The most important Malay movements you’ve never heard of


  • All the pieces matter
  • Sunday, 03 Nov 2019

Could movements like Abim and Ikram be the key to Malaysian unity?

IT’S probably a safe bet to say anywhere from 50% to 90% of non-Malays have either never heard of Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim) or Pertubuhan Ikram Malaysia (Ikram), or are generally unfamiliar with what they stand for.

Both organisations have some roots in the Islamic revivalism that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s

Abim is a youth based organisation established in 1971. PKR president Anwar Ibrahim is perhaps the most well known of the many figures that have emerged from the ranks of Abim, which was the platform that arguably launched his public profile as a leader.

Ikram is a consolidation of education and humanitarian NGOs that began with and were affiliated with Jamaah Islah Malaysia, which was established in 1990 and streamlined into Ikram in 2009.

Both Abim and Ikram share a number of similarities. Both were established to promote Islamic revivalism, and both have a strong, active grassroots network engaged in improving the day to day lives of Malaysians on the ground.

Perhaps most importantly, both have publicly and consistently been taking moderate, progressive positions.

Being part of a number of non-Malay/Muslim WhatsApp groups, I remain completely convinced that Islamaphobia is a very real thing. Similarly, my Malay Muslim friends tell me that they receive similar anti non-Malay/Muslim content all the time. This is all part of a global trend of increasing xenophobia all around.

On the subject of increasing Islamisation in Malaysia, I take the likely unpopular view (for people of my background anyway), that the more genuinely Islamic our government, the better.

Note: genuinely.

I feel there is little value in dressing up our institutions with the outward trappings of religion, unless it is accompanied by the true values and principles that said religion preaches.

In that vein, I feel that the more genuinely Muslim a leader is, the more likely that leader will walk the straight and narrow path of integrity.

I would be more than happy with a staunch and pious Muslim at the helm of a government, because such a leader fears God above all else.

Fearing God means that a truly Muslim leader would be truly convinced that he or she is being constantly watched and judged at every second by an omniscient and omnipotent divine being, and is constantly conscious that the fires of hell (literally) await those who betray the trust of the people.

There is no bigger incentive that the rest of us, as mere mortals, can give to such a leader in order to ensure honest and compassionate governance.

If we can therefore accept that the proliferation of genuine Islamic values and principles could be a positive thing for the government and for Malaysia, perhaps we are step closer to being more open minded about movements that some would label “Islamist”, including organisations like Abim and Ikram.

By now, we are all too familiar with the somewhat more divisive and exclusionist narratives of Isma, Umno, and today’s PAS, among others.

Those few who take the opportunity to actually listen to the things that Abim and Ikram say (and to Malays notably, not just to non-Malay crowds) may be surprised to find a completely different narrative emerging from these two Islamist movements.

From Ikram, I recall in particular statements about the recognition of the UEC, and the buy Muslim first campaign.

The official statement on the UEC reflected serious efforts to reach out to Chinese educationists in order to understand the UEC from head to toe before making wild and inflammatory statements. It was ultimately more balanced, and more reconciliatory than almost anything I have seen emerge from a Malay majority organisation.

With regards to the buy Muslim first campaign, Ikram Youth leader Hafiz Abd Hamid wrote that that buying Muslim first was fine, but that boycotting products from other races and religions was something that was negative and ultimately unhelpful to Malaysia on multiple levels.

Abim took a similar position, stating that they support buying Muslim products, but were against boycotting non-Muslim products.

In the aftermath of the Icerd fiasco, then Abim secretary general Faisal Aziz (now Abim president) took the more middle ground position that despite rejecting Icerd, the government should incorporate some elements from Icerd into a new law against discrimination that were in line with the Federal Constitution.

Where outreach is concerned, Ikram is a key member of Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia (GBM), a unique coalition consisting of NGOs that represent a wide range of communities on the ethnoreligious spectrum. This is in line with Ikram’s emphasis on the concept of Negara Rahmah - a nation based on compassion and benevolence.

Abim meanwhile organised a large event in Bangi last week, called Seminar Bangsa Malaysia. The term ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ is itself controversial in the Malay community. Many might say that the concept represents an erosion of ‘Bangsa Melayu’.

Nonetheless, Abim forged bravely ahead. Listening to the speeches of their leaders all morning that Saturday, it was clear that their approach to Islam and leadership was one that emphasised the spirit of inclusiveness and openness towards non-Malays and non-Muslims.

Alongside recognising and being committed to defending all existing provisions regarding Islam and the Malays, this approach recognised the contributions of non-Malays and stated clearly a willingness to work together not for the benefit or detriment of any one race, but for the betterment of all.

Both Abim and Ikram have taken very clear and public (if not always well publicised) positions that emphasise a rejection of the politics of division, in lieu of a recognition that we are all in the same boat, and need to find a way to replace mistrust with empathy and mutual understanding.

On a more practical level, the significance of this is the demographic that these organisations represent.

We have seen more than a handful of very liberal and progressive Malays, whose aggressive and bold positions have made them the darlings of non-Malays throughout the country.

The only “problem” is, such figures (while undoubtedly true Malays, and very nice people) seldom represent or appeal to the wider Malay demographic – and certainly nowhere on the scale at which grassroots organisations like Abim and Ikram do.

This makes them uniquely positioned to provide an important contrasting narrative to the one in which ultras on both side of the divide seem intent on fanning flames and letting the social fabric of Malaysia burn down all around us.

God knows we’ve had enough of that. It’s time for leaders with credible credentials and values steeped in compassion and mutual respect to come to the fore.

Nathaniel Tan is a strategic communications consultant who specialises in identifying the right goals, and the right tools for achieving that job. He can be reached at nat@engage.my


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