The Handbag Theory Part II

JUNE 11 — Sometime in May, a commentary by Lim Teck Ghee, director of the Centre for Policy Initiatives, stated that ultra nationalist group Isma was borne out of the NEP. [i]

“45 years after the New Economic Policy was introduced, the harvest of the NEP is being reaped. The NEP was supposed to have a 20-year time span and to end in 1990. That did not happen. It was supposed to nurture a Malay middle and upper class and to produce Malay professionals at least equal in number to the non-Malay professionals who had dominated the country's economic life in the late 1960s. That did happen.

“Despite official efforts to understate the development of the Malay middle and upper class (so as to justify the continuation of NEP programmes), the growth of the Malay educated and professional group rivalling and even exceeding that of the non-Malays became an accomplished fact by the 1990s,” Ghee wrote.

He continued, “This growth of a strong Malay professional class within 30 years is possibly the fastest recorded by any marginalized community.”

This class, in short, created the likes of Perkasa and Isma.

Academic Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid in his essay, An Islamicist’s View of An Islamic State and Its Relevance to a Multi-Racial Society wrote a confirmation “… The Islamicists may be fewer in number (in Malaysia) but they make up a significant proportion of the new middle class consisting of the intellectual, administrative and commercial elites. These elites are the products of the affirmative actions under the New Economic Policy, which began in 1971.” 

The governing elite found itself is in a conundrum: maintaining the loyalty and support of the moderates (Malay Muslims) and understanding and stemming the rising influence of Islamicists.

Does this mean all believing and successful Muslims who benefited from the NEP in Malaysia are members of Isma? No. Many observant Muslims have different political and social leanings, but it cannot be denied that some may share similar sentiments, even if they are not Isma members.

Is this something to worry about? No, and yes. Privilege hides.

To understand, refer back to roots.

Urban, successful Malays’ DNA are rural. They could be first or second generation urbanites, but their roots are from small, probably nondescript kampongs. Village life is communal, while urban life is not. 

The usrahs allow them to have that sense of community. Many of the NEP beneficiaries come from humble stock, and are rightly proud of their success. Who wouldn’t be?

Here, there is a divide between two generations. The older ones who are in their mid-40s and above may have had secular education, or not been educated in Islamic teachings. Hence their mid-life piety.

Their offspring, who have benefited from their parents’ wealth and professional success, are exposed to religious instruction, are social media savvy and socio-religiously (and or) politically observant. 

They are the ones who are instructing their parents on Islam, not the other way around. They are the drivers of a recent Muslim phenomenon in Malaysia: if not for they, would we be exposed to the teachings of Mufti Menk, Nouman Ali Khan et al?

Back to our handbags. Don’t we just love our bags!

A very thoughtful friend upon reading my previous essay, provided very good insight, and agreed that Muslim women, “… (or the) Privileged Muslimat under all categories have a strong degree of empowerment in terms of decision making within the home and that concern the children. These are usually educated classes, and are thus able to hold their own.”

Her position is that the hijab is wajib, “… and there is no correlation between that and personal behaviour. That is a moral construct and assumption by us. Being hijabed does not necessarily mean that a woman is pious, just as praying 5 times a day doesn’t mean that a Muslim will go to heaven. It is an obligation that is to be discharged. Nothing more. By that same token, a hijabi is not free from criticism just as a non-hijabi cannot be vilified for not covering herself. Everybody has their own journey. We need to not judge when it comes to the hijab (or the lack of it), because that is what fuels the arguments that are out there now. We need to just treat it as a requirement of Islam, full stop.”

Due to word limit, I have had to summarise what was a very lengthy observation.

A customer, reflected in a mirror, chooses a luxury handbag. — Reuters pic
A customer, reflected in a mirror, chooses a luxury handbag. — Reuters pic

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The Professionals are Privileged Muslimat who are relatively low key, work hard at their professions, are practising Muslims, sometimes hijabed and sometimes not, and don’t “live it up.” “They do the daily grind, save, own a few properties that they collect rent from, have a maid or two, send their kids for mengaji or KAFA, hold the occasional doa selamat/tahlil, take their kids on overseas holidays once/twice a year, etc. They drive Accords, Camrys, Estimas or sometimes even Beemers, VWs or luxury SUVs, but won’t buy branded handbags and shoes on a whim even though they may be able to afford it.”

They may own a couple of Coach handbags, a few Longchamps, maybe an Anya or even a Ferragamo, but very rarely cross into the Chanel/Prada/Dior/let alone Hermes category.

They live in semi-Ds or bungalows on the fringes/outskirts of KL and will do the 1.5-2 hour one-way drive to work and again in the evening. They are quite structured and private – weekdays are all about work, and weekends are usually spent strictly with family or shuttling between the different boarding schools to visit their teenage children.

Some are quite particular about where they send their kids to school – if it’s not a reputable public national school then they may opt for a good integrated Islamic school or a private national school. Their kids’ religious upbringing is often confined to mengaji/KAFA. 

Some will then proceed to send their children to boarding schools (including Islamic boarding schools) in secondary, because with them being in the workforce and being unable to monitor their kids at home, they feel more comforted at the prospect of their children being under the care of ustaz/ustazah/mentor at the boarding schools, instead of being left to their own devices at home.

“The Nouveaux (Handbag Scale – RM5,000 upwards) are a different kettle of fish, however.”

They start off with often humble backgrounds (lower to regular middle class) and after obtaining their degrees, have struck gold – either by marriage, sheer hard work, political networking (either them or their hubbies) or any of that combination. 

They are often hijabed, have performed their Hajj and numerous Umrahs, live in bungalows and drive all makes of luxury vehicles like Cayennes, Evoques, Q7s, and at the very worst Harriers. They are driven by materialism, but some not necessarily because they want to show off. 

They just really love beautiful things and enjoy having a circle of friends who share similar interests where they coo and fawn over each other’s material acquisitions and possessions. They have huge disposable incomes (some either by holding high positions at their workplace, through directorships/nominees or from hubbies).

Purchasing numerous Chanel handbags to match their rows and rows of sequined baju kurungs made from Jakel materials that can run into the thousands, and lunching weekly at Harrods is fair game. They are often a nice bunch of women (humble backgrounds) if you can just put up with the unrelenting need to discuss material things. They spend their weekends at country clubs, watching their little ones take golf lessons, et al.

The difference between the Nouveaux and the rich, titled secular, Westernised Muslims is that the latter don’t need to prove anything. They just live and spend as they deem fit – lavishly but without effort or exertion on their part. With the Nouveaux, it’s like an unquenched thirst. It starts off small, and then the thirst for material possessions grows greater and greater. They quietly aspire for the Birkin, and they keep nudging each other on, until someone finally gets the holy grail and everyone in the group rejoices. It is like a rite of passage.

The Nouveaux’s children are sent to KAFA or have already qatam their Quran reading. Ironically, despite their strong financial positions, a lot of the Nouveaux are unwilling to send their children to private schools, and many insist that their children go through the public national school system. This is so that “their children’s education, has been taken care of, all the way to tertiary level.” Meaning, they will not pay for their children’s education, unless there is no choice. 

They send their kids for enough tuition to last a lifetime in order to achieve that goal of getting stellar results. There is a latent expectation on their part that their children must obtain scholarships and then get sent overseas. Even though they can afford to send their children to better schools (and hence be better exposed) and even pay for their tertiary education. They don’t see the need to do so.

The Ultras who spend RM10,000 and above on their handbags are usually young Malay tai-tais married to young Malay men who have made their many millions through political/business connections. They are modern, stylish, sometimes hijabed, and very loyal to the Malay cause/Umno. 

Now, the Nouveaux have a stronger hold on faith and are a bit older already, some with teenage children. The Ultras on the other hand, are usually young couples with just 1-2 children under the age of 5. They live very Instagrammed lives (public profiles) and spare no expense at their children’s birthdays and events (for the same amount of money spent on their child’s 1st birthday party, someone can even throw a decent wedding).

They will congregate at designer cafes to compare kindergarten and preschool stories while waiting for their kids to finish music lessons, mengaji or specialized playgroup sessions. They drive around in single-digit, heavily tinted Cayennes and Q7s and tote a minimum of Chanel on their simple jeans and white-shirt days.

The Ultras tend to be cliquish, and are very protective of their circle. It is as if they fear that their comfort zone is threatened. Their circle of friends will send their children to the same mengaji classes, attend the same ceramahs, spend time and go on holidays together, etc. 

The Privileged Muslimat we should pay more attention to would be The Conscious Muslimat.

The Conscious Muslimat spends only RM2,500 and slightly above, and may have come from any of the above 4 categories, but who have resolved to live their lives with as much ihsan and humility as possible, despite their affluence/luxury. 

Their goal is to seek His Pleasure, and they desperately want their whole families to tread the same path. Usually that is the case, but sometimes there is a mismatch. For example like when the she is ready but the husband isn’t and remains very worldly, and so the big task of organizing the children into getting sufficient Islamic education and exposure rests on her alone.

The Conscious are hijabed and privy to material comforts but are uncomfortable at displaying all this wealth. They will have the Ferragamos, Anyas and Pradas, and sometimes a Chanel or two. But they try to control these purchases and not want to be seen to be flaunting. 

These Privileged Muslimat often have been seeking a way to find their place with Allah. They are spiritually hungry and will submerge themselves in a lot of religious lectures and classes – which is now very easily available for them now compared to before.

They are very fluent and comfortable commuting in English. With the advent of the Internet and modern technology, they have access to English-speaking Muslim scholars from all around the world, and because these scholars preach an inclusive Islam, this appeals to them. This inclusive form of Islam is quite foreign here in Malaysia — here the norm is usually to preach an exclusive message, albeit subconsciously, for Malays only.

The Conscious tire of the exclusive, cliquish message of Islam often preached by Malay Muslim scholars (there are notable exceptions of course, like Ustaz Don, Dr MAZA, Ustaz Haron Din, Sheikh Hussain Yee (but then again, he’s not a Malay) – and also because they are often more focused on the form rather than the substance of the religion. 

The lessons taught by the foreign scholars bring them closer to Islam, and it becomes easier for these women to find the means to incorporate Islam into every aspect of their daily lives, unlike previously.

The Conscious and their families will often attend many Muslim spiritual events/camps together (there is a HUGE demand now – that’s why these foreign religious scholars are able to hold huge international events here on an almost monthly basis – and they are almost always sold out) — it helps foster greater bonding and inculcates in the families a natural reliance and reference back to Allah. 

For the children, the parents now realize that it is not enough to merely send the former for mengaji and Fardhu Ain classes, but that it is also in trying to instil in the children the love for and dependence on Allah for everything.

Some of the Conscious are still Malay-centric ­— some by default, some by choice. But at the end of the day, they still often hold a far more inclusive and tolerant version of Islam (I resist from using the word liberal or progressive as I deem them inappropriate) compared to what Malay Muslims have generally been exposed to. 

This number is also rapidly growing, from what I have seen. There is a greater sense of religious awareness among Privileged Muslimat now than ever before, and for some of them, they are even able to use their clout to draw more in (e.g. Wardina, Mizz Nina, etc).

Socio-economically, the Conscious are no different from other Privileged Muslimat, save for the fact that the carrot at the end of the stick for them is the pleasure of Allah, and they will try to ensure that all roads in life head in that direction. With them, Islam is not the side dish, but they are trying to ensure that it is the main course.

For further reading, I highly recommend Sylva Frisk’s Submitting to God, which explores urban Muslim women in Malaysia.

* [i]

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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