Proposal for a New Narrative of Islam to Benefit to Malaysia Image and Tourism

Malaysia, culture, Islam,

Life in Penang in 1975

In the last 25 years, Islam in Malaysia has turned increasingly conservative with politicians often playing on rejection of others rather than fostering integration. This has also been reflected in increased tensions in the tourism field. But Malaysia Minister for Islamic Affairs, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, advocates now for a new narrative of Islam…

Some older generations of Malays would remember how Malaysia used to be in the 1970s up to the mid-1980s. A very laid-back and open society where a kind of laissez-faire was the rule. Some Muslim men enjoyed drinking a beer in public while some Malay top-model girls used to pose in bikini on magazines’ covers. It was a very different world which seems miles away from 2020 Malaysia.

In the last 25 years, society became increasingly conservative, often driving to the rejection of other ethnics, religions and ways of life. A situation that politicians exploited -often with success- by manipulating public opinions. The lack of understanding is also reflected in the education system where children generally do not learn about the traditions and ways of life of other ethnics.

1968 advertising for a beer with Malay people

In the last decades, stupid polemics surges about the interdiction of using images of pigs and dogs during the Chinese year of the pig and the dog, about the hosting of Miss Malaysia contests, about flies in supermarkets flying from halal products to non halal products and vice-versa. The latest polemic is about a tattoo exhibition organised last week in Kuala Lumpur with pictures of people exhibiting their bodies deemed as “obscene”. All these regular polemics on social networks and media show a Malaysian society deeply torn apart by its ethnic and religious differences.

In a recent report, Jams Chin, Director of the Asia Institute at Australia’s University of Tasmania, explains that the nature of Islam practiced in Malaysia underlines the current friction in the political debate. The expanding power of Islamic bureaucracy linked to the promotion of an increasingly orthodox Islam is bringing concerns even in the current coalition under PM Mahathir Mohamad.  “The government looks for more checks and balances to bring the country back to the middle path,” analyzes James Chin.

In a recent interview with journalist Zeinab Badawi on BBC Hard Talk show, Malaysia Minister for Islamic Affairs, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, advocates now for a new narrative of Islam. Answering to a question if religion was turning into a major barrier to national integration, the Minister insisted that religions should be the major factor for the growth and prosperity of the nation.

According to Rawa, the current government rejects using religion for its own political agenda. In contrary, the Minister now indicated that his government is proposing “a new narrative” of “compassionate Islam”.

The minister told Hardtalk’s Zeinab Badawi: “We are now proposing or advocating Islam as a very progressive religion and role that it can play and we have come with a new narrative of Islam in Malaysia with a new government of what we call ‘the compassionate Islam’.”

A few days later, in a business school in London, the Minister revealed further details. ‘What is new is that the Malaysian government, through the Prime Minister’s Office, intends to translate the ideas into government policies transcending the ideas into practical solutions to the contemporary challenges,’ said Rawa, admitting that it was a new policy as part of the government’s efforts to create a new image of Malaysia in addition to promoting a model of shared prosperity and peaceful coexistence.

Now, this makes the philosophy a tough one to deliver, especially coming from a multicultural country with a lot of baggage to deal with at the moment. The baggage will be scrutinised when the concept he is sharing is brought to the world.

The presence of various ethnic and religious groups have led to irresponsible parties igniting the fires of race and religion, creating worry among some who have been living harmoniously together for a long time. ‘In effect, the community suffers from some extent of erosion of trust in each other, hence giving birth to Islamophobia and xenophobia. The current government is seriously looking into this challenge and is committed to address the issue through a broad vision of ‘Malaysia Baharu’ or the Shared Prosperity Vision.’

Such a vision would indeed benefit as well to tourism as it would picture a moderate, tolerant country where any traveller should feel welcomed and not rejected because of his different way of life or opinion. It would also truly stick to Malaysia long-standing tourism slogan “Malaysia, truly Asia” which stresses that cultural diversity makes Malaysia unique in Southeast Asia and help raising a more vibrant society.