Islamic Economy: Unlocking Malaysia's Strategic Ambition

Yong Zheng Ng, President (2020/21)


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In the fora of global indexes, it is rare to see Malaysia top the list. However, there was one aspect that Malaysia has consistently performed strongly with a legacy to assert itself — the Islamic economy. According to the State of the Global Islamic Economy Report (SGIE) 2020/2021, it has yet again clinched the top spot a the strongest overall performer within the global Islamic economy that contains Halal food, Islamic finance, Muslim-friendly travel hub, modest fashion, pharmaceutical and cosmetics, and media and recreation. Though it was not at the top for modest fashion and the media industry, Malaysia dominated the charts in the other four. As what the report described,

Strong awareness and governance credentials have allowed Malaysia to rank higher than other countries with larger export volumes. Malaysia is a leader in Islamic banking knowledge and plans to send its Islamic finance graduates abroad to help build the industry globally, especially in non-Muslim majority countries. Malaysia is also ranked as the world’s best country to invest in or do business in by CEO World Magazine in 2019, which speaks to its strong trade partnerships with fellow OIC countries.

What this article intends to tackle on, however, lies not on the economic successes of Malaysia; rather, it will be discussing the notion of translating existing capabilities into regional and global influences.

What is concerning for Malaysia in the present and the past has always been the status quo of ‘intellectual desert’. By extrapolating the late Ezra Vogel’s evaluation on Japan's world leadership, I found certain descriptions can be seen as parallel to the Malaysian context, that is

Vogel thought Japan lacked a critical core of people in politics, academia and the business world who could express the nation’s positions at public forums in logical ways in English so that Americans could understand. He thought Japan was certainly behind Singapore and China, and South Korea to lesser degree, in this respect. He was hoping that students [...] would facilitate better communication with their American counterparts on highly complex Asian issues, with their many nuances and intricacies.

An attempt of translating this to the Malaysian context would probably as such: Malaysia lacked a critical core of personalities in politics, academia and the business world who could express the nation’s positions at public forums via attractive rhetorical calibre insofar as the Islamic, secular, and inter-faith world could understand and be captivated by. Malaysia was certainly behind Singapore’s exporting ability in Asia-Pacific summitry diplomacy.

For the last statement, it is undeniable of Malaysia’s inferiority to Singapore’s global rhetoric as the Asia-Pacific hub; however, in terms of the Islamic world, Malaysia is in an advantageous position to the extent of sitting in the front seat. What it lacks are critical personalities that could export key ideas, doctrines and philosophies to the Islamic world with charisma that projects power, but what compensated Malaysia’s Achilles Heel is a domina International Halal Showcase (MIHAS); the claims of Syed Hussein al-Atas on Malaysia as an ‘intellectual desert’ is partially invalid when we realign our lens on Islamic-based discourses. Think tanks like Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS), statutory authorities like Halal Development Corporation, and forum bodies as aforementioned had all showcased proactivity, inventiveness and intellectual courage that pushed through barracks of indifference, unscientific, unreflective, and piecemeal orientational thinking. The Islamic intellectual corpus equipped Malaysia a philosophical aura that punches above their weight of just a nation with material infrastructures — it is Islamic intellectualismant Islamic legal and financial infrastructure supported by good democratic governance that balances the nuances of racial and demographic sensitivities. With that, Malaysia has done comparatively well in Islamic summitry diplomacy with their provision of the World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF), Perdana Dialogue (Previously known as the Kuala Lumpur Summit), World Halal Conference, and Malaysi that gives Malaysia a sense of profoundness and symbolic value.

However, we are still a step short in unlocking Malaysia’s niche treasure chest. Despite various merits from our intellectual ecosystem, it is still lacklustre in one aspect mentioned by Syed Hussein: A consciously avowed goal. The Malaysian Islamic intellectual fora have always played its hand according to the economic needs of the Islamic world; hence, the substance within is still considered reactive in that economic and pragmatic considerations dominate the determinant factor. Though in no means implying this as a demerit, it is also such a dynamic that preempts Malaysia’s attainment of regional/global leadership that drives trends, phenomena, and alignment of new thoughts; the Islamic intellectualism and economic development in Malaysia remain of mutually equal support rather than a pioneer-implementer relationship. Our intellectual corpus remains at the nudging of business investments, albeit without the niche of pioneers that builds original systems, markets and theories that accommodate the original and create the new — all under the purview of Malaysia assuming itself as the regional leader of peripheral Islamic thought.

What is considered as implausible in the conventional Western-value-driven trade order, is absolutely conceivable in the Islamic world. Malaysia’s resilient economic capabilities and democratic governance with the hue of Islamic sentiments serves as the foundation that no longer requires a tactical calculation of its cost and benefits, but rather of a strategic necessity to start taking charge of affairs and align Islamic phenomenon according to the Malaysian way. Although previous concepts like Islam Hadhari has achieved lacklustre outcomes, it does not imply a structural failure but is more about the call for improvement on doctrinal conceptions that links well with the historical and philosophical fabric of the Malay-Islam majority. In light of COVID19 disrupting literally everything, Malaysian requires a reassurance pill that reflects confidence, leadership and a sense of cohesive direction — translating Islamic economic fruits to sources of peripheral/regional power and leadership is the avowed goal of Islamic intellectualism that unlocks Malaysia’s hidden strategic potential.

To say the least, Malaysia has excelled in the Islamic economy, but it is time to elevate its horizons to translate resources into influence. The Malaysian Islamic ecosystem is highly capable of acquiring and managing tangible resources, but history has told us that materialism was never enough for one to assume leadership. One should never ignore the significance of values, aura, and charisma in wielding their predominant resources. For instance, what entrenches American leadership influence (though some would dissent in regards with recent developments, to say the least, the term ‘leader’ remains associated with them) lies not just on how much computers it exported or their GDP statistics, but their consistent production of memorable figures and entities that thinks differently, that charted new directions, and inspire different generations with their words, thoughts and actions that punch above their weight. Though arguments may differ in terms of their merits, what is undeniable is America’s ability to always generate distinguishable personalities, entities and systems. That is what entrenched its path as a global leader, economic resources are the foundation for them to translate into influence, and vice versa. It is a cycle whereby correct navigation will consistently create new equilibrium for them to position themselves, each turn strengthening their global status. Malaysia’s cycle is still turning economic fruits to more monetary gains, but the new decade now necessitates the insertion of strategic intellectualism that translates Malaysian economic prowess into a peripheral Islamic thought, regional and global power.

Although time has rusted its hidden treasure chest in that even the right key will have difficulty unlocking it, COVID19 serves exactly as the graphite that lubricates the lock; this pandemic has reshuffled the deck of cards, though not saying that all hierarchies have crumbled, but more of the past power arrangement is now alterable, alignable, and adjustable provided a nation possesses strategic prowess coupled with the ambition to get it done.


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D. (2020). State of the Global Islamic Economy. Report 2020 (p. 18, Rep.). Dubai, United Arab States: Dinar Standard.

Jayasooria, D. (2021). Public advocacy: Of ideas and practice in Malaysia. Speech presented at Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), UKM in Selangor, Bangi.