Malays as defined by the Malaysian Constitution is a curious thing: it is not strictly a race, or an ethnic, but rather an ethno-religious group of people. That simply adds the religious component into the classification of a race that would otherwise be strictly defined and passed down through direct inheritance. According to the Malaysian Constitution, a citizen who is not a muslim is not a malay, even if his lineage traces back to as far and as old as the Malay ethnicity can be traced back to.
But it is not this definition in the Malaysian Constitution that this post will center upon, but rather, this association of religion to a certain ethnic, namely the association of Islam to the Malay ethnic. Today, at least in this country, Islam and Malay are so well-associated that whatever the Malays do, many would think that that is what Islam teaches its followers to do. That in itself presents immediate disadvantage to the religion itself, for race and religion are very different things. Ethnicity develops through time, through assimilation with the surrounding and the environment within which a certain group of people live for generations. This assimilation brings about countless adjustments and additions to how this certain group of people live their daily lives over the ages. This is what gives rise to culture. Religion, on the other hand, is based entirely on principles that are sent down by God Himself.
When you try to assimilate these two very different sets of belief, there will no doubt be differences and conflicts. The reason why the Malay ethnic and Islam seems so well-acquainted with each other today is because Islam has been introduced to the Malays for hundreds of years. Much of the differences and conflicts has been ironed out in the past. For all practical purposes, Islam has been assimilated into the Malay’s way of life (note the order of what gets assimilated into what).
However, cultural values that precedes religion for many, many years are not easy to go away. The Malays still retain much of its cultural values today. Because (at least in Malaysia) the two are so well associated, much of what is actually Malay cultural values and rituals are mistaken to be Islamic teachings. This association is so well-ingrained that many of the Malays themselves believe a lot of these mis-attributions.
Another immediate negative effect of this assimilation is that Islamic teachings are no longer understood the way it is meant to be. Much of what is taught to the younger generations of the Malay ethnic regarding Islam is over-simplified right down to only the necessary rituals, and most of the time the core values of kindheartedness, responsibility, perseverance, and a myriad of other values that define Islam itself gets sidelined. Parents teach their children to perform the daily prayers, read the Quran, observe fasting, but very little of the core values of Islam actually get passed down. The same pattern can be seen in the syllabus of Islamic Education taught in national schools. As a result, many Malays today perform the prayers, read the Quran and observe fasting simply because they are taught to do so instead of really understanding the reasons that belie these obligations. Without proper understanding, not only do they make Islam seems unfavourable to the other ethnicities, these obligations also become nothing more than just rigid rituals, and much of the values that once put Islam on top of the world got lost in this ritualistic rigidity.