After an overview of Malaysia’s political and economic history the last two days, we began peeling back the different layers of Malaysian society and investigate the vastly complex political and social dynamics of the country. Through site visits to Sisters in Islam and Center for Strategic Engagement, we were introduced to the role of Islam in Malaysian society and the strategic landscape of its political system. While ethnicity has played a central role throughout Malaysian society, religion has also been a major role in political and cultural identity. Furthermore, the current political landscape is showing a shift in the dynamics that drive Malaysian politics.
Malaysia is unique in the fact that both ethnicity and religion are tied to national identity. To be Malay one not only needs to be of Malay ethnicity but must also be a Muslim. Islam is such an important part of Malaysian identity that being of the Islamic faith makes it extremely easy to gain citizenship in this country. Islam has become more and more important in Malaysia and there is a desire to integrate Islamic values even more into Malaysian society.
At Sisters in Islam (SIS) we were introduced to the Malaysian perspective of a growing international issue: Gender and Islam. Generally, Islam has been seen as a religion that perpetuates the traditional role of women and unfriendly to women’s rights. There is a movement that is trying to push forward a more progressive form of Islam using the Qur’an and Islamic studies to show that women’s rights and Islam are in fact compatible. While issues vary throughout the world, Sisters in Islam have taken it upon themselves to tackle this issue in Malaysia. They mean to show that women’s mistreatment is not validated in the Qur’an. These issues span a wide range of Islamic family law but in particular Sisters in Islam are working against polygamy and domestic violence. This has taken interesting form in Malaysia where women are free to work and can be found in leadership positions in Malaysian companies, managing both men and women. While they may command in the workplace, at home they are still expected to be subservient. The most inspiring part of visiting Sisters in Islam is seeing the bravery and strength of the woman who carry on this work. They face ridicule from more conservative parts of society, labeled as dangerous and deviant, and suffer public scrutiny and criticism. Our guest speaker, executive director Ratna Osman, told the story about how her son, after hearing Sisters of Islam being denounce in mosques throughout the country, asked her why she was working against God.
The class then feasted at a Southern Indian Restaurant, Nirvana Maju, where we did indeed find food Nirvana. Professor Heng took the lead in ordering a collection of various Indian dishes of lamb, fish, chicken, pickled vegetables, fried bitter melon and Mango Lassi. We all walked out the restaurant with extended bellies and big smiles. Thankfully our next destination required us to take a short walk so that we could digest our food before our next guest speaker.
Co-founder and Director of Center for Strategic Engagement, Rita Sim, gave us a very enlightening macro view of Malaysian politics. As a political consultancy firm, they have been on the forefront of Malaysia politics and their research allowed us to gain insight into the current political situation. It is an exciting time to studying Malaysian politics since they just had elections this year where there was a large shift to the opposition coalition, making inroads against the ruling coalition, Barisian Nasional, who has been in power since 1969. The largest party of the opposition is the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which has support from the Chinese Malaysian community and is a spin-off of Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP). This coalition is supported by the PKR, mostly made up of Malay urban middle class, and PAS, an Islamic party. The complexities of this system is a bit out of the scope of this blog, but there are a few facts that can provide a basic understanding. UMNO is the largest part in the ruling coalition and work with the Malaysia Chinese Association (MCA). However, MCA has lost its base, where many Chinese have jumped to the DAP. The opposition coalition is a hodge podge of political parties, mostly united in its fight to get Barisian Nasional out of power. However, they also have a desire to get rid of the NEP, an economic policy that has been in place since 1969, whose economic development plan included special rights for Malays. Many Malaysians believe it is time to get rid of this policy. While Barisian Nasional lost the popular vote, they did not lose the majority in parliament (parliament members are based on district, not population). BN did lose their 2/3 majority. According to Rita, everyone was unhappy with the elections: the opposition did not win a majority and the ruling coalition lost its overwhelming majority. Major political divisions are generational, rural versus urban and ethnicity. The younger generation, urban and ethnic minorities tend to support the opposition. Perhaps one of the most interesting survey result was that an overwhelming majority of women support a UMNO and PAS alliance, both parties supporting a stronger Islamic state. This was a big point of discussion for the class, especially after just coming from the Sisters in Islam visit. While we can only speculate as to why this is, it seems that many feel stronger traditional values would provide a better, more moral society.
Outside of these complex intellectual endeavours, the class has been enjoying the entertainment this city provides from late night street food, large mega malls and delicious desserts.