Bryan Caplan  

Moderate Muslim Malaysia: What I Saw

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People often point to Malaysia as a good example of a "moderate Muslim nation."  So when I took a side trip to Kuala Lumpur and Malacca, I was curious to see moderate Islam with my own eyes.  What's it like to be a believer - or a non-believer - in a country that's 60% Muslim?

What I saw:

1. At least in KL, there was a nearly uniform distribution of styles of dress - everything from Asian Britney Spears to burkhas without eye slits.  No one seemed to notice or care.

2. Muslim teens in conservative dress freely held hands and engaged in other PDAs.  The head scarf is a much weaker signal of behavior than it is at GMU.

3. The big KL bookstore I wandered carried not only Discover Your Inner Economist and Radicals for Capitalism, but also Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion.

4. Most of the public propaganda focuses on Malaysian nationalism, not Islam.  It's offensive in its own way; how can you talk about the wonders of "Malaysian unity" without mentioning bloody anti-Chinese pogroms of the 60s?  But I saw no evidence of an official effort to treat non-Muslims as dhimmis.

5. I saw no public signs of anti-semitism - even in the display on the Palestinian conflict in the Islamic Arts Museum.

6. There were two big Muslim controversies going on during my visit.  A council of mullahs had ruled that yoga and "tomboyism" were contrary to Islam.   But at least one major newspaper, the New Straits Times, reported on these fatwas with thinly-veiled contempt.  From an interview on pengkid ("tomboyism") with the Malaysian Department of Islamic Development director-general:

Q: What is the actual definition of "pengkid"?
A: Pengkid refers to a married woman or maiden whose appearance or image is like that of a man...
A woman may be dressed as a woman, but her behaviour may be like a man, or it might be a combination of this. She might also have a sexual desire for women.

This brings it "hampir" (close) to the practice of lesbianism.

Q: Is it close to, or is it actually lesbianism?
We can't say that all people who are pengkid are lesbians. That wouldn't be right. That's why I say it is "hampir".

Hampir means she doesn't do that act, but she is heading that way. For instance, Islam forbids people from coming close to zina. That means, not only is the act forbidden, but any act that may lead to the actual act is also forbidden...

Actually, we are trying to save these women (from becoming lesbians).
Later in the interview:

Q: Is there any proof that if a woman dresses as a man, she will become a lesbian? What is the link between clothes and lesbianism?
A: Perhaps this is something that is different between the Islamic perspective and non-Islamic perspective.

Our approach is based on a rule of the maxim in Islamic jurisprudence - that we prevent the opportunity for some thing bad to happen. We believe this is a good approach in preventing something bad which is forseeable, based on research and other issues.


Q: The niat (intention) of the fatwa is one thing, but its application is another. What is going to happen if someone who has heard of this fatwa starts harrassing a woman whom he feels is dressed or behaving like a man?
A: Let's forget about the possibility of harassment by men.

Q: We can't.
A: Alright. But what if the woman who behaves like a man attracts the attention of other women. Doesn't that also present a threat of harassment?
Overall, I'd say that the journalists' bias against fundamentalist Islam was stronger than the liberal bias of the New York Times.

I only spent three days in Malaysia.  I suspect that rural areas would be less moderate than major cities like KL and Malacca.  Nevertheless, I think that most Westerners would be shocked by the pluralism and tolerance that I saw.  The experience echoed a passage from a book I bought in a KL mall:

Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. There the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker's word. At the breaking up of this pacific and free assembly, some withdraw to the synagogue, and others to take a glass. This man goes and is baptized in a great tub, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: that man has his son's foreskin cut off, whilst a set of Hebrew words (quite unintelligible to him) are mumbled over his child. Others retire to their churches, and there wait for the inspiration of heaven with their hats on, and all are satisfied.
Yep, that's from Voltaire, a writer who spent centuries on the Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden Books.

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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Jaga writes:

If you believed that Malaysia is similar to Indonesia I'd suggest V.S.Naipaul's "Among the Believers" and "Beyond Belief"

Sima Qian writes:

It is relatively moderate. But it depends on what your standards are to begin with. Moderate, to my mind, are Muslims in Singapore. Maybe even Brunei. I saw the Protocols displayed prominently at a bookshop when I transited through KLIA. That is not the done thing here (Singapore), whatever attitudes individual Muslims harbour in private. Anti-Semitism in a country full of people who have never seen a Jew in their lives can be oddly disconcerting.

Arguably, Malaysia's Bumiputera policy (affirmative action for the Malay-Muslim majority) may be perceived as a form of enforced dhimmitude. Any pluralism in Malaysia is really a necessary consequence of racial politics and demographic reality. Non-Muslim ethnic groups make up a substantial proportion of the electoral pie and have to be courted accordingly. The more marginal the electoral impact of a racial group (say, the Indians), the less accomodated they are. is this an augmented dhimmitude? Maybe.

As to newspapers, the English-languag NST reflects a certain establishment-intelligentsia viewpoint. You'll find the tone markedly different in publications like Utusan Malaysia, more reflective of bedrock UMNO/Malay establishment viewpoints and therefore more prone to peddling demagoguery to its demographic than its English or Chinese-language brethren. From time to time they alarm other ethnic groups by pushing more extreme editorial lines.

So yes, a plurality of views. That the press is a mixed bag reflects that. But if you're wondering what the Muslims think, Utusan better reflects baseline prejudices than the New Straits Times.

johnleemk writes:

Re anti-Semitism, it is actually quite blatant in Malaysia. It's nowhere as public as you might expect, but that's primarily because there are hardly any Jews in the country, so hardly anything spurs a discussion of them. However, the leader of the opposition is often frequently tarred by the ruling party with a number of slurs which should give you an idea of Malaysian taboos - he has been called a homosexual, a Jew-lover, a pawn of the CIA, a pawn of the Chinese/Indians, and a Zionist. While racism is actually pretty blatant throughout Malaysian society, it's so blatant towards the Jews that it is taken for granted. Members of Parliament have frequently raised the issue of the opposition leader's fraternizing with American Jews in Parliament, arguing it clearly disqualifies him from any leadership position. The closest Malaysians have come to a political consensus is that Zionism (and by extension Jews/Judaism) is bad, and that the Iraq war was unjust. (And you'll find plenty of people willing to pin the Iraq war on the Jews/Zionists too.) Zhuge Liang is spot on re the Protocols of Zion, and as a Malaysian, I'm really quite appalled that they are such a staple in our bookstores. The trendy malls in the Kuala Lumpur city centre probably don't stock them, but most bookshops in the suburbs - even small niche operations - carry them.

I do reject the suggestion that affirmative action in Malaysia constitutes a sort of dhimmitude against the non-Malays. For that to be true, the policies would have to be founded in anti-Muslim sentiment, but that is hardly the case. There are two main strands of thought - often intertwined - about the affirmative action policies. One is that they are a divine right of sorts - that the Malays are entitled to them as a birthright, either because they are the majority and can do whatever they like, because they are the "true Malaysians" and are the only ones truly loyal to the country, or both. The other is that the Malays need aggressive assistance to compete in a historically terribly imbalanced playing field. The opposition parties are presently running on a platform of abolishing the affirmative action measures in favor of a racially-blind social welfare net.

It is true, though, that political pluralism is not really ingrained in Malaysian society. Malaysians are Malaysians until politics enters the picture, at which point parochialism quickly sets in. Even educated and otherwise intelligent Malaysians can be really quite recalcitrant and irrational about politics simply because they have been so racialized by the ruling party. The opposition is trying to change this, but they have their own problems - there is a great deal of tension between the largely secularist non-Malays and the more Islamist Malays in the opposition.

As for the New Straits Times, virtually all English newspapers in Malaysia adopt a relatively liberal point of view, especially when it comes to Islam and ethnic issues. They are catering to their niche market of expatriates and the social elite, who are more liberal than society as a whole. The Malay language newspapers in particular are radically conservative, and have even published outright fabrications with hardly any repercussions.

Most Malaysians are moderate when it comes to Islam, and even the more Islamist segments do not have much significant sway beyond the three or four states that make up the Malay heartland. But having said that, religion remains a thorny issue here, if only because of how intertwined it is with law and politics these days. The courts have recently been ceding a lot of their jurisdiction to the Muslim sharia courts, and this has been the source of significant tension.

I think race is something commentators should also look at in the future when it comes to Malaysia, if only because of the unique way in which we've dealt with ethnic issues here - affirmative action for the majority, virtually segregated schools for the minorities. (Yes, the Chinese and Indians prefer de facto segregated public schools - they want to be able to teach their children their "mother tongues.") There's a lot others can learn from us - and a lot we can learn from others.

Nigel Kearney writes:

I used to live there - it's far from perfect but is a place we can learn a lot from. They also have free public health and education and income tax rates in the single digits for the vast majority.

The major newspapers do stick very strictly to the government line. Though the government is mostly Muslim, it doesn't include the very conservative Muslim party who are in opposition. They haven't had a change of government since independence in 1959, but I suspect the journalist's attitude may last exactly as long as the government does.

Nearly every country has a left-wing party that does very well by advocating policies that harm prosperity but are nevertheless popular with the public. Malaysia doesn't have that. I'm not sure why.

johnleemk writes:


Re leftism/socialism, Malaysia is unique in that it waged a virtual civil war about communism. The Chinese-dominated Malayan Communist Party wrought havoc on the country from 1948 till the late 1970s, assassinating top colonial officials, and later top security men (including the highest ranked police officer in the country, at one point). As a result, the government banned almost all left wing parties, and the few permitted to remain active were forever tainted by allusions of being in cahoots with the communist terrorists. The ruling party has used fears of communism, atheism (the MCP being virulently and militantly secular), and race (the MCP being primarily Chinese) to effectively marginalize the socialist-leaning parties.

In the most recent election, the opposition did make unprecedented gains, campaigning on ending the allegedly biased affirmative action policies and a somewhat self-contradictory platform of economic reforms. The opposition coalition consists of one previously socialist party which now primarily advocates strong market reforms, a calculatedly centrist party which hems and haws (in the span of two minutes in one speech, its leader panned Adam Smith while praising Schumpeter, Hayek, Keynes and Galbraith - and his main stump speech has consisted of harebrained calls to step up already insanely large gasoline subsidies), and an Islamist party which promises a "welfare state."

Overall I would say that as the generations affected by the communist insurgency fade away, the tendency to support populist leftist policies will grow. I am quite glad we've lucked out with two of the main opposition parties being seemingly very open to economic ideas, even if their public rhetoric is often shockingly leftist or populist. Also, I don't think there's much room for ideologues in Malaysian politics - politics here still primarily pivots on race and to a lesser extent money. Reforming the political system - which all the opposition parties are committed to - is more important than economic reforms for now.

AS writes:

"Yep, that's from Voltaire, a writer who spent centuries on the Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden Books."

But Voltaire is not making fun of Islam!

Islamic people are completely okay with making fun of other religions, just not their own.

me writes:

Yeah and I went to Sylvia's the other day and there wasn't one person screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea.'

froginthewell writes:

See :

Also, this article says :
In May, the country's best-known Christian convert, Lina Joy, lost a battle in the highest court to have the word "Islam" removed from her identity card. In delivering judgment in that case, the Federal Court's chief justice said the issue was related to Islamic law, and civil courts could not intervene.

Bryan, for just 3 days in Malaysia you've got it pretty close. Those were very astute observation. It does prove that Malaysia, though still a long way from being perfect, has quite a good example of a nation living in harmony.

I hope you do not mind if I quoted some of your passages in my website

If I do, I'll credit you for it.

The Malaysian Explorer

alao writes:

I too went to KL for a couple of days about a year ago.

I thought the displays on the Palestinian conflict in the Islamic Arts Museum were quite bias against the Jewish side, but maybe I'm wrong.

I did see a book in the Islamic Arts Museum that advocated intelligent design. The text had something along the lines of, "if you put some seeds in some soil and covered it with a box, then came back a few days later and there was a computer there then that would be crazy, but that's what evolutionists." I don't think I would find something like that in an Art Gallery in the West, but maybe a religious based museum might have one?

I paid a visit to the national mosque and the volunteer guide had no problems telling me that China was going to become the biggest power in the world and when they did they would civilise Australia. This was only one individual's opinion, so I don't want to over generalise.

Malaysia is far from perfect but when compared to their peers in the region they seem to have done very well to become a moderate and reasonably wealthy country.

Brent Wheeler writes:


You must have been there at almost exactly the same time I was there teaching finance a couple of weeks ago (yes Islamic students want to know about the time value of money and interest) - same issues, same impressions, same hopes - I think

The PM writing (gingerly) about the benefits of learning maths and science in English and encouraging others to do so since it was helpful and did not involve eternal damnation - has got to be good for all hands.

Ann writes:

fronginthewell left out the more striking part of the second article cited:

"M. Revathi, a 29-year-old ethnic Indian, was detained for 180 days at a state-run Islamic counseling centre before she was released last week. In practice, Malaysia's sharia courts do not allow Muslims to formally renounce Islam, preferring to send apostates to counseling and, ultimately, fining or jailing them if they refuse to desist."

Malaysia is relatively moderate, but that's why I've always found it a bit shocking that even there, young women from islamic families face violence, intimidation and sometimes murder if they dare to try to marry non-muslims (or to openly change their religion). The government doesn't officially allow the girls to be murdered but doesn't do much to stop or punish the family's efforts to prevent conversion, either.

And after the grotesque injustice of Anwar's trial in 1999, I've never quite trusted Malaysia's appearance of moderation. For Anwar to spend years in jail because he suppported financial reforms and spoke out against corruption in Mahathir's government shows that they have a long way to go.

Anwar was the Vice President, Mahathir's number two and Malaysia's best hope for fixing the economy after the Asian flu, but Mahathir felt that Anwar was too critical and too ambitious, so he had Anwar charged with corruption and sodomy (the corruption was supposedly to cover up the sodomy). The government gave an exact date and location when the sodomy supposedly took place, but then it was pointed out that Anwar had an alibi for that date. So they gave a new exact date and location, but this time it was pointed out that the building in which the event supposedly took place hadn't even been built yet.

So, the prosecution claimed that they had meant to say that it happened two years later, sometime during a certain month. It's hard, several years later, to come up with an iron-clad alibi for an entire month. One of the people that Anwar supposedly sodomized was in England at the time, but the prosecution speculated that he probably flew all the way from the UK to Malaysia and back just for that one 'event'.

Anwar spent years in prison, basically for the crime of publicly supporting the IMF's reform proposals, and he was banned from participating in politics for several years even after he was released in 2004. He was to be eligible to participate in politics again in April, 2008, and announced that he would run for Parliament, but the election was moved up to March, presumably so that Anwar would not be eligible to run.

Anwar finally won a landslide victory in August, but the government trumped up new sodomy charges this summer to try to put him out of the way again. Even consensual sodomy in Malaysia can be punished with up to 20 years in prison plus whipping.

I agree with johnleemk that the political system badly needs reform.

George writes:


What on earth does the Catholic Church have to do with the rest of your post?

johnleemk writes:


It's not that clear-cut re Anwar. He was almost as corrupt as Mahathir - it just so happened that fiscal tightening benefited his cronies, while bailouts benefited Mahathir's. The reason he is emerging now as a potential leader is because he claims to have had an epiphany while in jail. While many Malaysians, especially the elite, still have misgivings about Anwar, it's becoming harder to have faith in the ruling party, which is slowly coming apart now that Mahathir is no longer in power.

The Revathi case you brought up is interesting because it highlights how intertwined Islam and the legal system are. Revathi was born to a Muslim family which registered her as a Muslim, but raised by her grandmother as a Hindu. She never even knew she was considered a Muslim by the law. She married a Hindu, but when the state government found out she was actually officially a Muslim, they sent her for "rehabilitation" -- even though she had never ever been part of the Muslim faith. Muslims have been reluctant to criticise this kind of decision because they feel it undermines their ability to enforce the strictures of their faith against apostates. Ironically, they use a libertarianish argument - "don't infringe on our right to practice our religion!"

I would say our society is very moderate, very tolerant, rather open. Unfortunately, our politics are often quite the opposite.

Chipper writes:

Earlier today, I believe it was Instapundit that linked me to

My reaction to the post was that until "moderate muslims" actively protest and oppose jihad they deserve no respect, no consideration, no quarter.

johnleemk writes:


There are some NGOs throughout the Muslim world actively promoting a more liberal agenda. In Malaysia, Sisters of Islam is one of the more vocal and largest groups. It is not popular among the conservatives, who denounce it as heretical, but they do present (IMO) theologically convincing arguments against the more unjust "traditions" of Islam. Malaysia is not a human rights bastion - it is one of the last four dozen or so countries which refuses to accede to all the various human rights conventions - but because of the pressure from activists, especially moderate Muslim groups, Malaysia recently passed laws protecting the rights of women and children over the protest of many conservative groups, which continue to demand the reinstatement of anachronistic "Muslim laws" permitting spousal abuse, polygamy, etc.

Likewise, Malaysia and Indonesia have been aggressively pursuing Islamic terrorists - unlike Pakistan, they are no half-hearted partners in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Both countries are threatened by the specter of terrorism, and it is really difficult to find anyone, at least in Malaysia, who is a supporter of Islamic terrorism. (One may have to give Palestinian terrorism a pass, though - the Palestinian cause and anti-Semitism/-Zionism are extremely popular in this region.)

I also think the post you linked to is extremely far off in its characterization of Southeast Asia as a hotbed of Islamic terrorism. There are Islamic insurgents in the Philippines and Thailand, but their cause is political (they want to form separate states, not set up a global caliphate or wage jihad) and not primarily religious. And in Malaysia and Indonesia, the reason you don't hear more about terrorist attacks is because of just how rare they are. The security condition in the Philippines is much, much worse, and not because of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front - rather, it's because they are still fighting communist insurgents there.

Ann writes:

johnleemk -

Thanks for your enlightening comments. I've lived in Asia and am interested in the region, but I've only visited Malaysia.

You're probably right that Anwar is no angel and might well have been about as corrupt as Mahathir, although I thought at the time that his policy proposals in response to the Asian flu were better than Mahathir's (even if his motives for supporting them were not pure).

But regardless, I'm still outraged by Anwar's trial and imprisonment, and the fact that they're trying to do it again. I watched the trial as it unfolded (from a distance) and am convinced that it was unfair.

If you think I'm wrong about the trial, please let me know.

Plus, of course, many in the US would question whether someone deserved up to 20 years in prison and a whipping for consensual sex. I suppose that this, too, would fall under 'our right to practice our religion'. I don't consider that relevant to this debate, though, since there doesn't seem to be any real evidence that Anwar did what they claimed.

johnleemk writes:

It's hard to find anyone in Malaysia outside of the government/elite circles who is not outraged by the treatment of Anwar, then and now. Whether that translates to political support is a different question, and a lot of people have had a hard time believing Anwar. I only support him because there really is no other alternative.

There is a lot of circumstantial evidence and gossip that Anwar is homosexual or bisexual, but there certainly is no hard proof, and all the evidence the government has presented so far seems to be on shaky ground (to be very, very generous to their case). Anwar was not prosecuted under Muslim law, however - he is facing charges under the penal code, because Malaysia maintains a lot of laws held over from the British, including those forbidding certain sexual practices. Ironically, the only person it seems who has ever been prosecuted under them is Anwar - a former government minister was filmed while illegally participating in oral sex and nobody even suggested that he be charged.

So, yes, your perception of the trial is certainly accurate. Anwar is absolutely innocent if we go by any decent standard of law. Anwar's political ability and statesmanship are quite different and separate questions, however.

Ann writes:

Again, johnleemk, thank you for your information and insight!

I only visited Malaysia once but really liked it and hope to come back many times. I certainly wish it well.

AS writes:

"Yep, that's from Voltaire, a writer who spent centuries on the Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden Books."

Another comment about this line. Did you see "The Satanic Verses" in bookstores? That's the real test of how moderate and tolerant the country is.

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