Birthing the Melayu Baru: Gender, Family and Malay-Muslim Identity

Author: Dahlia Martin

Martin, Dahlia, 2019 Birthing the Melayu Baru: Gender, Family and Malay-Muslim Identity, Flinders University, College of Business, Government and Law

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Contemporary Malay-Muslim identity politics is informed by the colonial-era representations of Malay ethnicity and character. Colonial depictions established the Malay as a naturally effeminate, superstitious and rural-based character, whose mould was confirmed and re-created within the family site; the ‘lazy native’ continues to occupy a central position in Malay ethnoreligious thought. Malay modernity is therefore concerned with defining an alternative Malay figure to serve as an antithesis to colonial constructions of Malayness. The Melayu Baru, or New Malay, was Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s attempt at cultivating a Malayness that would command respect, and be rational and urbane. Like colonial authorities, Mahathir had in his earlier days as a Malay nationalist identified the Malay family as the site where Malayness was created and could, therefore, be reformed. Indeed, during his premiership, there emerged in Malaysian socio-political discourse very distinct standards for the Malay family and, by extension, Malay women as the supposedly natural occupiers of this realm. The rapid Islamisation of Malaysia that Mahathir oversaw complicated his efforts at reforming Malayness; Mahathir responded by courting Islamist activists and increasingly incorporating Islam into the essence of the Melayu Baru. Adhering to a ‘true’ Islam that encourages innovation and cosmopolitanism has therefore become a key aspect of Malay modernity; and Islamisation has inevitably influenced models of the ideal Malay-Muslim woman and her family. This thesis will examine significant drivers in current Malay-Muslim identity politics by exploring the gendered and familial origins of Malay nationalist thought. Drawing on a feminist postcolonial theoretical framework, it will demonstrate that contemporary constructions of Malayness continue to be defined in gendered and binarist terms. It argues that Islamisation can also be understood as hypermasculinisation of Malay-Muslim identity and therefore a direct response to colonial discourse on a feminised Malayness. This thesis also seeks to offer a more comprehensive overview of Malay-Muslim identity politics by understanding how Malay mothers in urban settings, as the first socialisers of an emerging Melayu Baru, relate to Malay-Muslim reformation. The analyses come together in a final argument to suggest that Islamic identity amongst Malay-Muslims will increase, particularly if the gendered and colonial origins of contemporary Malayness are not acknowledged by Malay leaders.

Keywords: malaysia, malays, Islam, gender, ethnicity, postcolonialism

Subject: Multicultural Studies thesis

Thesis type: Masters
Completed: 2019
School: College of Business, Government and Law
Supervisor: Michael Barr