Ethnic identity is crucial to the self-concept and psychological functioning of any ethnic group member. The political and economic participation of one ethnic minority – the Indian Muslim community in the country – should not be ignored.
They do play a significant role in the Malaysian political landscape especially in constituencies where their population is fairly large. Penang, for instance, has the highest concentration of Indian Muslims in the country. With Penang Umno dominated by Indian Muslims, some Umno branches in Penang even conduct their meetings in Tamil.
The situation in Penang seems to be where economic dominance, political and social status by the Muslims is largely not dominated by the ordinary Malay ethnic group but the Indian Muslims. The Malays, however, perceive the ethnic identity – ethnic component of social identity – of Indian Muslims as not similar to theirs.
Apparently, Indian Muslims are much more resourceful and adept in business and are more prominent among the Muslims in Penang as compared to the Malay ethnic group who are relatively less dominant in business but mostly work as government servants or are self-employed.
Though both the Malays and Indian Muslims are of the same religion, they are officially defined as different ethnic groups. While both the Indians and the Indian Muslims are essentially of the same race, they are not of the same religion. Many Indian Muslims though have married into the local Malay community and their offsprings now carry the maternal status of the latter as Malay.
Ethno-sociological studies have shown that on the part of the Indian Muslims they do face an ethnic identity dilemma. It was found that the average number of this ethnic group who do not have an identity dilemma was only minimal.
A high number of them having some kind of identity crisis is probably due to the image associated with them being Indian Muslim when associating with the dominant Malay ethnic group.
Simply being a member of an ethnic group provides the Indian Muslims with a sense of belonging that contributes to a positive self-concept. Many of them still stick to this identity, and acknowledge that they are Indian Muslim.
However, some Indian Muslim families would make efforts to classify their offsprings as Malay to seek equal status with the Bumiputera. Other Indian Muslims who have so much pride in their ethnicity would choose to retain their family roots and prefer to be known as Indian Muslim.
Those who try to shed their ethnic group identity by trying to pass as members of the dominant ethnic group (Malay) may have some negative psychological complex in them. This is when the “neither here nor there syndrome” has to some extent disturbed their psyche.
The Indian Muslims generally come under three categories when given a choice to identify themselves. In the case of a significant number of Indian Muslims in the country they change their identity from Indian Muslim to Indian when they join an Indian-based political party such as MIC and identify themselves as Indian Muslim when they are associated to, for instance, Malaysian Indian Muslim Association (Kimma) and change further to Malay when they join Umno or when they seek economic and educational benefits.
Mainly it’s the socio-economic factors that have led to this identity dilemma and ethnic switching among some of them.
Ironically, they do not face this quandary when they live in other countries. For instance, when living in Singapore they prefer to be identified as Indian Muslim. They would not want to be identified as Malay in the flourishing city-state. Their positive attitudes and contentment being Indian Muslim indicate an acceptance of their ethnic identity.
A study in Penang also found that while the majority of them chose Indian Muslim as their self-reported identity, this number decreased when they were asked to choose their ethnicity in five different socio-economic situations, in which case, only a minority of them chose Indian Muslim as their ethnicity.
Their adverse attitudes towards their own ethnic group have led to a denial of their real ethnic identity. This denial appears to centre mainly on socio-cultural and socio-economic reasons.
Socio-economic reasoning has an influence on the choice of wanting to be identified as Malay. Contrarily, cultural reasoning has an influence on the choice of wanting to be identified as Indian Muslim or Indian. Sociologists agree that people at times change their ethnic identity for social acceptance or for economic reasons.
It’s the complexity of ethnic identity that has led to this phenomenon of ethnic switching. This can be a common trait among minorities domiciled in a country led by a dominant ethnic group.
The Indian Muslim differs from the Indian in the aspect of religion but their way of life and practices are more or less similar. There are overlaps of social values when it involves their socio-cultural preferences as they belong to the same roots.
There are values and traditions practised by the Indian Muslims that set them apart from the Indians and the Malays as a whole. The Indian Muslims may share the same religion and faith with the Malays (Islam) but in reality, they differ culturally.
When facing this dilemma, Indian Muslims would be facing a pickle on whether to choose between the two cultures, two conflicting identities, or establish a bicultural ethnic identity.
This can be quite a nebulous situation. Due to their racial or cultural distinctiveness the Indian Muslims need to identify themselves with their own ethnic group and that of the dominant ethnic group. This is when their stand can become fuzzy.
It is a fact that, a significant number of Indian Muslims do face some kind of quandary and have decided not to choose Indian Muslim as their identity for some socio-political and economic reasons when in actuality they are ethnically Indian Muslims who have a culture of their own which is quite alien to the Malay culture.
The identity choice among the Indian Muslim population in a multi-ethnic Malaysia is well understood by the Malays today and for this reason Indian Muslims who encroach into their “territory” are often perceived as a group ready to take advantage of the privileges reserved for them.
Politically, those who could not find a place in Umno, a Malay-based political party, or felt left out in MIC, ended up forming a political entity of their own (Kimma) to bolster the rights of their community.
Despite all this socio-psychological catch, the Indian Muslims are generally a resilient ethnic group in the country who have done well in business and many of them have become professionals in various fields.
Despite facing all the challenges in a multi-racial Malaysia, they are striving as a close-knit ethnic group.