The existence of “Malay Power”—a term usually referring to Malay Neo-Nazis—is confounding. Members of Malay Power are brown, firmly outside the Nazi concept of racially superior Aryans, yet embrace one of the world’s worst subcultural expressions of racial hate. Its development has grown out of a confused mix of Malaysian racial politics and selective interpretations of religion and history.
Malaysia is a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious nation, but Malay Muslims—who form the majority of the population—are accorded a special status, allowing them preferential treatment in areas such as employment and scholarships. Malaysian politics has also been dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), a founding member of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition currently in power. Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, a Malaysian scholar, once described Malaysia’s social reality as caught between the “authority-defined” idea of society, shaped by those in power, and the very different “everyday-defined” reality of its multi-cultural street life.
This has seeped into Malaysia’s predominantly Malay music underground, too. For Malay Power, “authority-defined” ideas of Malay privilege and supremacy have penetrated the imported global punk and metal ideologies that Malaysian musicians refer to. The results are interesting yet puzzling: hybrid identities that equally share racist, Islamic, and underground music ideologies.
Separate but present
“Malay Power bands play their own gigs in places we don’t know of,” says Cole Yew, manager of Soundmaker Studio in Penang, Northern Malaysia’s most established alternative performing club. “In Malaysia, the antifascist skinhead movement [has grown] quite big, and most of the live houses support its anti-racial agenda.”
Total Sick was banned from performing after some of its members were recognised in a photo… in which the Malay men and women smiled and posed with two swastika flags
But Nazi enthusiasts can sometimes still end up playing at regular venues, at least until someone belatedly realises what’s happened. Yew points to a January 2018 show at the Muse Jamming Studio in Alma, just off Penang island: the band Total Sick was banned from performing after some of its members were recognised in a photo taken outside another underground club, in which the Malay men and women smiled and posed with two swastika flags. Some had their right arms raised in Nazi salutes.
This weird phenomenon is poorly understood and not often discussed. An article on “Malaysian Nazi skinheads” published by Vice in 2013 ignited an uproar among antifascist Malaysian skinheads and drew criticism for its misrepresentation of the Malaysian underground music scene. “Boot Axe? We don’t even know who they are,” the late Rozaimin Elias, one of the most dedicated and active antifascist skinheads in Malaysia, once told me about the band of “brown Nazis” the publication had featured. To really gain an insight into Malay Power, one needs to look deeper into the underground music scene, as well as racial politics and identity issues in Malaysia.
In general, contemporary Malaysian underground music follows the standards of performance set by the Western genres they reference, without too much localisation. But Malaysian hard rock bands from the 1980s—mat rockers like Sweet Charity, Rocker and Bloodshed—injected local themes into their lyrics. It was a move similar to the thematic switch of second wave Norwegian black metal bands such as Mayhem, Darkthrone or Immortal, who, from the mid-1990s, distanced themselves from the Satanic imagery of the genre’s early pioneers and gradually embraced the folkloric themes, images of Vikings and pagan worship of their Scandinavian identities. Some of the bands, however, quickly descended from Norse mythology into the bleak extremism of Nazi-fascism and homophobia.
Something similar—but thankfully without the church arson or the killing of bandmates and homosexuals seen in Scandinavia—happened in Malaysia. “Nusantara [refers to the] Malay Archipelago—Malaysia, Southern Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Borneo—and in the early days of Southeast Asian extreme metal, it was bands like As Sahar, Langsuir, Zubirun and Hayagriva to come up first with eastern themes. It was mostly lyric-wise, since their music was still very much influenced by Scandinavian black and death metal,” says Rammy Azmy, a metal musician and curator of historical Malaysian metal fanzine Kemenyan.
The early Malay metal bands used images of bomohs (traditional Malay healers and shamans) and local ghosts and vampires on their demo tape covers. For example, the 1993 debut tape of Langsuir, “Occultus Mysticism”, depicts the Malay vampire who gave the band its name floating above a pentagram inscribed with symbols that look like Islamic calligraphy. Lyrics, however, remained in English, following global examples of black and death metal.
“The old bands very much borrowed Malay traditional melodies and then rearranged them into metal riffs, mixing [in] lyrics based on Malay black magic, myths and superstitions, but still mostly in English. It was a prototype of what we [hear] today,” says Rammy.
Today, Bentara of the band Langsuir is a university professor based near Ipoh and hasn’t been involved with the band since 2009. To him, black metal was about Satan or myths and legends, of which Malaysia has plenty to borrow from. “I chose a band name related to Nusantara: Langsuir, a Malay female vampire, was perfect, evil and catchy. Instead of adopting the global strands of black metal, I adapted them [to] my culture, even if I was only 14 years old [then].”
“In my view, there is absolutely no correlation between music and your own faith”
The Malaysian underground music scene also departs from its Western references in another significant way. Within the Anglo-American extreme music context, religion is generally frowned upon (with the exception of forms of Christian heavy metal). It’s considered an authoritarian tool, used to control the conservatism that metal and punk was born to contest. Yet most Malays in the Malaysian scene are practising Muslims.
Wan, the former leader of the Singaporean Eastern black metal band As-Sahar, who currently plays with another Singapore-based band Phenomistik, doesn’t see any conflict. “[T]here’s nothing wrong with Muslims liking heavy music,” he says. “As long as it’s limited to just liking, and doesn’t go beyond that—I mean, without incurring in any acts of blasphemy or forbidden by Islam. In my view, there is absolutely no correlation between music and your own faith.”
To Malays, their religious and underground identities are separate yet constantly co-existing. But the close correlation of ethnicity and religion—particularly for Malays, who are defined under the Constitution of Malaysia as people who adhere to Islam, among other characteristics—can blur the lines.
Steering towards hate
According to Rammy Azmy, the whole Neo-Nazi faction within Malaysia’s underground scene evolved out of the Nusantara metal bands. “At first, we metalheads didn’t care that much about the fascist symbols and racist ideologies, because everything ‘bad and evil’ is welcome in extreme metal,” he explains. “But eventually, it became a real thing, and developed into this circle called ‘Darah dan Maruah Tanah Melayu (Blood and Honour of the Malay Land)’. They support each other, have their albums and demos released under this moniker, and even [have] a secret annual gig featuring all the Malay Power bands”.
A Blogspot page, last updated on 10 September 2012, promotes a mix of skinhead and black metal bands such as Maruah, Singhasari and Brown Attack. It’s difficult to get members of the group to talk to outsiders. Malay Power is kept hidden among a very closed-knit group of people who don’t like sharing their opinions and are shunned by members of the regular scene who want little to do with them.
I eventually managed to get in touch with one musician, Daeng (a pseudonym) of the Selangor-based band Jugra. The band plays an interesting mix of Oi! Skinhead punk and National Socialist Black Metal; their name hints at the royal town of Jugra in Selangor, once the seat of ruling monarch Sultan Abdul Samad. I ask how he and his peers, as Malaysians, justify the use of Nazi symbols in their lyrics and associated artwork; Malaysia, historically and culturally, had nothing to do with Nazi ideology.
“National Socialism is for all who believe in a nation for one race, one leader and one nation, not only Germans or Aryans,” explains Daeng. “If you search deeper in the history of National Socialism, there were lots of non-white [Schutzstaffel (a paramilitary force under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party)] recruits and political parties from ethnic groups such as Arabs, Indians, Chinese, blacks, and even Nusantarans. The usage of Nazi imagery and symbols in some of our bands is simply a tribute to the Third Reich as one of the most glorious empires [that] ever existed. It was also the best symbols to represent our radical views.”
Coming to Islam, Daeng agrees with most other Malay underground musicians, stating that music and religion are two well separated identities that have nothing much to share. “Islam is a spiritual belief and it has nothing to do with being a nationalist or having a heavy metal band,” he adds. But unexpectedly, Malay Power proponents vehemently disagree with those who similarly play the racial card. In fact, they see the Malay political elite as a nemesis to be fought.
“I hate UMNO and BN,” Daeng says. “They are our sworn enemies, we will never ally with them. This worthless party only thinks for themselves whilst masquerading as [a] Malay nationalist party. Malaysia was formed this way because of these people, thanks to these betrayers who desperately signed with the British in order to take control of this country, and see what happened: racial issues and corruption everywhere. I never believed in democracy and all those Zionist-loving discourses. This country must be revived as an absolute monarchy and it shall! Revere the sultanate, expel the barbarians.”
It’s a hybrid they’ve created for themselves, cherry-picking from history and global subcultures
Malay Power may represent just a small part of Malaysian youth and society, but it’s existence, as well as its isolation, tells us about the sentiments some contemporary Malays harbour towards their own citizens and state. On the one hand, the existence of a strong antifascist skinhead community that embraces the positive values of a global musical movement demonstrates a willingness to fight racism and supremacy, at least within the Malaysian music scene. But on the other hand, the presence of Malays who identify as both Muslims and “national socialists”, points to a confused sense of identity in Malaysia’s post-colonial and highly globalised context. It’s a hybrid they’ve created for themselves, cherry-picking from history and global subcultures to suit their own pre-existing formulation of Southeast Asian identities.
It’s an inconsistent position that, Azmy argues, transforms Islam into a non-universal “tribal cult”, mixing the religion with “Malay paganism and illogical customs”: “All Malays should know that Prophet Muhammad is not a nationalist, as he banned asabiyyah (racism)… The Nusantara spirit is not approved by Islam, because those who glorify Nusantara put racism on top. A Muslim should unite under tawheed (Oneness of God), not some racist idea.”
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Marco Ferrarese is an expert on Malaysia and Borneo. He co-authored guidebooks on Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand for Rough Guides, and published a novel, Nazi Goreng, which is banned in Malaysia, and several non-fiction books. He has written more than 100 articles on travel, culture and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications including Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, CNN Travel, BBC Travel, The Guardian, and National Geographic Traveler (UK). He also blogs about Penang (at http://www.penang-insider.com/guide-48-hours-in-penang/) and his adventurous travels around Asia and the Middle East (at http://www.monkeyrockworld.com).