A Closer Look: Malaysia’s Religion, Culture and Politics

Zakii’s home country of Malaysia is host to a complex religious and political background. We’d like to take the chance to shed a little light on it, so that the conflicts in our film can be better appreciated.

Let’s begin by taking a look at the country’s religious distribution. The Federation of Malaysia guarantees freedom of religion in its constitution, with a number of different religions being practised (and widely observed) when the Population and Housing Census was undertaken in 2010. Buddhism and Christianity are both practised in the country, but in lower numbers than Islam, which is the state religion: the Census recorded just over 60% of the population are Muslim, with the percentage due to increase slightly over the next few years.

Zakii’s artwork, on some level, could be seen as a reflection of this religious diversity: we see imagery from both Buddhism and Hinduism in his work, despite Zakii being a Muslim. He draws upon many religious ideas, and his work is all the richer for it.

The nation also has a surprisingly rich mix of cultures within its borders. The native Malay people make up over 50% of its people, but the country also hosts a sizeable Malaysian Chinese minority, largely descended from Chinese immigrants, and a smaller Malaysian Indian population, largely descended from South Indian immigrants in the days of British colonialism. This suggests Zakii’s work comes from not just a religiously diverse background, but a culturally diverse one as well… and the breadth of his work demonstrates he’s willing to explore and incorporate other cultures into his work.

In terms of political background, Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, with a Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or king, as an elected head of state. UMNO, or the United Malays National Organisation, has ruled Malaysia as part of the Barisan Nasional coalition since independence. The country’s prime minister Najib Razak recently faced fierce protests over the National Day weekend by the Coalition of Free & Fair Elections (also known as Bersih) over allegations of corruption. The prime minister, who is in the midst of a financial scandal, is reported to have criticised the protests. He argued they tarnished the country’s image and showed a poor national spirit.

Admittedly, we’re here to better understand Zakii rather than the country he came from, but we hope by shedding a little light on its religious and political background, our audience will gain greater understanding of who Zakii is, how he came to be, and what struggles he might face in the future. If you’re in Malaysia, do you think Zakii’s work captures something honest about Malaysia? Or does his work have a more universal aspect that succeeds it? In a time where leaders are decrying ‘poor national spirit,’ what do you think it means to show national spirit? Is it a positive thing, or should we, like Zakii, look beyond our borders to see what other cultures have to offer? You’ll have the chance to learn more about Zakii and his work upon the film’s completion.

#malaysia #zakii


Tom GibsonA Closer Look: Malaysia’s Religion, Culture and Politics

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