Asia, Features, Top Stories

Malaysia’s Struggle to Preserve Religious Pluralism

For observers of contemporary Malaysia, much has been written about the tropical nation’s creeping Islamization. To define this more specifically, the observable interjection of Islamic morality into its institutions, its legal systems, and its political discourses and practices. The move towards a more puritanical and intolerant Islam has raised alarm bells for a country whose identity is rooted in its cosmopolitan and pluralistic character, raising the ugly specter of ethnic and religious conflict in one of Southeast Asia’s most developed economies.

However, the shock victory of an opposition coalition in a historic general election in May 2018 raised hopes of a “New Malaysia.” The incumbent political coalition, Barisan Nasional (National Front), composed of race-based parties, with the dominant United Malay National Organization (UMNO) component explicitly espousing Malay-Muslim supremacy, was ousted after 61 years of uninterrupted rule since the country’s independence from the British in 1957. With a new administration under the Pakatan Harapan (Coalition of Hope) coalition, and with veteran leader Mahathir Mohammed back in power in his second stint as Prime Minister (at the age of 93), many celebrated the supposed breaching of racial divisions as voters came together to overthrow a deeply unpopular government. But does the new government necessarily mean a rollback of Islamization? 

The Golden Peninsula

Malaysia’s diverse makeup can be explained by its geostrategic location within Southeast Asia. Historically straddling maritime trade routes between the markets of China, the Middle East, and India, the Golden Peninsula (as the ancient Chinese referred to it) served as a magnet for peoples across Asia to settle in its lush and fertile lands in search of prosperity. The most lasting waves of migrants would come in the late 19th and early 20th century under British colonial rule, when the colony saw an influx of cheap, impoverished labour from China and India to work in the lucrative tin mines and rubber plantations respectively.

Despite the Chinese and Indians composing a significant component of Malaysia’s population, at around 33 percent and 10 percent respectively by 1957, Malaysian society was largely characterized by pluralism and mutual tolerance. Although Sunni Islam commanded the largest number of adherents, the religious practices of Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus were accommodated and tolerated by the majority Muslim Malays. The practice of Islam in Malaysia has been popularly characterized by pundits as a more moderate form of Islam as compared to other areas of the Muslim world.

Different explanations about why this is have been put forth. Unlike the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, where Islam would come through Arab and Turkic invaders, Islam was transmitted to Southeast Asia primarily through traders in the 15th century, arguably meaning an inherently less-militarized form of Islam was adopted at onset. Rather than fully implementing Sharia, scholars point to the syncretization of Islamic traditions with the peninsula’s pre-Islamic Hindu-Buddhist and animist practices, creating a composite Islam which speaks to the region’s adaptability to foreign influences. 

This plural society would continue to hold in Malaysia as colonial rule drew to a close and independence was granted in August 1957. Veteran Southeast Asian journalist Michael Vatikiotis chronicles the life of late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in his book, Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia. Lee hailed from a generation who grew up alongside Muslims in relative communal harmony. Lee called the Islam he was familiar with “Tropical Islam”; the sort of breezy, relaxed and pragmatic Islam evocative of the serendipity of early Malayan society itself.

Malaysia’s whisky loving and English-educated founding father, Tunku Ahmad Rahman (who often skipped cabinet meetings to attend the races) personified this Tropical Islam. Early postcolonial Malaysia was administered by English-educated elites, who sought to eliminate poverty and promote equality, and were ideologically more interested in secular Malay nationalism than political Islam.

From Tropical Islam to Desert Islam

However, starting in the seventies and continuing well into the 21st century, this carefree Islam largely relegated to the personal sphere became replaced by a more conservative and politicized variant of the faith. More Malay women discarded Western clothing in favor of headscarves or tudungs, coinciding with an increasing social policing of the female form within the public sphere. Religious morals were increasingly interjected into the national curriculum, and religious schools proliferated.

Islamic values were injected into the government bureaucracy, with Islamic departments springing up to crack down on vices such as unmarried couples holding hands, Muslims breaking the fast, atheism, and LGBT activities. This newfound religiosity intruded into the cultural space of non-Muslims, with courts ruling to forbid Christians from using the word “Allah” in their religious texts. Beer advertisements and the sale of pork have also been curtailed. And it is increasingly difficulty to acquire permits to build non-Muslim houses of worship (while the state-led construction of mosques proliferate).

This visible Islamization was unnerving for many non-Muslims, with many older generation Malaysians I interacted with lamenting the loss of a more cordial society where social divisions had been less stark. The Tropical Islam of palm trees and carefreeness became what Vatikiotis termed the “Desert Islam” of the Middle East: barren, lifeless, and intolerant.

The Catalysts for Islamization

So what were the catalysts for this shift from Tropical Islam to Desert Islam? The Islamization of Malaysia can be attributed to both internal and external factors.

The British bequeathed its former colony with many of the trappings of a modern state; including high courts with bewigged judges and a Westminster style parliament. However, they also left behind an inherently racialized political system which sowed the seeds of future conflict. The import of Chinese and Indian coolies by the British to work the mines and plantations had a political rationale behind it; a racialized division of labor ensured that cheap labor could be employed without having to empower the native Malays in classic divide and rule.

The separate administration of each community widened the socio-economic gaps which persists to this day. The Western colonial powers ignored their own cultural beliefs of individualism in favor of treating their Asian subjects as subordinate to their respective communities, and subsequently deepening religious divides. The largely rural Malays would resent the largely urbanized and better-educated Chinese, who inserted themselves as economic middlemen in the colonial pecking order and soon came to dominate the mercantile sector. The Chinese towkays (business owners) and their entrepreneurial spirit ensured Chinese economic dominance. It should be noted, however, that native fears of being overrun by their wealthier Chinese minority can be found across Southeast Asia, and wasn’t unique to Malaysia alone.    

It was this underlying fear by the Malays of being overrun by their non-Muslim neighbors that drove them to utilize Islam to delineate clear separations between their respective communities. For many Malay political leaders, ethnicity and religion became firmly intertwined. To fight for Islam was to fight for the Malays, while any perceived threat to the status of Islam threatened the economic privileges granted to Malays through controversial affirmative action policies (which granted privileged access to higher education, government contracts and housing). This ethno-nationalism is a key point which differentiates the political Islam of Malaysia amongst other global Islamist movements. As Michael Vatikiotis noted about the Islamization trend: ‘It is a striking example of how pious religious observance has been deployed as a boundary marker in more complex social and economic settings.”

Photo: Andy Ngo

Islam was also harnessed for political posturing within the context of Malaysian competitive politics. Scholars point to the interplay between the ruling United Malay National Organisation and the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) over Malay votes as a significant impetus for the Islamization trend. Founded in 1951 as another secular left-leaning Malay nationalist party, PAS shifted to Islamist politics starting in the 70s following reorganizations within the party. PAS attracted Malay votes through their image of simple, pious Muslims only concerned about Malay welfare and redistributive politics, in opposition to the rampant corruption and money politics found then in UMNO. 

PAS argued that an Islamic State presented a viable solution to the perceived secular materialism of UMNO, and exploited Islam’s mechanism as a form of release for many Malays facing cultural alienation and economic uncertainty brought on by Malaysia’s rapid economic growth in the late 20th century. Development begot social dislocation as traditional village-bound moorings were severed in Malaysia’s awkward march to modernity, leaving many Malays rootless in terms of identity. State crackdowns on activists and student politics further ensured that mosques remained the only conduit for frustrations to be vented about the state of society.

UMNO for their part grew concerned about the increasing popularity of PAS, as it threatened their reason d’etre as the defender of Malay interests. Pressured to display their Islamic credentials, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed invited Muslim student activist Anwar Ibrahim to join the UMNO government in 1982. A powerful orator, throughout his dramatic political career Anwar presented himself, Janus-faced, as both the Westernized liberal and the Muslim activist depending on his audience.

By 1998 Anwar, who had risen to the position of Deputy Prime Minister, was sacked over differences with Mahathir on the government’s response to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Never one to disappear from the limelight, Anwar reinvented himself as a major opposition leader, and was subsequently charged and imprisoned on charges of corruption. He was released, before being thrown back into jail in 2015 on sodomy charges after the opposition made huge gains in the 2013 general elections (in what critics at the time labelled a show trial). Regardless, his formal entry into politics opened the floodgates for Islamist activists to entrench themselves within Malaysia’s institutions of power.

Those appalled at Malaysia’s turn to religious bigotry pinned their hopes on Najib Tun Razak, who took power as Prime Minister in 2009 on promises of reforms and a moderate approach to Islam. However, in 2015 Najib found himself embattled after facing damning allegations involving a debt-laden state-development fund and some $700 million somehow entering his personal bank account. The scandal surrounding the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund gripped international media, with investigations into financial malfeasance involving the fund taking place in the U.S., Switzerland, and Singapore. The U.S. Department of Justice would file a lawsuit in 2016 alleging that $4.5 billion had been diverted from 1MDB, with most ending up in the pockets of cronies and relatives close to Najib. The government would consistently deny any wrongdoing, but its public image was severely tarnished even for a country accustomed to corruption at the highest levels.

Feeling the heat, Najib abandoned his moderate image in favor of currying favor with Islamist elements. The government portrayed criticisms of the authorities as conspiratorial plots by non-Muslims to disrupt the position of Islam within Malaysia. Najib denounced what he labelled “humanrightism” as deviant thinking (insofar as it “places secular law above religion”), and flirted with religious hardliners about passing Islamic penal law (which prescribes, among other things, the amputation of limbs and stoning for adultery). Coupled with this was an increasing clampdown on civil society, with media outlets covering the scandal having their licenses suspended and critics of the government being charged with sedition.

Residing in Malaysia in the final years of the Najib administration, one could be forgiven for thinking society had somehow collectively lost its mind. A Malay obsession with maintaining the sanctity of the religion (egged on by the authorities to divert anger) had seen religious practice descend into the pettiest of impulses; including trying to ban Muslims from petting dogs, separating shopping trolleys for Muslims and non-Muslims to avoid “contamination,” and even trying to change the name of hotdogs.

“Malaysia is a sick Muslim country which teaches you the wrong things,” lamented a prominent Malay opposition leader, before urging Malays to make a hijrah (referring to the migration of the Prophet to avoid persecution) to the U.K. Indeed, as the bonds which held Malaysia’s multi-ethnic composition together looked increasingly fragile, many educated Malaysians voted with their feet by migrating to Singapore and Australia.   

It is also prudent to look at external influences in Malaysia’s march toward Islamisation. Malaysia has historically been sensitive to foreign cultural trends owing to its position as a nexus between East and West. The failure of secular authoritarians in the Middle East to lift up their Muslim societies saw Islamism prop up as a popular alternative for Muslims everywhere. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 captured the imaginations of many Muslim activists in Malaysia insofar as it presented an alternative to Western concepts of modernization. Coupled with this was the influx of petrodollars into Malaysia by newly-flushed Gulf states, a large chunk of whom was used to proselytize their austere and intolerant brand of Islam. 

A New Malaysia?

The shock election results of May 9 was a historic moment for many Malaysians. The incumbent UMNO government under Najib was overthrown spectacularly after 61 years of uninterrupted rule due to mounting public frustration at rising costs of living and the seemingly shameless corruption seen at all levels of government.

More incredible was that the opposition was led by former Prime Minister Mahathir himself, who had become a firm critic of Najib’s administration and retained enough political capital to publicly challenge him. In another twist which only makes sense in the elite-driven world of Malaysian politics, Mahathir sought a royal pardon for his former political enemy Anwar, who was released with an agreement that Mahathir will step aside in two years for Anwar to takeover as Prime Minister. Many pundits celebrated the election of the Pakatan Harapan coalition as proof of the rejection of the fear and racial-based rhetoric of UMNO in favor of a more inclusive, tolerant Malaysia. But is it too soon to tell?

All the espousal of post-racial politics belies the fact that the Pakatan Harapan coalition ultimately had to pander to racial sensibilities to win power. Two of the four parties composing the coalition exclusively promote the interests of Muslim Malays, including the Bersatu Party which is an UMNO-breakaway and is open only to Malay membership. The Amanah Party, on the other hand, was created from more “progressive” elements of PAS who decided to splinter as well.

An analysis of voting patterns post-election further challenges the idea of a post-racial Malaysia. According to research firm Merdeka Center, only 25–30 percent of Malays voted for Pakatan, with the opposition essentially benefiting from the Malay vote being split between them, UMNO, and PAS. Comparably, some 95 percent of Chinese and 70–75 percent of Indian votes overwhelmingly went to Pakatan.

Analysts warn in the long-term this makes the new government vulnerable. Many rural Malay who voted Pakatan were primarily concerned about socio-economic conditions rather than promoting liberalism, and there are widespread suspicions of the Chinese-dominated ruling coalition actively working against Malay identity and Islam. There has already been backlash among conservatives to Mahathir’s more ethnically-inclusive cabinet, which includes two non-Malays as finance minister and attorney general, respectively.

While the Pakatan government will have to thread lightly when it comes to issues sensitive to the Malays, both PAS and UMNO may decide it politically expedient to double down on its agenda of race and religious baiting should Malays lose faith in Mahathir’s government. Still licking its wounds, UMNO may very well follow through with its threats to merge with PAS in the name of promoting Malay supremacy.

So will we see a return to Tropical Islam? It would be wrong to completely write off Malaysia. For all of its problems, Malaysia has an active, educated and relatively empowered civil society nestled in a region of one-party states, crippling poverty, and military coups. Political debate in the public sphere is spirited and post-GE14 certainly more daring. Although race dominates political discourse, post-colonial Malaysia has never encountered the sort of racial or religious violence and bloodletting seen in its regional neighbors such as the Philippines, Indonesia, or Myanmar.

It is incumbent on the new government to ride on its current popularity and the country’s fortunate history by creating more space for varied voices on the future of Islamic practice, as well as promoting good governance to win over suspicious Malay voters.

On Malaysia’s 61st birthday celebrated last August, Mahathir claimed that Malaysia had achieved its “second independence” with the change of government. Playing their cards right, Malaysian society may yet see a return to the breezy and tolerant strand of Tropical Islam.


Imran Shamsunahar is a political risk analyst and freelance writer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 


  1. dirk says

    Malaysia is, more than anything, a mosaique nation, without a clear racial, cultural or religious majority and without the Blood and Soil history of most nations as yet (almost all European nations, Middle East, Russia, Africa, Asia). So, where it looks like that even the US and European nations little by little shift up to mosaique structures and democracies, Malaysia might be an example to keep an eye on. Bad news for pet lovers??

  2. E. Olson says

    Just another example of how Islam is the religion of peace and prosperity where ever it goes, and that racial, ethnic, and religious diversity is a strength.

  3. Brenden Frost says

    “post-racial”. That’s like saying post-HBD. No such thing. The British imperialists were international capitalists, so obviously they wanted to import cheap labor at the expense of regional long-term stability, and the eternal money-worshipping Chinaman will always abet such an endeavour. “Plural” (diverse) societies only work on the external level, but the makeup of the people has to be heavily homogeneous otherwise that plurality (of religions, eg) will collapse. “Tropical” (fake) Islam was just the Malaysians adapting Islam to suit themselves (so to for Christianity etc.).

    • dirk says

      Of course, the Maleisian and Indonesian type of Islam (the tropical one) is far from the straight and strict Saudi type. No Maleisian farmer will start sowing or planting before having offered some food or palmwine to the Rice Goddes, so, a mixture of Islam and animist or Hindu beliefs. Yes, fake islam, but maybe not the worst type. The Desert type is the type of Kashoggi revenge Tahwid.

      • dirk says

        @ David: Wahhabism is the real and true form, the desert form, at least, in the eyes of the real and true believers!

      • Brenden Frost says

        Tell ya what, how about I take you out for pizza. Oh and by the way, I only eat Mexican pizza but don’t worry it’s got pizza in the name so it’s okay.

    • The best way to preserve “Tropical Islam” would be to import Salifist Middle Easterners (say up to 10% of the existing population) with “Desert Islam” and put them in economic and political competition with Malays. The Malays would quickly discover how Malaysian Islam was distinguishable from Desert Islam, nor would they appreciate the likely terrorism.

  4. ga gamba says

    Firstly, I’m very pleased to see an article about Asia, in particular Southeast Asia, here. Though I very happy with Quillette’s content, it does weigh heavily in favour of North America and Europe. SE Asia is a fascinating region and I hope to see more from Mr Shamsunahar.

    I think this article could have benefited from a few maps, for example of colonial Malaya. Under British “rule” a few areas, for example Singapore, Penang, and Malacca, were controlled wholly by the British – the Straits Settlements. There was also the Federated States of Malaya and the Unfederated States of Malaya. Three of Malaysia’s most conservative states, and the backbone of PAS, were each part of the Unfederated States. A brief examination of these would have benefitted those who know little of Malaysia, I think.

    Kelantan and Terengganu of the northeast and the northwest’s Kedah are the most Islamic of Malaysia’s states. Unlike the trading centre of Malacca and others on the west coast, Islam came to these states by scholars and not traders. They are the most agricultural of peninsular Malaysia and also have the smallest non-Malay populations – about 5% non-Malay in Kelantan. Tin mining was located in the western part of the peninsula. In Kelantan one is likely to find the Arabic-based script Yawi. These states are the nearest to Buddhist Thailand, and the restive Thai provinces of Pattani and Narathiwat are Malay majority – estimated to be close to 90%.

    Siam annexed much of what is today’s northern Malaysia in 1785; Siam conquered Kedah in 1821. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 then removed the Dutch from peninsular Malaya. During WWII, Thailand re-annexed Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, and Terengganu to create Si Rat Malai.

    Islamisation in Malaysia has created a series of processes that have produced results which are self-reinforcing. The International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM), opened in 1983, has grown from a first batch of 150 students to approximately 30,000 presently. In its 35 years IIUM has produced tens of thousands of graduates (roughly 70,000), many of whom have gone on to hold influential positions in government and business. For example, Malaysia spied the growing halal goods market and Islamic finance (merchant and commercial banking as well as insurance) as an opportunity for its economic development and a way to differentiate itself from Asian rivals. For many years it has endeavoured to harmonise halal standards under its leadership throughout the Islamic world as also to expand the number of products certified halal, to include leather car interiors, women’s make-up, and even logistics systems. After 11 Sep 2001, Malaysia saw an opportunity to entice Arab tourists who encountered problems holidaying in the West, and used these tourists to develop the northeast, an area much less receptive to “decadent” western tourists in bikinis and banana hammocks frolicking on beaches.

    Since the 1970s more and more Malays have embraced the dakwah way of life, which is described by some as a movement. The term is used to depict the growth in support, particularly among the urban, higher-educated, middle-class youth, for Islam being central to themselves and as a striving for religious truth. Young, middle-class and educated Malay students began to study at universities such as Al-Azhar in Egypt in an attempt to find the true Islamic roots, ones that hadn’t been tainted by localised folk Islam, i.e. the Tropical Islam, which was greatly influenced by animist beliefs. At Al-Azhar these Malays were exposed to the influential Muslim Brotherhood. Malays who studied in the West, often under the financial assistance of the Malaysian government, used their new-found speech rights to denounce the government as being un-Islamic. And it was in the West that these students also came into contact with Islamists from the Middle East, Pakistan, and North Africa.

    It should be noted, however, that native fears of being overrun by their wealthier Chinese minority can be found across Southeast Asia, and wasn’t unique to Malaysia alone.

    Though true, Malaysia differs from others in its race-based set asides for bumiputeras (lit. ‘sons of the soil’). During the economic crisis of ’97 and ’98, Kuala Lumpur rejected the IMF’s condition that such economic discriminatory practices in favour of Malays and at the expense of Chinese and Indian Malaysians be ended, and by doing so gave up its application for an IMF rescue package similar to that extended to South Korea and Thailand.

    Although race dominates political discourse, post-colonial Malaysia has never encountered the sort of racial or religious violence and bloodletting seen in its regional neighbors such as the Philippines, Indonesia, or Myanmar.

    No. In the aftermath of the 1969 Malaysian general election there was the 13 May 1969 incident, anti-Chinese riots in Kuala Lumpur that left between 200 and 600 dead. There had been previous riots, again targeting Chinese, in 1957, 1959, and 1964. In Singapore, which was part of Malaysia after independence, there were riots between Chinese and Malays in 1964, which lead in part to Singapore being expelled from the union in ’65.

    • Farris says


      Any thoughts on the Malaysian king’s recent abdication?

      • ga gamba says

        Malaysia has a unique system of electing the national monarch, usually on a rotational basis; the nine sultans convene every five years, or when there is a vacancy as there is now, and vote for one of the nine. So, with this abdication the council will convene and elect his replacement. Sultan Muhammad V (Tengku Muhammad Faris Petra) the abdicator of the throne, is the Sultan of Kelantan. He’s had run ins with his father, who’s still alive and disputed his own forced abdication after a stroke, and a younger brother. Muhammad V didn’t abdicate his rule as Kelantan. Whilst he was king of Malaysia his younger brother served as the Regent of Kelantan, so if things go smoothly this regency ends. Because Muhammad V is still state sultan (I presume), he’ll vote for his replacement.

        His abdication occurred after a period of prolonged medical absence, and during this absence another sultan, the one from Perak, was the acting king. He now remains serving as acting king, so the potential for turmoil seems very unlikely.

        So, what’s the back story? It’s unclear. Local press report Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad wrote in a blog posting titled “Rule of Law” on 2 Jan, a few days prior to the abdication, that all Malaysians, including the royalty, were bound by the laws of the land.

        “The Rule of Law applies to everyone from the Rulers to the Prime Minister and Ministers, to the civil servants and ordinary citizens,” he wrote.

        “There is no provision which exempts anyone from the Rule of Law. For the Rulers there is a special court but the laws are the same as the laws applicable to ordinary citizens. The Rulers too must respect the laws. It is disturbing to see blatant breaches of the law being perpetrated in the mistaken belief that immunity has somehow been accorded.”

        Mahathir added that public complaints against those who ignore the rule of law “are legitimate and do not breach any law.”

        The post contained no information about alleged offence(s), nor was it clear which sultan(s) the post was directed.

    • True regarding the anti-Chinese riots, but prior to the riots, there were Communist uprisings in Malaysia in 1968, and the Community Party in Malaysia was almost entirely Chinese (and Chinese funded), so you could look at it as tit for tat.

  5. tarstarkas says

    Thank you for the long detailed description of the recent past of the Malayan peninsula, I knew some of this from my reading of history including the separation of Singapre from Malaysia but not all by far. Indonesia is also undergoing the same problematic Islamasation, much of Sumatra is under Sharia law and the intolerance is spreading both culturally and politically.

    By total chance today I was surfing Youtube and discovered the existence of a number of Malayan and Singaporean musicians of the recent past and present, many of them quite good, most singing in English but several in their native tongues, some covers, some original compositions. Totally unexpected find. People like me in our NA-UK-Aus-NZ bubble tend to forget about the rest of the world when it comes to music.

  6. Saw file says

    Somewhat similar to what is going on now in Indonesia

  7. The problem of rule by the People in a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional state is who is the People?

    Like every multi-ethnic society, some groups (usually minorities) do better economically than the majority, provoking resentment and hostility against the minority (Jews in Germany, Chinese in Malaysia). Concepts of religious purity can be deployed to render other ethnic groups “problematic”.

    It makes perfect sense, politically, for a Malay Muslim majority to vote together on ethnic and religious lines, and to promote a politics of division based on heightening the differences between the Malay majority and ethnic minorities. Splitting their vote would only empower the ethnic minorities, who would push their own religious and ethnic interests.

    It is hard to imagine “democratization” in Malaysia resulting in anything other than Islamification, given the political incentives. Lee Kuan Yew was wise to avoid it in Singapore.

  8. Stewart Ware says

    Countries with these freedoms thrive: freedom of and from religion, speech, the press, peaceful assembly, and freedom to criticise the government.

    Those countries without these freedoms become dysfunctional and decline.

    • Or is it that countries with sufficient political stability to permit freedom of religion, speech, et. al., are already thriving, and countries without political stability can’t tolerate freedom of religion, speech, peaceful assembly, etc. as it will only permit enemies of the state to organize revolutionary action against the state?

      The French Revolution on August 26, 1789 started with all those lovely freedoms, as did the Russian Revolution under Kerensky in February 1917 after all.

      • Stephanie says

        Interesting point, KD. Perhaps this is what we are seeing in Europe as well: Islamization of their society and the intolerance it brings causes the roll-back of essential freedoms. Freedom of speech isn’t possible when a large faction will commit violence if they hear something they don’t like.

    • dirk says

      What about China, Stewart? A nation in decline and dysfunction?

      • Stewart Ware says

        Perhaps not yet. There is a deal between the people and the Chinese communist party: the people have the freedom to make money and raise their standard of living while the party controls everything and locks up dissenters. When there is an economic problem with unemployment, inflation and recession, this is when the trouble starts

        I don’t know when this will occur, but history shows that tyrannies can’t run successful, open societies.

  9. dirk says

    Interesting in Malaysia is the position of those original Malaysians, the “sons of the land” (see first comment of GG), in fact the Aboriginals of other countries. In my country, those aboriginals are the majority far-out, with the economic and political power, but that’s in many countries (US, Australia,Brasil,) rather different of course. Do these sons of the land, for the simple reason of being the sons, have special rights, in case they happen to have less economic and political power and influence? Bolsonaro thinks not so, the Indians of the bush are Brasilians like all the other ones, and don’t need protection and special rights on lands and support. Again, quite different as in US and Australia, but in all 3 cases, the sons are a (very) small, marginal group. This is not so in Malaysia, where about half of the population is Malaysian son of the land, meaning ( don’t know for sure, but get the impression) the peasantry in the rural areas of the mainland and the overseas Serawak, the poor, self sufficient farmers, with their own culture and muslim faith, but their vote is as much worth as that of the others, of course. The plantations, mines, finance, commerce, larger business is concentrated in the not-sons (Chinese, Indians, Pakistani, other immigrants), so, the challenge of this land is also quite different as in countries where the mosaique is much more lop sided. That’s why, in my first comment, I was wondering how this unique situation is going to develop. In harmony (what Imran, with some reason, foresees)? Or in civil strife? . If it’s true what I read in his link -petting dogs-, the first is more likely to occur:

    “Many Malaysian muslims own dogs, drink alcohol and have very westernized life styles”. Cheers Malaysia!

  10. Regarding the agreement between Mahathir and his former protegé Anwar, who is expected to take over the PM position two year’s after Mahathir’s accession…

    The extraordinary disappearance of MH370, a Boeing 777 of which no trace has been ever found, other than possibly a fragment of the wing de-icing boot that washed up on the coast of Western Australia, is very possibly connected to this affair. Unmentioned in the two extended Wiki extracts below is that the senior pilot of MH370 was an outspoken supporter of Anwar and was observed to have attended the 7 March 2014 appeals trial of Anwar which reinstated an earlier court decision to throw out his sodomy conviction.

    By either fateful coincidence or intentional actions, the loss of MH370, occurred the following day, 8 March 2014.

    It turned out that the MH captain had an unusually sophisticated flight simulation package installed on his primary workstation at his home, which appeared to have been completely wiped prior to its eventual entry into the crash investigation evidence. It also appears that the only way that the IFF positional broadcasting/navigation beacon system could have been disabled or switched off —which was why Malaysian ATC took no note of the aircraft not following its usual course— was for it to have been manually deactivated from inside the cockpit.

    Apparently unknown to the flight crew was that the GE jet engines incorporated an independent flight monitoring and beacon system communicating directly to the INMARSAT satellite network that when identified and decoded, showed the aircraft taking extraordinary turns and entering a flight path far .far south of its normal route to Beijing.

    The GE engine data also showed the aircraft having climbed far above its ordinary service ceiling to 45,000 feet, and if the cabin emergency oxygen system —which was separate from the cockpit emergency oxygen— had been switched off manually from inside the cockpit, the passengers and cabin crew would have become unconscious within a matter of minutes, and died of anoxia not long thereafter.

    The GE data also showed the engines running out of fuel, and the aircraft eventually descending into the Indian Ocean above an exceptionally deep marine trench off the Australia coast. All 239 aboard were assumed to have died either prior to or as a result of the crash.


    On 20 January 2012, the prosecution filed an appeal against Anwar’s acquittal.

    Acquittal overturned

    The Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal of Anwar, upholding a government appeal. The court also convicted Anwar and sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment. 

    The decision came late on 7 March 2014 as Anwar prepared to contest a state by-election on 23 March he was expected to win, opening the way for him to become the chief minister of Selangor state, the country’s main economic hub surrounding Kuala Lumpur. Human rights groups accused Malaysia’s government of using an anachronistic colonial-era law that criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” to persecute 66-year-old Anwar, who leads a three-party opposition that is increasingly popular in the predominantly Muslim nation.

    Federal Court appeal and imprisonment

    Anwar lodged an appeal against the Court of Appeal’s decision and, on 10 February 2015, the Federal Court re-affirmed the conviction and five-year sentence. The lead prosecutor had called for the prison sentence to be increased, given that the maximum sentence is 20 years. As this was Anwar’s final right of appeal, he was incarcerated immediately in Sungai Buloh Prison.

    Before leaving the court, Anwar criticised the presiding judges for “bowing to the dictates of the political masters”. During the hearing he had praised the judges as “patient and attentive”. His statement was supported by one of his lawyers, Ramkarpal Singh, who applauded the bench for hearing both submissions without fail and “the fact that this appeal is one of the longest in Federal Court history proved that we will obtain fair judgement.”

    Human Rights Watch described the ruling as a “major setback for human rights in Malaysia.” In an official response to the decision, the United States government stated, “The United States is deeply disappointed and concerned by the rejection of Anwar Ibrahim’s final appeal and his conviction … The decision to prosecute Mr Anwar, and his trial, have raised serious concerns regarding the rule of law and the independence of the courts”.

    The office of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak responded to the ruling by stating that “Malaysia has an independent judiciary, and there have been many rulings against senior government figures”.

    On 16 March 2015, Nurul Izzah Anwar, daughter of Anwar and a member of parliament, was arrested by the police for a speech she read in parliament that referred to the February 2015 ruling which upheld Anwar’s sodomy conviction.

    Royal pardon

    On 16 May 2018, Malaysia’s king, Sultan Muhammad V, officially pardoned Anwar after meeting with members of the pardons board and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The full royal pardon was made on the basis of a “miscarriage of justice.”



    Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (also referred to as MH370, Flight MH370 or MAS370)[a] was a scheduled international passenger flight operated by Malaysia Airlines that disappeared on 8 March 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia, to its destination, Beijing Capital International Airport in China.

    The crew of the Boeing 777-200ER aircraft last communicated with air traffic control (ATC) around 38 minutes after takeoff when the flight was over the South China Sea. The aircraft was lost from ATC radar screens minutes later, but was tracked by military radar for another hour, deviating westwards from its planned flight path, crossing the Malay Peninsula and Andaman Sea. It left radar range 200 nautical miles (370 km) northwest of Penang Island in northwestern Malaysia.

    With all 227 passengers and 12 crew aboard presumed dead, the disappearance of Flight 370 was the deadliest incident involving a Boeing 777 and the deadliest in Malaysia Airlines’ history, until it was surpassed in both regards by Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 four months later. The combined loss caused significant financial problems for Malaysia Airlines, which was renationalised by the Malaysian government in December 2014.

    The search for the missing airplane, which became the most costly in aviation history, focused initially on the South China and Andaman seas, before analysis of the aircraft’s automated communications with an Inmarsat satellite identified a possible crash site somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean. The lack of official information in the days immediately after the disappearance prompted fierce criticism from the Chinese public, particularly from relatives of the passengers; most on board Flight 370 were of Chinese origin. Several pieces of marine debris confirmed to be from the aircraft washed ashore in the western Indian Ocean during 2015 and 2016.

    After a three-year search across 120,000 square kilometres (46,000 sq mi) of ocean failed to locate the aircraft, the Joint Agency Coordination Centre heading the operation suspended their activities in January 2017. A second search launched in January 2018 by the private contractor Ocean Infinity also ended without success after six months.

    The disappearance of Flight 370 has been dubbed one of the greatest aviation mysteries of all time. Relying mostly on analysis of data from the Inmarsat satellite with which the aircraft last communicated, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau proposed initially that a hypoxia event was the most likely cause given the available evidence, although there has not been any consensus concerning this theory among investigators.

    At various stages of the investigation, possible hijacking scenarios were considered, including crew involvement, and suspicion of the airplane’s cargo manifest; many unofficial theories have also been proposed by the media. The Malaysian Ministry of Transport’s final report from July 2018 was inconclusive, but highlighted Malaysian air traffic controllers’ failures to attempt to communicate with the aircraft shortly after its disappearance.

    In the absence of a definitive cause of the disappearance, safety recommendations and regulations of the air transport industry, citing Flight 370, have been intended mostly to prevent a repetition of the circumstances associated with the loss. These include increased battery life on underwater locator beacons, lengthening of recording times on flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders, and new standards for aircraft position reporting over open ocean.

  11. Further to my note above (while the Wiki extracts would have clarified this regrettable error) the second paragraph of my lengthy earlier posting should have read…

    “The extraordinary disappearance of MH370, a Boeing 777 of which no trace has been ever found, other than possibly a fragment of the wing de-icing boot that washed up on the coast of Western Australia, is very possibly connected to this affair. Unmentioned in the two extended Wiki extracts below is that the senior pilot of MH370 was an outspoken supporter of Anwar and was observed to have attended the 7 March 2014 appeals trial of Anwar which reversed an earlier court decision to throw out his sodomy conviction.”

    In fact the 7 March trial, as a result of an appeal by the Malaysian government to overturn the sodomy charges acquittal, did so overturn it; and Anwar was sentenced to five years imprisonment. It is unclear if he was incarcerated immediately.

    I would note also that several years ago, an earlier and much briefer submission similarly recapitulating this matter to the highly regarded New Mandala website —which like this and the above posting do not speculate on the direct responsibility or not; nor on the possible motives of, the MH370 captain— were rejected by New Mandala’s editors.

  12. Alan Potkin says

    Also perhaps worth adding to the mix here is the news of Sultan Muhammed V’s sudden and unexpected abdication yesterday, who —on 16 May 2018— as King of Malaysia, exercised his authority to pardon Anwar and cleared the way for Anwar’s accession to PM as noted above. Indeed, this figured as well in CNN’s story today.

    “In May last year, Muhammad V swore in current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, ending almost five decades of rule by the BN, and paved the way for politician Anwar Ibrahim to return to the front line of politics — including a widely anticipated leadership role when Mahathir steps aside — by pardoning his sodomy conviction.”


    Again, I couldn’t and won’t speculate on what, if anything, this might have to do with the MH370 debacle.

  13. Jenny says

    On the point about the British ruling through communities, my view is that they picked this up in India where it was long established as a mode of rule before the colonial power arrived. It is also how middle eastern empires ruled over millennia. Take a look at how the Romans, Byzantines and others ruled and you can see this, as they were all composed of various communities living separately but in the same cities.

  14. This reminds me of sitting next to a delightful young Muslim girl on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Sydney three years ago. She told me that when she around seven years old her family had migrated from South India to KL and that her father found work there only once he had converted to Islam. He told the whole family to convert as it would make life better for them in Malaysia, and she said she liked Islam very much. She was then around 22 years old and had been appointed Publicity Officer of a prestigious university, funded quite possibly by one of the oil rich Islamic states. She had been sent on a trip to Australia to discuss Islam with Muslim students there. We chatted easily and at one point I mentioned the missing MH370 plane to which she strangely answered that it might have been an act of jihad, that this method (of taking down a planeload of kaffirs as an act of holy war) had been prophesied by Muhammed and was in the scriptures. I was stunned so didn’t ask her any more questions, and have since searched in Islamic scriptures but haven’t found anything specific. What I found extraordinary was her trajectory in less than 20 years from a little Hindu girl in India to a pious Muslim university student in Malaysia who obviously studied topics like ‘permissible’ jihad, and that she was taking these views to my country, Australia.

    • dirk says

      I,m not at all surprised, Sandy, that a delightful young muslim girl pops up with those conspiracy theories, it has, in fact, very little to do with her own experience and emotional world, but more of what is going round and round in the over-all world of her parents and imams. I wonder whether she has any bitter feelings about it, it’s just nothing at all, no influence on her personal life and lifestyle, I think, I hope….in fact, I don’t know!

      • dirk says

        But, Sandy, why were you stunned? And left any more questioning? By that, the situation will never change! Muslims are no robots! If nobody ever comes with counter arguments, how do you think we all end up?? And did you really think that there was a chance to find this prophesy in the Koran? What’s wrong with you???

    • Stephanie says

      Hi Sandy, isn’t it terrifying when normal-looking people are actually batshit crazy? Sadly this has been my experience with Muslim friends and acquaintances: kind and open, but in the same affable tone will proclaim false and dangerous beliefs. They don’t even know what they’re saying is crazy.

      I accepted pamphlets a Muslim group were handing out in Sydney a few months ago. They said that Islam doesn’t condone in violence, but followed that up by saying that righteous struggle against “occupiers” was justified. No self-awareness! But what can be expected? Once you accept a prophet who rapes 9 year olds, there’s no further bridge to cross.

  15. Stephanie says

    Thank you for the article, it was most informative. I hope to find more on SE Asia here.

    I wonder if the return to Tropical Islam is even possible. The whisky-drinkers clearly are not following the correct version of the faith. As a young religion with one prophet, it is quite clear and consistent. The “extremists” have the demonstrably correct interpretation of the religion, so they will always win the argument. Until following Islam correctly is no longer a priority, I don’t see how they don’t continue their moral decline.

  16. Dr. Misha says

    Religious pluralism stops short when it comes to Jews and not only in Malaysia, BTW. This came out a few hours ago:

    Malaysia will not allow Israel’s Paralympics swimming team enter the country to participate in the World Para Swimming Championships in July, despite two months of efforts by the Israel Paralympics Committee.

  17. dirk says

    @Alan: you wrote about that mysterious MH370 crash of the Malaysian Airlines. In 2014 I visited a friend in the Ukraine, just a month before my visit, another mysterious crash happened there, with close to 200 Dutch victims, also of that Airline, how come?? Happily, it was in the East of the country, and not in Odessa, where I had my vacation. Now, one thing is of course the who dunnit (still not clear, though the remains of the plane and body have been found and cleared, unlike in case 370), another thing is WHY ON EARTH, OR IN HEAVEN, AGAIN THAT MALAYSIAN AIRLINES, in the same year???

    It looks like that airline had a pact with the devil himself.

    • No connection in my view between the two MH plane crashes. The latter was doubtless, a result of a high-tech ground to air missile launched by nobody seems to know exactly which army or militia, on exactly who’s command: either intentionally or inadvertently targeting a regular passenger airliner.

      But considering how close on the heels of the disappearance of MH370 was this second sad episode, one wonders why Malaysian Airlines didn’t follow the lead of many/most the scheduled international carriers and re-route their flights far, far away from what was an active war zone, within which several military aircraft had already been shot down? Pretty sorry performance.

  18. I do find articles like this to be rather odd in their attempts to intellectualise rather simple subjects with secular Western academic logic. Simply because it assumes that the subjects of the analysis have a similar logical thought process to various issues.

    As we all know, logic and religion seldom make good bedfellows. From those who believe that the earth was made in seven days, to those who believe in their holy figure being carried up to heaven on a winged horse. Are people with these strong beliefs really the best subject for such a logical approach?

    Surely the best approach must be to look at how, over the course of time, the people who have held these various beliefs tend to evolve en masse when organised into large groups and/or nation states?

    When looked at using this perspective, the reason why Malaysia is rejecting religious pluralism appears to be rather simple. Not that this satisfies Western intellectual pursuits that seeks to ignore what is rather clear in the name of academic pedantry.

  19. Malaysia rejecting pluralism! What do you mean here Tim? The Malaysian government, or the Malaysian people?
    I just found out that Sarawak, biggest state/province of Malaysia is mainly Christian. Also surprised me. The tropics are full of surprise, unlike the Arab World, much more uniform.

  20. @ Dirk. My reasoning is simple.
    Taking a longterm view rather than trying to drill down to meaningless semantics (“who has rejected pluralism-the govt or the people?”), it is clear that over the course of time that those countries who hold specific beliefs eventually end up in monotheistic, non pluralist societies. The fact that Malaysia ‘currently’ has some pluralism is a statistical anomaly that will end up disappearing as time progresses. Just like it has everywhere else. As the famous quote says, “You have all the watches but we have all the time.”

    • Monotheism, Tim, has been a very successful formula in Europe and the US for many centuries, and, also, is, in the end, responsible for your comfortable situation right now (spiritual, moral and financial)!

      • @Dirk I find it rather odd that you compare monotheism in the West compared to another type of monotheism. The Christian faith went through a Reformation and most importantly, the Bible is no longer seen as literally the Word of God. Dissent is allowed, people are not prosecuted for believing in other faiths, and you are free to not practise, while the system of government is not faith based. Contrast that to a monotheistic faith where sacred texts are still seen as literally the word of God, therefore no refotm can occur as doubting one teaching means that it can no longer be the word of God as how can God be wrong? Do Western faiths punish those who try to leave their faith? How do they do this? Do they have enshrined in sacred texts how to run society? Do they go into detail about how other faiths are second class citizens in these states, and how finances should be collected from them? Is any dissent or humour allowed against the faith?

        Imagine Life of Brian but instead it poked fun in the same manner at this monotheistic faith. See the difference? Probably not…

        • I was not comparing Tim, but justed wanted to paraphrase on your fear for the apocalypse of a ” monotheistic, non pluralist society”, because don’t see it at all like you, I fear. Monotheism, as worked out by Paulus (a religion for slaves as well as slaveowners, men and women, Asians and Germans, Jews and animists), once gaining the upper hand in the Roman empire, also meant the end of it, but became the all empowering and firm base for a new spiritual and moral empire, the European Christendom and socioeconomic world (the Enlightenment being just only one of its fruits). At least, that’s how I see it.
          On Sarawak, Malaysia, Christians are in majority, but times that the current church forms of religion still dominate social and political life are bygone (though, not yet in Saudi Arabia and Persia, but that’s just a timely wave, just like communism was in Russia and Poland, just wait and see what’s going to happen (not next year, but next generation) in Malaysia! (all of a sudden I see myself talking the optimist, so, not like in another thread). Have a nice day!

  21. Larry Bruce says

    This article spouts the mainstream narrative of British divide and conquer. The fact is religious infiltration already began during their operation for independence. Silly brits didn’t help things by enshrining a frequently abused ‘special position’ of a certain race and religion in their newly minted constitution.

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