Multi cultural Malaysia

A well-established proposition in political science is that it is difficult to achieve and maintain stable democratic rule in a plural society (Lijphart 1977). Some also argue that competitive elections, a minimal procedural condition in a modern democracy, could potentially generate more instability and violence rather than rectifying them in such a society (Snyder 2000). Whoever comes into government, the challenges of maintaining delicate ethnic relations will remain the same in a deeply divided society like Malaysia. In spite of extraordinary economic, socio-cultural and political transformations over the past decades, the basic characteristics of Malaysia’s “plural society” and ethnic-based party mobilisation have remarkably remained the same. Will Malaysia’s increasingly “competitive” elections and more credible and assertive “multi-ethnic” opposition bring about more equity and stability, as promised by the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR)?

Beyond the short-term goals of winning elections, eliminating corruption, and ultimately achieving democracy, these are important deep-seated issues that need to be addressed among not only foreign observers like myself, but also Malaysian elites and citizens. What will a Malaysian democracy look like? Will the democracy ├а la PR be significantly different from a polity we have known in Malaysia under the BN in terms of equality and equity? Have issues, ideologies, and institutions of identity, ethnicity, and in particular religion, receded or increased as a result of more competitive elections? Do the opposition leaders have adequate political capital to settle these issues skilfully (and differently) to achieve a new democratic regime and peaceful society? Do they have a better vision of state and nation that they agree and commit themselves to in a long run? In order to address these questions beyond the immediate outcomes of the election, this essay seeks to place the recent political development in broader perspectives that pertain to the questions of identity, religion and ethnicity, based on the available data and tentative observations.

1. The political use of ethnicity and religion in election campaigns: political learning and ideological moderation

On the positive side, one thing that could be highlighted and commended in the recent election is that the use of parochial and divisive ethnic and religious identities and symbols for short-term electoral gains was not as significant as pessimistic observers may have expected. Sure, there were “racial” rhetoric and accusations circulated in media primarily by pro-regime forces. However, these racial and ethnic rhetoric and mobilisation aimed at inciting ultra-nationalistic sentiments has proven to be ineffective or counterproductive, as seen in the defeat of the ultra-nationalist candidate, Ibrahim Ali in his home state of Kelantan. Moreover, violence related to ethnic or religious divisions has largely been restrained. Overall, the PR has been reasonably successful in overcoming and limiting narrow parochial ethnic and religious sentiments in running election campaigns. Instead, they have focused on pragmatic–and universalistic–programs such as clean and fair elections, elimination of corruption and good governance.

Have such universalistic campaigns of PR worked for all the component parties to bring such an impressive electoral showing for the opposition? My quick calculation of the results seems to suggest some interesting (potentially worrying) findings and dynamics, beyond what already have been obvious and discussed, which merit our close observation and explanation. First, DAP is a clear winner while PAS is not, although PR contested parliamentary seats under single tickets. In the Peninsular (except Sabah and Sarawak), DAP won 28 (78%) out of 32 parliamentary seats they contested at the national level. By stark contrast, PAS won only 21 (36%) out of 59 seats they contested while PKR won 24 (41%) out of 58 seats (see Table 1 below). Second, so-called rising young “progressive” reformist leaders from PAS, Dzulkefly Ahmad, Mohamad Sabu, and Salahuddin Ayub, have lost not only in UMNO’s strong hold, Johor, but also in Muslim-dominant districts in Kedah and Selangor where PR won handsomely both at the national and state levels.

Table 1: Parliamentary Seats Contested and Won by PR

PKR

DAP

PAS

Contest

Won

Contest

Won

Contest

Won

FT Kuala Lumpur

5

1

5

5

1

0

FT Labuan

0

0

0

0

1

0

FT Putra Jaya

0

0

0

0

1

0

Johor

12

1

6

4

8

0

Kedah

7

4

0

0

8

1

Kelantan

3

0

0

0

11

9

Pahang

5

2

3

1

6

1

Penang

4

4

7

7

2

0

Perak

10

3

7

7

7

2

Selangor

11

9

4

4

7

4

Terengganu

1

0

0

0

7

4

Total

58

24

32

28

59

21

41%

74%

36%

Source: Star 13th Malaysian General Elections (http://elections.thestar.com.my/)

With everything equal, these outcomes may not simply be attributed to strategic miscalculation (e.g., a wrong candidate in a wrong constituency) or dirty tactics of the government. Although more thorough research needs to be done, one thing is clear; PAS is not gaining much from their position in the coalition and their new “reformist” identity and leadership they have chosen to adopt at the expense of their traditional “Islamist” identity, policies, and leadership. PAS’ support base remains exclusively in Kelantan as it was 10 years ago in contrast to a prediction that it has been transformed into a more open and national party.

Despite the deep ideological (and religious) differences and long-standing distrust between predominantly Chinese DAP and Islamist PAS, the PR has learned to work and stay together through what can be called “political learning” as well as a power-sharing formula they have crafted since 2008. Both parties, PAS in particular, have somewhat moderated their ideological positions and put aside their immediate goals they had been fighting hard for a number of years to gain popular support in their respective religious/ethnic communities. Now, it is argued, PAS is dominated by reformist and more urban (and secular-educated) young politicians. For them, an Islamic state based on Syariah (Islamic laws) is no longer the future of Malaysia. This new direction was a crucial step for survival of the coalition thus far because otherwise DAP would not have agreed to stay together. On the other hand, DAP’s national vision, “Malaysia for All”, has been revitalised to make a central slogan for the opposition. As the result seems to suggests, it worked so well to win the hearts and minds of Malaysian electorates especially in urban areas. These are clearly positive developments unimaginable a couple of decade ago, developments that the ruling politicians could not ignore, as seen in their “One Malaysia” slogan and programs. A big question is what would be an option for PAS now. Are the political and ideological costs they are paying small enough for them to stay as they are?

2. Will the minimal use of identities in election campaigns eliminate the ethnic and religious cleavages so deeply embedded in dominant ideologies and institutions in a Malaysian polity?

What interests and worries some of us in the Malaysian context is how committed the opposition parties actually are to their new “moderate” outlooks and national vision where ALL Malaysians are treated equally. The question looms large because so far the opposition leaders appear to have agreed NOT to talk about delicate issues, that is, precisely the issues of ethnicity, religion, and equity, for the reasons mentioned above.

This concern is derived from empirical realities of the Malaysian state and society as well as a global context under which Muslim-Majority Malaysia will have to live. First of all, the national and democratic vision based on equality among all Malaysians certainly sounds good and may work to win more urban votes as it obviously did. Alongside an unprecedented participation of Malaysian citizens in anti-regime rallies since the late 2000s, regardless of their socio-ethnic backgrounds, this encouraging development seems to be evidence of growing political awareness and maturity, at least among urban voters who overwhelmingly supported the opposition. This democratic national vision, “All Malaysians are equal” however, may be harder to articulate, let along attain, in more formal terms without considering the constitutional and legal constraints suggested at the onset of this essay.

The constitutional terms and conditions defining the place of ethnicity and religion have been explicitly fixed so that the supremacy of the Malay majority would never been challenged. Numerous legal codes and bureaucratic institutions and regulations are tightly in place to perpetuate the ethnic divisions. On top of these highly institutionalised state apparatuses that perpetuated an ethnically divided plural society, the Malaysian state has inherited the apparatus of religion, including the Syariah courts and many other religious agencies, that dispense generous public goods and services to increasingly pious Malay community. Are the votes cast for the opposition based on an understanding that these powerful and resourceful state institutions and massive interests attached to them will be reduced so that a truly democratic Malaysia for all ethnic and religious groups would be attained when the opposition comes to power? Or are these votes based on a tacit understanding that these institutions and interests–and of course the supremacy of the Malays–will never be challenged and a new multi-ethnic regime will try to figure out a better balance than the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) among contending interests based on ethnic and religious cleavages? What do their power-sharing formulas look like?

On the global front, we have to remember that Muslim communities across the world are far more global oriented and at the same time far more defensive in relation to non-Muslim communities against the backdrop of post-9/11 global developments. Any idea that may possibly limit their visions and practices could be seen as a potential challenge to their communal (that is, religious) identity and interest. If Muslim elites and citizens in the opposition are gaining aspiration from the Arab Spring that brought down secular autocrats such as Egypt’s Mubarak, it is worth remembering that three successful post-Revolution Arab nations including Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are now controlled by parties connected to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. To be clear, I am not saying that Malaysian Muslim leaders are intended or should replicate the Arab Spring in Malaysia. Rather, the point here is that a new regime, just like the current regime under UMNO, will have to attend to the sentiments and interests of increasingly religious and global-oriented Muslim electorates. Moreover, the Malaysian state, as mentioned earlier and argued elsewhere is equipped with well-institutionalised and powerful religious apparatus which regulate the spiritual and socio-cultural life of the Muslim community. It is not difficult to expect that these religious apparatuses may be awarded wholesale to religious elites connected to PAS in turn for their allegiance, causing more conflict not only within PR but also among Muslim elites. It is in this context that their true commitment to “ideological” moderation and democratic ideals will be truly tested. Will PAS be likely to stay as a minor partner in the opposition after/if they realise that the “Malaysia for all” campaigns of the opposition (under which the role of religion is muted) actually worked against their political interests?

3. Will a PR rule enhance constitutional freedom of individual citizens and truly multi-ethnic society?

A transition to democracy (or the close proximity thereof) in Malaysia will have to take place against such challenging institutional, social, and global context. An even more challenging question for Malaysia is if a new and more democratic regime is able and willing to protect and secure constitutional rights and freedom of citizens which do not always come together with democratic rules and competitive elections in deeply divided and religious societies (Stepan 2001). If we could gain some insight from her Muslim majority neighbour, Indonesia, the future of constitutional rights of religious and minority communities may not be so bright even if Malaysia somehow attains a new regime and manages to reduce corruption to attain clean governance. In a democratic Indonesia, Christian and Muslim minorities remain vulnerable to various abuses, intimidation, and discriminations both by state and societal actors, although the popularly elected ruling elites are equipped with more egalitarian national ideology and more secular constitution and legal institutions. It is speculated that electoral incentives in democratised and decentralised elections in part have facilitated the use of religious symbols and interests by opportunistic politicians, thereby leading to anti-minority mobilisation and violence.

In short, the competitive election and strong performances of the opposition certainly have threatened predominance and confidence of the ruling coalition, BN, and UMNO in particular. It is undeniable that an unprecedented large number of the Malaysian electorates are fed up with the BN’s decade-long undemocratic rule and ready to let it go to try out a new leadership. However, we are not certain yet if and how many of them are in fact ready to let go the fundamental features of ethno-centric state institutions and ideology that has sustained the incumbent regime so long. If the votes cast for the opposition are based on a tacit expectation that the fundamental rules and state institutions will be unaffected, it remains to be seen what formula the opposition leaders have intended–and are capable–to craft in order to bring about a truly new Malaysia with equality and equity in a peaceful manner. The bottom line is that changing the society and the regime is one thing, and changing the state is another. A tragedy of Malaysia’s plural society is not only that it is deeply divided socio-economically and culturally, but also that the state and legal apparatus have been developed so extensively and effectively to maintain these characters and structures based on ethnic and religious cleavages. Consequently, a regime change in itself will not automatically bring the powerful state down in order to advance a new deal for all Malaysians transcending narrow parochial and emotional boundaries.

 

Selected References

Lijphart, Arend. 1977. Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Snyder, Jack L. 2000. From Voting to Violence: Democratisation and Nationalist Conflict. New York: Norton.

Stepan, Alfred. 2001. The World’s Religious Systems and Democracy: Crafting the “Twin Tolerations”. In Arguing Comparative Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

Kikue Hamayotsu is Assistant Professor at Department of Political Science and Faculty Associate at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, USA. She can be contacted at [email protected].