In a November ISEAS Perspective on Attitudes Towards Islam, Governance And The Sultan from the Johor Survey 2017, Norshahril Saat, a fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, shared findings from a 2017 ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute-commissioned survey by the Merdeka Centre in Malaysia.
Saat noted that despite high approval ratings for the Sultan of Johor, Ibrahim Iskandar, who is the head of Islam and Malay culture for the state of Johor, registered voters in Johor - particularly Malay respondents - do not necessarily support his views on two fronts: Arabisation, and JAKIM's role in the state.
In 2016, the Sultan had expressed concern over Malaysian Malays losing their cultural
identity by imitating Arabs in terminology, dressing and ideology and neglecting Malay cultural practices.
The survey found that Johor residents, regardless of ethnicity, see
countries as role models. Twenty-three percent of Johor residents rate
KSA as their No. 1 model country, followed by Egypt and Turkey. Asked to agree or disagree with the statement “Is Malay culture becoming
Arabised?” Malay respondents from urban areas said they do not see Islam in Malaysia as being
influenced by Arab culture, though more rural Malay respondents
agreed with the Sultan.
Saat pointed out that Arabisation may be seen in a positive light by Malays as Arabs from Yemen, the Hadramis, brought Islam to the Malay world. Four of the 12 muftis of Johor were descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), Saat notes.
Saat also makes a distinction between Yemeni-influenced Arabisation, which allows visits to tombs, celebrating the Prophet's (ﷺ) birthday and communal feasting, and puritan Wahhabi-Salafism which considers these practices forbidden. Johor's Islamic religious council supports the former, and not the latter.
As for the support for KSA, Saat believes that it could be due to respondents' attachment to religious sites such as Makkah and Madinah, which increasing affluence has meant are just a flight away; or in response to KSA's substantial investments in the Malaysian oil & gas industry, including in Johor as a regional oil & gas refining hub.
The Sultan has also gone on record for asking why federal religious authority JAKIM has a large budget when Islam is a matter for the state and not the federal government. Here Malay respondents across the state seem to disagree with their ruler. They want JAKIM to regulate Muslims moral behaviour, which Saat says "can be
interpreted as a desire for the government to boost the authority and finances of Islamic
religious departments and councils, both at the state and federal levels".
Malay respondents would further like to see the
implementation of hudud (حدود, shari'ah laws which include penalties such as stoning for adultery,
and amputation for stealing) for Muslims in the state. Saat observes that respondents are calling for such laws even if they may not be relevant today, 14 centuries after the Quran was revealed, and that the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) often forgave sinners.
Saat adds that 57% of Johor Malays want hudud laws to be applied to all Malaysians,
regardless of religion, which could impinge on religious freedom of non-Muslims."The Chinese and Indian communities have overwhelmingly rejected the move to implement
hudud laws. Sixty-six percent of urban Johor respondents are also against hudud laws being
applied to non-Muslims," Saat said.
Saat concludes that Johor Malays are becoming more conservative where conservatism used to be associated only with Malays living in the East coast states
of Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah. He says Johor Malays are also becoming more exclusivist against non-Muslims, but that this does not mean that they are attracted to Wahhabi-Salafi ideas. "Johor
Muslims may be Sufis—a belief linked to spirituality and openness—and yet be exclusivist
in outlook," he said.
Politically, Saat suggests that the party which appeals to moderate Malays, as well as to Chinese and Indian voters will do well in Johor.
Read more about the results in Johor Survey 2017: ISEAS Perspective on Attitudes Towards Islam, Governance And The Sultan (PDF)