The Way Forward in Malaysia, According to Dina Zaman

In light of the new dawn for Malaysia, we met up with Malaysian author and social commentator Dina Zaman to pick her brain on what should be our next step in moving forward.

In 2007, when Dina Zaman released her non-fiction book I Am Muslim, it was on a league of its own. Here there was, a popular Malay Muslim researcher highlighting the politicisation of Islam and how it affects the livelihoods of everyone touched by it. Not only was the book allowed on the bookshelves, it even made it into the local bestseller list.

The sudden attention the book garnered, took her by surprise. Although having served as a columnist for various publications throughout the years, she didn’t expect her writing to that much power as it did.

“Honestly, when I started writing it was for fun. Then came the fame. I’m not ambitious either. I’m quite happy if I just do research, and then I write and then everybody leaves me to my devices,” she says laughingly.

The founding member of IMAN, a think tank focusing on the society, religion, and perception took a break after all the attention that her debut book garnered, focusing her attention on the critically-acclaimed fictional work King of the Sea and more research. Nonetheless, 10 years after, in 2017, she returned to the literary scene with her latest non-fiction work called Holy Men, Holy Women, focused on all the different faiths of Malaysians.

Crafting this book was an adventure to say the least for Dina, who met with the most peculiar people, including pole-dancing hijabis, mud-bathing silat practitioners, and a mild kutu infestation on her head. Read along to find out more about some of the behind the scenes while researching for the book and Dina’s aspirations for a better Malaysia.

Where does Holy Men, Holy Women pick up after I Am Muslim?

I’ve always been fascinated by religions, cultures and all. So, after writing about Muslim life in Kuala Lumpur, a few years later I thought I want to find out a bit more about Malaysians who practice their faiths. It has always been about religion and cultures so it’s (the book’s) basically that, an adventure around Malaysia. My ex boss always asks me “Hey why do you do this? You’re not making money.” But I won’t give it up. It was a grand adventure. It was fun. It was crazy but I’m glad I did it.

What are the top takeaways you want your readers to acquire after reading your latest book?

To be curious, in a very positive and constructive manner. Be curious about how people live. When I say be brave doesn’t mean you have to go all the way out there. But get out of your comfort zone , be adventurous and most importantly there is so much about Malaysia that we haven’t actually understood or researched or learnt about. It shouldn’t be confined to a certain intellectual class. I think all Malaysians should get to know these things. For me it’s simple. Ask about your family members. What do they do? Your parents will say it’s very boring but you never know where that’ll lead you.

What is the most bizarre thing you have done or seen when you were researching for this book?

I think the most bizarre thing was I had to do a silat thing and the person said “You would need to be initiated and you had to have a mud bath.” I was like “What kind of mud bath is it, like spa? If spa okay.” They said “No, we’re going to Templer’s Park.” So, I go to Templer’s Park and there’s like, uh you know the tanah liat kat jalan. I wanted to cry. I said “How can you do this?” but they said “You know, men was made from Earth and you will go through Earth and have this mud bath and be cleansed.” I refused. I ran down the hill, I said “Goodbye!” I took my car and drove off. I said I will never do this. This is crazy but of course, they were very angry at me. There were just so many instances but I remember that because  I wouldn’t say they were weird, I would say that they made me think “Okay what on Earth am I doing here”. You have to have a sense of humour lah. If you don’t have a sense of humour, you pengsan la.

Regarding the recent child marriage controversy, where does the outcome of the way politicians are handling the issue leave Malaysia and how do we get better?

It is time that we all started talking about serious matters. It doesn’t have to be public, it can be a closed door thing but we have to talk about the elephant in the room. You’re talking about child marriage, about Islam, and that is very contentious to many people. I think we all need to start talking and start having these thoughts. What kind of Islam do we want, how do we move to this place. Without, you know, shooting each other. You’re a Malaysian, you read the papers and I’m sure you geleng kepala sometimes. So you realise one thing that it’s not just about getting to know each other. It’s also about looking at the education system, our policies. It’s going to be a long uphill task, and it cannot be done within 1 day or even 1 year or 5 years. But I think it’s because we’re still a young democracy. Malaysia has only been around like 61 years, and we’ve got a long way head. America, UK all aren’t where they are (without growing pains). I mean they had to go through many years too. So this is part and parcel of that. I think we forget that in our hurry that everything needs to be perfect now.

You can’t do everything in 100 days. That’s why when the new government said they’re going to try to do everything in 100 days my eyes popped. That’s unbelievable. I think we should be patient.

What is your opinion on teaching sexual education in schools?

Sexual education will take time as well. Schools are actually doing this. You’ll be very surprised. A lot of religious schools do teach it. It’s just that it was never centralised or systematic. One school does this another while school does that. I do believe with what’s happening now, with child grooming, paedophilia and all that it’s time to have some structure and some exposure. I believe young children should be taught to protect themselves.

As a scholar and commentator, you have come under a lot of scrutiny in the past. How do you get your message across?

Conversations and a lot of pushing for reforms. It’s how you strategise and it’s also how you place your arguments. Some people call me a softie but sometimes being very harsh and gung ho will not get you anywhere. Of course even when you talk too much you don’t go anywhere either. But there has to be a way where you can actually meet halfway and negotiate whether you agree with each other or not.

Do you believe that under the new governance the creatives would fare better?

You know the arts, it’s thriving but the people in creatives, they are the ones who’s pushing it (forward). Of course you need government support but I am hoping that this new government actually sees the arts not as something airy-fairy. I see this as integral for the society, and for education. I would hope there would be more grants for people in the arts, and more grants also for the preservation of our culture.

Vimal Palasekaran

Vimal Palasekaran

Loud laugher. TV buff. Hispanophone.
Vimal Palasekaran

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