The psychology of race & religion baiting in Malaysia

Middle Malaysia or the middle ground comprises of two halves or lungs – moderate liberals and moderate conservatives.

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Published in AstroAwani, image by AstroAwani.

What’s the underlying “rationale” behind the Terengganu chapter of PAS in organising the notorious procession under the name HIMPIT (which in Malay literally translates into “squeeze[d]” and its transliteration counterpart of  feeling [the] pressure[d] from outside”, “overwhelm[ed]), cornered – implying a “siege mentality”) that looked like it’s straight out of a movie set where costumes and other related accompaniments or props/paraphernalia – i.e., spears and swords reminiscent of the medieval era – were on full display and which spooked many Malaysians, including especially the non-Muslims?

In EMIR Research article, “The immediate priorities of the PM” (December 12, 2022), it’s written that “[the Prime Minister] hasn’t taken to flaunting/cosplaying his Islamist [sic] identity and virtue-signalling vis-à-vis his political adversaries (i.e., those outside of the national unity government). In keeping with his reputation as man of the people, the PM has instead focused on his immediate priorities which are tackling the cost of living”.

So, what’s the psychology underpinning HIMPIT?

It could well be argued that it’s all down to simple race and religion baiting, Malaysian-style.

In other words, HIMPIT which was held in the home state of PAS President Tuan Haji Hadi Awang (MP for Marang) known his mix of ethno-religious rhetoric was about chest-thumping (as the highest level of virtue-signalling by “brandishing” the Malay-Muslim supremacy [ketuanan] brand) and “provocation” (i.e., intimidation of “Middle Malaysia” or the multi-ethnic and multi-religious “mainstream moderate” and challenging the Islamic credentials of the unity government under Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim) par excellence – aimed at both their own political constituency (prominently the Malay heartlands) and that of the opposing side (prominently Pakatan Harapan/PH’s Malay-Muslims and non-Muslims) alike.

Make no mistake about it.

This is, fundamentally speaking, a throwing down of the gauntlet and challenging the unity government in their (i.e., PAS’s own) terms as to who is more Islamic – the typical/perfunctory/instinctive style within the milieu and terrain of inter-Malay-Muslim politicking – which one could hark all the way back to the time under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first administration already even in its initial phases.

To be sure, political rivalry in terms of touting one’s religious and confessional identity and credentials inevitably impacts on the wider plural Malaysian society. The impact of Islamisation that started under the nation’s fourth Prime Minister has never been confined to Muslims alone – and which continues to reverberate until today as can be seen in the polarisation of attitudes and worldviews.

HIMPIT was about re-asserting the Islamist credentials of the opposition – albeit in a crude manner – over-against a Prime Minister who’s recognised at home and abroad as distinguished Muslim intellectual and thought-leader.

Towards that end, the underlying message at the unity government was: Can you match our Islamist conviction?

In the final analysis, outlandish HIMPIT may have appeared to outsiders, the procession also represented a kind of a taunt at the unity government and, by extension, the wider administration.


PAS, especially, must have felt ecstatic at its unprecedented and stunning electoral win (49 seats – which represents nearly a quarter of the parliamentary seats of 222) for what should have been a “regional” party at best – which means the party can only be inching closer and closer to finally wresting the helm of power in its own right and from those they deem to be less Islamic in terms of the political struggle or platform (wadah) – the “hypocrites” (munafik), “liberals”, “secularists”, etc.

The electoral victory which saw PAS and Perikatan Nasional capturing many Malay-majority seats (leaving aside the electoral analysis for a while) must have been a harbinger or presage (depending on which side you’re on) of Malay-Muslim supremacy (even without the label or term in use) finally (re)assuming its rightful place in the future.

Hence, it could also be argued that HIMPIT served as a warning to the unity government and Middle Malaysia not to go “too far” in the other extreme (i.e., liberalisation) – based on the experience under the previous Pakatan Harapan administration.

“History is on our side, not yours”, “our time will come” (that’s also the underlying message).

So much for the psychology of race and religion baiting in Malaysia.

What are the practical responses, then?

In his article entitled, “Anwar’s survival and the middle ground” published by Malaysiakini (March 4, 2023), Professor Dr Wong Chin Huat makes the case for expanding the middle ground to ensure the survival and sustainability of the unity government for this Parliament and beyond.

That said, expanding the middle ground cannot be from the perspective and on the terms of the liberal base (alone).

This is why it’s critical for the liberal base to reach a consensus with the moderate (albeit conservative) base both within the PH as well as UMNO.

The middle ground has to encompass the worldviews and values of the Malay-Muslim community as a whole and must (re)assure that Malaysia Madani doesn’t in anyway diminish the Muslim/Islamic character of the nation even as it seeks to avoid the twin extremes of ultra-/radical liberalism on the one hand and ultra-/radical conservatism on the other in the form of and underpinned by Progressive Islam (Islam Progresif).

Both extremes represent the totalitarianism of the minority over the majority.

It can’t be right when the minority, e.g., liberals, seek to impose what they deem to be universal values such as the abolition of the death penalty itself (in contradistinction from the practice as mandatory), full recognition of LGBTQ rights, same-sex marriage, etc. when all of these run counter to the sentiments of the majority.

It’s simply not acceptable for liberals to insist that all universal values have to conform precisely with the Western secularist understanding and interpretation – without specific recourse to what binds us all (i.e., religious, irreligious) in Malaysia alike or in common in the form of what theologians and philosophers term as “natural law”.

Natural law is a much neglected and almost never mentioned concept but vital to our discourse as to what constitutes the Malaysian filter and interpretation (acuan) of universal values.

Natural law simply refers to the fundamental and universal principles and laws inherent in nature – without which human existence and civilisation can’t take place and flourish.

Basic examples are such as the preservation and protection of life and the right to property – in other words, maqasid (i.e., the nobler and higher objectives of) syariah (or divine law).

Now, how these fundamental and universal principles are translated in any given society would differ in time (diachronically) and even space (geographically). Natural law simply reflects the realities of life and human existence.

In the West, same-sex marriage (and the concomitant of adoption by same-sex parents) is regarded as strengthening the institution but here it’d be interpreted as having the opposite effect. Yet both are grounded in the same fundamental principle of preservation and protection of life.

Yet, it must be reminded that even in the West, same-sex marriage is vehemently opposed by conservative Christians (let alone Muslims) since homosexuality is a sin. So, for some it’d be deemed a public policy error that’s grounded in acceptance of an unnatural orientation.

In other words, what are deemed as universal values by liberals can’t simply be imposed in Malaysia merely because they’ve been introduced and practiced in the West.

Where there’s a clash between natural law and its interpretation or translation set within the context-specific conditions of a given society, that should give us pause as to whether the universal values which are themselves derived from and, therefore, an interpretation of a fundamental axiom of natural law should be applied without consideration or further account of the local situation.

Liberals should understand and appreciate that the struggle for a middle ground as embodied by Malaysia Madani must give due respect and recognition to the fundamental Malay and Islamic character of the nation which is then interpreted and applied set within the concrete context of a plural and diverse society.

In the final analysis, the middle ground ought to be truly the middle ground and which can hold nation and society together – preventing further polarisation and deepening divisions based on irreconcilable or rather, to be more precise, intractable differences where even existential tensions based on the real world and lived experiences can’t survive/flourish.

This is set in contrast to ideological or theological/philosophical rigidity and purity where everything has to fit in consistently and neatly within an overall system or hierarchy of abstract truths. That is, under such “truth-systems”, the axioms or principles are inferred by pure logic alone without reference to real-world experience.

Instead of the axioms/principles deemed as “universal” (“language”) needing “translation” (into the local “dialect”), ideologues tend or are susceptible to imposing their pre-conceived notion and understanding onto the real world – rather than allowing for a dynamic and living interaction between the two (i.e., fundamental principles as presuppositions and the given realities).

By extension, as an already developed body of truths, this then determines reality rather than the other way around.

In fact, all too often the ideologues as fundamentalists(!), regardless of whether it’s ultra-/radical liberal or ultra-/radical conservative – who are merely mirror images of each other – forget that these fundamental principles or presuppositions themselves are based on and conditioned by experience itself. That is, they are given or discovered amidst a particular form of experience in a specific location set against the backdrop or milieu of the time or age.

Which means that the fundamental principles need to be re-envisioned, re-interpreted, and re-translated afresh/again and again.

In short, re-contextualisation.

To be sure, the re-contextualisation will need to be subject to what’s known as the “eschatological” limits.

Simply put, ironically, any re-contextualisation of the fundamental principles of human life and existence needs to know its own limits in order to ensure the survival and preservation and, by extension, flourishing/thriving of human civilisation.

A re-contextualisation that’s ad infinitum in principle in terms of number of times it can take place in history doesn’t imply a re-contextualisation ad infinitum in terms of its shape in any given time and space, any more than the legalisation of same-sex marriage (e.g., in the West) implies that homosexuality is no longer a sin (i.e., according to the Abrahamaic faiths) – by way of analogy.

In conclusion, the Malaysian context is indispensable and critical – if we’re to really achieve a proper middle ground.

One that’s inclusive and all-encompassing and yet without necessarily submerging our differences. But, instead, acknowledging their proper limits and constraints so as to achieve the higher goals of national unity and nation-building.

Thus, let us be clear.

Middle Malaysia or the middle ground comprises of two (not “one undifferentiated whole”) halves or lungs – not just the moderate liberals but also the moderate conservatives.

A broad church – is the way to go.

Balance (dynamic balance/kesimbangan dinamik) is key.

Consensus-building based on the core characteristics of the nation – Malay-Muslim and plurality – with the latter grounded in the former as well as dynamically related.

Race and religion baiting will still exist in Malaysia. But take heart – because by then we’ll not have to worry/fear a “minority” backlash becoming a “majority” pushback, anymore.

Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focussed on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research

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