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Friday, October 12, 2018

Non-Economic Factors in the Economic Retardation of the Rural Malays (2/4)

"All that it is intended to imply by citing these examples is that the Malays' resistance to change has been one of the reasons for their failure to seize the opportunities that have in fact existed, but it is one frequently overlooked in the studies of the rural Malays' economic retardation. It does not seem to be enough to say that the Malays will accept a change 'if they are convinced it will improve their level of living, or way of life', because such would imply that they are materialistically minded and moved solely by the quest for higher incomes and profits. They are not. It is certainly true to say that they have to be convinced that a change or innovation is likely to prove advantageous to them, but it seems that the innovation must also possess another quality, namely, that it must not conflict too dramatically with what has gone before. Change, if it is to be acceptable to the Malays, must not upset their normal daily routine nor conflict with their beliefs, a routine and a set of beliefs that have not basically changed for decades, or even centuries.

This tendency among the Malays to resist economic change seems to be part of a general tendency to resist change as such, or at least to absorb the new providing only that the old can also be accommodated. This is in no way irrational, for it is the logical outcome of certain views and attitudes held by the Malays. However, in this context, there are two main features to be taken into account. First, the rural Malays are reluctant to give up the past, and secondly, they fear or dislike the unfamiliar.

On the first, R. J. Wilkinson has written: 'The Malay cares nothing for consistency; he does not exchange old customs for new; he keeps both the old and the new. He is indeed afraid to give up the old .... The Malay is afraid to give up an ancient practice because he fears the vengeance of some old lawgiver may reach out over the intervening centuries and strike down the impious being who dares to alter what past ages have approved.' Although this was originally written sixty years ago, since which time Malay attitudes and customs have become rather more amenable to change, in essence it still remains true.

This is seen clearly in some of the rural Malays' religious beliefs and in their deep regard for adat or custom. Islam is an intolerant religion. It will not accept more than one God nor any idols. It demands absolute attention and the dismissal of all alien beliefs. But the rural Malay is unable to conform to such rigidity, even though he would never regard himself as a lax Muslim because of it. Nor do many Malays realize the conflict between what the Koran preaches and what they sometimes practise...

Sufi mysticism was not so much a natural progression of Islam as a natural progression of South-east Asian religious beliefs...

The Malay, it seems, cannot bear to live in an environment where the the (sic) unexplained occurs, or at least where he comes into contact with it. He desires, or needs, to see a reason for everything that happens around him, though the explanations he accepts of certain phenomena are not in fact the result of scientific reasoning but rather of rationalization.

The influence of the spirits on his everyday life illustrates this. The Malay has come to terms with his spirits, and explains the weird, the unexpected, the unusual and the otherwise inexplicable as being the work of one or more of them. He has developed a system of placating them, and the bomoh and pawang, or shamans, are greatly respected and regarded as being indispensable members of rural Malay society...

In common with agriculturists in many other underdeveloped countries, the rural Malays see the forces which shape their world as being capricious and arbitrary, as being the work of some power greater than themselves, over which they have no control. Viewed in Malay terms, such helplessness necessarily causes them to question whether they have any control over their own destiny, and makes it difficult for them to accept that by changing their techniques they can affect their destiny. Moreover, it encourages them to cling to their own explanations of everyday occurrences because these represent the Malays' only understanding of such events. And finally it induces them to seek refuge in their own traditional practices since these have become the only well-tried and well-understood ways, within the Malays' experience, of working in harmony with their environment"

--- Non-Economic Factors in the Economic Retardation of the Rural Malays / Brien K. Parkinson (in Modern Asian Studies, 1967)
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