Kongsi Kongsi

I argue in an article in Aliran, that Malaysia’s ‘consociational model’ as practised by the ruling coalition no longer works. I advocate that Malaysians would be better served if they started working together with each other directly, instead of relying on elites to resolve their challenges.

Here are excerpts from the article:

On the consociational model

Consociational politics is based on the idea that conflict resolution in divided societies is best achieved through the accommodation of the political elites representing the salient segments of society and institutionally anchored by inclusive coalitions. As noted by its formulator (the Dutch political scientist Arendt Lijphart), consociational democracy is a,

…government by elite cartel designed to turn a democracy with fragmented political culture into a stable democracy.

In other words, the consociational model assumes:

  • that there are deep differences among the salient segments in society (often coalescing around ethnicity, religion or regional groupings in Malaysia);
  • these differences are insurmountable;
  • that these salient segments are incapable of mediating these differences by themselves; and
  • that these segments are incapable of regulating their behaviour in the face of these intractable differences. This ultimately leads to violent or deadly outcomes. Hence, only the leaders of these salient segments – the elite cartel – can overcome these challenges. This is what leaders of the BN would have Malaysians believe.

The elite cartel are supposed to overcome these challenges – which ordinary citizens are unable to address – through four principles that are foundational to the consociational model.

The first principle, the grand coalition, is an executive that not only has the votes necessary in an election to secure a majority but includes all important salient segments (or as many as possible). It also entails distribution of leadership position to different groups in other types of institutions and involves informal elite cooperation.

The second principle is cultural or segmental autonomy which provides a degree of self-regulation for each salient segment (usually coalesced around ethnicity, religion or regional identities such as constitutional guarantees of the rights of minorities).

The third principle is proportionality where proportional representation in legislature/s but also other aspects of public life (such as appointments to positions in the bureaucracy and state-owned corporations).

And the fourth and final principle is the minority or mutual veto, which enables representatives of each segmental group – even the weakest – to reject proposed policies of the grand coalition that affects the group.

How did it break down

Many reasons have been put forward to explain the breakdown of consociational politics within the BN, but four are put into focus here. The first is Malaysia’s electoral process, secondly, the concentration of power in the Executive and in Umno specifically, thirdly – ‘creeping Islamisation’, and finally, the habits of (most) Malaysian political, social, cultural, religious and business elites.

The first three are well rehearsed.

First, there is no longer a grand coalition but a dominant party with minions in the ruling coalition. Consociationalism works when there are incentives for powerful and weak social groups to cooperate. The most important incentive is to pool votes at elections to form government.

However, systematic gerrymandering and malapportionment has steadily amplified an already biased electoral system that favours rural areas against urban areas and the states of Sabah and Sarawak over Peninsular Malaysia.

In the past, Umno, the dominant party in the coalition needed the support of the minority groups to form government which is an important feature of the consociational model. However, at the thirteenth general elections, Umno decided (and was later surprisingly vindicated) that it did not need to pool its votes with other important minority groups within its coalition on the peninsula to form the government. It relied primarily on the Malay votes, and votes from East Malaysia.

Umno now knows that it does not need the support of the minority communities (Chinese and Indian Malaysians) as they are predominantly situated in urban areas, and in Peninsular Malaysia. Hence the accepted logic in the consociational model, that the electoral process will moderate the behaviour of a political party (especially that of the dominant party), no longer holds.

The second reason for the breakdown of the consociational model is the concentration of power in the Executive arm of government and in MPs from Umno. Although Malaysia follows the Westminster system, strengthened with a written constitution that embeds the separation of powers, and an independent judiciary to ensure the rule of law, it very quickly unravelled for a variety of reasons.

Although a consociational democracy accepts a diminished form of parliamentary democracy for political and social stability, the extent to which Malaysia has deviated even from its initial state has resulted in Malaysia being defined as a semi-authoritarian regime.

Furthermore, the concentration of power in government within a particular racial group compounded by the fact that the dominant party which purports to represent this racial group no longer requires the support of other minorities at elections voids the second and third principles of cultural or segmental autonomy and proportionality in the consociational model.

Moving away ….

The key to developing a new repertoire of behaviour and new practices is essentially to overturn the assumptions of the consociational model: that the differences among the salient groups in Malaysia are not insurmountable; that members of the salient groups are capable of managing these differences themselves without assistance from the elites; and that members of the salient groups are capable of regulating their behaviour should some of these differences become intractable.