It is not often that modern Malaysian sultans, least of all from Johor, make sage public statements. But a mix of wisdom and exasperation was evident in the recent words of Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar:
"If there are some of you who wish to be an Arab and practice Arab culture, and do not wish to follow our Malay customs and traditions, that is up to you,” he said, adding: "I also welcome you to live in Saudi Arabia. That is your right but I believe there are Malays who are proud of the Malay culture.”
He had been using Malay terms since he was a child and intended to go on using them, he said. Thus he was going to use the term Hari Raya Puasa rather than the Arabic Eid-el-Fitr for the festival at the end of Ramadan. Likewise the Malay term for Arabic Iftar, the fast-breaking meal during Ramadan, was Buka Puasa. The Sultan was noting the slavish following of Arabian practices that has spread in Malaysia over recent decades.
The Sultan also took issue with those criticizing him for shaking hands with many women during the annual Kembara Makhota, a travel tour in which he travels around the state to meet as many people as possible. "Why must I change? You do not have to be fanatic. If they are not sure, I ask if they want to shake my hands. If they do not want to shake my hands, there is no problem," he added.
He also castigated the Public Works Department for putting up a sign on roadsides telling women it was a sin not to cover their hair. "It is not the business of government departments to worry about people's dressing. Just do what you are paid to do and mind your own business." Religion, he said, was not based on external criteria such as clothing.
The Sultan may have no great claim to religious expertise but the Johor royal house can certainly claim pedigree when it comes to Malay customs and institutions. Johor was the successor to Melaka as Malay leader when the latter, itself a multinational trading hub, was seized by the Portuguese. Indeed it can claim links back to pre-Islamic Malay world of the Srivijayan empire.
The Sultan’s reference to clothing was also a reminder of how much Malay dress has changed in recent decades under the influence of the example of Iran and of Saudi money, from the comfortable sarong made famous in Hollywood movies to the full hijab in many cases. Royalty in Malaysia, and Johor above all, has a long tradition of fidelity to Malay customs combined with intermarriage with non-Malays.
The behavior of some of many Malay royals in recent years has undermined and eroded their influence as surely as the urbanization of the Malay population. But maybe they have a role in emphasizing Malay culture – not the exclusivist, racially-biased, narrow-minded Islamist version but that which in earlier times made the sultanates, not least Johor, cosmopolitan trading hubs.
They might even also interest today’s Malays in the achievements of their pre-Islamic forebears. For instance, Kedah, Dr Mahathir’s home state was a major trading center and part of the Srivijayan network centuries before its raja converted to Islam. That it was Hindu/Buddhist no more made it Indian than the arrival of Islam made it Arab. Yet official Malaysia cares little about the wealth of pre-Islamic history in the temples of Kedah’s Bujang valley – one was destroyed by a developer in 2013.
The great age of Malay writing had no problem with pre-Islamic times, even if some of it was mythology. The Sejarah Malayu (Malay annals) and Kedah’s own Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa both trace the royal bloodlines to the Macedonian Greek, Alexander the Great. So the Johor house itself partly has links via Melaka to Alexander (Iskandar).
Fact and fiction may be muddled but Johor like Kedah had a long Malay history before Islam and only ceased – along with the related Riau-Lingga sultanate now in Indonesia – to be an important port after the British took Singapore and Chinese and Europeans gradually supplanted Malays and Bugis in regional trade.
And, while Islam had existed in Malaysia for hundreds of years, it began to pick up momentum when the late Ayatollah Ali Khomeni, a Shia, sent shockwaves across the globe when he turned Iran into an Islamic state. Sunnis in Malaysia sat up and noticed. In 2001, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sought to outflank the rural-based Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) by declaring that Malaysia was already an Islamic state. That catalyzed the growing turn to Arab-style Islam.
However, following Arabian examples is not only dangerous but often displays stunning ignorance of the diversity of Islamic experience and traditions. Knowledge of other Muslim countries is not a strong point of Malaysia’s religious authorities as witness the official attack on Christians using the name Allah to denote The One God, though this is used by Christians in the Arab world without objection – and also in Indonesia.
In such ignorant arrogance lie the seeds of the likes of the Taliban, destroyers of the great Buddhist monuments of Afghanistan, and of Daesh (Islamic State) which has destroyed much of the great pre-Islamic past of Palmyra in Syria. Of course the authorities in Malaysia are now far too rich and comfortable to go to such extremes. But the seeds are there.
The current forced identification of all Malays with Islam makes a nonsense of Malay history and is insulting to them. It also destroys the once-joyous cultural milieu characterized by PO Ramlee, the singer, dancer and film director who died, ignored, in 1973. But so long as the nation is in the hands of venal and hypocritical politicians who use Islam and racial preferences as their tools, there is scant chance of a revival of a Malay Malaysia as a literary, trading and justifiably proud nation.