Globalisation on the Social & Cultural Shifts of the Muslim World, and its Effect on Malaysia


Interconnected societies and greater prosperity for all or the triumph of the neoliberal order and capitalism in all its forms? Is globalisation the solution to the world’s challenges? Or is it a veil that masks the real problems? If it’s one thing that everyone can agree on, it is that globalisation is a murky, ill-defined concept. The viewer sees in it what they want to see. That could range from the growing interdependence of the world’s economies, a flow of goods, technology, people and information; or the mass migration, exploitation of workers, and more wars and conflicts. The divergent views on this topic have been constructed to explore all possible solutions in looking at globalisation, and seeing whether it could be made to work better for everyone everywhere.

Heralded as both the saviour and damnation of the world, globalisation has brought about the intense debate among the global actors in the Islamic world, where it is seen as a one-way invasion of Western values across the globe. This is brought about by the idea that there is a lack of cultural penetration of the Middle East and Islam by Western culture, ideas and institutions — an idea held by a majority of regimes, oppositions and intellectuals from a part of the world where violence is more often used in the anti-globalisation struggle.

Islam is a religion that rarely sees itself very much apart from a global consensus. The common Muslim belief that Islam is not only a religion but also a complete way of life embodies the ‘one religion, one culture’ paradigm. To some extent, this Islamic discourse has pitted the very size and cohesion of the Islamic community to build a religious and cultural wall against most aspects of globalisation [Rubin B. (2003)]. It is an ideology that is bound by its own set of laws towards installing the proper order of society. The modernisation period has seen the political and social institutions isolate an overarching influence of religion in a nation’s political systems, law, economic management, and education. Thus, Islam largely contradicts many elements of “Western” globalisation — or be thought to conflict with — in comparison to Taoism, Buddhism, or Hinduism, as it had to go through periods of reinforcement and regularisation to solidify its belief system in the modern world of technology.

The correlation between globalisation and the events unfolding in states and nations that host a majority Muslim population has been rarely observed and explored in the academic sphere, especially in the area of studying social and cultural aspects in a society.

Hence, this paper acknowledges the emergence of a changing world, its influence on the Muslim world, and its relation on its specific cultural and social attributes to Malaysians. In efforts for consistency within this argument, the objectives of this paper are to explore the rise of racial and religious unrest in the Malaysian society, and discuss their contingent responses towards globalisation.

Globalisation: A Profile in the Islamic World

For the longest time, globalisation as a process has been applied to understand and moderate the discussions on the contemporary world and how it works [Heffron, J. (2009); Rondinelli, D. (2009)]. It’s been identified as a movement towards greater interaction, integration and interdependence among people and organisations across national borders [Heffron, J. (2009); Rondinelli, D. (2009)], that is often associated with the processes of internationalisation, liberalisation, universalisation and Westernisation or modernisation and deterritorialisation [Abbas M. (2011); Peow (2011)]. This would intentionally refer to globalisation as having an open policy towards the movement of capital from one country to another [Daud, N. (2013); Coombes, L. (2013) et. al].

In the context of history and nature with regards to globalisation, it is often studied under new liberal lenses, with exclusive references to its impact on market transactions and market-state relations. In this perspective, globalisation seeks to establish a borderless world by empowering international markets at the expense of state power. Kenichi Ohmae’s The Borderless World: Power and Strategy in the Interlinked Economy had popularised this term as an extension to understanding globalisation in the twenty-first century. This definition, however, neglects the impact of globalisation on the social and cultural relations and identities within the global community, particularly in the developing Islamic world [Daud, N. (2013); Coombes, L. (2013) et. al].

The second decade of the 20th Century has brought about the developments of industries in which the world observed the dramatic changes in their own surroundings, as one in the promise of Marshal McLuhan’s “global village’’, or better known as globalisation. The evolutionary process transcended cultural, social, political, and economic borders, further paving the way for a new world order in the peripheral regions, particularly in the Middle East nations.

The relatively rapid political changes of these regions had taken place in forms of revolution, coup d’états, unrests, the sustenance of authoritarian regimes and its political culture, and a lack of progress in democracy and civil society [Valadbigi, A. (2011); Ghobadi, S. (2011)]. It has grown to be of greater importance to continue in exploring the circumstances of globalisation in the Middle East, and its domino effects on the rest of the Muslim world. It should additionally be magnified towards a particular focus on the political elites of the region, who are often times regarded as the most influential social forces in manipulating the political, ethnic and identity challenges in the area.

The process of globalisation and its subsequent challenges in addressing the Muslim world has held some crucial value towards investing in the political and cultural studies of regions like the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Within the last 30 years, Middle Eastern countries alone have seen and engaged in some sort of war and unrest. The end of the Cold War had sent the region in disarray, proving quite sufficiently of the Middle East, in particular, as an entity persisting to remain the world’s principal source of insecurity.

The ongoing process of globalisation and a greater interdependence among Islamic nations and their citizens have witnessed the complex and multi-faceted situation at play. Globalisation alone has been demonstrated to be one of the hardest concepts to define within the scope of Islam as a governing tool and social entity.

The assumption that globalisation carries a larger significance as a complex multidimensional global phenomenon that remains impossible to grasp without a analysis and comparison against the USA framework as an emerging ‘new world order’ affirms the suspicion held by some Islamic nations of the neo-imperialist forces seeking control over the Muslim world.

Globalisation: A Profile in the Malaysian Context

The mindset of the Malaysian Malay community has seen disastrous setbacks in circumstances and scenarios brought about by globalisation. The assumption that they are adequately prepared to face this trend in world economy and international affairs has continued to be of academic relevance to a majority of the Malay intellectual society, who would ultimately conclude that a new breed of Malays — the ‘new Malay’ — is needed to face this head on [Hassan, M. (2005)]. In his piece of Challenges of Globalisation: Setting the Muslim Mindset in Malaysia, Kamal Hassan addresses the great impact of globalisation in the Muslim world and its effect on the Malaysian people — specifically, the Malays — on the nation’s education, economy and politics.

As one of the fastest growing developing countries in the Southeast Asian region, Malaysia is experiencing the rapid transformation of globalisation in almost all its areas of human life — namely economic, political, social, educational and cultural [Daud, N. (2013); Coombes, L. (2013) et. al]. The country has actively taken up the trend of global economic integration, especially as it has been viewed as a tool to help the many developing countries looking to progress towards economic wealth and security. As a result, a majority of the government and private sectors in Malaysia were able to properly adapt and steer their industries towards bringing about some social and political benefits to the country. This was evident through the decreasing rates of poverty, the increased demands in job and labour, and the overall improvements of the health and social businesses [Heffron, J. (2009); Rondinelli, D. (2009)].

The introduction of a free trade system and open market policy through adapting the globalisation trends had restructured the Malaysian economic sector to become more competitive and efficient through an implementation of privatisation policies, the deregulation of the market system, as well as the ability to control the market through free-trade regulation [Harun & Hasan, (2008)]. The focus of the Malaysian economy has also changed from an agrarian based economy to an industrialised economy [Peow, (2011)].

This increased agency for the state and individual has given new forms of social control within the plural Malaysian society. Within this context, it is further observed that the valorisations that come with modernisation and globalisation have been perceived as either favouring or disadvantaging particular ethnic groups. This has ultimately led to the politicisation of ethnicity [Ruediger, C. (2002)]. In the unique situation of Malaysia identifying and embodying a multicultural society, the country has dealt with the difficulties in addressing the multi-layers of globalisation and its effects on Malaysians from a single definition and perspective. This, as it would seem, would soon prove to become tireless, due to the fact that each social group practices their own unique cultures, values and beliefs — all of which, regarded as essential factors in the socialisation process within the Malaysian society.

For the purpose of this paper, it should additionally define the term “culture” as a framework of behavioural patterns, values, assumptions and experiences shared by a social group [Yaacob, (2009)]. Research suggests that this diversity is influenced by many factors, particularly through the teaching of Islam and the diverse cultural influences encompassing Siamese, Javanese, Sumatran, and Indian [Krisnan, (2004); Yaacob, (2009)]. Today, the social control mechanisms are closely interwoven with Islam. The religion provides a system linking modernity and the modern present with a Malay past, often equating “Malay to Muslim” with “a Muslim in Malaysia is a Malay” [Ruediger, C. (2002)].

On a broad scale, globalisation has been at the root cause in igniting old ethnic fears of identity and belonging, and exciting new ethnic demands in multi-ethnic societies. The rise of Malay nationalism and Islamic supremacy emerged in the early twentieth century, and was strongly asserted in the nation’s New Economic Policy (NEP). This gave birth to Chinese ethnic nationalism who existed to contest against Malay dominance in the political atmosphere. In response, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) came to power to exert authority and define ‘Malay nationality’ in terms of Malay interest, culture and religion.

The occurrence of globalisation, however, has restructured Malay nationationalism into an instrument for accumulation and concentration of corporate wealth in the hands of the few [Salleh, H. (2000)]. In their efforts to safeguard Malay dominance in Malaysia, Malay leadership compromised the position of major elements in Malay identity, such as Islam, the Malay-dominated education system, and the Malay language. This new ‘Malaysian nationalism’ is based on new myths and symbols that have propagated nationwide to the Malay majority. This new sense of nationalism is fragile and superficial, constucted in political defence, and responding to the political Islam and identity politics unleashed by globalisation, brewing beyond the borders of the nation.

The concept of globalisation within Malaysian governance has enthusiastically been adopted into the country’s national and foreign policies, on the belief that it progresses towards realising the vision of becoming a developed nation by the year 2020. While that ship has long sailed, Dr. Mahathir, upon his return to power, had responded by moving the goalpost a little further down the timeline — 2025 and beyond was where he was setting his eyes on. The Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 has been promised to realise the goals of Vision 2020 — among which are fostering a united country, a liberal democracy, a moral and ethical society, and an economically just nation [Ibrahim, Z. (2020)].

The history of leadership in Malaysia has proven the overwhelming task of fulfilling these criteria and championing them in their own policies and agendas. The inability of Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak in steering the country towards a paradigm of economic success had cost Malaysia Vision 2020. The shackles of the NEP and its domino effect in aggravating Malay rights have created a society intolerant of the diversity in their own communities — a trait that Malaysia, as a whole, benefits and profits from in all aspects of international affairs and relations.

But, with the rise of Malay nationalism, Islamic supremacy and identity politics, it’s easy to see that the Malaysian society is nowhere near in being psychologically liberated, secure or developed. To many, even, being ‘liberated’ and becoming ‘liberal’ is understood as a taboo: deviants under the scope religion.

The very demanding process of globalisation requires significant change in the Malaysian political, cultural, economic, educational and social landscape — changes in which additionally require inculcating the foreign cultural values, that often times than not tend to be inconsistent with local practices. This could suggest that the government and people need to be aware of the detrimental effects of adopting and adapting to the process of globalisation, by applying new practices of integration and assimilation into the economy.

In the social objectives of Vision 2020, Malaysia was building towards a strategy where equity would be established among the ethnic groups and different geographical regions. This was the core of progressing forward with Vision 2020, as it held crucial importance in determining Malaysia’s success in managing globalisation on a social aspect. The social dimension of the development strategy has always been at its core. Malaysia could never have proceeded with a plan that doesn’t include the social aspects as a predominant factor [Mahmoud, Mahmoud & Mitkees, Hoda. (2017)].

This brings to question the impact of globalisation on the Islamic political identity, and the role of the other Islamic countries in responding to their own social and cultural communities.

Rethinking Political Islam

The Arab Spring, a decade earlier, had brought the “Islamist dilemma” back to the fore, and the West found itself, again, conflicted. It required confronting the history of Western intervention into the Muslim world, and establishing a foreign policy that granted a particular significance to the religious nature of Islamist groups. In a declassified document, it was found that Washington was keeping tabs on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood during the 1950/60s [Johnson, I. (2011)]. However, it wasn’t until the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran that the topic of political Islam and Islamism became an interest to the American peninsula and mainstream media. The United States pursued its course of interest on the belief that the religious nature of the Islamists could make as a useful ally in containing the spread of “Third World” socialism [Hamid, P. (2017)].

While such a move was generally welcomed by Western observers who saw this as the holy grail of moderation, it raised a new set of questions around what it meant to be an Islamist party that was no longer, in its own telling, “Islamist,” but rather “Muslim Democratic.” This shift in confidence affected the social and cultural fabric of the Muslim world, who have grown to respond to the politics of the West in their foreign governance. In the case of Turkey being the first democratic Muslim nation to be governed by a party with roots in political Islam; it was observed that they had allowed the participation of Islamists in politics due to its staunchly secularist state ideology. The international and Western political centres and financial markets had responded surprisingly positively to their election results, viewing the new government as a form of promising stability. However, electoral victory in the Islamic nations, particularly in the Arab world, was not always viewed as the definitive measure of success.

In the early establishments of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, the founder Hassan al-Banna was originally concerned with preaching, education, recruiting new members, and opposing colonialism [Rosen, E. (2008)]. The effects of globalisation is visibly present on the Brotherhood’s progress towards enacting change. While it had initially sought to change society slowly and progressively, from the individuals to the families, to the communities, and eventually the government — Banna had to revise his strategy if he truly wanted to reshape the politics of the Muslim world. In practice, his vision was taking the long way round, and it will prove to become difficult to maintain his posture as the temptations of power and electoral success are presented his way. Its in the events of the global actors in the Muslim world — the Muslim Brotherhood, as one example, and the AKP, as another — that has enabled the widespread and normalisation of a specific type of Islamism to be embraced by even the ostensibly secular parties of it to play an important role in public life.

The “global actors” within this narrative is defined as entities who participate in a series of actions that can consciously or unconsciously trigger a domino effect on the rest of the world. In his 2016 book, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World, Shadi Hamid proposes a provocative argument on how Islam is, in fact, “exceptional” in how it relates to politics. He explored the very nature and purpose of the modern nation state, and the vexing problem of religion’s role in public life, further arguing on how Islam and Islamism shape politics. The Brookings Institution scholar and acclaimed author presented Islam, as a religion and as an idea that will continue to be a force that shapes not just the region, but the West as well in the decades to come. It just goes to show that Islam is a tool of globalisation, and not merely a factor of influencing it, as globalisation, in itself, is also influenced by Islam. The liberal determinists of the world who believe that history will inevitably gravitate towards a secular future will witness the riveting account of the very real convictions that Islam and the political movements it spawns will most definitely triumph in challenging the notion that the Muslim world must, can, or should go the way of the West. Islam is a constant not a variable. The strikingly disparate reality of Islamist movements in having been reshaped by the revolutionary politics of their regions have challenged the conventional wisdom on political Islam. The scholars, Islamists and experts are forced to rethink some of their most basic assumptions, and properly evaluate the other contributors in the dialogue of political Islam — tactical or situational violence; attitudes towards the nation-state; the relationship between ideology, religion and political variables; the diversity of the Muslim world — all in which could result in the rich identification of what animates Islamist behaviour [Hamid, S. (2017); McCants, W. (2017)].

The resurgence of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) — the party that lost power in 2018, after leaving the country divided by race and religion with its six-decade rule — and its new alliance with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) was united around the Malaysian political concept of Ketuanan Melayu Islam or Malay Islamic Supremacy, asserting that the ethnic Malays occupy the country by right, while the Chinese and Indian Malaysians are there by “permission”. The past and current administrations have failed to curb the globalising trends of political and national identity, both of which are more often inseparable, especially on the perspective of a social and cultural aspect. [Prinsloo, B. (2016)]. It was indeed due to this international confidence that political Islamists were tolerated within the domestic system, as the emergence of this new Islamic political language was aggressively involved in state and foreign affairs through domestic liberalisation and globalisation. They have successfully exerted their presence as economic, political, and social actors on the global level. The outcome of this process of interaction between Islamic forces and the outside world has been the transformation of their entire set of perceptions [Kosebalaban, H. (2005)].

Closing Statement

In discussing the challenges and opportunities within globalisation regarding the global actors of this era, it is almost impossible to exclude Islam as both a religion and governing tool, and the rest of the Muslim world and their responses to this phenomenon. It is just as essential to highlight the regions involved and relevant to the very topic of globalisation and the domino effects it has on the rest of the world.

This paper, in particular, is designed to focus on the responses of the the Islamic community to globalisation, and those effects to the Malaysian hemisphere, particularly on the social and cultural fabric of the nation. A research driven towards understanding this perspective is more dire now than ever, especially in regards to the recent events unfolding on the Malaysian soil. The rise of Malay nationalism and Islamic supremacy have been attributed by the occurrence of globalisation and the Islamic world’s different shifts in trying to accommodate it.

The agenda of this paper — while there are a few — is fixed towards widening the gap of awareness and knowledge for its reader upon the real dangers threatening the Malaysian democracy and people.


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