Malaysia‟s multi-ethnic society, comprising the Malays, Chinese and Indians, offer a good laboratory to study and understand ethnic identity dilemma. The Bumiputera ethnic (literally meaning sons of the soil) category was introduced to incorporate Muslim and non-Muslim indigenous population in Sabah and Sarawak when Malaysia was formed as having equal and special position along with the Malays in the country. All Malays are Muslims and an individual born in a Malay family would consider herself (himself) as „Malay‟. Majority of the Indians in Malaysia are either a Hindu or a Muslim. A child born to a Muslim Indian family may choose to be known as a Malay to benefit the special position of the Bumiputera. Other Indian Muslims choose to retain their family roots and prefers to be known as Indian Muslim for what they are or labeled to be.
This paper attempts to explore the socio-economic factors that led to “identity dilemma” and “ethnic switching” among Indian Muslims in Malaysia. Some of the research questions include why an Indian Muslim choose the Malay ethnic identity, why others choose to remain as an Indian Muslim; and whether economic reasoning has an influence on the choice. The Indian Muslims populations in Penang are chosen for the reason that Penang has the biggest Indian Muslims population in the country.
The paper is organised into four sections. After the section on introduction, is the section on literature review. This is followed by the section on methodology and finally, the last section discusses the major findings of the study.
2. Literature Review
There is no specific theoretical framework to studying ethnic identity, but are generally based on three broad perspectives, which are the social identity theory, acculturation and culture conflict, and identity formation. Social identity theory is presented by social psychologists and asserts that simply being a member of a group provides individuals with a sense of belonging that contributes to a positive self-concept. However, as posited by Tajfel (1978), ethnic groups present a special case of group identity. He asserted that members of low-status groups seek to improve their status in various ways. Individuals may seek to leave the group by „passing‟ as members of the dominant group; a solution which may have negative psychological consequences to the individual. This solution is however not available to individuals who are racially distinct and are categorized by others as ethnic group members (Phinney, 1990). Social identity theory also addresses the possible problems resulting from participation in two cultures. Individual would then be facing issues on whether to choose between the two cultures, two conflicting identities or establish a bicultural ethnic identity.
Acculturation and culture conflict is presented by social psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists that deals broadly with changes in cultural attitudes, values and behaviors that result from contact between two distinct cultures (Berry, Trimble and Olmedo, 1986). Acculturation and culture conflict is more concern with a group than an individual and focused on how minority groups relate to the dominant group. There are two models present under this perspective to provide explanation to understanding of ethnic identity. The models are linear, bipolar model and two- dimensional models. In linear model, ethnic identity is conceptualized along a