Malaysia poor not captured

Bravos! Congratulations to New Mandala for facilitating the responses of Malaysians and Malaysianists to a series of important questions about the upcoming election but also, more importantly, about the future of Malaysia. For the emergence and maintenance of a humane society, such humanising listening to the voices of people is essential.

However, there are some important limitations to a survey of this sort. First, the voices of many people who occupy various social locations in Malaysian society are not included. Even worse, one could say that they are rendered invisible and their voices erased. Second, there is often the need to ask follow-up questions to the respondents. This particular format did not provide this opportunity except as discussion board entries.

Despite these two drawbacks, there are some important patterns in the responses that call for further discussion and reflection. In terms of BN’s strengths, most point to their longevity, incumbency, and control over money, media, and organisational structures and networks. BN’s weaknesses include their abuses of power, corruption and patronage, dependence on race-based politics, use of race and religion, and their apparent inability to change. One may be inclined to ask whether their strengths justify or override their weaknesses. But the respondent’s answer to this question is generally apparent from their other responses and/or their affiliations.

On the other hand, most point out PR’s strengths as their ability to exploit BN weaknesses, a ‘un-BN’ option of sorts, providing hope for a BN-alternative, and their philosophy of a new politics transcending racial divisions. PR’s weaknesses include their newness, untested qualities, and related uncertainties about them and their cohesion and common agenda. Their inclination to accept “old” BN leaders and their incomplete or uneven move beyond the racial framework of BN was also noted. Obviously, one would want to ask what kind of hope for change do they really offer.

Moreover, many of the respondents’ major issues for the new government were also reflected in their overall hopes for Malaysian society. These included major changes in relation to gender, poverty, economic growth, electoral reforms, civil society and pluralism, more ethnic, racial, and religious inclusion, and national unity. Some also hope for peace, harmony, and equality for all together with the refined production of a liberal democratic and capitalistic society.

Having such hopes and ideals are very important for making humane social and cultural changes. After all, social and cultural facts are not given by nature. Nevertheless, a dose of reality is also essential. One of the realities of Malaysian society, at time vaguely referred to in the responses, is the deleterious persistence of racism and racial hierarchies. Members of the three largest ethnic groups, Indians, Malays, and Chinese tend to define their identities as racial and in the first instance of religious. To be ‘pure’ Indian, you must be Hindu. To be ‘pure’ Malay, you must be Muslim. To be ‘pure’ Chinese, you must be Buddhist-Taoist. Colonial racial hierarchies have been transformed in some respects but persist and abound in different contexts. It is moving to see the organisation and galvanisation of Indian movements. They were placed on the bottom of racial hierarchies under the hegemonic influence of colonial philosophies of white supremacy and their status is still constrained by these cultural notions.

The second major reality of note, again vaguely referenced in survey responses, is the increasing strength of Islamising movements in Malaysian society, from UMNO, the BN-led federal government, among civil society organisations, and Muslim individuals from all ethnic backgrounds. Perhaps this is one important place this survey has not gone. The voices of these youth and intellectuals are not represented here. Nevertheless, there has been an undeniable trend in Malaysian society over the last several decades toward greater Islamisation. There appears to be a greater intertwining of secular and religious models of governance. Some would say Malaysia is already an “Islamic state” and others would consider it “secular”; but there is definitely some form of combination.

Well, how do the hopes of these respondents relate to this trend toward of secular-Islamic or Islamic-secular state? One could hope that many of the important ideals expressed will be able to take shape under such a state. But should civil society activists be working more strongly to reach their ideals within such a format rather than focusing on challenging its most basic precept: Islamic dominance?

Timothy P. Daniels is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Hofstra University.