Whither the Malay identity

A FAMOUS entertainer, some years before her demise, requested that newspapers and TV stations not use any photos or visuals without her wearing the tudung (hijab). Those were her jahiliah (ignorant) days, she had said. She was not alone. Many Muslim ladies today dread their earlier photos without the tudung to be posted even among family WhatsApp groups.

Back then, Malay women were proudly manifesting their Malayness. They wore baju kurung, even kebaya. Just look at the golden era of Malay cinema in the 50s and early 60s. No one was wearing the tudung. Perhaps my mother’s generation was a lot less complicated. Yet I am sure they were no less religious then than women of today.

I always believe that the Quran reading competition is reflective of the changing dynamics of Malay and Muslim society in Malaysia. It was Tunku Abdul Rahman’s idea to initiate the Quran reading competition in 1960. A year later, an international level competition was organised. It was a big TV event back then.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the event, the Islamic Development Department (Jakim) published a book entitled 50 Tahun Tilawah Al-Quran Malaysia. It was the brain child of the then minister at the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Seri Mohd Zahid Hamidi. The book contains almost every conceivable aspect of the competition, from its history to the list of participants, judges, winners, rules and regulations, even the themes and motives for astaka (the platform where readers recite the Quran). The 229-page book is informative and full of arresting and nostalgic pictures.

There were legends among the winners. Ismail Hashim of Kedah won nine times at the national level between 1962 and 1975. In the women category Faridah Mat Saman of Kelantan won eight times and Rogayah Sulong of Terengganu won seven times. At the international level Ismail won eight times, including becoming a joint-winner with Manaf Saseelos of Thailand in 1963. Faridah won seven times, the last three after an absence of 11 years. Rogayah, who first won the international title in 1966, later regained her crown in 1973, 1974 and 1978.

For the record, Rogayah and Faridah just wore the selendang (a cloth as head gear) to cover their head. The trend was such. The hijab was not required. Piousness was not defined by attire. Religiosity was a personal thing. There was no peer pressure to look religious. According to the book, it was only in 1978 when a female reader from Perak wore the full tudung for the first time in the competition.

The 70s was a decade of new awareness of Islam. Some would say it was Islamic revivalism. There was a dominant force in arguing for a “new Islam.” The campuses too were overwhelmed under the influence. Even at the University of Malaya, the last Convocation Ball was organised in 1974. The Muslim groups were up in arms against such event thereafter.

The government of the day realised that they too needed to look Islamic. Islamisation became a new totem pole of governmental correctness. Things changed beyond the control of the political masters. The road to conservatism is littered with good intentions. Everything must be given the Islamic touch, from banking facilities to schools and the administration. Subsequent governments came up with their own brand of Islam.

It had a tremendous impact on the Malay psyche. The airwaves are full of dakwah and calls for righteousness. Technically, with so much energy spent on instilling fear in the hearts of Muslims, they should do no wrong. No other Muslims professed their faith the way the Malays do. Corruption and abuse of power would have been eliminated long ago.

Today anything that is remotely perceived as “un-Islamic” is frowned upon. Malay weddings used to be a happy affair. Now it is as solemn as an occasion of death. Political leaders can’t even be seen dancing or appearing to be in jovial mood with their constituents. Few people dare to speak up on matters that is considered “sensitive” to Muslims. The list of sensitive things keeps growing by the day.

It is sad that the demand to be more Islamic, whatever that means, does not include the quest for a better future, the progressive attitude and the spirit to excel. You can be the best doctor but it is not your professionalism that will be questioned but the attire that you put on.

The Malay identity and character behind the veil is fast disappearing. Even the notion of Malayness is beginning to be questioned. Ironically, Islam is not against the identification of race. Yet we are allowing the Malay identity to whither in the name of religion, or more correctly, in the name of Arabisation.

We pride ourselves for our diversity. We should be the true proponents of moderation. As I have argued in another article, being “moderate” is an attitude. It is a way of life that anchors along understanding, tolerance and respect for others.

Johan Jaaffar is a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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