‘Deep’ Malay cultural psychology

August 11, 2016

‘Deep’ Malay cultural psychology

by Clive Kessler

About the Author

Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He is well known for being unimpressed by postmodernist theory and analytical practice while being adamant that people, especially the champions and exponents of that now almost mandatory approach, should understand its origins and basis in twentieth century French social, cultural, intellectual and political history. The vast majority, he insists, alas do not. He is himself not such an enthusiast, but in the course of his scholarly career, he has made it his business, often in the hard way over years of serious investigation and study, to find out.


In modern Malaysia,  attitudes born in the traditional village, as well as Islam, are being used to defend against threats to the Malay world’s important symbolic boundaries.

I ended some recent remarks on the current political situation in Malaysia with an allusion to what I call ‘deep’ Malay cultural psychology.  I noted that:

They, so many of them, would rather have to themselves, unshared and exclusively ‘on their own terms’, 100 per cent of a small and dubious inheritance — to squabble over interminably among themselves — than to have and enjoy a substantial stake in a thriving enterprise that they must share, sensibly, in both material gratitude and human generosity, with others.  More on this ‘Malay cultural psychology’ another time…

Well, that time came sooner than I expected, so I have written on the subject. This is not a final statement but should be considered a first draft. Note well and bear that in mind as you read it.

First, let’s be  clear about what I am not talking about here. I am not talking about the now standard clichés, even these days generally  ‘received ideas’, promoted and popularised by Tun Dr Mahathir in his The Malay Dilemma (subsequently recycled, little changed or modified, in some parts of his memoir, Doctor in the House).

Nor am I speaking of the important ideas and debates that Tun Dr Mahathir should have been aware of (but probably was not) when he wrote The Malay Dilemma. These included the controversy that briefly raged in the late 1960s, especially between the economist Brian Parkinson and the anthropologist William Wilder Jr, about the non-economic aspects and sources of what was then called ‘Malay economic backwardness’.

I am not talking about the key ideas upon which that debate rested, found especially in the work of the anthropologist Michael G Swift exploring the formative sociocultural groundings and cultural-psychological dimensions of Malay economic attitudes and behaviour.

Nor am I speaking here about the bearing upon these same questions at the time and since of Syed Hussein Alatas’s critique of ‘the Myth of the Lazy Native’ in the wider Malay world of Southeast Asia.

Neither am I alluding to some more general ideas upon which that debate and those arguments in part rested: ideas, again, to which people now habitually have recourse in discussing many issues of this kind, while remaining totally innocent and ignorant of any idea of their origins. These are namely the clichés  — so much a part of the fateful policy debates of 1969-1970 leading up to the declaration of the New Economic Plan — of a ‘limited pie’ , of ‘dividing up the cake’ and of ‘increasing the size of the economic cake’ to be shared.

These expressions and ideas had their origins in a once famous but now largely forgotten essay by the anthropologist George M Foster on “Peasant Society and the Image of the Limited Good”.  These are ideas about whether it is better to argue about the proportional sharing, or division, of a given fixed quantum (‘zero sum’ thinking in Game Theory talk) or to work instead to increase the size of the overall yield that is to be shared among a number of parties.

These ideas are often, in one way or another, drawn into the discussion about Malay and Malayan and Malaysian society: into arguments about ethnic relations, separation, competition and Malay anxieties and fears of being out-competed by (non-Malay) others.

But important as these ideas are, in general, and in the modern Malaysian policy and political context, I am not talking here simply about those things, but something much deeper.

So, what then am I talking about? I am calling attention here to matters that anybody who has ever spent a night, or several, or a week or several, in a Malay village — and especially anybody who has spent a few evenings, and long nights until dawn, with some Malay village bomoh (or shaman) as they have gone about their special business — will know about. And if you haven’t, you probably won’t. But need to.

This has to do with a fundamental Malay cultural sense of ‘beleaguerement’, and of the ensuing need of Malays to huddle close together — sometimes behind physical barricades such as bamboo perimeter fences and often behind less tangible protective barriers — in mutual support.

These ideas, upheld as experientially powerful cultural imperatives, long predate, and have much deeper sociocultural origins than, what we may call modern plural society social dynamics and stresses — though they may well feed into modern historical and now also contemporary Malay ideas about, attitudes toward, and anxieties concerning economic competition and fears of social displacement and marginalisation.

I am talking here about matters that were once of interest and concern to that largely forgotten, and now widely scorned field of knowledge — old-fashioned (pre-postmodernist) social and cultural anthropology.

If you have ever been in a ‘conventional’, quasi-traditional Malay village at nightfall, as the evening suddenly closes in and the swooping dark suddenly envelopes people at day’s end, as senja (dusk) arrives with all its mambang (hauntings) and other strange, disquieting mystical forces, you will know what I am talking about.

A perceptible apprehensive hush descends, and with it a fear of disturbing who knows what. Understandably, the villagers think (or that is how things were), they hope and trust in the idea, that there is safety in numbers. So they try to huddle together defensively, united in protective agreement against those fears, spoken and unspoken. It gives them strength, or a feeling of strength, it makes them feel secure.

When Malay villagers in former times felt themselves threatened — by human enemies, by wild animals, by plague and illness, by the supernatural terrors of the surrounding jungle, by the dark and all the unseen dangers that it might conceal — they would huddle together for strength. They would find assurance in and seek protection from the spirit-challenging jampi (spell) of a bomoh and would recite do’a, Islamic pleas and prayers. Together, they would chant especially potent verses and sura from the Quran for protection from encroaching evil.

In a similar way, overall, to that older village social universe, the Malay political world in Peninsular Malaysia these days huddles together for reassurance, in kampung-like strength and solidarity, behind a barrier and fortification that is afforded largely by Islam — an Islam under royal patronage and protection and of constitutionally guaranteed standing. It is the old strategy of kampung defence, now writ large.

Through recourse to Islam, threats to the integrity of the Malay world’s important symbolic boundaries can be contained. Islam is used to insulate the boundaries of Malay society against non-Malay intrusion, penetration and subversion — to separate Malay society symbolically and morally from, and elevate it beyond the reach of, its threatening, even contaminating, wider social environment.

We are all familiar with the concept and historical creation of Malay Reservation Land. More recently the same process of space-management has been extended to other areas, to virtual space. Specifically, to linguistic space.

In the contentious ‘name of Allah’ dispute — and notably in then Court of Appeals Justice Apandi Ali’s astounding landmark decision in the matter — as well as in the case of words such as agama, ibadah, iman and the 30 or more others that are now on Malaysia’s quasi-papal index of religious terms (istilah) that are for exclusive Muslim use only, and not to be applied to the discussion of any and all non-Muslim religious life, we see this process not just advancing but assiduously and officially promoted.

We now have, and people are asked to recognise and accept, an entire new privileged zone that has been set aside, that of “Bahasa dan Istilah Rizab Melayu”, of a quarantined Malay Reservation in language and terminology. A Malay semantic protectorate. One with Islamically patrolled and fortified boundaries.

This barrier of protective prohibitions is the modern equivalent of the recourse of Malay villagers to chanting do’a in the dark to ward off wild beasts, malign spirits, strangers or encroaching outside plagues such as cholera.

These modern practices, this array of duly gazetted bureaucratically sustained prohibitions, also provide a protective barrier, an insulating buffer device, enabling beleaguered Malays (or those who feel that way, and who have the power to impose their ways, likes and fears authoritatively on others, on all Malays) to huddle together, secure among their own kind, for reassurance and distancing protection.

As my friend. Dr. M Bakri Musa said, you can take the Kampong out of the Malay, but you can never  remove the Kampong in  the Malay

This is what, at the deep cultural and psychological level, lies behind, informs and drives the continuing Malay determination to live huddling together for comfort and strength — rather than being eager, ready, or just prepared to engage with others and seek sensibly to share the world with them. They would rather have a smaller, narrower world, but one that is their own, entirely their own, that they may inhabit and hold exclusively on their own cultural terms.

The outside world, the world that surrounds the Malay world, closes in upon it, and asks Malays to engage with it on its broader and more inclusive terms is, somehow, the analogue and functional equivalent of, and is psychologically isomorphic with, the non-human, asocial, non-Malay world of mambang and ghosts, of spirits and wild animals, of strangers and the unknown, that closed in upon the ‘little Malay world’ of the village every night.

Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He is the author of many works in this area, most notably Islam and Politics in a Malay State: Kelantan 1838-1969

18 thoughts on “‘Deep’ Malay cultural psychology

  1. What a load of Mumbo jumbo.
    This is because you don’t understand what Professor Kessler is writing about. Your one liner gave you away.–Din Merican.

  2. I could see where Em. Prof. Kessler was coming from about the psycho-insularity of the traditional Malay mind borne of generational conditioning to fear and the need to appease a goblin-infested night as I grew up in or rather near a Malay Kampong, a stones throw from Rosmah Mansor’s old girl school. A personal experience by my late father of a supernatural incident in the Malayan jungle in the 1960s attest to the fact that these fears are neither irrational nor delusional.

    Just some facts from the above incident to illustrate this. My father was on an ore prospecting exercise in the Pahang jungle. One night after a jungle dinner one of the workers, a Malaysian Chinese, started to shake violently and showed signs of “spirit possession” He picked up one of those giant steel mining spanners, a couple of inches thick, and broke it like a twig. Something no normal human could or can do.

    The possessed worker started to speak in Malay with a non-Chinese accent. The “spirit” who said it resided in a near by waterfall complained that the “spirit world” is being neglected by the living human world causing much unhappiness. My father, a Malay Kampong Chinese himself, asked what was it the spirit wanted in order to leave peacefully. The spirit wanted a “human sacrifice” Panic of course seized the whole group of mining prospectors. My father patiently negotiated with the spirit and finally settled on a sacrifice of a few white-feathered chickens, (reading this it may even sound comical, but at that time in that place no one was laughing) A party of miners were promptly sent to a near by village to gather some white-feathered chickens. Panic too seized the village folks when word went round.

    Coming back to Prof. Kessler’s proposition, I would add that though true in the past, the Malays now, (I venture an opinion), are trying to shake off their perceived “un-modern, may be even inferior, Malayness” and found the alien pre-Islamic Arabian culture a comfortable substitute due to the Islamic common denominator, for didn’t God chose an Arab to be His preferred final Prophet to reveal His final Revelation? There must be something special or holy or divine about the Arabs and by extension their culture if God decided thus?

  3. The Malay dilemma can be attributed, in part, to the behavioural characteristic of a feudalistic society that undergoes prolong subjugation to a patriarchal social system and to a forced feeding of a religious diet that promotes blind obedience and unquestioned loyalty that in turn results in a flock of sheep with a passive aggressive personality bent. 🙂

    Hence, the Malays, first and foremost, have to free themselves from the yoke of mental slavery in order to recover their voice, to first question and then, to correct the social injustice inflicted on them by the very ones whom they had chosen, but had thus betrayed the trust bestowed upon them, as custodians of their well being.

    The phenomena of inaction of the Malays not to react to their current circumstances, as otherwise typical of a passive aggressive personality that is prone to beramok occasionally to release tension so as to achieve equilibrium is unusual. It can perhaps be explained by the fable of the frog. If you plunge a frog into boiling water, it will immediately jump out. But if you place the frog into cool water and slowly heat it to boiling, the frog won’t notice and will slowly cook to a blissful death. Sad but true.

  4. /// They, so many of them, would rather have to themselves, unshared and exclusively ‘on their own terms’, 100 per cent of a small and dubious inheritance — to squabble over interminably among themselves — than to have and enjoy a substantial stake in a thriving enterprise that they must share, sensibly, in both material gratitude and human generosity, with others. More on this ‘Malay cultural psychology’ another time… ///

    This is the classic lose-lose situation. Mahathir, when he was in power and feeling strong and wanting to have it his way, gave lip service to win-win propositions with Singapore. However, he gave the lie away when he clobbered CLOB.

    Those who remember, Singapore started CLOB to trade in Malaysian listed shares. This is good example of a win-win situation. Because of the opportunity for arbitrage, the trading volume of both the SGX and KLSE went up considerably. Both sides benefited. However, Singapore’s volume was higher. To Mahathir, all those commissions belonged to Malaysia. Without the OTC dual listing, those extra volumes would not be there. However, Mahathir was prepared to cut his nose to spite his face. He order Daim to close down CLOB. Of course, the fact that Mahathir wanted to impose capital control during the Asian Financial Crisis also help him to decide to take such a lose-lose step.

    So, Mahathir’s deep Malay cultural psychology came to the fore – he would rather have 100% of x instead of 40% of 5x.

  5. Mahathir certainly had a very poor understanding of capitalism, and economics more generally. One may say this about the Malay (perhaps Malaysian too) establishment in general. Reading statements from various UMNO leaders over the years give one the sense that they think the economy is a largely fixed pie and what is important is how it gets sliced. Explicit in this view of economics (and political power) is that a larger share for the Malays must come at the expense of a smaller share of the non-Malays. In economics at least, this is a deeply flawed view.

    The modern economy in fact is not a fixed pie. Most economic/financial value in the modern world arises from innovation and productivity. Google did not exist 20 years ago, and yet it is now one of the largest and most powerful companies in the world. Facebook and Tesla were founded just over 10 years ago too, as other examples. These are companies who values are almost entirely derived from innovation and productivity. Basically, economic value (and wealth) has been created out of thin air, largely out of human ingenuity alone. This is what makes capitalism successful. The famous/infamous “creative destruction” of capitalism can often be cruel, but it is also incredibly productive. Long-term economic prosperity comes primarily from growing the pie, not on deciding how to cut it.

    A mindset that focuses more on splitting the economic pie, and not on growing the pie through increasing innovation and productivity only serves to hold back the latter. Because when you focus on how the pie is cut, you necessarily introduce more government intervention and regulations. Worse, you introduce monopolies, set quotas and encourage rent-seeking behaviour. These have a negative impact on how fast or how much the pie can grow.

    I understand that reasonable people can have a debate about how involved the government should be in the economy, but my view is that it has gone totally too one-sided in Malaysia. And the reason for this is an erroneous focus on raising the lot of the Malays through primarily redistributive and statist policies.

  6. Wake up friends, you have the absolute majority in numbers, why you need special rights and privilege? It is corrupt practice that corrupted absolutely, nobody can help.

    Universally, special rights and privileges are normally reserved for the minority, wake up friends!

  7. A truly insightful stroke by Prof Kessler.

    It also applies to almost all Far Eastern ethnicities, who tend to ‘circle-the-wagons’ whenever there is an external perceived threat. However not all are as superstitious as the Malays – with their multitudes of faeries, ghosts, demons-djinns and things that go bump in the night. When these get into Politics, is it a wonder why Malay politicos become lil demons almost overnight? Their worship of ‘instant’ cash is probably to acquire magic and reliquaries that repel ‘spells’ and misbegotten jealousies from their own kind..

    For example, Chinese folk religion constricts the ‘otherworldly’ visitations to a given month and end it with the Hungry Ghost Festival’ – after which they quaff the offerings themselves..

  8. Human beings can be enslaved by the products of their own creation (e.g. culture in its various aspects, including religion).

    Or as old Karl (as in Marx) said
    “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”

    Can we in Malaysia (coming from different cultures and enslaved in different ways to the negative aspects of our individual cultures) recognise this and consciously liberate ourselves from these ? For example, in Chinese culture, liberating ourselves from negative aspects such as the authoritarian family, discrimination against female children, and so on.

  9. // So, Mahathir’s deep Malay cultural psychology came to the fore – he would rather have 100% of x instead of 40% of 5x.

    That is the kiasu mentality, isn’t it? Afraid of losing with just 40%. Perhaps, it applies to Singapore also.

  10. /// katasayang August 13, 2016 at 1:06 am
    // So, Mahathir’s deep Malay cultural psychology came to the fore – he would rather have 100% of x instead of 40% of 5x.

    That is the kiasu mentality, isn’t it? Afraid of losing with just 40%. Perhaps, it applies to Singapore also. ///

    Perhaps. But I can’t think of a similar example that is done by Singapore that is ultra vires.

  11. The professor is just scratching the surface.

    Malays today, made of many ethnic groups, are very complex.

    Before the 60s, the Melayu spirits world is very strong…….jinn and orang halus are real. Now the evil spirits are no match to the greatest evil – CASH is KING!

    Fear of spirits is now replaced by politics of fear, race and religion.

  12. MO1’s UMNO Baru is really going down the drain.

    Malaysia Kini reports that a major Melaka UMNO Baru politician openly said that gerrymandering (redelineation exercise) should be carried out to eliminate the Opposition in the state !

  13. Dr Phua, the Melaka politician is just being frank. Actually I am looking forward to see deputy prime minister position being offered to ASEAN Setam. If Cash is King, perhaps a prime minister from Sarawak would even be better. I could see both Bersatu and UMNOb offering the same in the next.

    There is no end to this misery.

    Speaking of which, I wonder which is worst? A PRC Chinese who did not have a choice, a Malaysian Chinese who has choice of two identical Malay, or an American Chinese who has Trump and Hillary to choose from😉

  14. You might as well add ELITIST LYING to be part of Malay culture. From the top to the bottom of UMNO and PAS, they are lying – from simple “Najib must be defended” to “Najib is gift from God” – ITS ALL JUST BOLD FACE LIES. Is this what being Malay mean?

  15. Comment I received from Dato’ Hamzah Majeed, former Malaysian diplomat and my contemporary in Wisma Putra in the 1960s, on Kessler’s acticle as follows:

    “I had read, and re-read, Clive Kessler’s article sent by you, as forwarded from Din Merican’s influential blog.

    I do understand and, indeed, empathize with your comments. But, forgive me, understanding and empathising do not necessarily amount to agreeing and supporting. My take on it is as follows:

    1. Bridget Welsh is a down-to-earth academic, reporting the facts on the ground and offering straight analyses, with no claims or embellishments. However, Kessler, a more senior academic, tries to offer a “deeper” understanding of the Malay psyche. He “traces” its “unique” roots to the seige mentality that purportedly exists in the thousands of rural kampungs in the country. He dismisses those who have not stayed “a night, or a week”, and watching the “dusk set on a Malay kampung”, as being unable to undestand the Malay need for their own solidarity. I find the younger academic, Welsh, more lucid, and far less condescending, a scholar than Kessler.

    2. I am a Malay/Muslim of mixed ancestry who, during school holidays, left KL to stay with my great-grandmother, grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins, in my kampung in Melaka. I think l have a little understanding of the kampung Malay mind and its predilection for solidarity, and the well-knit kampung psyche. I understand the belief in the powers of “pawangs” and “dukuns” and other shamans that sit comfortably, if a bit “syirik”, cheek-by-jowl, with lslam. Islam is as compatible with djinns and spirits of the night, as Christianity was with demons and ‘demonic possessions’. (I recommend Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World”.)

    3. I think there may be no such thing as the journalistic short-hand ‘Malay heartland’. It may well be a lazy short-hand. There are kampungs in many regions of the country, each unique in character, and at different stages of disintegration by the onslaught of highways, urbanisation and semi-urbanisation, a deserting younger generation, as well as by the different degrees of the penetration of the social media, the influence of lslam and Political lslam (they may not be the same thing), the ‘spin’ of political parties, and the media as a whole.

    Much also depends upon where their children are sent for further studies – whether to Pakistan, Yemen, Cairo, UK, US, or Australia, and what courses they read.

    4. What Kessler claims (the seige mentality) as uniquely Malay may not be that unique. It is found almost everywhere – in Africa (e.g. Hutus vs. Tutsis, Boko Haram,); Sunnis vs Shia in the Muslim world; in the French and German towns in Europe that are rejecting Shengin and pushing back against Muslim migrants; and among Donald Trump’s followers in the Rust Belt of the US.. One can go on.

    This reflex is found in the reptilian core of our brain, evolved millions of years ago. It is an impulse that we have tried to tame only very recently, with education, reason, and a call for empathy and human solidarity.

    We have this instinct – for empathy and solidarity – or we would not have survived as a species for two hundred thousand years. But we must nurture it. We must reject condescending apologists like Kessler and, instead, look for clues in our thinking from the likes of Epicurus, Voltaire, Spinoza, Paine, Ingersoll, Jefferson, Russell, Harris, and Pinker.

    The learning must go on.”–Hamzah Majeed

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s