumbled in 2008, when it lost an astonishing 58 seats and barely carried the popular vote. This year it lost even that, and clings to power only thanks to a brazen gerrymander.
Its only solution seems to be to divide and conquer: to sell the image of a Malaysia where Malay supremacy is threatened by insurrectionist minorities – and, indeed, where its own power is falling victim to a “Chinese tsunami”. Its newspapers boomed headlines such as “What else do the Chinese want?” and “Chinese voters are two-faced”. Little wonder, then, the government’s non-Malay vote is now almost non-existent.
But it’s the diving Malay vote that is most interesting. Young, educated, urban Malays in particular are deserting this brand of politics in droves. They’re becoming increasingly sceptical of their own privileged status. For all the affirmative action, they remain behind economically. Special access to government contracts has simply meant that Malays with good (often familial) government connections get rich, while the majority watch on from their scarcely adequate dwellings. What began as empowerment ended in corruption.
I don’t know what became of the Islamic car. I’ve found barely a trace of it since it was announced. Maybe it was never made, because a new conception of Malaysia was made instead, a step removed from the identity politics of the colonial era, full of upwardly mobile people unlikely to be swayed by a Mecca-oriented compass. That’s the problem with being a car maker: you have to accept social evolution at some point. You can’t really gerrymander your way to a profit.
Source: Sydney Morning Herald, 18 October 2013